Preparing and Submitting Your USPS Bulk Mailing

Scott HochbergScott Hochberg
 Postage $aver Software

OK, you have a bulk mail permit, you've printed your mail pieces, and you have your list. Now what? (If you don't already have a permit, you can learn about required permits.)

To earn bulk mail rates, you must do some of the work that USPS would otherwise do, including checking the accuracy of your list, sorting your mail according to USPS rules, and placing mail in specific trays or sacks. For certain rates, you also have to print barcodes on your mail. And, of course, there is paperwork to prepare and submit.

Fortunately, there is software that can do much of this for you.

Postage Saver software makes postal bulk mailing easy Here's what this page covers:

red dotChecking your mailing list's accuracy;

red dotAdding barcodes to your mail;

red dotSorting your mail;

red dotAssembling mail into trays or sacks;

red dotCompleting postal paperwork;

red dotDelivering your mail to USPS.

BTW, you are never required to prepare mail as bulk mail, no matter how many pieces you have. USPS is perfectly happy for you to put First Class postage on every piece you mail, and they'll take care of the rest.

But if you want to get lower postage than regular First Class, you have to meet these requirements.

What address accuracy checking does USPS
require for bulk mailing?

USPS does not want to handle mis-addressed bulk mail, because it increases their costs. So they have two different kinds of accuracy checking that you may be required to do for your mailing list: Has the recipient moved?

USPS is not allowed to leave mail if the recipient has moved, so they require you to check your mailing list against the National Change of Address (NCOA) data base, and update any changed addresses, in order to qualify for most bulk mail rates. This is called the Move Update requirement.

But if you're ok with USPS leaving the mail at the address on the envelope even if the person has moved away, you can avoid the NCOA check by just printing "OR CURRENT RESIDENT" in the address, right under the name. Or, you can leave the name off completely, and just use something like "POSTAL CUSTOMER" or "THE FOLKS AT" instead of the name.

(If you're ok with doing that, you can skip down to section on checking zip codes.)

You also don't have to do the NCOA check if: If you don't want to include "OR CURRENT RESIDENT" in your addresses, and the other exceptions don't apply, you'll need to have an "NCOA18" check run on your list. There are companies that will do that for a small fee, typically around $4 per thousand names, with a minimum charge around $45 per list. Several companies that our customers use are: If you are mailing to the same list more than once every 95 days, the cheapest way to handle move update (or than using "OR CURRENT RESIDENT") is to use "Address Correction Requested" or a similar USPS service on each mailing. You'll still need to do NCOA18 before the first mailing where you add address correction, but you won't need to use NCOA18 after that.

For more details on the move update requirement, see our Move Update page.

Is the address accurate?

If you want to get extra discounts for adding barcodes to your bulk mail, you must first have accurate zip+4 codes (not just 5-digit zip codes) plus an extra two digits called a "delivery point code" that specifies the exact mailbox where the piece should be delivered. The delivery point code is never printed on the mail, but is included in the barcode.

The process to verify the zip+4 and delivery point codes is called "CASS certification". You are required to "CASS certify" your list if you are adding barcodes to your mail. Barcoding is not required for bulk mail (contrary to what even some USPS personnel may tell you), but can give you additional savings. The barcoding option is explained a little bit down the page.

CASS certification is usually included with NCOA18 at no extra charge. If you are not using NCOA, you can buy software to CASS certify your list, but it's far too expensive for most small to medium volume mailers. A better bet is to use one of the companies listed above as NCOA providers. They also do CASS certification separately, at prices somewhat lower than NCOA18 (typically $3/thousand with a $30 minimum).

If you are mailing to the same addresses more than once, you only need to have CASS certification done every 180 days. If a few addresses change, you can look up those addresses using the zip code lookup on the USPS web site. It provides full 9-digit zip codes and delivery point codes.

For more details on CASS certification, see CASS certification page. CASS certification is NOT required for bulk parcel mailings, even though they have barcodes.
Postage Saver software makes postal bulk mailing easy

Do I need to add barcodes to get bulk mail discounts? How do I do that?

Barcodes are used by USPS to automatically sort mail down to each individual address. Most mail gets barcoded by USPS, but you can save money by adding them to your bulk mail when you print your addresses. But you are NOT required to add barcodes to get bulk mail discounts (except for bulk parcel mailings).

This section is about "Intelligent Mail" barcodes (IMBs), which are used on postcards, letters and flats. Parcels use a different kind of barcode which is usually printed by your parcel shipping software as part of the standard USPS parcel label. If you are mailing bulk parcels, you can skip this section.

For postcards, letters and flats, if you print barcodes on your bulk mail, USPS will give you small savings (typically a few pennies per piece) for saving them the effort. If you add barcodes and submit your USPS paperwork electronically, you can get free address corrections, and some limited tracking. And, if you always add barcodes to your bulk mail and submit the paperwork electronically, USPS will waive your $265 annual mailing fee.

But, USPS requires that you CASS certify your mailing list (explained in the previous section) if you are going to add barcodes. If your mailings are small, and to different lists each time, CASS certification can cost you more than you save from barcoding, especially if you consider the extra hassle.

To make it more complicated, there are two types of barcoding. "Basic" barcoding gets you the postage savings, but not the other benefits. "Full-service" barcoding gets you all the benefits, but requires electronic submission of your paperwork. USPS gives you a free web-based way (the "USPS Postal Wizard") to submit your paperwork for mailings of fewer than 10,000 pieces, but for larger mailings, you need special software ("mail.dat" software), which is expensive. So it gets confusing.

Here's what makes sense to us: If you decide to barcode, you'll need software to create the barcodes. The software is not expensive and barcoding itself is a simple process. The barcodes are just another line in your address, so if you're doing a mail merge to print your addresses, you just add a field for the barcode. The barcode is actually made up of a combination of 65 letters, which turn into 65 bars when you use an Intelligent Mail barcode font.

Our Postage $aver Pro bulk mail preparation software includes barcoding and our barcode font, making it easy for you to create barcodes automatically from your CASS certified mailing list. We also offer barcoding software and our barcode font separately.

For more details on Intelligent Mail barcoding, see barcoding page.
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How do I sort my mail to meet USPS bulk mail requirements?

To get bulk mail postage discounts, your mail must be sorted and placed into USPS containers (trays or sacks) according to USPS rules. Flat-sized pieces, some parcels, and letter-sized pieces with unusual shapes must also first be rubber-banded together into specific "bundles" before being placed into their containers.

This is NOT simply sorting your mail in zip code order. The sorting requirements are designed to get your mail to its destination with as little handling by USPS as possible, so in most cases you are required to combine various zip codes to fit the USPS sorting and transportation system.

So, for example, if you have at least 150 letter-sized pieces going to the same zip code, USPS requires you put them in their own tray, which then travels directly to the facility where that mail is handled without needing to be sorted anywhere else. (Sometimes, more than one zip code that are handled by the same sorting machine must be combined together to meet the 150-piece minimum. That's called a "5-digit scheme".)

But, if you have just a few letter-sized pieces going to a zip or scheme, but 150 or more going to zip codes that all have the same first three digits, you'll put those together in a tray that travels directly to the facility handling that whole area. So the "3-digit tray" is not sorted in as much detail as the "5-digit tray", but USPS only has to transport one tray for the whole area instead of a tray for each zip code. The process works its way up through the USPS distribution system, until you're left with just odds and ends in a "mixed" tray.

This gets complicated, since the rules are different for each mail class and mail size, and whether or not the mail is barcoded. And the sorting lists and scheme combinations change as often as monthly. But this is something that inexpensive software can handle for you. Our Postage $aver software has all the rules built in, sorts your list by tray or sack (and bundle, where required), and prints easy-to-follow instructions telling you where to put each piece. Plus, it prints all the postal paperwork and container tags discussed below.
Postage Saver for Parcels makes shipping bulk parcels easy

How do I assemble my bulk mailing into trays or sacks?

All bulk mail must be mailed in specific USPS mail trays, tubs or sacks. USPS provides these containers free (for postal use only), and you can get pick some up at most any post office (and all postal bulk mail centers).

Letter-sized mail and postcard-sized mail gets placed into trays. The mail should all face the same way, with the address side facing the end of the tray that has the holder for the destination tag. Generally, it doesn't matter what order the pieces are in within a tray. You don't even need to keep zip codes together. (The exception is for "carrier route sorted" mail, which is mail going to all, or almost all, addresses in an area, which must be sorted according to the way mail is delivered by the letter carrier.)

If your mail fills the tray (or gets within 85% of full), it should not be rubber-banded together at all, but just stacked into the tray. If your tray is not full or nearly full, you must rubber-band the pieces as necessary to keep them from flopping around and getting unstacked, but no particular grouping or order is required. Just keep each group to less than six inches thick, so you can hold the bundle in one hand. (Size 64 rubber bands are recommended)

The exception to this rule is for letter-sized mail that is of an unusual shape, so that it is considered to be "nonmachinable". These must be banded like flat-sized mail as explained below.

Flat-sized mail and parcels get placed into sacks, except for Presorted First Class flats, which are placed into tubs (also called "flats trays"). All flat-sized mail, and some irregularly shaped parcels, is first rubber-banded into specific "bundles". A bundle is simply a stack of mail, no more than 6" thick", held together by rubber bands. (Size 64 rubber bands are recommended).

tray tags Each tray, tub and sack must be labeled with a tag printed in a very specific format, which includes a special barcode. If you know exactly what tags you need, you can order them from USPS, but generally it's easier and always faster for your bulk mail software to print these. Postage $aver figures out and prints the tray or sack tags you need for each mailing.

To mark the destination of each bundle, you have two options. The option USPS prefers (and requires in some cases) is to add a line at the top of the address that signifies the sorting level and destination zip of the bundle. This is called an "Optional Endorsement Line", or "OEL", even though it's not really optional. An OEL looks like "*******3D 780". If you look at most any catalog you get in the mail, you'll see an OEL above the address. Your bulk mail software will create the OEL for each piece.

3-Digit mail sticker
Mixed mail sticker
The second, older option is to put a special colored sticker, available free at USPS bulk mail centers, on the top piece of each bundle. Use this option only if there is no room on your address label for an OEL, or if you do not have software to create the correct OEL. Since these stickers can fall off of your mail, and don't have all the information contained in an OEL, USPS prefers OELs over stickers.
Postage Saver Low-Cost Software for Postal Bulk Mail
Postage Saver software makes postal bulk mailing easy

What paperwork do I need for USPS bulk mailing?

When you present your mail, you'll need two forms.

postage statement Postage statement: It's a summary of who you are, how many pieces you are mailing, how many trays or sacks, and what postage you expect to be charged. Postage $aver prints and fills out this form for you automatically.

You can also download blank forms and fill them out yourself:

Form 3602-R - Marketing Mail Commercial

Form 3602-N - Marketing Mail Nonprofit

Form 3600-FCM - Presorted First Class

Form 3541 - Periodicals

Form 3605 - Bound Printed Matter

Price Qualification Report: It's basically a list of the contents of each tray, tub or sack, and the rate categories for each. Postage $aver produces this report. While it is not absolutely required for every mailing, it's makes life a lot easier for the postal clerk who has to review your mailing, and you always want to make your postal clerk's life as easy as you can.

Periodical Class mailers must also provide a zone report and lists of containers and bundles, since Periodical Class rates are based on zones and container/bundle types. Zone reports are also required for Bound Printed Matter and First Class Package Service mailings.

If you're barcoding your mail, you may also be asked for "Form 3553". This form shows that your mailing list has been CASS certified, as required for barcoding. Form 3553 comes from the company that did the certification for you (or the software that does it, if you have your own CASS software). It's typically included with the files that you download when the list has been certified. You are required to produce your form 3553 if asked, so it's always a good idea to bring a copy with you when you take your mailing to USPS. But keep a copy if you're going to mail to the same list again, since CASS certification is good for six months.

Where do I mail my bulk mailing?

When you have it all done, load it all in the car and take it to the post office. You cannot drop bulk mail in the nearest mailbox. You generally take your bulk mail to the post office that issued your mailing permit. (There are exceptions to this, but they usually are only used by large volume mailers.)

Some, but not all, neighborhood and town post offices are authorized to accept bulk mail. If much of your mail is going to your local area, you can often get better postage discounts by taking your bulk mailings to the regional bulk mail center, called a "Sectional Center Facility" (SCF), that serves your area. SCFs are located in many major metro areas, so if you're near a major city, you should check to see if taking your mail to the SCF is worth your extra travel time. We can tell you which SCF serves your area if you tell us your local zip code, and that information is automatically included in Postage $aver.

Remember, if you're doing full-service barcoding, you must enter the information from your postage statement onto the USPS web site before you show up at the post office. To do this, go to the USPS Business Customer Gateway, log in, choose Mailing Services, then choose Postal Wizard. The information you need is on your postage statement, plus you will need the beginning and ending serial number for your mailing. If you're using Postage $aver to prepare your mailing, you will get the serial number information from the first page of the Mail Preparation Report.

Scott Hochberg
Scott Hochberg started Postage Saver Software in 1994. He's been helping small businesses and nonprofits save postage with postal bulk mail for more than 25 years. Scott's based in Austin, Texas. He's happy to answer your bulk mailing questions!