When to Mail or Ship an Item

Learn about the situations when you should either mail or ship your items, and the difference between the two
When to Mail or Ship
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When most people hear about mailing and shipping services, they often group them together in the same category. Generally speaking, mailing refers to sending lightweight letters or envelopes for cheap, whereas shipping applies to sending envelopes and packages that weigh over a few ounces (or up to several dozen pounds). This guide is all about the different types of scenarios when you should either mail an item or ship it. Let’s dive in!

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What is the Difference Between Mailing and Shipping?

Believe it or not, mailing and shipping mean totally different things! While these two terms are commonly used interchangeably, they aren’t the same…especially from an industry perspective.


Mailing describes the process of sending letters and regular-sized envelopes, usually through the United States Postal Service (or whichever international postal service you may be using).

Out of the major carriers, USPS is the ONLY one legally authorized to deliver mail to all 140 million residential addresses in the United States. However, USPS also offers shipping services outside of delivering mail to every home in the U.S., just like UPS and FedEx do.


Generally speaking, shipping involves sending packages, boxes, or any item that isn’t a piece of mail. When one thinks of the basics of shipping a package, they typically think of large carriers like UPS and FedEx. However, don’t forget that USPS also offers shipping services! They even offer the best postage rates on small packages like Priority Mail Cubic that the other carriers can’t come close to competing with.

Fun fact: the word “shipping” was originally conceived as a reference to a parcel that was being mailed by ship. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

Mailing vs. Shipping: Why The Difference Matters

Though it might not seem significant, knowing the difference between the two is one of the most crucial basics of shipping for small businesses. It’s a common misconception to think that USPS only handles mail, and you can only ship through the other carriers. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, since USPS ships millions upon millions of packages each year. In fact, USPS is the most favorable carrier for shipping eCommerce parcels!

When Your Item is Thin and Weighs Less than 3 Ounces, Mail It

If your item is paper-thin, weighs less than 3 ounces, and can fit into a letter-sized envelope, then you can mail it to send it out the cheapest way. The only Retail mailing service that USPS offers individual customers is First-Class Mail. For this service, you’ll need to purchase “Forever Stamps,” which currently costs 55 cents per ounce. You can buy up to 3 Forever Stamps to mail something for up to 3 ounces.

Keep in mind that regular First-Class Mail doesn’t offer any tracking services. Therefore, we don’t recommend this service for sending important (or urgent) letters and documents.

Pro Tip: Skip the line at the Post Office and order rolls of Forever Stamps on the USPS website.

When Your Item Weighs More Than 3 Ounces, Ship It

If your item weighs more than 3 ounces (the max weight for mailing letters), then you’ll have to ship it. The good news is, USPS offers a multitude of shipping services to choose from. We’ve listed some of those below, along with a quick description of each service:

  • First Class Package Service: The cheapest way to send lightweight items under 15.999 ounces with online shipping software (or under 13 ounces at the Post Office)
  • Weight-based Priority Mail: The most popular USPS shipping service, in which USPS offers rates based on how far the package is going and how much it weighs
  • Dimension-based Priority Mail Cubic: The cheapest way to send small, heavier packages, in which rates are based on how far your package is traveling and how large it is, not how much it weighs
  • Priority Mail Flat Rate: Send your items in a specific box or envelope for a set price, no matter where it’s going and how much it weighs
  • Priority Mail Express: The fastest and most expensive service USPS offers, with one-day delivery to most urban locations, and two-day delivery to rural areas (also, if USPS delivers your item after the scheduled delivery time, you’ll be eligible to get the full cost of postage refunded back to you)

How to Track Your Letter or Package

In most cases, individuals and businesses want the capability to track their letters or packages. Here’s some info on how to track what you send with USPS for both mailing and shipping services:

For Mailable Letters, Track Them with Certified Mail

Since First-Class Mail doesn’t come with a tracking number, the only way to track a piece of mail is to pay for Certified Mail service at the Post Office. Certified Mail costs $3.55 plus the cost of postage. When you pay for it, a USPS worker will give you a receipt with a tracking number that you can follow along with on the USPS website.

For Packages, All USPS Package Services Come with Full Tracking Capabilities

Good news—if you’ve purchased a package service from USPS (like First Class Package or Priority Mail), then you automatically get full tracking capabilities! Each USPS shipping service comes with a tracking number, which you can follow along with by typing it into the tracking portal on the USPS website. The USPS website will show you each time your package gets a scanned update, and will provide real-time info throughout its journey all the way until they deliver it to your recipient.

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