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What you need to know about mail service overseas (APO & local)

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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): What you need to know about mail service overseas (APO & local)

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What you need to know about mail service overseas (APO & local)

Actual customs label listing contents as "unknown"!
Being military overseas or affiliated with the military, allows us to use the services and have a PO box through the Military Postal System (MPS).  This is a HUGE benefit, as we pay the same costs you do in the US, to mail stuff stateside....You walk into an overseas Army Post Office (APO), and it's like walking into a stateside post office...down to the posters on the wall and what we pay for stamps and such.  Yes, we also have a Belgian or local mailbox at our home.  Even if you live on-post, you will still have a local national address where you can get mail through that country's mailing system.  I'll show you how to use both.  You're going to need to use both, so pay attention.

Basically, here in Europe, our mail gets flown (by First Class or Priority) or by goes by ship (all the other methods).  I've gotten letters and Priority packages within a week from the US.  Amazon.com, as an example, is really good at getting things here the fastest out of any of the online retailers.

I sometimes get asked, well, how can you tell online retailers that you are STILL in the US (and with US postal rates) but that the package will go overseas?  Many online retailers have updated their zipcode databases to figure that out.  You see, in the old days, our addresses looked something like this:

14th IAD Box 221
APO, NY 09128

All post coming and going to Europe gets processed in New York somewhere.  This is also where it gets handed off from the USPS to the military.

Nowadays, the addresses look a bit different:

CMR 230 Box 21
APO AE 09128

So now we've got these community mailrooms (CMR) where all the units for that particular post have their mail delivered.  APO still stands for "Army Post Office" in place of the city and then "AE" stands for "Armed Forces Europe"...those bases/posts in the Pacific and other areas will have different designations, such as "AP".

Online retailers should mostly have the new database, where you can actually choose "AE"...if not, you can still choose "NY", and it'll get processed.  The only different handling they will have to do with your package is to make sure it has a customs form attached.  I've rarely had a retailer charge me extra for that.  I have had some retailers though refuse to ship to APO or overseas.  In that case, you can either take your business elsewhere (which I always let them know) or if I REALLY want that thing, then I have it shipped to a relative and then over here (which can sometimes be pricey, especially when you add on insurance) or you can use one of the many secondary shipping services, such as Ship It APO.  They will will give you a pseudo stateside address and then ship you the product for a fee.  They will act as a third party.  I've noticed that Amazon refuses to ship many of their electronics, appliances and household/pet items to APO...something about not being able to guarantee a warranty or something to that effect....or at least that is the excuse.  I once had Dell computers try to tell me the same thing when I ordered online, but when I called their customer service line and got passed through four different people, I finally reached a salesperson who not only gave me a huge discount but also added an additional year warranty (which was required for overseas shipments).  It ended up being cheaper than the online price, even with my beloved coupon code.  They said to call them at anytime in the future, so keep that in mind when trying to order online or even through their government or military sales.  You can probably talk them into a cheaper price by talking to a live body.  The computer took exactly four weeks to get here, but I was VERY happy to finally get a Dell All-in-One!

Some APOs customer mailboxes are co-located with their actual post office...some aren't.  At our previous location, we had to go one place to pick up our mail and another place to actually mail it, which always entailed a kind of ballerina dance as we figured out which one to go to first.  At SHAPE, we have a beautiful modern post office where everything is co-located inside with very generous opening hours for both the actual post office and package/registered mail pick-up...thanks guys!

Mailing letters is the same as in the US....you slap on your postage or have them do it at the window, and it'll shortly be on its way.  As I mentioned before, packages need customs slips.  I try to be as accurate as possible.  I guess retailers don't....I'm sure you saw my photo above...that one said "unknown" on the customs slip!  I had to laugh at that.  They'll also measure your box dimensions and weigh it and each class has certain restrictions...you'll find those on the USPS website.  I have noticed that sometimes, if I pick one of the slower methods (and pay for that), if the box is a smaller size, it'll somehow get sent with the Priority stuff, and it'll get there in a week.  I envision some guy with a truckfull of packages, picking and choosing which ones fit in the aircraft and which don't...I don't know how they do it, but I like to think my package must have looked just right to fit on the aircraft instead of the ship....I also feel they must be pretty generous and accommodating during the holidays, as I once got a fairly large package from the US, in a week, that was paid for to go by ship....hmmmmm.....

The best part about APO mail though is that it is FREE from APO to APO...not only letters but packages too....so if you go to Poland and pick up a bunch of heavy Polish pottery and package it safely...go ahead and send it to your friend (me for instance) in Belgium for FREE.  Send packages downrange FREE.  Just don't send flammables, pork products and pornography downrange...don't laugh...there are certain restrictions as to what you can send downrange to certain countries.  I even sent a huge package from Germany to Australia for FREE via APO....it took about 6 weeks, but it got there eventually!  Now if you want to insure anything, you'll still pay for that extra service.

Now with your local mailbox....don't ignore it!  Yes, you'll get sales circulars and junkmail if you live off post...not so much on-post.  I used to love to sign up for German catalogs to see the latest gadgets and just was curious as to what German housewives were buying in Moderne Hausfrau (Modern Homemaker).  Some of my other favorites were Quelle and Otto...and for some reason I used to like getting the frozen food (and ice cream) delivery catalog, Eismann.  You can find out more about German catalogs, here.   I also ordered things from the German Amazon site (free shipping of course), which were delivered to me onpost (our German mailman knew me by name to the point of him bringing things to my office on post when he knew I wouldn't be at home...I miss him and my doggie loved his dog treats).  If you have any German bills, such as your electric and water bills...they'll come there too.  As a sidenote, the German Amazon also ships to Belgium for free.  Thanks Bro for the torch for my now-authentic Creme Brulee.  He said it was cheaper to buy it from Germany at their  Amazon site than from the US....go figure.

This next part is important.... if you send a letter or something to a place on the German economy or another European country, SEND IT THROUGH THE GERMAN POSTAL SYSTEM (or whatever country's system you are currently in).  Why did I write that in all caps?  Because I can't tell you the number of times I've seen people send important documents through the American APO and have that letter go back to the US and then back over here again, returned to sender or sometimes making it into the German system cause a sympathetic American or German clerk along the way knew what the original intent was.  Only use the APO to send mail back to the US or to other APOS please.

And to wrap this boring but necessary subject up...I don't think I can think of anything else to say.  There was something that was on the tip of my tongue...got interrupted...and there it went...sigh....ah well.  Anyway, I hope that was somewhat helpful!  As always, if you have something to add, please add it below!

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Damsel said...

Holy cow, this is great information!! I hadn't even thought of all this. Thank you so much!!

March 14, 2011 at 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you know this is something that I didn't even think to ask about! Great information! Holdy cow is right!

March 15, 2011 at 9:26 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Wow this is great info! I was very excited to know that we would be getting an APO address because I could get things forwarded more easily from the US. But I did not know about the free from APO to APO! That is very interesting.

March 31, 2011 at 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I sign up for an APO address prior to moving? Our sponsor hasn't gotten back with us, and I really need a forwarding address prior to PCS'ing, because we do get A LOT of mail and I do not know what to do.

May 6, 2011 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

Yes, absolutely! It is the EASIEST way! You really need someone with "boots on the ground" to set up your new APO address at your new unit. If your DH is not getting anywhere with his sponsor, he needs to put in a call to the supervisor of the Battalion S-1 (personnel section for the unit)....many are not assigned to a company yet, so the S-1 is a good point of contact on all questions that have to do w/infrastructure.

In the old days, we would get the official unit mailing address and use that, but honestly, mail can get lost that way as it is handled by quite a few folks...now with consolidated mailrooms it is EASY for your sponsor to do this. If you don't get a sponsor from the unit or they are dragging their feet, please contact Army Community Service (ACS) if you are Army or going to an Army post (AF equivalent if need be) and ask them for help in getting a sponsor...some posts consolidate those duties as well! Let me know how it goes?

May 7, 2011 at 5:55 AM  

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