First-Class Postage — What Exactly is First-Class Mail?

First-class postage is a type of mail which indicates the level of service a package or letter is supposed to receive from a postal service. Most folks in the US think that all mail is sent first-class and that the label is a kind of misnomer. That’s because most consumer-facing mail is sent this way. (In the UK, there’s an actual distinction between classes of postage for consumers, so it’s different.) You’re about to find out what first-class mail really is.

First-Class Postage and Other Classes of Mail

First-class mail gets higher priority in terms of delivery time over other classes of mail. While the USPS doesn’t explicitly break other types of mail into classes, there’s a rough hierarchy which can be broken down in to four main classes of mail:

  • First-class mail — Letters, postcards or packages up to 13 ounces qualify as first-class mail. Put a postage stamp on a standard letter and you can send it anywhere in the United States for the price of a stamp.
  • Second-class mail — Officially known as the “Periodical” class of mail. The USPS reserves second-class mail for newspapers magazines and any other periodical that is published more than four times a year at regular times. Special categories of periodical mail (eduction, nonprofits) get lower postage prices.
  • Third-class mail — The USPS calls third-class mail “Standard Mail.” Its bulk pricing is designed for catalogs, newsletters, flyers and advertising.
  • Fourth-class mail — Also known as “Media Mail,” fourth-class mail is an inexpensive way to ship educational materials. Books, film, audio recordings and even loose notes are eligible but delivery times can span up to 8 days because of the low priority.

It’s obvious, but most consumers wouldn’t encounter anything but first-class postage since the other classes of mail are primarily for businesses or special needs.

First Class Postage Rates

Pricing for first-class mail varies quite a bit but you can calculate all sorts of mail prices with this handy postage calculator. Basically, the price of a stamp is standard (keep track of that here on the homepage!) and that covers most first-class mail — all letters under one ounce in weight. The only exception is a postcard which you can mail for 32 cents. Other letters range in price based on weight up to about $1.

Flats and boxes range in postage price from about $1 to up to about $4, depending on how many ounces the item weighs, as long as it’s less than 13 ounces overall. This is why it’s best to just use a calculator.

How Long Does It Take?

According to the USPS, first-class mail takes two to three days to arrive with its recipient. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee around this — so you won’t get your money back if it doesn’t get there in time. But some first-class mail arrives in only one day.

The postal service only factors their transportation into their estimate so other variables like when your mail gets picked up aren’t a part of the equation. To eliminate that issue, it’s best to drop mail directly at the post office. Official mail boxes or your own mailbox can have sporadic pick-up times so it’s harder to get a reliable timeframe using those methods of drop-off.

Another variable that can impact first-class postage delivery times are days that the postal service doesn’t operate. Sundays aren’t a working day for the post office. The USPS also observes the long list of federal holidays, which can add to delivery time. Exceptions like severe weather and high-volume seasons like Christmas can also cause delays.

In the UK, first-class mail is an actual delivery time upgrade over second-class and it’s priced likewise. The Royal Mail delivers mail with first-class postage the day after it’s sent — though, like in the US, this isn’t guaranteed.

Overall, you can get a lot more detailed information about prices, regulations and dimensions on first-class mail from the USPS here and here.

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