Monday, February 16, 2009

US Postal Service switching to new mail barcodes

Picture of Intelligent Mail barcode
So I just found out that the USPS (United States Postal Service) is about to switch over to a new barcode system called the Intelligent Mail barcode. Thus far, we've all been familiar with the POSTNET barcode. We find it on all our mail. Sometimes, even the sender's ZIP is encoded in POSTNET (for quicker returns, I suppose). When I first discovered these barcodes, I experimented with mail trying to see if barcoded mail really is routed faster - it is; OCR'ing handwritten addresses at source before they're barcoded does indeed add delay. Most word processing programs (Word is the most common - use Insert > Field > Numbering > Barcode or check "Add Delivery Point Barcode" in the Labels dialog) allow one to generate POSTNET barcodes without any problems. Snail Mail is another program that handles envelope printing with barcodes quite neatly - and it handles barcodes from many other countries besides the US.

Picture of POSTNET barcodeBack to POSTNET, there are 3 primary types: ZIP (6 digit barcode), ZIP+4 (9 digit barcode) and ZIP+4+DP (11-digits). The ZIP code is a coarse-granular code that defines the post office that's in charge of the address. ZIP+4 appends 4 digits to the ZIP that define the specific area/block for the address. And ZIP+4+DP includes a 2-digit delivery-point (DP) which specifies the precise mailbox. The +4 and DP are used by the mail system to sort mail in an order that makes delivery by the postman (mail carrier) efficient. The carrier doesn't need to sort his or her mail manually when getting ready to go out on his delivery route - his stack of to-be-delivered mail is sorted so that s/he can just deliver it in the order it's stacked. Pretty cool! All mail that enters the US postal system is barcoded (presumably at the originating post office). Handwritten addresses are scanned by an OCR system and a barcode sticker pasted on the envelope (that's the yellow barcode strip you see on handwritten mail at the delivery point). Needless to say, mail handling and routing is superfast and completely automated when all mail is barcoded right up to the delivery point. And now, with Intelligent Mail, additional services are being provided to businesses through a new 4-state barcode. Implementing Intelligent Mail barcodes is mandatory for companies starting in 2009, if they wish to avail of mailing automation discounts. The old POSTNET and PLANET are expected to be phased out by 2011. Here's a picture demonstrating the impact of the new barcode.
Picture demonstrating sample impact of the new Intelligent Mail barcode

I wonder when India will start using this kind of technology. It's pretty basic and even if OCR isn't advanced enough or too expensive to handle all our scores of language scripts and the mail needs to be barcoded by someone manually at the source post office after reading the destination address, it'd speed up postal routing tremendously.


  1. in above barcode first is (zip code)+(+4)+(Delivery point)+(correction character)..

    In this what is +4 stands for ,what is correction character?

    Can you please explain?

  2. This link from the post explains the POSTNET encoding system in detail:

    The +4 is the four digits from the ZIP+4 postal code in the US.