I just found (here and here) it very surprising that, apparently, in the US you cannot just write a letter and drop it in someone's mailbox: even if you deliver it yourself, you still have to pay postage:

18 U.S. Code § 1725 - Postage unpaid on deposited mail matter

Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits any mailable matter such as statements of accounts, circulars, sale bills, or other like matter, on which no postage has been paid, in any letter box established, approved, or accepted by the Postal Service for the receipt or delivery of mail matter on any mail route with intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon, shall for each such offense be fined under this title.

So, say I want to write a physical letter to my neighbor next door. I don't want to hand it in person or put it under their door. I just want to deliver it to their mailbox.

Does the above law require me to pay postage on it? Or, can it be argued that I have no "intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon" as there is no reasonable necessity to use postal service in the first place?

Then, as a marketing agency who finds it more economical to hire delivery persons rather than use postal service, would there be any "intent to avoid payment of lawful postage"? As with the neighbors example, it is simply neither reasonable nor necessary for the agency to use postal service in the first place, so what "intent to avoid" can even be talked about? Even if it was more economical to use postal service, is the agency not within its rights to not give a damn about even the existence of postal service and hire its own delivery personnel just because it fancies so?

How do private courier services operate in the US? Do they obtain permission from the Postal Service to use people's mailboxes? (assuming the parcels are small enough to fit in them)

Finally, as someone who wishes to receive letters like that, what can I do to allow the senders do it without breaking the law? Install a separate mailbox which is not "approved, or accepted by the Postal Service" and clearly marked like "non-postal delivery only"?

  • 1
    AFAIK this law simply forbids private courier services from leaving packages in mailboxes. They have to leave them on doorsteps, etc. Dec 19, 2020 at 5:34
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    For similar reasons, back in the days when people subscribed to newspapers, they'd often have a separate box next to their mailbox, where the newspaper's delivery person could leave it; they couldn't leave the newspaper in the mailbox. You still see them in places. Dec 19, 2020 at 5:36
  • @NateEldredge if by “in places” you mean in front of my house, yes true.
    – Damila
    Dec 19, 2020 at 5:49
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    Well, I guess we'll be breaking this law soon when we stuff our Christmas letters into our neighbors mailboxes. I will have to prepare myself for for lengthy jail sentence!
    – Hilmar
    Dec 19, 2020 at 16:02
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    There are already several questions on this site about this. Have you looked at them? As to your last question, the private parcel services do not deliver parcels in the mailbox (and they can't carry first class mail).
    – phoog
    Dec 19, 2020 at 22:38

1 Answer 1


First, 18 USC 1696(a) provides an escape hatch for private delivery of mail to official postboxes, that

This section shall not prohibit any person from receiving and delivering to the nearest post office, postal car, or other authorized depository for mail matter any mail matter properly stamped.

In other words, it's not the act of putting the thing in the mailbox, it is the avoidance of the revenue owed to the USPS. This revenue-based principle behind the law is completely uncontroversial. Also see 39 USC Ch. 6 for non-criminal regulations governing private mail delivery which specifies a punitive rate for private carriage of letters:

the amount paid for the private carriage of the letter is at least the amount equal to 6 times the rate then currently charged for the 1st ounce of a single-piece first class letter

This law is important in evaluating claims as to what would be reasonable or unreasonable as far as payment of postage is concerned.

In USPS v. Council of Greenburgh Civic Assns., 453 U.S. 114, SCOTUS upheld the law as not infringing on First Amendment rights. The USPS states (taken from the opinion) that

The appellees can deliver their messages either by paying postage, by hanging their notices on doorknobs, by placing their notices under doors or under a doormat, by using newspaper or nonpostal boxes affixed to houses or mailbox posts, by telephoning their constituents, by engaging in person-to-person delivery in public areas, by tacking or taping their notices on a door post or letterbox post, or by placing advertisements in local newspapers.

Unambiguously, it is legal to place sufficiently-stamped material in the mailbox.

The issue of "intent" (w.r.t. unstamped mail) was very lightly touched on by defendant, who called on 1696(c), that

(c) This chapter shall not prohibit the conveyance or transmission of letters or packets by private hands without compensation, or by special messenger employed for the particular occasion only.

(relevant to the case because defendants were a volunteer organization). They argued orally

And our argument is that if there is no need to require the payment of postage for a noncompensated individual, how can he possibly under 1725 have the intent to avoid the payment of postage if no postage is required?

The court did not even acknowledge this argument in the opinion (defendant incorrectly maintained that the requirement for paying postage only applies to commercial mail, a claim which the court explicitly rejected). The theory was that if there is no requirement to pay postage on volunteer-delivered non-commercial flyers, there can be no intent to avoid payment. This argument fails, though, since there is a requirement to pay postage, i.e. non-commercial mail is not delivered for free.

Regarding the argument that "there is no reasonable necessity to use postal service in the first place", this is true as acknowledged by all parties: you can hand-deliver to the recipient, you can nail it to the door, you can leave it on the porch, and so on. The one thing you can't do is put it in the US mailbox (unless you have paid postage). The alternatives are completely reasonable: therefore, failure to pay either signals ignorance of the law (which is no excuse), or an intent to avoid the requirement payment to USPS. A company may find it more economical to hire delivery persons rather than use the postal service, but again the motivation for non-payment of postage is that the company does not want to pay the required fee, so the intent can only be reasonably construed to be literally "avoid payment of lawful postage".

There appears to be no legal precedent where a person argued a lack of intent under this law because they found the need to pay postage when USPS does nothing to be silly (unreasonable).

  • Say you need a sip of water. Two options: buy a $1 bottle, or take a sip from a drinking fountain nearby. When you do the latter, do you intend to avoid payment of $1 for the bottle? The goal is to put a sip in your mouth (like letter in mailbox).
    – Greendrake
    Dec 20, 2020 at 0:07
  • I take it you're asking what "intent" means, legally, as contrasted with ordinary usage (where we'd normally talk about "intention".
    – user6726
    Dec 20, 2020 at 0:28
  • Well I'd be very surprised to learn that there is some sort of legal meaning of "intent" not exactly matching the dictionary one.
    – Greendrake
    Dec 20, 2020 at 0:30
  • Ordinarily, "intent(ion)" refers to a desired outcome, such as "slaking one's thirst", which is not the legal meaning. Legally, "intent" only refers to "commit an act", regardless of the outcome.
    – user6726
    Dec 20, 2020 at 0:47
  • I don't think that difference in meaning is material here. For that's sake, yes you are consciously committing the act of not buying $1 bottle but instead taking a sip from the drinking fountain. Legally, do you intend to avoid paying $1 for the bottle? Is this any different from choosing to deliver mail into mailbox unstamped by hand, without getting USPS involved?
    – Greendrake
    Dec 20, 2020 at 1:31

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