Saturday, 3 March 2012

Posting Abroad: Keeping Missing Parcels to a Minimum!

I wanted to split up my introduction to posting internationally. The first concentrated on the services available while this one is more concerned with how you can improve the chances of your packages getting to their destination in a timely fashion, and in one piece. Note this article was updated May 2012.


If you are posting goods beyond the EU you will need to include a CN22 form - commonly known as a customs sticker. This is regardless of what posting service you are using (letters, small packets etc). You can get these from the Post Office when you buy postage (and they will give you a stack or roll of them if you ask), or you can print them out if you buy postage online and tape them to your package. The list of countries in the EU can be found on this page; along with a short list of countries that definitely do need a customs form although you might think they don't (eg the Channel Islands). Note that quite a few countries within the "Europe" pricing band are NOT in the EU.

  • You need to write what the contents are - this should be reasonably specific but use your noggin, don't write "Gold ring with rubies" on, I expect "fashion accessory" would be OK. You don't want your package to become a target. 
  • You need to tick one of the boxes at the top - as you have sold the item, the correct one is "other". Don't tick "gift" even if the buyer asks you too unless you are happy that you are technically committing fraud. 
  • You can add the weight if you want, but I rarely bother. 
  • You must put the price the buyer paid. 
  • Sign and date at the bottom.  
  • STICK THE STICKER TO THE FRONT OF THE PACKAGE! Some countries - Canada is a good example - are real sticklers for protocol and insist that the form is on the same side as the address. There's a slim chance that your package could get sent back to you if this isn't done. 

Be legible!
You can use the RM website to print out postage online (this is what I always do) or buy at the post office, but if you are hand writing the address, make sure it's very clear to read, especially if you're sending to a country which doesn't use the same alphabet as us. Some helpful customers from countries such as Japan might give you two addresses - one in English and one using their characters. If they do this I suggest putting both on the front of the package. There's some guidance here for addressing clearly.

Also do not forget to include your return address - if your parcel goes astray you want it to come back to you. Some countries require a person's name on the return address, not just the company name. 

Get the address right 

If you sell on Etsy most of your customers will be from the USA. When Americans write their address they tend to use just the first 5 digits of their zip code (post code), but there are also another 4 digits which pinpoint the address to just two or three houses. I strongly recommend adding the extra 4 digits to the address - you can find out what they are here. While the 5 digits specify the post office, the extra 4 digits specify which postman will deliver it. The extra 4 digits means it has a good chance of being sorted more quickly and I've heard anecdotally that it can speed up delivery time by a day or so. Another bonus is that with the full 9 digit zip code, even if the rest of the address was unreadable, the parcel should still make it to the right person. But really, how likely is it that the whole address would smudge but not the postcode?!

Apart from the USA, I generally just trust that people get their own postcode right, but if you want to check postcodes for other countries, here are a few links:

Edited to add: I had a comment that if you are using Royal Mail Online Postage, the "Post Code" box only allows 8 characters - not enough for US 9 digit postcode. I just put the whole thing in the "County / State" box above, and leave the Post Code box empty. Note that the proper format for the US zip code includes the state abbreviation: eg PA 19380-1234 so it actually requires 13 digits!

Embroidered Envelope by lucykatecrafts on Etsy


If you use Royal Mail's online postage tool to buy international postage, please be aware of the following: the online postage tool cannot handle accents or other non-English characters. However, it will not tell you this, it will just delete any lines containing non-English characters from the address. This means, as happened to me recently, if you have a French address where both street address and city have accented letters, the final address label will just say "Mme Jacques, FRANCE". Not much use, is it!! If you're like me and use online postage a lot, you won't do a test print or check the address is correct before purchasing and printing, so beware! I also ran into problems with a Swedish address containing æ. (I did get a refund for both of these though!!)

Weigh things correctly

Ideally you'll get your items weighed at the post office when you buy your postage, but if you are trying to estimate postal costs when setting up shop, make sure you weigh items with all the packaging and any extra inserts that you will include. If your item comes very close to a weight step up, then use the higher band. Obviously if you have not paid sufficient postage your item may be returned to you by Royal Mail.

Check the Royal Mail international incident bulletin

This is a great link for checking if there are any expected problems with posting to international destinations. I'm not suggesting you need to check this every time you post anything, but if you had something particularly important it might help you decide whether it was worth forking out the extra for Airsure, for example. 

Package things well

I am rather lucky in that my cat collars are small, light and very tough, so they don't need protective packaging. However, if you sell delicate or brittle items then obviously you must package them appropriately so that they can cope with potentially careless handling on their journeys around the world. You probably know more about packaging your goods than me, though, so I'll leave it here for this post, but here's some wrapping and packing advice from Royal Mail.

How likely is it that things actually go missing?
Even if you follow all instructions to the letter, things can still occasionally go missing - that's life, after all - but in my experience this is pretty rare and shouldn't put you off offering international postage. On Etsy I have had over 200 sales of which I estimate 80% have been abroad (mostly to US, then Canada, then Australia, New Zealand and a few other countries). Of these I have had two packages completely lost (one to the US, one to NZ), and two where the buyers informed me after 3 weeks that the package had not arrived - however, it turned up by 4 weeks. Perhaps I am luckier than most because my packages are very small and light, but still, I'm very pleased with that ratio. It is worse than my ratio for domestic postage (no losses out of probably 250 sales), but still very low. I have heard stories from other sellers who have worse luck though, so your mileage may vary.

Consider self-insuring for loss or delay

As mentioned in the previous post, if a parcel is lost or delayed, you can claim compensation from RM after 5 weeks, but it may take 90 days to get a resolution. You really should refund the customer or resend the item before this time is up. I'm not suggesting grossly inflating your postage prices, but consider adding a small "insurance" amount to your postage prices - maybe just 10 or 20p depending on the usual cost or postage risk of your items - to insure for any losses or breakages. This cushions you a little, and also means you can be more generous with resending items; perhaps resending sooner than you usually would if the customer needs the item for a particular date, or telling customers they can keep both items if they end up with two. This will improve how your customers see you and make it more likely that they'll (a) mention you to others and (b) return to your shop!


  1. Another great blog post! I have been selling Internationally for five years now and never had a problem. I always take my parcels to the post office but I do have a roll of customs lables at home which makes it quicker at the post office. I sold two framed pieces the other day to the US and packed them up at home using cardboard from a box. It was really sturdy and secure but was going to cost £35 to post!!! I bought a box from the post office and took it home again and re packed it. Cost me £22 in the end. A bit more than what the customer paid but I didn't mind. I would NEVER ask a customer to pay more postage after the transaction had gone through. It was just unusual to sell two framed pieces together.

    1. I completely agree, if we get it wrong we have got to just swallow it and learn for next time! Amazing that packaging can make such a difference to cost!

  2. It is a great post!

    Another thing to look out for is the size of the parcel - and this is for domestic post too. My flowers are light but custom orders sometimes have very long stems, if the length of the parcel is over 60cm it gets a whole lot more expensive to send. I too have taken a parcel back home to repack it because I didn't realise it was 1cm too long!