Canada Post is the Canadian equivalent of the USPS in the United States. They serve as the postal service operator for Canada; a country that is roughly equivalent to the US in square mileage, and has a population dispersion that is comparable to the state of Alaska.
You can use the International Address API by Smarty (formerly SmartyStreets) to validate Canadian addresses. It will also provide you with Canadian postal codes and give you the corresponding geocodes for valid addresses.
In this article we will cover the following topics:
- Canada Post Address Format
- Canada Postal Codes
- Services Offered by Canada Post
- History of Canada Post
Canada Post Address Format
Like you might expect from any postal service, Canada Post has an official standard format it uses for addresses.
If you're mailing a letter to your hockey coach and he lives in the town of Major, Saskatchewan, then the label might look like this:
Bart Allen 12 BLINK AND YOU'LL MISS IT AVE PO Box 42 MAJOR SK A1B 2C3
Here's the point-by-point of why it looks like that:
- First line or lines are the name(s) of the recipient(s), and the internal address (like "Department of Redundancy Department")
- Following that is the street address and/or post office box number
- The last line is the city (or equivalent), then the two letter province abbreviation, and the postal code
That's the simple stuff. Now here's the nit-picky bits:
- Technically, the format requires block letters, and a font (like the Courier used above) that makes every letter take up the same amount of space (this is called a "monospaced font" if you want to get super technical).
- The street type suffix (like street, avenue, boardwalk, circle, place, etc.) is to be abbreviated without punctuation
- The last line is the city name, a space (no commas), the abbreviated code for the province, then two spaces, and then the postal code
Beyond those standards and disqualifiers, the rest is pretty simple. All of the "where do I put the—" questions are the same as they are in the US: destination address front and center, return address up in top left, postage stamp or other indication of paid postage in the top right.
Canada Postal Codes
The US is the only country that calls them "ZIP Codes"; that's because it stands for Zone Improvement Plan, and it was a system the USPS put in place to make their jobs easier and more efficient. In other words, US postal codes are called ZIP Codes because that's the specific system that was put in place for the US postal system. When referring to equivalent systems in other countries, they're called postal codes.
If you're from the US, you're probably used to the ZIP Code system. Canada uses a system that functions similarly, but uses a very different format. It's an alphanumeric system that follows the pattern LDL DLD; here, L = letter and D = digit, so it alternates back and forth between letters and numbers.
With letters mixed into their postal codes there's a lot of possible codes. Currently, there's 855,815 codes in use (as opposed to approximately 43,000 in the US right now). What's possible is around 7 million. The US postal codes only allow up to a measly 100,000. Not that anyone's counting.
Canada's been using postal codes since around the 1920s. Originally, the codes were cute little 2-digit combinations. By the 1960s it was apparent that the country needed more codes than two digits could afford them. So they started implementing a 3-digit system in 1968. Then they changed their minds about two years later, probably because someone smart sat up and said "You know we're just going to be doing this again in a few more years, right?" That's when they started implementing a 6-digit alphanumeric system—i.e., the one we explained above.
The six-digit system is not unlike the system used in the US, just condensed. Take this postal code, for example:
The "K" is the postal district. The entire first three digits—"K3N"—indicate the "Forward Sortation Area," or FSA. And the last three characters—"0B1" here—indicate the Local Delivery Unit, or "LDU." LDUs cover a wide range of possible applications, but they function similar to the additional (up to four) digits added at the end of the normal 5 digits in a US ZIP Code (as in 86753-0900). They indicate a delivery range, a grouping of delivery points that would all be visited on the same delivery run. That's anything from a small section of a big building, to a block or street of a city, to an entire small town in some cases.
And that's it. That's Canadian postal codes in a nutshell. It's very similar to the one used by the US. Just with letters. And we still don't know why they use the space.
As you might expect, Canada Post offers many of the same services that the USPS does, or any major mail carrier, really. Here's some nitty gritty on what they offer:
Transaction Mail (also known as Lettermail)
This is just about anything made out of paper. They do both domestic and international, standard and expedited, and they have daily cross-country mail delivery flights. So if you write a letter and send it via Canada Post, you can almost get it there the same time your email makes it there. Plus 24 hours.
This one has two parts: domestic and international. Brace yourselves; the bullet points are coming.
- Good ol' fashioned postage. The guarantee is between 2-13 business days, depending on destination. Remember, these destinations sometimes require blazing a trail through snow that's chest-deep or worse, or perhaps navigating around a wandering moose herd.
- It's only for business customers, but it does guarantee delivery between 1-13 business days.
- This method boasts an impressive 1-2 days for major cities and postal centers, and with 7 days for everyone else out in the sticks.
- Offers next business day service for urban areas, with up to 7 days for the rest, like Xpresspost.
- Light Packet
- For, you know, light things. Half a kilogram and below, to be exact. This one can't guarantee on-time delivery.
- Small Packet
- For, you know, small things. Limit on this one is a full kilogram. Also can't guarantee on-time delivery.
- Expedited Parcel USA
- A less expensive alternative to full-on international mail, for those who only need to send mail to the USA. Despite its name, it still can't give you a guarantee on the time of delivery.
- Xpresspost-USA and International
- This one is swanky enough to nab you a guarantee for delivery times.
- International Parcel
- Doesn't guarantee delivery times, but does reach countries that the Xpresspost doesn't cover.
- Priority Worldwide
- The Taj Mahal of Canadian international shipping. They partner with FedEx to get your package there overnight (if you're shipping to the US), and in 2-3 business days just about everywhere else.
The important detail here is that mail is a hard thing to guarantee anytime you're working outside a rigid, well-defined infrastructure. So all those rural back roads in Canada? And all those plane ride or boat trips overseas where luggage is easily lost? It's hard to tell the customers "Yeah, we can have it there tomorrow"" when there's the real possibility you may have complications by tonight. It's not because Canada Post is bad at its job; it's because the job is hard to do.
As a final note, Canada Post also covers Direct Marketing, so if any of you out there are enthusiastic, entrepreneurial go getters, they can help you go ahead and have your fun.
While Canada Post is in charge of designing and producing the cute little collectibles, they're not actually the ones who determine what goes on the stamps. In other words, someone else tells them what to put on the stamp, and then Canada Post decides how to make it look pretty.
The people who make decisions on what should or should not be the subject of a stamp are the Stamp Advisory Committee. We assume their name means that they offer their advice, and hope that it sticks. From the sound of things, it's working out pretty well for everyone involved, so we're going to give this topic our stamp of approval and move on.
If you're planning on using Canada Post, it might be important to know what kind of mail they won't be able to deliver. They call this "Undeliverable Mail," and to quote them, undeliverable mail is "mail that, for any cause, cannot be delivered to the addressee". Well said.
According to Canada Post, "Mail is considered undeliverable if:
- it does not display a complete and valid address
- it is addressed to a non-existent address
- the addressee has moved without providing a Mail Forwarding request, or the request has expired
- it is refused by the addressee
- it is refused by the addressee, bears a return address, and is refused by the sender
- the addressee refuses to pay postage due charges
- it is prohibited by law
- it is an item found loose in the mail, or
- it is an empty wrapper or carton."
At least the first two items on that list can be corrected by address validation (sometimes called address verification). That's when an address is screened by comparing it to an authoritative database to see if it exists. In this case, it's likely Canada Post's list of addresses that's being used to see if the address is on record. If Canada Post has the address on file, it means a) you gave them an address complete enough for them to cross-reference it, and b) it exists, and is currently receiving mail.
We bring this up because address validation is pretty much our bread and butter, and if you plan on interacting with Canada Post, we can help you avoid having mail returned to you because of bad data. We have a free trial if you're interested, or you can call our direct line to our customer service staff, and give it your best shot to stump them with your questions.
History of Canada Post
The very first letter officially mailed from Canada happened about 40 years before Shakespeare was born. That's kind of a long time ago, but it was also a far cry from the organization and efficiency that is experienced on a daily basis by the good people of the frigid north today. Real, organized postage delivery—implemented and managed by the British government—didn't start until 1775, and continued till 1851.
A handful of years later, the Canadian populace all thought "It's about time we made our own country, eh?" And thus the Dominion of Canada was born. And what does every newborn babe enjoy most? Some promptly delivered postage. So they put together the department with the most ironically definitive name: the Post Office Department. It took after it's cousin back in the British isles, where they invented postal miracles like the stamp.
Talk about an idea that really stuck. Get it?
Ok, even we admit that one was bad.
Postal delivery in a significantly urban area, as you might expect, is much easier than in rural areas. When everyone's located within the same square mile or two, it's easy to get a letter from one person to the next. But there were a lot of little pit stops throughout Canada, and and they were even harder to travel to then than they are now. So people in rural areas pretty much had to carry the mail themselves, or forgo any contact at all with most of the outside world.
And when there's five or more feet of snow on the ground to deal with…you're either taking one heck of a hike, or you're talking to yourself and naming your volleyball "Wilson". Actual mail service for poor folks living in places like this didn't come dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh until nearly the end of 1908.
After that, life carried on much as it had before. Adding those new-fangled aeroplanes to the mix did help things a bit, as flying over all that snow was easier than walking through it. Beyond that, the next big change in status quo was the financial upset in the 1970's. Which brings us to our next topic.
Canada Post is a State-Owned Enterprise
Many eons ago, back when disco was popular, the Canadian Post Office Department was dealing with a pretty big problem: it wasn't making money. Now this wouldn't necessarily be a problem for a government organization, as they're not designed to make money (some might argue they're built to do the opposite). But it wasn't just that the department wasn't making money; it was making negative money, and lots of it. Kind of like those loans you took out to go to college. And the problem kept building year by year, exacerbated by multiple major labor strikes.
By 1981, the hole they had been digging was -$600,000,000 deep.That's talking 1980s money, so extrapolate that as you wish. Divided across Canadian heads, that's $24 a person.
The big wigs in charge could have just changed the price of a postage stamp from, say, $0.60 to, say, $15. But thankfully the came up with an alternative solution that was less painful for everyone involved. It's a simple solution too. In 1981, someone in the room just sat up and said, "Hey, if we want them to make more money, why don't we just say, 'Hey you, make more money!' and be done with it?"
And it was so.
It's called the "Canada Post Corporation Act." Essentially it meant that when they hit the $600 million mark, they decided the hole was deep enough, and threw down the shovel. The act disbanded the department, and then created a corporation—as in a business that's designed to make money—that took its place.
This is called an SOE: State-Owned Enterprise. Specific to Canada, they call it a "crown corporation," which is a throwback to their pervasive nod to the Queen of England (she's still on their coins; gotta give respect where it's due). Basically, we waved goodbye to the Post Office Department, and said hello to the new Canada Post Corporation.
"But wait," you ask, "How is Canada Post different from the Post Office Department?" Well, it's a little like this. With a government department, the whole thing is funded by the government, which means it's largely funded by the populace. Psychologically speaking, taxes are a little like the school bully taking your lunch money: even though you know it's yours, they make a convincing enough argument that it should really belong to them, so you hand it over and hope he doesn't see you tomorrow.
A corporation—a business—is designed to make money. If taxes are the bully taking your lunch money, business is the kid with all the candy, saying "You want a lollipop? I'll give it to you for a dollar." The point is, the new crown corporation was factory-built to make decisions that would decrease costs, increase revenues, and overall make the postal system capable of sustaining itself long term.
In the case of Canada Post, it's a public corporation (currently, at least; it's under some debate), where the government owns a number of shares and has a significant amount of input regarding how business is conducted. The financial history of Canada Post isn't perfect, but it's a downright jolly improvement from what it was.
One final thing before we conclude our long walk off a short maple tree. As far as countries go, Canada is a pretty cool place. So it makes sense that they do some pretty cool things. Like accept letters to Santa Claus. And when we say they "accept letters to Santa," we mean they really take a load off the jolly man's shoulders and answer the letters on his behalf.
There are so many letters addressed to St. Nick that they gave him his own postal code. It's—and we are not making this up—H0H 0H0. About half a million letters a year just in the past three decades have been written in reply to these letters. This is done both by both current and former employees of Canada Post (and by former we mean retired; employees who were fired for being on the naughty list don't really get to participate). All 15,000 of them working the job are volunteers.
This whole thing started back in 1974, in Montreal. In 1982 it spread to the whole country. And in 2001, they started accepting emails on Kris Kringle's behalf. Canada Post takes letters to God as well. They even take letters to the Easter Bunny, no joke. The point is, Canada Post is serving their customers even in regards to mail that doesn't ever have a stamp put on it.
Like we said, they're pretty cool.