Note: If you are new to this blog or don’t remember this mini-series about things I’ve learned as an American expat in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, then I recommend starting here.
Managing mail from abroad is an absolute nightmare.
First, some history.
We have lived as expats in the UK twice. Once from 2011-2015 and from 2019 to the present.
During our first expat stint, we used addresses of family members in the US for our important US accounts like financial accounts. Next, we set up an address forward with the postal service to make sure no mail fell through the cracks after we moved abroad. This worked well because our mail was sent directly to people we trusted and those people could open and review the mail for us immediately.
Mail management for our family members was a different story, however. They became flooded with junk mail due to the address forward. Junk mail continued for years, even years after the address forward expired and even more years after we moved back to the US.
There were two primary reasons why we decided to manage our US mail differently during our second expat stint.
First, the junk mail problem.
Second, our Washington state driving licenses were going to expire whilst we were living abroad and the Department of Motor Vehicles told me that driving license renewals could not be sent to out-of-state addresses. (We learned while going through the renewal process that Washington state driving license renewals (and car registration renewals) can be sent to out-of-state addresses.)
Since we did not – do not – have any friends or family members who live in Washington state, we had no choice but to secure a Washington state address.
Next, the solution.
The solution for us was to sign a contract with a mailbox services company, like The UPS Store, but not the UPS Store. The UPS Store assigns P.O. Box numbers as part of their mailbox addresses and we’d read that many financial institutions do not recognize addresses with P.O. Box numbers as legit addresses.
Our research led us to a small business in Seattle that operated just like The UPS Store but without the P.O. Box numbers.
Instead of P.O. Box numbers, they assigned us a mailbox number and we were instructed to append the mailbox number to the first address line, however, if websites did not allow this, then no worries – they’d figure it out internally when the mail arrived.
We felt pretty confident that this solution would work for us and signed a two-year contract (+ three bonus months) for $495! The price breakdown was $240/year plus a $15 one-time setup fee. I nearly fell on the floor.
The $500 price tag did not include services like packaging up mail and sending it to wherever we wanted it sent to. To pack and send our mail to a US address costs $22 ($10 packing fee + $12 USPS fee).
Regardless, we knew what we were getting into when we signed the contract in June 2019, pre-pandemic.
At the time, we knew that Peter would be traveling to Seattle and could collect our mail at somewhat regular intervals. We left the store believing it would be unlikely that we would need their “pack and send” services.
Fast forward 27 months and we have used their “pack and send” services eight times for a total of $176. To be fair, the pandemic caused this added expense but… $176… for mail that is 98 percent junk mail?
In addition to the “pack and send” services bill that we racked up, we paid a whopping $75 to have our US driving licenses mailed to us in the UK via FedEx (versus USPS because of international tracking capabilities).
(Long story short, we are traveling to Croatia next month and renting a car. My UK driving license was expiring at the end of this month and we were unsure how long it would take to renew. As a backup plan, we had our renewed US driving licenses mailed to us.)
Protip: It took six days to get my renewed UK driving license via renewal at the Post Office.
I hate mail so much.
Finally, the headaches.
After signing the mail services contract, we left the store and started updating our accounts with our new mailbox address.
We immediately ran into roadblocks and were plagued with random mail/address problems through the next 27 months.
1) Some banks knew that the address was not a residential address (even without the appended mailbox number) and did not allow the address to be entered.
2) One of my banks allowed the address to be entered but called me a few days later and told me that the address was not valid because it was not a residential address. They threatened to close my accounts if I did not update the address to be a residential address within x days.
3) Since signing the contract in June 2019, address validations have become more strict, eventually leading to companies restricting access to our online accounts until our identities were verified.
4) Credit card companies randomly sent new credit cards, not only when they expire and sometimes without any notification. We’ve had multiple credit card surprises in our “pack and send” shipments.
5) For a period of two months, we were not able to get into contact with anyone at the store. At one point, we’d thought the store had permanently shuttered.
6) Mail that we expected in a “pack and send” would be missing and would randomly appear in a subsequent “pack and send” months later; some of our mail was time-sensitive, like car registration tabs.
By the time we moved to the UK, we had a mix of addresses attached to our accounts, including, you guessed it, family member addresses. We did not renew our mailbox contract which expires at the end of this month.
Goodbye mailbox. Hello family members.