January 18, 2013

Care Packages 201: Mailing Tips and Tricks

Fact #1 - Soldiers love to receive mail.

Fact #2 - Spouses, family, and friends love to send their soldiers mail. 

Fact #3 - Sending a care package is often a daunting task for one reason or another. 

I know I was completely freaked out by the idea of mailing stuff overseas. Am I the only one?? I wasn't sure what to send or how to address the label... and don't even get me started on customs forms! The whole process was unknown to me. 

So, being me, I did the only thing I could. I hounded the Hubs for ideas, and I made a basic list of what to send. Then, I moved on to the poor postal workers. 

Yep, I was that lady in line in front of you, holding things up for a good 20 minutes while I interrogated  the mailman about customs forms. I have no shame.

BUT, I'm going to pass all that knowledge on to you, because I love y'all best!

1. Boxes - Once you've decided what to send your soldier, and you've purchased everything, it's time to pack the box. You can use any type of box, but I prefer using priority mail boxes (like the ones pictured above). The post office provides the boxes to you at no cost, and the mailing rate is discounted when you're shipping to an APO address.

And bonus, you can order the supplies you need online for FREE! Here's the link for getting the boxes shipped directly to you at no cost: Priority Mail Free Supplies

2. Packing - How you package your soldier's boxes is super important. Since I'm all about sharing, here are some of the tips and tricks I've learned:
                  a. Pack items as tightly as possible. If you have too much extra space, items will shift and possibly break. You can use simple                              things to fill the empty spaces, like newspaper or plastic bags.
                   b. Distribute weight evenly. If more weight is on one side of the box, then it's more likely to fall or shift during transport, and it's a                            pain in the butt to carry it.
                   c. Use bubble wrap for anything you worry will break! (Common sense, yes?)
                   d. Follow the USPS guide for APO/FPO/DPO prohibited items, and the basic content restrictions.
                   e. Don't package toiletries or household products with food items!
                   f. Check the weather, because chocolate melts, seriously.
                   g. Don't package minty flavored items with food either (like gum). Otherwise, all the food items will taste like mint by the time your                          soldier receives his package.
                   h. Ziploc anything that may burst, melt, or leak during transport. A few examples would be: shampoo, deodorant, or chocolate. If                            you're unsure, then pack it in a bag! If you're really unsure, then double-bag it.
Once everything is packaged properly inside the box, it's time to seal that baby up! If you're using priority mail boxes, then the box must close flat. If the box isn't a perfect square, then you will be charged differently, and may have to re-package everything. Save yourself the trouble and do it right the first time.

I seal my boxes on ALL sides, like so:

Any little piece that is unsealed or sticking out gets taped down. These boxes have a looooooong way to go, so you want them as protected as possible.

3. Address - Your spouse or his unit should provide you with an APO address. The things you need to remember when addressing the package are:
                a. Always include soldier's full name, rank, and unit
                b. Only use the APO address; DO NOT include the city or country. The APO and zip code are enough.
                c. Don't forget to include a return address. If, for any reason, your package cannot be mailed, then a valid return address is required.                    If no such address is supplied, then the package will be opened and the items inside donated to local charities.
                d. Properly fill out a customs form to include with your package.

And now comes the really hard part!! Customs forms, eeeeeeeeekkk!

4. Customs Forms - There are several different types of customs forms (apparently), but this is the one you'll need to use if your soldier is at an overseas APO address: 

This is PS Form 2976-A. You can have these shipped to you, along with your free boxes, or they can be picked up at your local post office.

The front of the form contains a list of instructions. You're encouraged to read them, but it was mostly Greek to me. That's why I spent so long with my very tolerant postal worker!

I want to show you what the good mailman told me. If you're shipping to anywhere other than an APO, then these directions will not work for you. Please check with your local post office for any questions you have. Also, the post office could change these directions at anytime, or your local one may ask for different things. I honestly don't know. But, this is what I was told, and how I've shipped my boxes to the Hubs while he is away (from several different post offices, so I'm assuming this is all correct!). I hope it helps you with any confusion you're experiencing.

The first blocks on the form are easy peasy, since they're looking for your name and address:

No problems here, right?

The second set of blocks is for your soldier's address, which poses more of a problem. I don't want to use a specific address as an example, but feel free to email me any questions you may have if this tutorial is still unclear (please don't leave your soldier's address in the comments, try to remember OPSEC!).

1 & 2 - The first line includes your soldier's rank and last name, and the second includes his/her first name. For example, if your soldier's name is John Doe and his rank was Private First Class, then your first line would read like this:  PFC Doe
And the second line would read: John

3 - For the address, you can use both the line for 'Business' and the 'Address' line. This area should include everything except the APO and the zipcode.

4 - Fill in the APO and either AE (Armed Forces Europe), AA (Armed Forces America), or AP (Armed Forces Pacific). For soldier's deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, this would read: APOAE followed by the zip code.

DO NOT include a city, state, or country in this section. Leave those areas blank. The address and zip code are how the package finds your soldier. If you include any of those items, your package could accidentally be placed in the international mail system instead of staying within the military mail system. This could cause delays, or even mean that your soldier wouldn't receive his/her package.

The next section is for a 'Detailed Description of Contents':

Though the directions say 'Enter one item per line', this is not the case! You may enter as many items as you can fit on one line, separating them with a slash mark ( / ). Also, you do not need to write in between the provided lines; therefore, you can fit more items onto a single line.

Tips for item description: You cannot simply write 'toiletries' or 'food stuffs'. You must be as specific as possible! As you'll note in the example, I've written 'Deodorant / Toothbrush / Shampoo'. If you do not provide specific descriptions, then your box may be opened or even rejected by customs.

Next to the description are several sections, including Qty., Lbs., Oz., and Value.

You only need to fill in the quantities! For example, if I had two deodorants in my box, one toothbrush, and two shampoo bottles, then my form would look like the one above: 2 / 1 / 2

Use slashes ( / ) to separate your quantities, just as you used them to list your items.

You do not need to fill in the weights or dollar values in this section, though you will see them later.

The final sections are easy to fill out, whew! The areas marked out with Xs can be left blank. The highlighted areas are what you (or the post office) still need to fill in.

Item # 5 (above) - Check a box. For your care packages, you should check the box marked 'Gift'.

Item # 6 (above) - Another checkmark. You should choose 'Airmail'

Item # 8 (above) - The 'Total Gross Weight' of your package. The postal worker will weigh your box and fill in this area for you, yay!

Item # 9 (above) - 'Total Value US $' This is an estimate of how much everything inside your box is worth. Most of my care package run about $20 - $50. Remember, you don't want to send anything too valuable. If you're sending anything special (like electronics), then you should purchase the insurance offered by the postal service.

Item # 13 (above) - Your Signature and Date. This is an easy one too! Sign and date.

The left side of your form should now be complete! Luckily, there is only one box you need worry about on the right side of the form:

Item # 10 - If Non-Deliverable. What do you want to happen to your care package if it can't be delivered? There are three choices:
                  1. Treat as Abandoned: This means your box will be opened, and the contents donated to local shelters.
                  2. Return to Sender: The box will be returned to the address you provided on the left side of the form.
                  3. Redirect to Address Below: You can specify another address to send the box to if it's non-deliverable.

The choice is up to you! I usually pick 'Return to Sender' if the box contains anything sentimental. But if my care package is all food or toiletries, then I pick 'Treat as Abandoned'. You can check whatever works best for you.

SO, now that your customs forms are all filled out, you're ready to mail your box or boxes!! The best time to visit the post office is about 30-45 minutes after they've opened. The lines are (apparently) shorter at this time. I've also had good luck visiting after lunch, but before people leave from work (around 2:30 or so).

Your boxes should be sealed, addressed, and your customs forms ready. This helps speed the process along, for sure. Once your box is weighed, and your customs form stamped, you'll be provided with a receipt and a copy of your form.

Delivery time varies so greatly, I really don't want to make any guesses. Many factors can cause delays. USPS provides a handy FAQ sheet for military mail here that may answer some of your questions.

And, you're done!

Though mailing care packages can be intimidating, I hope this makes the process a bit easier. Our men and women overseas greatly appreciate all the support we send them, and they deserve every bit of it. If you don't have a loved one overseas, but you still want to show your support, check out some of these resources to help soldiers:

Any Soldier

Adopt A Platoon

Operation Shoebox

Operation Thank You

Thank you for Supporting our Troops! Happy mailing :) 

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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  1. These are indeed helpful tips for those who are first timers in terms of sending mail or shipment to their loved ones. Another important thing to remember is to ensure that your mail or package is sealed properly.

    1. Thanks for the extra tip! I love hearing from readers, especially any additions they have. I always hope that someone, somewhere will read these posts and find a piece of information that helps them out :)

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I'll be mailing my very first care package in a couple weeks as this is his first deployment and I had absolutely no clue how to address the label or fill out the customs form. This post has definitely made trying to figure it out easier and possibly shortened my time spent at the post office. :) Thanks again!

  3. How would I know if the package was sent back to me? I sent my care package the 23rd of March, to Navy ship, and it still doesn't arrive. I submitted a mail inquiry but not reply thus far....