If you’ve strolled down the greeting card aisle in your grocery or mass-merchandise store lately, you’ve probably noticed that there are more and more cards that are square that are available to purchase. And, if you look a bit more closely at the envelopes that come with these cards, you’ll likely see the words, “Extra Postage Required.”
Why would a square envelope cost more to mail? And how much more postage will you need to mail a square card?
The US Postal Service charges a “nonmachinable surcharge” for square cards and envelopes (as it does with other oddly-shaped envelopes. Yes, you can mail a triangular letter too, but it’s going to cost you more!) The 2011 nonmachinable surcharge is 20 cents for the first ounce. If you are simply sending a card, or if you are enclosing a check or something else that doesn’t bring the card’s weight over one ounce, then you can just add 20 cents’ worth of postage to be sure that the envelope will not be returned for postage (which may take a few days, and if you are cutting it close sending out a birthday or anniversary card, it may end up being late) or, perhaps worse, held at the receiving post office until the recipient pays the additional postage.
Why does the Postal Service charge more for square envelopes? Blame it on the mail sorting machines. A rectangular envelope will always enter the sorting machine on one of it’s longer sides. The machine then locates the stamp, which will either be on the upper right corner, or, if the envelope is upside down, on the lower left corner. If the letter entered the machine backward, the machine will still recognize the stamp. Then the machine knows to rearrange the letter – which will only take up to two motions (turned over 180 degrees if it is upside down, flipped over if it is backward, or flipped and turned if it is both upside down and backward.) Then, the next part of the sorting machine can read the address and route the envelope appropriately.
With a square envelope, there is no long side for the envelope to automatically land on. If it happens to land with the stamp on the top right or bottom left, forward or backward, it is fine and can be sent on it’s way. However, if it goes into the machine sideways, it would potentially take more steps to get it adjusted properly in order for the machine to read it. Since the post office sorts so much mail, it is easier for the machine to simply remove the square envelope from the sorter, along with the other nonmachinable letters (where the address is written parallel to the shorter side of a rectangular envelope, or the address is unreadable by the machine due to poor penmanship or simply light ink, for instance.) Then, a human will manually key in the address, a machine will spray a barcode onto the letter, and it will be put back into the system where it is routed to the appropriate post office.
A human dealing with an envelope costs the Postal Service more than 10 times what it would cost if the envelope was machinable. Thus the need for an additional cost.
Most people simply put two stamps on these square pieces of mail and go about their business. They’ve overpaid a bit, but for some, the hassle of going down to their local post office and standing in line to pick up a 20 cent stamp simply isn’t worth it.
However, if you are mailing the card from your residence (and not a blue US Postal Service drop box, or a communal apartment complex box), you can simply put the card in your mailbox with one stamp (assuming you are using the Forever stamp, which is currently worth 44 cents) already on the card, and put 20 cents on top of it, and include a note to your mail carrier that you need an additional 20 cents added in postage, and your mail carrier will take your card back to the post office and affix the stamp for you. This is a job requirement for mail carriers, so even if you claim that yours is mean and wouldn’t do this, they are required to do so.
There is also a 64 cent stamp intended for use with nonmachinable letters, so you could put the unstamped card in your mailbox with 64 cents (or $1 – your mail carrier will bring you change.) If you are planning to mail more than one square card, say, for wedding or birthday invitations, or announcements of some kind, it would probably be best to purchase a sheet of 64 cent stamps. Your mail carrier can assist you with this, or you can go to usps.com and purchase them there.
You can also put a note – with a check or cash attached – in your mailbox requesting a sheet of 10 cent stamps, if you’d prefer to do the stamping yourself. Mail carriers also have pre-printed orange envelopes for use in purchasing stamps from them directly, so you can ask for one of these as well.
Luckily, many square card manufacturers are now producing rectangular envelopes for use with their square cards to eliminate the need for additional postage. However, if you find yourself with a square envelope to mail, you now know what it costs to get it to it’s intended recipient.