Mail in the Foreign Service

How do diplomats and other folks working in embassies get mail?

It’s Christmastime, so our thoughts turn to brown paper packages tied up with string. Here’s a quick rundown of how mail works in the Foreign Service.

After reading this entry, you should be able to: mail us a racquetball-sized maple syrup truffle from Ben&Bill’s chocolate emporium in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Here’s how to ship to a diplomat:

  1. Go to your local post office.
  2. Take a flat rate box. They are free. Walk out with it. In fact, take several.
  3. Go home and put your stuff in the box.
  4. Think about how grateful the diplomat will be. Truly, they will be so glad to get your nice box!
  5. Seal the box with a lot of tape. Then use extra tape.
  6. Go to the USPS click-n-ship website: Online Shipping & Click-N-Ship | USPS and log in.
  7. Click send.
  8. Put in your diplomat’s address. Click continue.
  9. Choose priority mail.
  10. Click the flat rate box size you grabbed in step 2
  11. Next is customs:
    • in most cases, you’re sending “gifts,” so probably pick that.
    • In the “items” category, write a description of what you’re sending. Put the weight. Put the quantity (“1”).
  12. Click “billing.”
  13. Pay! It should be about $20, or less, as long as you followed these steps.
  14. Click “create label.”
  15. Print your label.
  16. Tape it on the box.
  17. Schedule a pickup – the mailman can pick up your box the next delivery day. You don’t need to go to the post office! In fact, you can skip step 1 and 2, and have flat rate boxes delivered!
  18. You’re done! Think again about how grateful your diplomat will be.

Here’s how a DPO address looks:

Name:Joey Joe-joe Shabadoo
Street:Unit 0000 Box 00
City, State, Zip:DPO, AE* 00000
Country:United States
*AE = Armed forces Europe – that’s what we use in Kyrgyzstan, even though we’re in Central Asia. There are a couple other regions.

Here’s another sample, just to drive it home:

John Smith
Unit 00000 Box 00
DPO, AE* 00000
United States

(If you’re shipping from within the US, you can leave the country off the address. Just like normal shipping.)

Just use USPS. They will charge domestic prices – so it should be ~$20 or less, no matter where in the world your lucky, beloved diplomat is!


  • Use some other shipping service than USPS.
  • Ship liquids. Or things that become liquids when they get warm.
  • Ship batteries.
  • Ship anything else on the restricted lists (it’s all common sense).

Those are the steps! If you want more info…

…there are 2 primary ways we get stuff: Diplomatic post, and diplomatic pouch.

Diplomatic Post Office – DPO

Most US Embassies host a branch of the US Postal service, which was a surprise to us. It works just like a post office back home, but better: there’s no line, it’s right up the hall from my office, and they let you borrow a pen. The real Christmas miracle is the prices: they charge domestic US rates, meaning we can ship stuff home and receive packages from home for cheap. A letter gets to us with just 1 stamp, same as anywhere in the US.

It’s sort of a perk of the Foreign Service… We’re far from home – just about as far as physically possible, in our case! The federal government knows well that mail is crucial for both morale and taking care of business, so they underwrite the expense.

USPS Marketing materials are all public domain because I PAID FOR THEM with my taxes, so YES I’ll use them on my blog, I PAID FOR THEM! (But no, this blog does not have anything to do with USPS)

DPO is the best way for us to get stuff, because it’s the cheapest and simplest. Flat rate boxes for the win!

There are restrictions, of course. The USPS has shipping restrictions generally, and Kyrgyzstan adds its own restrictions. (In fact, I think they’ve loosened up the restrictions recently – it used to be forbidden to ship anything “obscene” or of the “horror” genre, but now I can’t find those references!)

Diplomatic Pouch

Diplomatic missions – America’s and every other nation’s – need to move things around. They largely do this via “diplomatic pouch,” which has protections defined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, including that couriers can’t be arrested, and that diplomatic pouches can’t be seized by any other nation or even searched (not even by x-ray).

One of my jobs at the embassy is to receive diplomatic pouches containing supplies for the Health Unit. They tend to come in at inconvenient times, requiring me to go in at night.

The embassy flag looking majestic, late one night when I went in late to receive a diplomatic pouch.

There is an entire branch of US Diplomatic Security that moves these pouches around securely. They are called Diplomatic Couriers. It seems like a pretty neat job, and I can’t imagine anyone racks up more airline miles than they do! Their history is fascinating, with episodes straight out of a spy novel. It’s worth a read at the State Department’s dedication page.

How do they go to the bathroom with this thing?

Although we *can* get personal items delivered by diplomatic pouch, it’s not ideal. Even though the shipments are inviolable – the host nation can’t look in them! – there are restrictions on what we can ship, and the embassy prefers that this is our method of last resort. I hate to think that our new shower curtain or whatever is being delivered by a dedicated servant who’s handcuffed it to themselves for safe keeping!

Too cool. For real.
What about Shipping companies?

Good luck! We can’t even get the local pizza guy to understand where our address is, and FedEx wants a fortune to even try:

Estimates for a 10lb package, 6x10x10in, shipped Nov. 28.

So no, logistics companies are not an option. Fortunately, online retailers *usually* will ship to DPO, and if they don’t, we can use the diplomatic pouch.

Home is where the mail’s delivered – Keeping an Address in the United States

Of course, “home is where the heart is,” but for diplomats there are several versions of “home” back home:

  1. Where you left from
  2. Where you pay taxes and vote
  3. Where you plan to return to at the end of your career
  4. Where you go for “home leave” between tours

These 4 “homes” might all be the same place, they might all be different, or anything in between. Taxes and voting have legal implications, so you’ve got to be careful with home #2… But otherwise, you can kinda, sorta designate whatever you want for rest of these. And people do! Especially if you’ve enough got ties to a state with favorable tax laws to legitimately make it your tax home:

We’re all for paying our fair share to support schools and roads and other state services… but if you’re living out of the country and not using most of those services… hmmm 🤔

Regarding mail: if you’ve joined the FS, make sure that any official mail is sent to your tax/voting home to create a legal paper trail, should the IRS or another state come calling.

There are mail forwarding services that will let you rent a mailbox, and will scan your mail into .pdf’s, or send it onward at your request. Beware! These services get expensive quickly, because they charge you per item they receive, and then charge you do to anything with it. Scan a piece of mail? $3. Discard it? $3 more. Forward it? $3, plus the cost of shipping.

The Love Letter by Toulmouche, 1883

That’s it! Now stop reading and mail us a package, already!

❤️Love from Bishkek!