Thursday, 31 May 2012

Airmail: Small Packet or Letter?

In my article on postage I say that you can send anything internationally as a Letter rather than a Small Packet if it is cheaper. When I first wrote that article, it was only cheaper up to 40g, but now it is cheaper up to 100g, so this issue now applies to more people.

I had a question on the blog about whether I had any proof that this was true, and also got involved in various threads on the Etsy and Folksy forums about this issue, so I wanted to collect together the facts and myths in one place. Let me warn you, this is a bit of a long post, and there are no pictures to break it up, sorry! Update - I think we've cracked it! Whizz down to the bottom to see!

Firstly, no, there is no definitive page on the Royal Mail website which says that anything can be conveyed as a Letter, even if it is a "packet type" item (ie, not flat and rectangular). However I still stand by my assertion. Here are my efforts to get a proper answer to this question, and what I've found out.

1. I did try and get a definitive answer. I contacted Royal Mail through their "Contact Us" page. Unfortunately I didn't keep a copy of my question, but you've read enough of my blog to know I am detailed to the point of pedantry and it was definitely clear! This was the response:

Dear Mrs Jinks
Thank you for contacting Royal Mail and I note your concern.
You may wish to clock on the following link which takes you to our size guide on the website:

Thank you for contacting me about this matter and if I can be of anymore help please get back in touch.


Andrew McMahon

Customer Service Advisor

Unfortunately, that link was not helpful. Again, it just displays the maximum size and weight limits for international mail. Although it is helpful in that there are no separate limits for Letter and Small Packets, which is more evidence for the defense, it doesn't actually prove anything. I doubt he even read my message. In fact, I doubt Andrew McMahon is even a real person; I suspect he is a piece of software that scans messages for key words or phrases and churns out related links. Despite Andrew's invitation to "get back in touch" if I needed more help, the footer of the email informed me that replies to this email address were not read. Instead I would have to re-ask the question through their website, inevitably getting a different customer service agent who would just give the same link. So I gave up.

2. I found this page on their website. The table lumps Letters and Packets together in one row of the table giving minimum and maximum dimensions. Again, not a definitive answer, but why would they do this if there was a distinction in size between the two classes? This would be the perfect page to describe any differences.

3. In many larger PO's, there are now automated machines for buying postage, which includes international mail. You place your item on the scale and it weighs it, and then asks if it is a Letter or Small Packet. The only criteria given for Letter is "includes personalised correspondence".. once again, there are no sizing definitions to distinguish the two rates.

3. Probably the best evidence so far, unearthed by Etsy seller Sandra at KraftyKatsUK, is this document containing Royal Mail's terms and conditions for international mail. I recommend reading all 48 pages if you suffer from insomnia, or if the sight of paint drying sends your blood pressure rocketing with excitement. If not, I'll direct you to the useful parts.

On page 6, it defines a "letter" thus:

"letter" includes any communication in the nature of current and personal correspondence, and also includes a packet transmitted at the letter rate of postage and containing goods or articles of merchandise

So I take this to mean, Small Packets is actually a subset of Letter class. If you have one of those pesky Post Offices who refuse to send your packages as Letters, I think this page is the best thing to print out to show them (maybe bring a copy of the cover page of the document too).

On page 22 it defines Small Packets. It takes pains to say that Small Packets is not suitable for personal correspondence. There is nowhere (not in this document, nor anywhere else on its website or anything else I have seen) where RM takes equivalent pains to say that Letters is not suitable for sending goods.

This, I think, is more evidence that Small Packets is a concessionary rate for businesses to send large, heavy items abroad for a LOWER RATE than personal customers get for posting a personal letter or a present. Thus RM is saying (I think!) - "hey, if you're selling and sending heavy goods, you can use this cheaper rate if you want, provided that your package meets all these conditions." So I think this consequently means, that for items <100g, we can equally choose NOT to send our items Small Packets.

One difficulty with this interpretation is that since the price changes of April 2012, there is now no situation where Small Packets is cheaper than Letter rate... so it isn't really a very good concessionary rate any more, is it? Above 100g, Letter and Small Packet prices are identical at every weight band. So why still have the distinction? It's not clear to me. However despite Small Packets no longer being cheaper, I've still seen nothing that implies that Royal Mail are treating the philosophy of Small Packets - i.e. that it is a concessionary rate - any differently. (I know, who'd have thought I'd get philosophy into a post on posting?! Shows how ridiculously convoluted this system is!)

So currently that is the sum total of my proof! Here are some red herrings which I came across in my Quest For The Truth. Don't be put off by these if people quote this stuff at you.

1. "International Letters must be under 5mm" - at first, when the Royal Mail twitter representative told me this, I thought he/she was just getting confused with domestic letter rates. However, for Royal Mail business account holders, international Letters must be under 5mm. DO NOT get confused however - we are personal customers, so this doesn't apply to us. You will know if you have a RM business account (if you do, well done, as you have to be sending at least 20 items a day to access it, I think!)

2. "It's a package, innit, it can't go Letter rate!" - Post Offices sometimes get confused, and many Etsy and Folksy sellers report their Post Offices insisting on sending their <100g packages as Small Packets instead of Letters. If you are one of these unfortunate people, don't see red. Remember the Post Office is essentially a retail shop selling Royal Mail services. They are entirely separate from Royal Mail. It is no wonder they get confused - they are probably going by the same guidance we get! Many other sellers (including myself) report that their PO's do by default send as Letter if it is cheaper.

What to do if your PO insists on charging Small Packet rate? One idea might be to visit a bigger PO to send some items, and see what they do. If you can go back to your village PO and say, I posted an item like this in [big city/town] PO and they sent it as a Letter, they may realise that it is OK to do this. Otherwise, if they quote SP price at you, ask if you can send it as a Letter, because as far as you understand, there is no size limit for Letter class. Try and turn the burden of proof onto them - "where does it say the size limits for Letter? Because I've looked and haven't found any on the website". You may have to tell them there is a personalised note inside (often this will be true - I always include a thank you note with the customer's name on!). [After reading the above guidance document from RM, I am not convinced that this personalised correspondence is necessary to post as Letter, but I don't want to take on another issue at the moment!]

Brandishing the above RM document in their face may not be the best initial course of action, but ultimately you may have to give it a try if they refuse to investigate. For most of my items, the Letter / Small Packets debacle makes a difference of £1.40 per package - that is going to work out expensive in the long run.

If you still cannot persuade them, the last resort is, I am afraid, to start using online postage. Print your postage from the Royal Mail website at Letter rate, then if you require proof of postage, take them to the PO. If you've got a small local PO, they may not be very happy with this. You also may not be, if you are trying to give as much custom to the PO as possible, in order to keep it profitable and open. It's a difficult call.

I'd love to hear any comments you have, especially if you are someone whose post office insists on charging you small packets. I don't understand how it can be so hard to get an answer to this question!


I tweeted a link to this post to the twitter Royal Mail account, @royalmail, and got some useful info. Here's the conversation (copied and pasted from Hootsuite screen shots!)

The link tweeted with "Large letter details" is here: . It doesn't actually make reference to international post there, so I still think that their website could be much clearer, and still we have nothing to print out and wave in Post Office's faces (unless you want to print out the twitter conversation!!). But in our own minds I think we can now be sure of a few important things.
  1. Just because you are sending goods, does not mean that you have to post it Small Packet.
  2. Always include a thank you note with the senders name on! This covers the "personal correspondence" clause.
  3. If your item is over 1" thick, or larger than an A4 document, it should be sent as Small Packet. But obviously, if your PO still lets you send it as Letter, I probably wouldn't start arguing that they should get more of your money! Equally, I have never heard of RM sending items back to sender for not having sufficient postage due to being sent as a Letter instead as a Small Packet. So, it's really up to you.
Also, it's really encouraging that they said they will feed back the comments to the relevant people to try and get this situation clarified on the website; and hopefully with Post Office staff too. But until then, if you have an inconsistent Post Office, and want to be sure about not being out of pocket on postage, use the higher (Small Packet) charge. You can always refund if it goes Letter.

I'm considering this case closed now!

PS: Ebay sellers get confused too - Heather from NiftyKnits pointed me in the direction of this MSE post - how can RM give out so many conflicting pieces of information! Reassuring that someone was told that even if we get the class wrong, "nearly always" it would still get to its destination.


  1. Wow -- amazing research; thank you so much for finding all this out. For what it's worth, I took your advice and have been sending items by letter rate to the US, and so far, not had any problems. Thank you!

  2. I'd love to know if any recipient has yet been charged excess postage. I know that within the UK if an item is deemed to have insufficient postage the recipient is charged the excess plus a fee of £1. If that happens to overseas packets that have been sent as letters, we're going to have unhappy buyers :-(

    Like you though, I've found some post offices go by one "rule" and others by the other...

    With my last packet the post office person even tried to mark it as gift, despite the customs form already attached and clearly NOT marked as gift. *sigh*

    Thanks for putting this all together.

    1. I think once the packet has left the UK, there's no way it'll get marked insufficient postage. After all, a post office in the USA or Burkina Faso doesn't know how much we *should have* paid. Even if an item somehow made it there without a stamp, it'd probably still get to the recipient, as the USA doesn't get paid for the postage either way.
      I would also love to know if anyone has been charged insufficient postage for international orders!

  3. I sent two virtually identical packets to the same person in Australia (Spock meerkat in the first, Kirk in the second)

    The first went small packet, arrived exactly one week later. The second, same post office, same day of week, went letter rate at post office staff insistence. It also arrived exactly one week later. My lovely buyer promptly bought again - and the same post office, same staff, insisted the third identical package went small packet.

    Frnakly I couldn't face arguing the case.

  4. Thanks for this brilliant post and research. I have had the same problem for a long time. On the plus side, for those of you that are nervous about sending Letter rate, I've done Letter and Small Packet on identical packages for 2 years and nothing's got lost for the reason it was sent as Letter, neither has it been charged to the customer. I really wish these people would train their staff!