Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sending packages to Japan

There was a time when, if you wanted to ship books from the U.S. to Japan, you could just go to the post office, pay a few dollars for "book rate", and they'd throw the books into a sack and ship the sack by surface mail. In fact, there was a time when you could ship *anything* by surface mail - it would take 4-6 weeks for the package to arrive, but the postage was maybe 25% of the air mail cost. No more.

Back around March, the U.S. post office discontinued international surface mail (where your package would be placed on a ship for going overseas), and book rate mail. Given the difference in prices, it's not hard to understand why they'd stop offering the cheaper methods. Presumably the customer should be happy to get their package to the destination in 3-5 days instead of 4-6 weeks, but speed isn't always the most important thing...

My wife wanted me to ship 5 medium-sized boxes of used textbooks to her, and she wanted the books to arrive after I did. Because I would be visiting family for 2 weeks before flying to Japan, it made sense to use surface mail, both because it was slower and cheaper. However, when I went to the post office, not only was I told that surface mail didn't exist anymore, but that it would cost me $300 per 40-pound box for 3-5 day air mail. Yeah, right. So I went to UPS, where I was told that they don't offer surface mail for anything under 500 pounds, but they could charge me as little as $200 per box. FedEx was the same. That's when I discovered that Nippon Express has a small office in Austin, TX, and they could ship all 5 boxes for $400 total using an air mail service called "Pelican Pack". They promised to hold onto the boxes for 2 weeks before shipping them, but the boxes still arrived 1 full week before I did. Fortunately, my wife could handle unboxing all of the books without my help, and I still ended up saving $1100 over what the post office wanted to charge me, and $600 over UPS's rate.

But, I still had one more box I wanted to send - this one about 5 pounds, containing some hair coloring, and about 12 DVDs. The U.S. post office requires a customs declaration form to be filled out for international packages (not envelopes), and there are two kinds of forms depending on the size and weight of the box. A smaller green and white form for anything under 1 pound, and a larger white form for everything above that. Regardless of the form used, part of the form is attached to the package, and the form has a tracking number on it. I'd shipped boxes to Japan before, so I knew I needed the larger white form, and I had it pre-filled out before going to the post office. I give the package and form to the post office guy, pay my $80 for a 5-pound box going 3-5 day air mail (the only option available anymore), and he tells me everything is taken care of as I head out the door.

3 weeks later, the package still hasn't arrived in Japan when I finally get here. Checking the customs form tracking number online, I'm told that the package was delivered and signed for already. But, it was signed for on the date I shipped it, and received at the post office I sent it from. So that was useless. I send an e-mail to the post office asking them for help, and they tell me that they can't track international packages. So, I'm wondering why they have tracking numbers on the forms. And why they can't tell me whether the package is still in the U.S. or not. Anyway, I'm figuring that the U.S. post office lost the package, and I'm now out the $80 for shipping and the cost of the stuff in the box. But, the box was not irreplaceable, so I can always try having the hair coloring products for my wife repurchased and shipped again (the DVDs would be a write-off, though).

Suddenly, 6 weeks after I gave the package to the post office, it shows up at my U.S. forwarding address. One of my relatives tells me that they got the box. When I'd filled out the customs form, in the part where it asks what to do if the package is undeliverable, I'd checked "return to sender". So, the package went back to my old address, had a forwarding label stamped on it, and then sent to my relative's house. My relative then asks their post office what the problem was, and it turns out that the Austin post office never actually attached the required part of the customs form *to the package*. Sigh. Anyway, since I'd already paid the postage, the new post office just asked for a new customs form to be filled out. I'm told that my relative watched the form get attached to the package before it was put on the cart. So, maybe this time I'll get the 3-5 day air mail package in 3-5 days.

Anyway, the point is that the U.S. post office is now being run as a for-profit agency, and they ditched the cheaper methods of shipping packages overseas. Meaning that sending a package to Japan is no longer as easy and inexpensive as it used to be. Further, UPS and FedEx went the same route. Be forewarned.


acsiren said...

I kinda already knew the USPS was going to the dogs (they're feeling the cuts due to email ;P), but I didn't know that UPS and FedEx were just as bad. What about the postal service in Japan? Is it the same?

TSOTE said...

Well, the USPS has also gone for-profit, so they're not just another subsidized government service anymore. They're now using a business-driven model, which always ends up reducing services to the consumer, and causing prices to rise.

I haven't really used the post office in Japan much yet. The one in Shinjuku is still heavily staffed. I'll be going in to a local office in a couple of days to mail letters back home, and I'll check on surface mail options then.