Are UK Postal Codes Analogous to US Zip Codes
March 19, 2015 8:55 PM   Subscribe

I don't just mean in a taxonomic way, but in terms of sorting and ease for the handlers -- is the postal code the most vital part? What's that last line for?

For orders in the U.S., I always put the zip code in large bold letters on every side of the box; it seems to help the packages arrive more rapidly and in great condition. Is the postal code analogous for this purpose? Or something else? I'm sending this to Petersfield, Hampshire GU31 -- but there is another line, 5RN, United Kingdom. Obviously this is my first international order so I appreciate your advice! Thanks in advance!
posted by rahnefan to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
Best answer: "GU31 5RN" is the entire postcode; it should appear on one line. "United Kingdom" goes on the line below in all caps. Postcodes have enough information to nearly pinpoint an address -- some large buildings have a postcode all to themselves. It is probably the most important part of the address, and is certainly the one that will be used for gross-level sorting -- once it gets to the local post office they'll look at the rest of the address, but probably not before. This wikipedia article has good information.
posted by katemonster at 9:05 PM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yep, what katemonster said. Use the entire postcode and the format matters so include the space.
posted by stellathon at 9:12 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you both very much!
posted by rahnefan at 9:14 PM on March 19, 2015

In principle an address in the UK is uniquely identified by the post code & the house number (or building + apartment number). So yes, it does help things get delivered much more efficiently.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 4:07 AM on March 20, 2015

I have in the past had letters delivered using just House Number + Postcode.
I've sent letters with just a description of how to get to the place, because I couldn't remember the address and they've got there too. The UK postal service is pretty good. (Although whether they retain that commitment post-privatisation remains to be seen)

IF you type the postcode into Google Maps you can see just how precise the postcode is.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:08 AM on March 20, 2015

Anecdote time: The UK postal service once delivered a letter to Bill Bryson that was addressed to "Mr Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire." (I'm quoting from memory; I can't remember which book it was that he wrote that anecdote).

The postcode's not vital; once it gets into the postal system it'll get there; the postcode doesn't tend to make things faster.
posted by gmb at 4:13 AM on March 20, 2015

Not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within forty-eight hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to "Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales," which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing.
From the New York Times
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:52 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

From the machine sorting perspective, the system only cares about house number and post code. That is the bare minimum you need to get it there guaranteed. Royal Mail take a perverse pride in delivering all kinds of badly and optimistically addressed items, but house number and post code is your best bet. Add full address for guaranteed location.
posted by Brockles at 5:45 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

A Zip-5 US postal code refers to a specific geographic area and routes contained within it. This is not fixed, and there are postal codes added and moved to reflect changing populations. Several companies have tied these to loose geographic areas that are closely aligned (though not perfectly to census ZCTAs.

Unlike the US, A Canadian postal code is what is called a 'Milk Run' where the first 3 characters define a specific region and area and the last 3 characters define a specific path to follow.

I know nothing about UK postal codes.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:14 AM on March 20, 2015

You don't need the postcode all over the box. For correct formatting, go to Postcode Finder and start typing the address just with spaces. So for "36 Swan Street Petersfield", you'd get back
36 Swan Street
GU32 3AD
Write the addressee's name on a line above that, and ENGLAND (all caps, important) on a line below it, and that's all the address that it needs. The days of the enormous UK address are gone. My sister's address in a tiny hamlet in Yorkshire (too small to even have a pub) used to be nine lines, and now it's four.
posted by scruss at 6:50 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody.
posted by rahnefan at 8:16 AM on March 20, 2015

I used to be part of the giant mail sorting machine.
When image recognition fails anywhere in the country the machine takes a photo of the envelope and sends that picture to a building in Plymouth which is full of mainly students. They type in the address and it whizzes back to be sorted. This happens in real time btw. The people operating the machine in Aberdeen (or wherever) have no idea if the machine read it or if a chump in Plymouth listening to podcasts typed it in.

The database only has like 4 address lines. Nothing else is used.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:12 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

"United Kingdom" goes on the line below in all caps

Sending from the US, I tend to put ENGLAND (or SCOTLAND, etc.) as the destination country. This might be superstition, but I've always felt it more likely to get the delivery out of the US on the right plane than 'Great Britain and Northern Ireland' (the USPS's canonical name) or 'United Kingdom'.

And yeah, UK postcodes are much more like Canadian postal codes than US zip codes.
posted by holgate at 9:18 AM on March 20, 2015

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