Snail Mail 101: How Many Stamps Do You Need?

In today’s world of electronic mail and file sharing, sending letters and packages using the postal service has become somewhat rare. So much so that many young people don’t know how the whole mailing process works. In addition, as a postal worker, I often get the question: How many stamps do you need? and I’m here to answer it today.

The number of stamps you’ll need for a letter or package depends on the type of stamp, weight, and size of your package. So, in order to understand how to calculate how many you’ll need, I have to give you the basics first.

Different Types of Stamps

Stamps are one of few different kinds of indicia, i.e., proof that postage has been paid for the requested mail delivery services. Other kinds include handstamps and meter stamps, but those have become obsolete ever since adhesive stamps came to be.

Before you ask How many stamps do you need? you should know what kind of stamps there are. The number of stamps you require could vary depending on their type.

That being said, there are many different variants of stamps. In this article, I’ll only cover the most common ones.

Definitive Stamps

Definitive stamps are by far the most frequent. They’re intended for everyday post charges, and they come in various denominations. They’re produced every year in unlimited quantities.

As far as their appearance is concerned, they’re nothing to write home about. They typically feature animals, presidents, or just regular everyday objects.

On the other hand, there were different series and issues of these stamps throughout history. Some of them include the Liberty Issue, Americana, and Prominent Americans series. Each of these has its own unique aesthetic characteristic for its period.

Forever Stamps

Forever stamps or non-denominated stamps are relatively new in the game. While the standard definitive stamp appeared in the 19th century in the U.S., forever stamps didn’t come out until 2007.

Forever stamps are first-class stamps that can be used for standard letter envelopes (weighing less than an ounce). They cost the same as first-class definitive stamps, but they can be used forever, as their name suggests.

Let me explain. If you buy a forever stamp right now, for, let’s say, 45 cents, and three years later, the price of first-class stamps jumps to 50 cents, you can use the stamp nonetheless, without having to pay the additional five cents.

Commemorative Stamps

Unlike definitive stamps, which have an unlimited production run, commemorative or provisional stamps are limited-edition, and they’re only sold for a year. As you may be able to tell from their name, these stamps are used to commemorate a significant event or person.

For instance, the first official commemorative postage stamps were issued in 1932, and they featured George Washington. And in 2020, USPS is going to release a few new ones, such as the Lunar New Year series, Gwen Ifill, Earth Day, American Gardens, etc.

Although you can actually use them as postage, these stamps are typically reserved for passionate collectors.

Semi-Postal Stamps

Semi-postal or fundraising stamps carry the same value as the first-class definitive stamps, except they cost a bit more. However, the ten extra cents you pay for a semi-postal goes to charity. Each issue has a single purpose, which it raises money for.

So far, there have been many initiatives — Breast Cancer Research, which was the most prolific one, Stop Family Violence, Alzheimer’s Disease Research, etc.

Aside from these four, other types of stamps include airmail, express, local, military, official, occupational, customized, and many more.

How Many Stamps Do You Need?

First-Class Postage

Most people use First-Class Postage. In my opinion, it strikes the perfect balance between what you pay and what you get. For the base price, you need to pay 55 cents, and that covers one ounce of weight. Then, depending on the weight of your letter, you pay an additional 15 cents per ounce.

You can either choose to use as many stamps as you need or buy a bigger stamp that covers more weight. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of either one over the other, so I’ll leave that choice to you. See what’s best according to how many stamps you need.

Postcards

If you want to send a postcard instead of a letter, then you’ll probably end up paying even less. In most cases, a typical postcard will cost only 35 cents to send.

However, that only covers postcards up to 6 by 4.25 inches in size. Even though the majority of local postcards fall under that scope, you can easily find larger ones out there. In addition, postcards from other countries come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll probably have to pay more.

For all non-standard-sized postcards, you’ll have to buy a First-Class Postage stamp. Additionally, other mail, such as wedding invitations, thank-you cards, and birthday cards also require a First-Class postage stamp.

In some rare cases, when there’s an odd-shaped postcard or a wedding invitation on heavy paper, you might have to pay more than the cost of one first-class stamp. If so, you’ll be best off asking for an exact price at the post office. Alternatively, you can use forever stamps instead of first-class stamps.

Everything I just told you only works for postcards within the United States. If you wish to send one to another country, you need to use global or international stamps. In addition, if you want to ship a postcard from another country to the U.S., you will have to use the stamps of the country you’re in.

Large Flat Envelopes

If your package has over 13 ounces, you can’t use the standard mailbox — you have to take it to the post office. Also, anything larger than 15 inches classifies as a package, regardless of its weight.

Then, you’ll have to pay around 2–3 dollars for packages of up to 19 ounces. And if your package weighs more, you have to upgrade from first-class to Priority or Priority Express mail. The cost will increase depending on the weight of the package.

Keep in mind that one ounce is about 4–5 sheets of regular A4 paper. So if you’re only sending documents, you can estimate the weight of your package that way. Additionally, I have to remind you to include the weight of the envelope, along with any paper clips or additional items you’ve put in the package.

Other Types of Envelopes

Of course, there are many kinds of envelopes I haven’t included. For instance, a lot of people use padded envelopes, which fall under the large flat envelope category, in most cases. In addition, different kinds of security envelopes have tamper-resistant features that could add to their overall weight.

As I previously mentioned, wedding invitations and postcards can also come in many different shapes and sizes. Because of that, there’s a possibility that those packages can’t be processed with machines. Instead, post workers have to do it by hand.

If that’s the case, you’ll have to buy the non-machinable surcharge stamp in addition to a regular one. It costs 70 cents for the first ounce of weight and 21 cents for each additional ounce.

How Many Stamps Do You Need? — How to Calculate

Now that you know how many stamps you need for different types of mail, it’s time to apply that knowledge. Depending on the size of your package, you might need to visit your local post office and send the package there.

On the other hand, you should use the mailbox for smaller items, such as letters. Keep in mind that the staff at the post office will be more than willing to guide you through the process if you need help.

Using a Calculator

If you have a package that fits in the mailbox, answering the question How many stamps do you need? should be a piece of cake.

If you’re sending an item that fits in a standard envelope and weighs less than 13 ounces, you don’t need to go to the post office. Actually, all you need is a kitchen scale to determine the weight of the package.

One Forever stamp covers one ounce of weight. So measure how much your package weighs and round the number up. For example, if your package weighs 5.6 ounces, you’ll need six stamps.

Then, stick the stamps on the upper right corner of the letter, making sure that they’re neatly positioned in a row and not overlapping. The only thing left for you to do is to fill out the address field and place the envelope in your nearest local mailbox.

However, if you need to send a bigger envelope, a package heavier than 13 ounces, or anything else that doesn’t fit in a mailbox, you need to go to the post office to do it. But you can still do almost everything by yourself. In that case, besides the scale, you’ll also need a measuring tape and the help of an online postage calculator.

Weigh and measure out the length, width, and thickness of the package. Then, input all the data into a postage price calculator. Once you choose what type of shipping you’d like, you’ll get the total shipping cost.

Finally, divide the total sum with the price of a single stamp, again rounding up. Stick the stamps on the package, and it is ready for the post office.

Post Office

On the other hand, you might not have the time or the necessary tools to calculate and answer the question How many stamps do you need? In that case, it’s better to go to the post office.

After all, you’ll probably have to go there anyway to get stamps, so why not just do everything there? I say go for it — the staff will be happy to help you.

Of course, if you’ve already put stamps on your package, but it’s too big or bulky for the mailbox, you just need to hand it over to the clerk.

If not, I suggest you try to make it as easy for them as possible. Seal the package securely and write out the address in clear letters before you get to the post office. Then, ask the clerk at the office to weigh it for you. They’ll gather some additional info, such as the type of postage you want, your postal code, etc.

After that, you’ll get the price quote, and, from there, you have two options. Either you buy the corresponding number of stamps or pay for the postage outright. In my opinion, if you’re just there for the package, then it’s better to just pay for it. However, if you collect stamps regularly, then it’s better to use them as they’re cheaper when you buy in bulk.

How Many Stamps Do You Need for International Mail?

Another vital thing you should consider before asking How many stamps do you need? is where you’re sending the package. You can’t just use regular stamps to send mail internationally.

That being said, here’s a reminder — for shipping mail outside of the United States, you have to buy international or global stamps. You use the same principle to determine how many you need — only you have to pay more for international stamps.

Typically, you have to spend a little more than double the cost of U.S. stamps. You can always check the exact price using an online postage calculator or at the post office. It doesn’t matter where in the world you want to send the letter; the stamp price will remain the same.

How to Send Mail — A Quick Guide

Before we start, you should know that particular items can’t be sent via mail. To learn more about the restrictions, check out USPS’s official website.

In case you haven’t done that already, you need to prepare your mail. If you’re sending a letter, you have to find a suitable envelope for it. As far as packages are concerned, you should acquire a cardboard box of the appropriate size. Then, put the contents inside the box/envelope, close, and seal it.

Next, you need to address your mail. Write or print out the name, address, and ZIP code of the recipient, as well as the return address, i.e., your own address.

Then, it’s time to answer the infamous question — How many stamps do you need? Calculate how much your package or letter will cost using one of the methods I talked about previously, taking into consideration the weight, size, and category of the mail. Standard-size letters typically require one stamp, whereas big packages need a few.

If you get stuck, you can always go to the post office and ask for help. I’m sure the staff will be more than willing to help you and answer any questions you might have.

After you’ve determined the postage, acquire stamps from your local post office, or simply order them online from USPS. Then, place the stamps in their rightful spots.

Lastly, if you’re sending a letter, you can merely put it in your own or the blue USPS mailbox. And if you’re sending a big package, you should take it to the post office.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article helped you answer the question How many stamps do you need? and taught you a thing or two about stamps. As you can see, sending snail mail is not difficult; it just takes a bit of practice!