Everyone loves to travel to get away from it all — only to discover that one of the best things about travel is sharing it with friends and loved ones back home. Thankfully, between email, social media, apps, and virtual programs, it’s easy to check in and say hello at any time. But every now and then, it’s nice to get a real letter from home. Or, occasionally, it might be a necessity. Legal and financial documents don’t stop coming, no matter where you are.
If you’re contemplating a long-term trip or even making the shift to living as a digital nomad, here’s how you can get your mail while traveling overseas.
Poste restante is one of the oldest methods of receiving mail when you travel. The name is French for “remaining post.” However, it’s now the international term for “general delivery.” When you use poste restante, you are essentially asking the post office in a foreign city to hold your mail for you at the central post office.
Post restante is a great system for backpackers and nomads with no fixed address. (This article has some amazing stories about women traveling in the pre-smartphone era, when poste restante was a true lifeline.) If your mom really wants to send you a birthday card, and you’re reasonably sure you’ll be in Helsinki or Melbourne in a month, she can send it along for just the cost of an international stamp.
To send letters and postcards by poste restante, the sender will need to write the following down as the address:
Full name of the recipient
Name of the city’s central post office
City, country, and postal code
A quick Google search is all you’ll need to find the official address of a city’s central post office.
Keep in mind that you must show up within 14 days or risk forfeiting your mail. Of course, you’ll also need to know when you will be in a certain city far enough in advance to let your friends and family know. You’ll have to take the time to go to the central post office (which may or may not be centrally located). And sometimes, you’ll have to return more than once if your mail hasn’t arrived yet. Despite these things, poste restante is an easy, economical way to collect mail from family and friends when traveling abroad.
Poste Restante’s Now-Shuttered Private Counterparts
Poste restante was once so popular that the now-defunct company Thomas Cook offered a private version of it at its international travel offices. So did American Express, which held mail at its global travel offices as part of its Client Letter service for cardholders. Sadly, these programs are no more, though you may occasionally hear them referenced in travel stories. However, there’s an alternative that has sprung up to take their place: private virtual mail services.
Using Virtual Mail Services
While nothing can compete with the joy of opening an actual letter from a loved one, the truth is that most people don’t need to physically have their mail. They just need to know what it says. This is where virtual mail services come into play.
For a monthly fee, a virtual mail service provides you with a physical address. All bills, mortgage statements, credit card papers, and, yes, even birthday cards can be sent to this address in your home country. The company’s staff will open your mail, scan it, and send it to you electronically. You can then instruct them to shred the documents or save them for your return. You can even have them forward things by courier. Is it the same as holding a note from your mom? Not even close. But it’s a brilliant solution if you need a secure address to send legal and financial documents.
As part of your sign-up package, you’ll be authorizing your virtual mail service provider to open your mail. There’s even a form for it: USPS Form 1583. Giving permission for someone else to open your mail is serious business, and this form requires notarization — something else you can do virtually.
What To Look For In A Virtual Mail Service
Virtual mail service is booming. Travelers have more choices than ever before, and it’s important to look beyond the monthly price point to see what you’re really getting. For instance, does your virtual mail service provider offer a PO Box address or a street address? If you’ll be receiving packages or registered documents, a street address is essential.
You’ll also want to ask about their online portal. Does it allow mobile response? Do they have an app? If they’re integrated with popular programs like Evernote or Dropbox, that’s even better. Are they still able to do old-school tasks like depositing checks into a bank account or sending faxes?
Additionally, don’t hesitate to ask them how they choose their staff. Privacy and comfort matter, and you need to feel at ease with the knowledge that someone else is reading your mail.
How To Choose A Location
Price points and services aren’t the only considerations when choosing a virtual mail service. If you’re a long-term traveler or digital nomad, you’ll still need a physical address in the United States to call home for residency purposes. For instance, you’ll need a place to receive voter registration cards and tax files. If the address of your virtual mail service is going to be your address, for all intents and purposes, choosing a state with low tax rates or strong social services may play into your final decision.
Alternatively, if you just want to feel fancy, there are virtual mail services that can provide their clients with an impressive mailing address. If you ever wanted to have a business address on Wall Street, a virtual mail service can make it happen.
Other Options: Amazon Lockers And DHL’s Packstation
Of course, not all mail is the kind of thing you can scan and review online. Sometimes it’s big, it’s bulky, and it’s urgent. If you need a replacement part for your tent, for instance, you’ll no doubt be pining for the ease of instant shipping with a service like Amazon.
The Amazon Locker program and its competitor, DHL’s Packstation, work a bit like community mailbox programs. However, instead of going to a post office or apartment lobby with your key, you’ll go to a central location like a grocery store, convenience store, or library and retrieve your package from a storage locker using a digital code.
On the plus side, these programs are the perfect solution to tricky shipping problems. Even if you have a fixed address, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be home when a package arrives, and it can be complicated to figure out how to collect it. Depending on your living situation, a Locker or Packstation may also be a more private and secure alternative to home delivery.
On the downside, these programs are only available in select countries. You’ll need to be near a Locker or Packstation location in the first place. But they might work for some travelers, and they are well worth researching.
The Solution Everyone Forgets: Reducing Your Mail
The easiest way to deal with your mail, however, is not to receive it in the first place. Nearly all bills, bank statements, and insurance papers can be sent electronically. Even birthday cards can be designed and sent electronically, as can e-gifts like Amazon gift cards, Starbucks gift cards, or vouchers for travel experiences. You may very well find that after using virtual services for a year or so, you can reduce your mail to the point of not needing to worry about it anymore.