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This is a basic question about mail delivery which has been vexing me, and for which I can find no good answer. Before marking this off-topic please note that this is likely not a problem I would be having if I were not living overseas (in France, specifically, though the question is more general).

I need to send some documents back to the US from France in order to receive an apostille from the State of Louisiana. Along with this I need to send a pre-paid envelope for return service. What's troubling me is how I should go about this. Can I just include an envelope with French postage on it? Will the US mail service mail a parcel paid for with French postage? And if so how does that work?

In the past when I've needed return service domestically I've just sent a pre-printed label via FedEx, but FedEx from France to the US is prohibitively expensive. I just don't know how to do this otherwise.

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    A common solution in such cases is to send an international reply coupon (which in France can be purchased online from La Poste, or in a post office if you are lucky), but you should confirm with the recipient that they will accept it.
    – fkraiem
    Mar 22, 2016 at 19:05
  • @fkraiem that should be an answer.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2016 at 19:06
  • @phoog I am not sure because the question specifically asks for a "pre-paid envelope", it's possible that the recipient will not take an IRC.
    – fkraiem
    Mar 22, 2016 at 19:10
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    Do you have any family/friends in the USA still? If so, you could always post the letter to them, and wire them the money for US-domestic postage plus US-to-France postage. Then, have them go to the post office and get the stamps + forward it on
    – Gagravarr
    Mar 22, 2016 at 21:28
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    Just as a followup, I ended up mailing the documents to a family member in the states, and had them purchase the return postage for me and send it on to the State Department. That worked fine and was simple, if not a bid round-about.
    – Iguananaut
    Nov 29, 2016 at 21:48

4 Answers 4

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The common solution to the general problem of how to send mail to a recipient in a foreign country and pay for them to send it back to you is the International Reply Coupon, which is overseen by the Universal Postal Union (of which France and the United States are both members). From Wikipedia:

An international reply coupon (IRC) is a coupon that can be exchanged for one or more postage stamps representing the minimum postage for an unregistered priority airmail letter of up to twenty grams sent to another Universal Postal Union (UPU) member country. IRCs are accepted by all UPU member countries.

UPU member postal services are obliged to exchange an IRC for postage, but are not obliged to sell them.

The purpose of the IRC is to allow a person to send someone in another country a letter, along with the cost of postage for a reply. If the addressee is within the same country, there is no need for an IRC because a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) or return postcard will suffice; but if the addressee is in another country an IRC removes the necessity of acquiring foreign postage or sending appropriate currency.

In France, IRCs can be purchased online from La Poste for 1,30 euros plus shipping (search for "coupon-réponse international"). You can also try to ask at a post office, but in my experience it is likely that they won't even know what it is.

In this case, looking at the provided link it is unclear whether the recipient will accept an IRC as postage; in general one should always confirm this with the recipient beforehand since the recipient still has to exchange the IRC for actual stamps.

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  • Thanks for the writeup--I did run across these IRCs in the course of my Googling, but it wasn't very clear whether or not they would be accepted in the United States. At one point I was looking at a list of UPU member countries, and the United States was not listed (odd, but wouldn't be the first the US was unnecessarily difficult). But no, it's listed here: upu.int/en/the-upu/member-countries.html#u I will have to ask the recipient if they'll accept this. If they don't then I'm once again at a loss but this still answers my question nonetheless.
    – Iguananaut
    Mar 23, 2016 at 8:03
  • Note that the IRC is only good for an "unregistered priority airmail letter upto 20g" (my emphasis). Depending on what the OP is having posted back, that might not be enough (a single sheet of normal 80gsm A4 paper weights 5g, and a stout envelope could easily blow the limit). Dec 21, 2018 at 11:40
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I'm famaliar with this issue, and I see several approaches.

First of all, French postage is not valid for sending mail FROM the US to France.

For this response, I'll assume that your foreign contact who refuses to use their own postage meter is a US authority; But the following advise works equally for any other foreign contact that is unable or unwilling to use their own postage meter.

Option 1: Use a private carrier

If money doesn't matter, you can use DHL, Fedex or UPS for having your papers sent back to you. You simply buy the shipping label online and enclose it with the papers you're sending to the US authority in question. Some agencies will require that you also supply the return envelope. Note that the US Department of State doesn't like Fedex.

Downside of this option is that it's expensive. You have to throw about €70 one-way for a lousy letter.

Option 2: Buy USPS postage on ebay

USPS postage is sold online; However, USPS refuses to ship physical postage stamps abroad and it's impossible (or at least, very difficult) to buy USPS online postage from outside the country.

So you need a way to work around that, and the easiest way to do that is Ebay.

A few years ago, I tried to buy USPS postage (mint) on ebay, and for some reason, I was unable to find any. All I could find was used stamps for collectors. This, however, seems to have changed. You can now buy USPS postage stamps from several random sellers on ebay and have them shipped internationally.

Option 3: Use an international business reply envelope

Another option I know of is the international business reply service. If you want to go this route, you need to enclose an IBRS envelope with your request and maybe add a note that the envelope is to be used with USPS. This special envelope will then cause the postage to be billed in reverse - I. e. instead of having the sender pay for it, the recipient (you) has to pay for postage.

There are, however, some constraints to be aware of:

One-way countries

First of all, the recipient address on the IBRS envelope (i. e. the issuer of the envelope, you!) must be in a country where IBRS works in both directions, inward and outward. Afaik, France is a country with two-way IBRS; But there a few countries where IBRS works only for outward mailing, preventing businesses in those countries from issuing IBRS envelopes.

Licensing requirements

Some countries require some form of license, registration, monthly fee, minimum volume et cetera. I don't know how La Poste goes about this. What I do know is that Deutsche Post AG has the most convenient IBRS licensing system: In Germany, you can simply print your own IBRS envelopes and hand them to people in other countries. All you need is a German address, and postage will be collected cash by the mailman. This makes IBRS usable and convenient even for one-off arrangements. France however, may be more sophisticated or more expensive.

Size and weight limits

This is another important point: In most cases, the weight of an IBRS item cannot exceed 50g. Higher limits may be agreed on between postal operators on a bilateral basis. This means that if the document to be returned weighs more than 40g (+5g envelope + 5g payment receipt), you can't use IBRS!

No registered mail

IBRS service cannot be combined with registered mail unless the sender chooses to override IBRS entirely by paying for the registration fee AND all of the incurred postage.

Conclusion

If I have to supply a SASE (self-addressed and stamped envelope) to a US agency, it will probably either be IBRS or I'll buy USPS postage stamps on ebay.

Also, keep in mind that you don't have to use the same carrier for both directions. If you're into doing a compromise, you can, for instance, use La Poste for sending to the US and have the return sent with Fedex.

Discouraged Options: Cash, Reply Coupons

I would recommend against sending Cash or Reply Coupons because I don't think that US authorities will bother to exchange those for postage stamps.

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In amateur radio we are often wanting to cover a foreign station's postal costs to send us a contact card (QSL card). The usual solution is to send a couple or three American dollar bills, as most people in most countries can convert this to local currency fairly easily.

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  • That works fine for cooperative individuals. However the OP is dealing with a local bureaucracy which is less likely to be prepared to pop out to the post office and buy stamps with the dollars. (But a good answer for other people in future). Dec 21, 2018 at 11:44
  • @MartinBonner The solution in that case will be to send euro banknotes with the request. Unfortunately, the smallest euro banknote is a 5. (Sending 1- and 2-euro coins will probably be cost-prohibitive due to their mass.) Dec 21, 2018 at 15:05
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Not sure of France. In Asia I use To Go. I have a account with them. So ship documents to the U.S. There they use Fed Ex. Fed Ex. returns it to To Go. A round trip letter is around U.S. $140. Home delivered. So yes it cost. U.S. post office is $30. One way out of America. To me. If sent that way. Can you E mail documents. Much Cheaper.

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