Mailing Address vs Physical Address: What’s the Difference

Jeffrey Duncan
Jeffrey Duncan
August 11, 2021
Physical addresses and mailing addresses are frequently confused. While they are sometimes the same, there are many reasons why they can be different.

The difference between a physical address and a mailing address is that a physical address is where you are geographically located and a mailing address is where you get your mail. Often a physical address and a mailing address are the same—but not always! Whether you're trying to mail important account paperwork to thousands of customers or a single high-dollar customer appreciation gift to a key account, having the right address is important.

Before you send off that precious cargo, ask yourself if you're sending it to a physical address or a mailing address.

Physical Address vs. Mailing Address

In the USA, there are two standards for addresses:

  1. A physical address (or street address) describes a geographical location
  2. A mailing address (or postal address) is governed by U.S. Postal Service standards for mail delivery

Depending on the location, these two types of addresses might be the same. Or they might not. That's why we're here to help you through it.

Physical Address

A physical address designates the actual geographical location of your house, office, water park, favorite coffee shop, church, and so on.

A physical address has a set geographic boundary and typically falls under the jurisdiction of an administrative area or region that has some government function.

That jurisdiction dictates things like taxes, land development and zoning, and all home and commercial mortgage regulation. The physical location also determines how much access the current address has to services like high speed internet, public transportation, sanitation, and water works.

How are physical addresses created?

A physical address is usually designated, or created, by the appropriate taxing agency. Usually this is the county tax assessor's office. Once an address is assigned to a taxable parcel, it can be sold and structures can be built upon that parcel.

The U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) collects geographic and demographic data on everyone in the United States, producing a variety of datasets used by many public and private agencies. One of those datasets is called TIGER. (Don't worry, there are no actual tigers prowling around mapping your street.)

TIGER stands for Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing. This dataset is designed for use with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and includes information about geographic features including roads, current address information, water features, and more.

Mailing Address

A mailing address is the official address where you get your mail. (10 points to you if you saw that answer coming from a mile away!)

For many residential home dwellers across the United States, their physical street address and their mailing address are the same. Lucky ducks!

However, there are some situations where a physical address and mailing address won't be the same.

How are mailing addresses created?

Mailing address standards are dictated by the USPS and revolve around ZIP Codes.

ZIP Codes were created by the USPS in 1963. Fun fact, "ZIP" stands for Zoning Improvement Plan, although it may not seem like such an improvement now that you've learned about the differences between physical and mailing addresses and see the need for address validation!

Here's what the 5 numbers in a ZIP Code represented in 1963:

  • The first digit designated a broad geographical area of the United States, ranging from zero for the Northeast to nine for the far West.
  • The next two digits more closely pinpointed population concentrations and those sectional centers accessible to common transportation networks.
  • The last two digits designated small Post Offices or postal zones in larger zoned cities.

ZIP Codes paved the way for automated mail processing and helped the USPS determine the best routes for transporting and delivering mail.

However, because ZIP Codes are all about the most efficient way to deliver mail to large areas, sometimes, the USPS will decide the best mailing address for you isn't the same as your physical address.

4 reasons your mailing address might not be the same as your physical address.

1. Weather-Challenged Delivery Areas

Areas with regular and heavy snowfall, like Jackson, Wyoming, are not on USPS routes because the weather makes it too difficult or unsafe to deliver mail to individual homes.

Instead, residents are required to have a P.O. box at the main post office and everything is delivered there. This is often the case in heavily rural areas where the homes are incredibly spread out, as well.

2. Unique ZIP Codes

There are 41,692 ZIP Codes in the United States. But not all of them follow the sequencing rules outlined earlier. Certain areas receive "unique ZIP Codes."

What are unique ZIP Codes? Unique Zip Codes are assigned to high volume receivers, like government agencies, universities, and large businesses. For example, General Electric's offices in Schenectady, NY get the easy-to-remember and very unique ZIP Code of 12345.

In the case of unique ZIP Codes, the USPS drops off the mail at one location and then the organization distributes it internally.

3. Military Addresses

All military addresses are treated as domestic mail, even if the actual destination is a foreign country. It's similar to how mail is delivered to unique ZIP Codes; USPS delivers the mail to military post offices, which then perform the final delivery. A military address must include the unit designation and APO/FPO (Air/Army Post Office™ or Fleet Post Office location).

4. New Street Addresses

In addition, the USPS announced in 2013 that it would no longer deliver mail to the door of new street addresses, pushing mail recipients to instead cluster their mailboxes in a centralized area. This is why many new housing developments have centralized mailboxes (also called cluster mailboxes or community mailboxes) near their entrance.

While this makes things easier on your post office mail carrier, it makes things trickier for package delivery since that centralized mailbox address might be different from your physical, or property, address.

So if you want your Amazon packages delivered straight to your door, make sure you put in your physical address and not your mailing address.

Benefits of a Physical Address vs a Mailing Address

In general, when it comes to shipping and receiving, a physical address does not have the same delivery restrictions as some mailing address types, like P.O. boxes. Unlike a post office box, a physical street address can receive unrestricted mail and parcels from private carriers other than USPS, such as UPS, FedEx, DHL, and Amazon.


Now, in the case of that expensive customer appreciation gift, what types of addresses should you use?

The best way to know is to get the address validated.

Smarty validates 160 million USPS addresses plus over 15 million non-postal addresses. Go beyond validating only postal addresses and reach millions more!

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