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A common claim seems to be that mailboxes in the United States are federal property (example, example, example). (To be clear, some mailboxes are owned and maintained by the USPS, typically cluster boxes, but this is referring to mailboxes purchased and installed by property owners.)

The justification for this statement is typically that U.S. code makes mailbox vandalism or use for non-USPS materials a federal crime; thus, USPS has total control over your mailbox. This seems questionable. Obviously, if you go smashing other people's mailboxes or go box to box inserting pamphlets, you are liable to get in trouble with the postal inspector, but that seems unrelated to who owns the mailbox.

In fact, the USPS website seems to acknowledge that some mailboxes are privately owned.

What is the real story here? Are U.S. mailboxes property of the USPS? To what extent do property owners have control over their own mailbox? Can they deface or place non-mail in their own mailbox? Can they tear it down with no intent to replace it?

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    Why would you get in trouble for inserting pamphlets? Are there no door-to-door ad deliveries in the US? – gerrit May 12 at 7:51
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    @gerrit Take a look at the private express statutes and the mailbox monopoly: USPS has a legal monopoly on deliveries to mailboxes. There are door-to-door ad deliveries, but they usually get hung on the door because they aren't supposed to go in the mailbox. – Zach Lipton May 12 at 8:57
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    @ZachLipton Well, bizarre! Now I know why as a kid in Paperboy I was throwing the paper toward the door rather than carefully putting it in the mailbox like in the rest of the world. :-O – gerrit May 12 at 12:05
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    @gerrit Having been an actual paperboy way back in the day, there was often a second box on the same pole with the mailbox specifically for the newspaper. Usually with the paper's logo on the side. Some people would have 2-3 extra boxes if they wanted multiple newspapers. Though most people just wanted it slipped between the front door and the screen or left on the porch. I never threw them at the house like the game, – Darrel Hoffman May 12 at 14:01
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    What mailboxes are you referring to? I just went to a home improvement store, purchased a mailbox, and will install on my property. How/why would that suddenly become property of the USPS? As for tearing down a mailbox, you don't legally need one. ...however, without a mailbox the USPS will not deliver any mail. – BruceWayne May 12 at 16:27
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The real story is that the articles you link to are logically fallacious.

The first hedges its assertions by saying a mailbox is "effectively considered" to be federal property. It cites 18 USC 1705, which it correctly notes "puts your mailbox under Federal jurisdiction." But that's not the same as assuming ownership of it. The piece also says that you "effectively lease" your mailbox to the federal government, which is a somewhat exaggerated way of putting it, but even if we accept it at face value it falls far short of a claim that the mailbox is federal property.

The second concludes that mailbox tampering is a federal offense because "the mailbox belongs to and is controlled by the USPS." There is no evidence offered to support the assertion of ownership, and there is of course an alternative explanation for the fact that mailbox tampering is a federal offense, which is that there are laws such as the aforementioned 18 USC 1705 that prohibit it. These laws, however, say nothing about ownership.

The third is ultimately based on the assertion of a letter carrier who said, "Listen, lady, your friends don’t own these mailboxes. We do." The claim was made in explanation of the prohibition against private individuals putting items into a mailbox. As far as I can see, the article is off the mark in another way: that prohibition has nothing to do with safety and security, but rather with protecting the postal service's revenue: it arises from 18 USC 1725, which explicitly is about avoiding the payment of postage. In any event, it does not establish ownership.

In short, the idea that all mailboxes are federal property is a myth, as implied by the USPS page you link to.

To what extent do property owners have control over their own mailbox?

To a fairly high extent, but they do need to comply with the relevant law. They can't, for example, hang a plastic bottle by the roadside for the purpose of receiving their mail.

Can they deface or place non-mail in their own mailbox?

18 USC 1705 actually prohibits willful or malicious injury, tearing down, or destruction of a mailbox, not defacing. So technically, they could, but a prosecution seems highly unlikely. Under section 1725, placing non-mail in the box is only prohibited to the extent that there is intent to avoid paying postage. That would be difficult to establish for someone putting something in their own mailbox.

Can they tear it down with no intent to replace it?

If they're willing to forego mail delivery, yes. They may be able to arrange to have the mail held for retrieval at the post office. If they do not, their mail will be returned to the sender as undeliverable. This arises from the Domestic Mail Manual, which says (in general) that "customers must provide authorized mail receptacles or door slots" as a condition of city delivery (I could not find a corresponding requirement for rural delivery, but it must exist somewhere). The manual also describes requirements for customer mail receptacles.

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    "but a prosecution seems highly unlikely" uses a poorly chosen conjunction, the sentence deserves simplifying. – Jirka Hanika May 12 at 7:35
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    @Andy - In the US, only the USPS may deliver items in the mailbox. Everyone else, UPS, FedEx, paperboy, etc, must leave items somewhere else. Presumably, one reason that this law was passed is to make delivery more difficult for competitors, thereby encouraging people to use the USPS. – Mattman944 May 12 at 22:54
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    @PaŭloEbermann Yes, absolutely. In fact, the vast majority of mailboxes in the US have a box directly underneath the Official USPS Mailbox, mounted on the same pole, precisely for stuff like that. (At least for private homes, anyway. Apartments, condos, etc. typically have all their mailboxes in a central location that doesn't have room for the newspaper box.) – HiddenWindshield May 13 at 4:42
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    @HiddenWindshield those are something you see occasionally, but certainly not for the vast majority of mailboxes.Check a few random Streetviews in residential areas to confirm. – barbecue May 13 at 17:05
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    So, 18 USC 1725 could infer that you can legally put mail in someone else's mailbox as long as you include postage on that mail. Would that be correct? If you included postage then you clearly were not doing it in order to avoid paying for postage, perhaps you were doing it to achieve immediate delivery and didn't care about the postage. I do find 18 USC 1725 to be a bit annoying considering it doesn't allow for me to put something in their mailbox with their permission. I'm glad random people can't legally put things in my mailbox but I'd like to permit certain people to do it since I own it. – Steve Hiner May 13 at 17:33

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