What is the Universal Postal Union and Why Does it Matter?

Learn about the Universal Postal Union and how it affects your daily life...even if you've never heard of it before
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Ever heard of the Universal Postal Union (or UPU, for short)? Chances are, you probably haven’t—and that’s okay! This organization has been around for over 144 years and has flown under the radar the whole time. While it’s something most people have never heard of, withdrawing from the UPU could pose a lot of problems for us if it ever actually happens. Let’s talk about it.

Table of Contents

What is the Universal Postal Union?

To put it simply, the Universal Postal Union is a 144-year-old international organization that makes the global postal system run smoothly. Think of UPU kind of like The Wizard of Oz—they coordinate and oversee the whole world’s postal policy from behind the scenes. Their existence is the reason you can send a postcard to California from a European backpacking excursion. Without the UPU and its regulations, international shipping costs would be OUTRAGEOUS and incredibly complicated. You get the picture.

How Does the Universal Postal Union Work?

In layman’s terms, the UPU is the glue that holds the international postal system together. They handle all the complexities of sending things between countries, and they make it easier to do so. With the UPU, all international postal policies are under one roof. Therefore, countries don’t have to sign loads of treaties and agreements with each other to ship back and forth. Additionally, the UPU sets standards that every country follows, like making sure that shipping barcodes work throughout the world. The UPU also oversees rates and fees, and that’s what the Trump administration considered unfair—especially when it comes to China.

A Quick Example

Let’s say you live in California and you order a pair of shoes from China. China’s postal operator is supposed to pay the United States’ postal operator for the cost of processing that parcel. China’s postal operator is also supposed to cover the cost of having someone transport those shoes all the way to your address. In essence, China is supposed to pay for shipping. However, the shipping rates China (and some other countries) are currently paying don’t meet the actual cost of delivering those shoes, so the United States is stuck footing the bill to pay for the difference. If you think that doesn’t sound quite fair, you’re not alone. Neither did former President Trump.

What Happened with the UPU in 2021?

At the time he was President, Trump threatened to pull out! To put it simply, the Trump administration maintained that China was receiving too big of a discount on its exported goods. That’s not exactly incorrect, either. Back in the 1960s, the UPU granted shipping discounts to a list of developing countries to help foster the global economy. China was one of those countries, and despite its current position as an emerging global power, China is still on that list. That means the US is basically paying for China’s cheap overseas shipping, specifically on parcels 4.4 pounds or lighter.

To ballpark it, the Trump administration claimed these discounted rates that China is enjoying are costing the United States upwards of $300 million per year. The numbers are out of whack, and that’s a fact. However, Trump’s solution was not for the United States to reach a new agreement within the Universal Postal Union. It was to withdraw from the UPU altogether.

Update: the United States opted to stay in the Universal Postal Union during President Trump’s time in office, although some changes were enacted. Learn more about the UPU changes here.

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