For VacationCounts readers living in America, telling the U.S. post office to hold your mail is an easy way to make sure it is minded while you are traveling. One limitation is that you can only put your mail on vacation hold for up to 30 days. Therefore this cannot work for people who have a vacation home, travel extensively, or for expats that are out of the country for extended periods.
The other limitation with USPS vacation mail hold is that you cannot view and respond to important bills and letters when you are away from home. Without a family member or trusted friend that is willing to put in the time and effort to not just pick up your mail but go through each piece, what other options exist?
Online Postal Services
Fortunately there are several services that will receive mail on your behalf and offer ways for you to get it whether you are home or away traveling. Most of these services are a simple hold and forward operation. You redirect your important mail to an address and private mailbox assigned by your mail forwarding service provider. You may have the option to have it held while you are traveling and forwarded to any address worldwide when you need to receive it.
The advantage of a mail forwarder over the U.S. post office is the ability to have your accumulated mail sent to you regardless of whether you are home or away on business or pleasure. Some may even offer you the ability to discard your junk (bulk) mail so you save money by only forwarding the most important mail.
A virtual post box is also critical for those bloggers, freelancers, and self-employed people who run an online business. With a business mailing address, you won’t ever have to ever give out your home address on the Web or in email newsletter sent to your subscribers and customers. You can certainly rent a PO Box at your local post office or UPS Store, but you can save a trip to the mailbox by managing your mail online 24/7 from anywhere in the world.
What is Earth Class Mail
The most advanced service is delivered courtesy of Earth Class Mail. They offer a Virtual MailBox Service that goes beyond the hold and forward model. The biggest difference is their scan-on-demand capability so you can preview and view your mail online.
How does this work? Here is what typically happens when you are using Earth Class Mail (ECM):
ECM sends you a “mail received” email notification when new mail arrives at their processing facility.
A picture of the outside of the envelope is viewable to determine whether to open, recycle, shred, or forward the item.
By clicking to open a letter, ECM will scan all the pages inside and host the PDF file for you to view securely online (SSL encryption).
While viewing the scanned letter you can choose to download it to your computer for safekeeping (I like to keep copies in Google Docs, zip-encrypted for sensitive documents).
After you are finished viewing your scanned mail, you can click to have it recycled or shredded (extra cost).
Whether or not you have a letter opened and scanned, you can always request any item to be forwarded by postal mail to any address worldwide.
Trust is a natural concern for most of us who first learn about virtual mail services and are unfamiliar with Earth Class Mail. To address these concerns, ECM offers several layers of protection which are outlined on their site. This includes security cameras, locked down mail processing rooms, secure data centers, and encryption of files. Is it any more or less secure than letting your mail pile up at home (unlocked mailbox on the street) while you are away for an extended period?
Why Manage Your Mail Online While Away
Now as with any service for those who travel often for pleasure or business (plus those who live part of the year at their second home) there are both pros and cons. The pros are highlighted in the overview above but here is a list of the reasons why you would consider a virtual mailroom service:
You do not want the hassle of constantly putting your mail on hold when you head on vacation or a business trip.
There is no one who lives nearby that is willing to pick up and review your mail every time you leave home, nor do you want to inconvenience a friend or neighbor.
Your home or apartment mailbox is less than secure and you are concerned about important mail overflowing or getting lost while you are away for even a few days.
Getting a scanned copy of important statements and letters is a helpful way to organize your mail and retain it for future needs.
You want to save time dealing with the mail by processing it from the comfort of your computer or even mobile device or smart phone.
You run an online business (such as freelance work, consulting, or blogging) and desire the flexibility to work from the road, anywhere in the world.
Biz Travel, Expat Employee, Digital Nomad?
Learn about the three types of travelers and business professionals who often rent a private mailbox to save time, protect their financial security, and manage their mail wherever life, work, and family take them. Read the VacationCounts post:
Downsides of Mail Forwarding and Virtual Mailbox Services
Now there are several considerations when it comes to choosing a service that offers mail holding and forwarding services whether that is Earth Class Mail or a less advanced option. Based on my use over the past years these are the important points to be aware of:
To gain the benefits of mail scanning you have to be willing to pay a per-piece price to open and scan the contents. These fees can add up quickly so you may worry about whether to scan, forward, or discard a letter when it is difficult to guess the contents from what is written on the envelope. UPDATE: Only the “Business Address” and “Starter” plans are limited, with the Startup and Professional plans now including unlimited mail scanning – at a higher monthly price of course.
Depending upon which address you choose (Earth Class Mail offers addresses in several U.S. states as to your preference), it takes time for each piece of mail to arrive at their processing facility and get scanned. If you need to read your mail with a day or two of it arriving, you are not a good candidate for a virtual mailbox.
Forwarding mail pieces domestically is reasonably priced, but the cost of international forwarding is much more expensive. This is due to the high cost of international shipping of course. Plus it can take a long time for mail to reach where ever you happen to be in the world.
Like me you may feel annoyed when you pay to have an important looking letter opened and scanned only to find out it is a piece of junk mail. Unless you have x-ray vision and can see through the envelope, this cannot be avoided.
Want a Local Mailbox Rental with Online Access?
There’s an alternative to the fully virtual mailbox which combines the best of online mail access with renting a PO/private mailbox locally. It’s called Anytime Mailbox. They partner with private mailbox operators across the USA (those mailboxes etc… type stores) to digitize their mailroom. Their secure mailbox platform offers an excellent combination of features for those who prefer a physical mailbox rental but want to benefit from web dashboard access.
To use ECM efficiently and keep your monthly fees low, there are a number of suggestions to keep in mind.
Choose the Virtual Address (Starter) plan. It is the $69/month option described as intended for those who want to “Start small.” That plan is often sufficient for frequent travelers, digital nomads, and people who run their own business like bloggers, freelancers, and consultants. Note that all plans include all the important features, it is only the number of users and include mail pieces/scans that are limited.
Select the lowest cost address (city and state) based on your needs. For example if you are fine using a PO Box and you do not require the fastest processing, pick one of those address. A street address or premium street address will cost more each month, but gives you a physical address in the city of your choosing that is more flexible than a PO Box.
Most bills and statements can be received electronically, so make sure to sign up for the “paperless” option with every account in your name. In some cases you will receive an electronic copy of a tax statement for instance and also a paper copy mailed to your address for legal reasons.
Combine multiple letters into one package when forwarding mail that cannot be scanned to a PDF file. Earth Class Mail lets you add multiple items to one shipment to save on the postage costs.
Scan mail contents only in black and white since that is sufficient for most mail pieces.
Find out how to get off mailing lists when you find yourself receiving too much promotional mail. There is almost always a way to fill out a form, call, or email your request to be removed from a mailing list. Check out DMAChoice.org for retail mail and OptOutPrescreen to stop credit and insurance related offers.
Here are two screenshots of how it looks when you securely login to their website to manage your mail from your computer. The mobile web interface is mostly the same.
There is a sense of freedom that comes with not having to worry about your mail piling up, getting lost and being ignored. If only the U.S. Post Office offered this service, but I don’t expect that to be happening anytime soon. So when you are often away from your primary home, make the decision to save time, be more productive, and feel more secure about receiving and dealing with your bills and important mail online.
Your next step is to review their Virtual Mailroom options and do some calculations in your head. Figure out how much mail you expect to receive and what is the best address for your mail receiving needs. The Earth Class Mail pricing page details the options and you can sign up right away. Give it a test drive first before redirecting important mail and accounts and using your new address for your family and for your business.
Disclaimer: Meliovation, the parent company of the VacationCounts blog has been a satisfied customer of Earth Class Mail since 2011. If you decide to try out any of the service providers in this article using our partner links, Meliovation may receive affiliate compensation for the new customer referral. Thank you for supporting VacationCounts and our efforts to help people take more time off!