Poste Restante: The most useful travel service you’ve never heard of

Receiving Mail on Vacation

You might recall a mention some months ago about me losing my card to one of Mongolia’s terrible ATMs (remember, never use Khan Bank). Since this was my only way to pay for things, it left me with a dilemma, how do you receive mail when traveling? (The dilemma wasn’t how to pay for things because I still had the wonderful Rachel to rely on) Our original plan was to have it sent to a friend in Hong Kong and pick it up from her when we were in town. She ignored that request though and never responded to our suggestion that we hang out so that option fell through. We could have been spared a lot of suffering in Hanoi if she had helped us. When Rachel had her bag stolen it suddenly became very important for one of us to have a card. So how do you get mail? Many people suggest that you have it sent to your hotel, but we were mostly Couchsurfing, staying in sketchy hostels, or even on boats and were generally moving places every few days so… no dice.  The other suggestion people give is to rent a P.O. Box. This can be good if you are staying in one place for awhile, but it’s expensive if you’re only trying to get one solitary letter. Thailand Post sells boxes for about $17 a year. Private companies like Mailboxes Etc. are about $10 a month. I expect most other countries are more expensive. Anyway, out of the countless seasoned travelers I asked for advice, the one thing that no one suggested was that I use poste restante.

What is Poste Restante?

What is poste restante you ask? It’s a service where the sender addresses mail to (1) a receiver, (2) poste restante, and (3) a city’s post office, and the post office holds on to it until you come by with a photo ID and pick it up. As far as I can tell, it works in just about every country, though there is occasionally a small charge for pick-up and not every post office necessarily participates. From what I understand though, you can be pretty confident that just about every central post office in every major city has this service. So your address would look something like this:

TASWALD ENGERFOLD
POSTE RESTANTE
INTERNATIONAL POST OFFICE
No. 6 DINH LE STREET
HOAN KIEM
HANOI
VIETNAM

Then if everything works according to plan you can just pick up your mail whenever you arrive in Hanoi. I think that most places will hold on to letters for at least several weeks and packages for a couple weeks or more.

Does Poste Restante Work?

Well, I don’t have a long history of using it, but I’ll tell you my experience with it. While waiting for my parcel to arrive, I checked the Hanoi post office once or twice a day for several days. Occasionally the employee I asked didn’t know what poste restante was and had to check with a more experienced coworker. The employee would then take a small stack of letters and package receipts from a cabinet for me to look through. There were approximately 20 items. On the day that something had arrived for me I found a receipt for a package (the letter had been sent through Fedex) and I was told that I needed to call Fedex. Fedex basically told me that they are not willing to deliver a package to poste restante and I could either come to their shipping center to pick it up or they would deliver it to an actual address. I went to pick it up. So, it seems to me that if you send something by normal mail it arrives without any problem and waits for you in the post office. If you send using a method that requires a signature or suchlike, you might have to make other arrangements with the shipping company, but you’ll probably get your package eventually.

No One Has Heard of Poste Restante.

I can’t believe it took me so long to find out about poste restante. I must have asked a dozen experienced travelers if they had any advice for receiving mail and no one ever mentioned this perfect solution. I talked to two different US Embassy people whose primary responsibility is helping travelers and they had never heard of it. Some of the people in the Hanoi International Post Office didn’t even know what it was! I thought maybe it was a generational knowledge gap, but I have found literally no other non-post office employee who had heard of it before I told them no matter what their age. So how did I find out about it? I combed through the Hong Kong Post Office website looking through every single service, sub-service, and servicette in hopes that I might find something useful. It may sound boring, but just wait, one day you’ll be in Hong Kong interested in philately or some franking and you’ll be so jealous.

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