The Internet gave us text-only email with bare-bones interfaces which were clearly designed by and for techies only. Fortunately, decades later, the Web gave us rich email designed by user interface experts for the general public — making it possible for anyone to read and respond to their electronic mail anywhere in the world, provided that they could get online. This truly was a boon for travelers, expats, foreign service staff, and anyone else far from home, who wanted to stay in touch with family members, friends, colleagues and businesses. But it didn't solve the problem of accessing one's postal mail — at least, not initially.
With time, this need was met by a growing number of Web-based mailbox services that allow you to manage your paper mail as easily as electronic mail. The specific features offered by each company varies from one to the next, and from basic plans to the most premium, but the core features are usually more than sufficient for most customers:
Address: As a customer, you are assigned a unique street address with your own suite number. It will be a legal street address you can use on forms, including tax-related ones, but not as the residential address for a financial account, such as a bank account.
Receiving: On your behalf, the virtual mailbox company accepts all postal mail addressed to that unique name and address — envelopes and packages, domestic and international, including those delivered by the major commercial shipping companies, such as FedEx, DHL, and UPS.
Scanning: For each piece of postal mail received, the company creates a grayscale or color image of the outside of the envelope or package, typically using a flatbed scanner. This feature — automatically scanning any incoming mail — is sometimes refer to as mail digitization.
Viewing: You then receive notification, typically as an email message, informing you that a new piece of postal mail has arrived in your virtual mailbox and its outer contents scanned. After logging into the company's secure website, you can view the scan images of the outer envelope or package, and optionally save them to local storage (such as a laptop). It is wise to always do this — including the sender's name and date received in the file name — as it allows you to later see how much mail you have been receiving during the past, from which senders, and what their future mailings will probably look like.
Opening: Most plans also allow you to request that a piece of mail be opened and its contents scanned and posted in your online account as images or, even better, PDF files of higher visual quality. It is advisable to save these files, even more so than those of the outer envelope or package. Most plans specify a limited number of scans allowed each month for the envelopes and their contents, with additional charges for each item above the limit. People who have wisely eliminated all junk mail and pare down their incoming mail to the bare minimum, may find that they never go over the limits.
Forwarding: Regardless of whether or not you have had a particular item opened and scanned, you can request that it be forwarded to any valid postal address in the United States or other country, provided that you pay for the postage plus usually a surcharge for the service. If the particular item is a bank check, most mailbox companies can forward it to your bank, for deposit.
Destruction: You can ask your chosen mailbox company to shred and recycle any item that has not been forwarded. Generally it is good to do one or the other, after saving the scans to your local file system, otherwise the physical mail will pile up at their location, and you will be charged for that storage.
Most people would be quite uncomfortable knowing that government agents or nosy neighbors were opening their mail, so it is understandable that people would be concerned about a private company doing that on a regular basis. Not a week goes by that we do not read about a corporation or government losing millions of personal records, which end up in the hands of data brokers and identity thieves.
But in my experience, the mailbox service staff members are bonded and considerate of their customers' data. Moreover, they well know that if anyone in their company were to be caught engaging in identity theft or the selling of customers' personal information, that news would quickly spread throughout the community of expats, travelers, and other customers — destroying the jobs of that firm and possibly their prospects of ever again working in the industry. In addition, I suspect they are so busy opening and scanning the nonstop deluge of incoming mail, that they have little time or interest in reading other people's mail.
When people consider switching from a regular mailbox to an online alternative, one of the most common questions is whether or not banks and other financial institutions will consider the virtual mailbox addresses as legitimate. The same is true of government entities, especially in applying for a driver's license. After all, these organizations can find out that a virtual mailbox address is not a true residential address, by automatically checking to see if it is listed as a private mailbox (PMB) with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In fact, if any such address is used with a financial company as your mailing address, they may alter the address by changing any "Suite" or other designator to "PMB".
In general, no such virtual mailbox address can be used as a residential address, but in my experience banks, credit card companies, and other financial organizations are quite willing to use one as your mailing address, as long as you have provided a legitimate street address as your residential one. That may not have been the case decades ago, but it certainly is now, in this era of "know your customer" (KYC) government regulation and scrutiny.
With any legitimate virtual mailbox company, you cannot avoid letting the US government know that you are using a non-residential address, because most if not all services have been approved by the USPS as a Commercial Mail Receiving Agency (CMRA). In addition, anyone who applies for a private mailbox must complete USPS Form 1583, to authorize the chosen company to open and process their mail as an agent. (For most companies, the form 1583 does not need to be notarized.)
Another common question is whether or not you can activate and then use (online only, of course) a debit card or credit card that has been scanned into your virtual mailbox, without physically receiving the card. After all, the new card number, expiration date, and activation toll-free phone number are displayed in your mailbox account. In my experience, it works fine.
The companies profiled here are all geared toward customers in the United States, as I'm not familiar with mail services in other countries. However, if you are overseas and anticipate that you will need to ask your mail company to forward you an item of value that they will receive, always ask the original sender to not indicate a value on the item(s) and instead label it a gift, otherwise you will likely be subject to paying a duty to the foreign country where you currently reside.
This article does not consider any forwarding / shipping companies that offer no virtual mail services, but rather only those companies that allow customers to read their mail online. They are presented in alphabetical order. In all cases, the least expensive plan is noted — one best geared to any traveler who has wisely managed to minimize incoming mail.
Focusing mostly on mail forwarding and South Dakota residency, Americas Mailbox apparently only offers scanning and online display of mail as part of their most expensive plan, "Titanium". For each year, it costs almost $229 plus a state tax plus a one-time $25 start-up fee. It includes unlimited exterior scans of the front of every incoming envelope and package. Interior scans can be requested, and cost an additional unspecified fee. A customer's mailbox address would be in Box Elder, South Dakota.
This company could be a good choice for someone RVing within the United States who is not interested in reading mail online, but instead only having it forwarded to campgrounds. But for anyone who wants a low-cost virtual mailbox, this company would be a poor choice.
Another questionable choice, Anytime Mailbox appears to be more of a reseller of independent mail processing companies — more than 900 in the United States, as of this writing — indicated by the fact that each location charges its own monthly rate. Some of them cost as little as $6.99 per month, and the services offered vary from one location to another. All of them offer "Incoming Mail" as a feature; some offer "Open & Scan" and some offer "Forwarding". In the United States, most of their locations appear to be serviced by PostNet.
In the Reddit travel forum, a commenter noted that Anytime Mailbox charges a sign-up fee of $25, that they are not upfront about it, and that they apparently claimed that it is mentioned in their terms and conditions. If this is true, they certainly are not making it clear, because I searched through that document and found no mention of any sign-up fee.
Their website states that they will "Scan or photograph an envelope, package, or label with any mobile device, tablet, or scanner." This implies that one of their affiliates may choose not to scan your mail with a proper flatbed scanner to generate a high-quality image or PDF, but instead could use the camera of a smartphone, with no guarantee of image quality.
Located at Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle, Washington, Dockside Mail offers some services best suited for boaters actually located at that marina — such as mailbox rental and business center capabilities — but also services appropriate for world travelers — including mail forwarding and scanning, as well as check deposits into a bank account.
Their cheapest plan costs $33 per month and allows for the exterior scanning of up to 10 envelopes. To have an envelope opened and its contents scanned, costs an additional $0.75. There is no additional charge for shredding mail or holding it for further instructions. A check deposit costs $12. Domestic forwarding, per item, costs five dollars plus the postage and packaging costs. International forwarding costs an additional five dollars.
Earth Class Mail
Generally considered one of the pricier alternatives, Earth Class Mail does have the advantage of multiple locations across the United States, allegedly forming the largest network in the industry, and boasting addresses in an incredible 65 cities. The company offers addresses in Oregon (specifically, Beaverton) and other states that do not charge sales tax.
All of their "MailBox" plans include the receipt and scanning of up to 50 pieces of mail per month, free secure shredding, and 30 days of physical mail storage for envelopes and 10 days for packages. They scan the contents of incoming mail, create a searchable PDF file for each one, and add it to your account — at which point you can download it to your local device or sync it to a cloud storage service (Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box.com). Their least expensive plan is intended for a single recipient, and costs $19 per month.
They note that all of the addresses provided are valid commercial addresses and can be used for registering companies. Earth Class Mail certainly has a lot of experience in processing mail; according to their website, they have scanned more than 10 million pieces of mail (as of this writing).
Featuring many US and foreign locations, as well as affordable pricing, iPostal1 is definitely worthy of one's consideration. The company currently has mailbox locations in Washington DC and all 50 states except South Dakota and Vermont. Outside the United States, locations can be found in Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
For US mailbox locations, the most affordable plan, known as "Virtual Mailing Address", starts at less than ten dollars per month or $99 per year, with no sign-up fee. However, that price is for mail centers in locations of weaker demand. For more popular locations, one may have to choose a more expensive plan, such as Select (+$10), Premium (+$20) or Prestige (+$30). Exterior scans are included in the monthly plans, up to a specified limit that should be more than enough for most people. You can request that they scan the contents of any mail item, for a small extra charge (typically a couple dollars for up to six pages).
A feature unique to iPostal1 is that even for their lowest-cost plan, a customer has the option of adding phone and fax service — thus completing the essential elements of a virtual business office.
One possible problem of renting a mailbox — whether it is a physical mailbox at a USPS location or a postal services business — is being assigned a mailbox number that was used by a previous customer in the past, and as a consequence receiving mail addressed to them, with or without a person's name included. Similarly, if you stop using a mailbox number and it is later assigned to someone else, they could potentially receive mail intended for you, including sensitive financial documents and credit cards, if the postal clerk fails to see the discrepancy in the recipient's name.
Mailbox Forwarding solves that problem by never recycling mailbox numbers. In other words, they assign a unique mailbox number to every customer, and never assign that number to anyone else. In fact, if you close down your account but then later reopen it, they will give you back the same number, which makes it easier to resume doing business with them. Most virtual mailbox companies use four-digit numbers, but Mailbox Forwarding uses five digits, which allows for 10 times as many unique mailbox numbers.
The most affordable plan starts at $14.95 per month, and includes the exterior scanning of up to 50 pieces of mail and the interior scanning of 15 of those pieces. The first month of service is free, which gives you an opportunity to try them out with no risk. They offer street addresses in three cities: Grandville, MI; Pompano Beach, FL (for an additional $10 per month); and Los Angeles, CA (for an additional $15 per month).
One downside is that they do not offer any phone support, but only allow customers to use support tickets online. As a test many years ago, I submitted a simple support ticket to them, and it took six days for them to reply.
Despite a focus on forwarding mail to domestic and international addresses, MaillinkPlus still allows customers to view scans of incoming mail online — at a cost of one dollar per page. This is apparently in addition to the cost of renting a physical mailbox, which can be done most cheaply when choosing a small box and paying the $100 for a full year. The customer's address would be at the company's sole location, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
While little known among digital nomads, MyRVmail, also branded as Good Sam Mail Service, provides all of the services that RV enthusiasts and other domestic travelers might need. Each customer is given a unique address in Crestview, Florida. However, scanning and online viewing of incoming mail is only provided at the "Premium" level, which costs, at its cheapest, $194.40 for every 12 months. Their website states that it includes all the scans up to a monthly limit, with each additional one costing $2.50, but it is not clear what the monthly limit is, and they don't distinguish exterior versus interior scanning; perhaps they mean both.
My Smart Mailbox
Similar to MaillinkPlus, My Smart Mailbox has expertise in mail forwarding, yet it does offer mail scanning. Their website apparently does not reveal what city or cities are available for addresses, but given that it appears to be a small business, they probably offer only one location, somewhere in Florida.
The "Starter" mail scanning plan cost $9.95 per month, with no setup fee, and provides for the scanning of up to 80 items — the envelopes and the pieces of paper contained therein. They also include check deposit, for an additional five dollars per check, plus the postage for the company to forward the check to the bank.
With an odd company slogan of "We'll Make It Go Away", Parcel Room offers private physical mailboxes at their facility in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as well as virtual mailboxes online. Each one is designated by a number consisting of only three digits, which suggests that this is a small company. Moreover, their website doesn't even seem to have a link for customers to login and view their virtual mail, which suggests that this service is not a priority to them.
A "Personal" plan costs $25 per month (with a three-month minimum), along with a $15 setup fee that is waived if you rent for at least one year. Like some of its competitors, Parcel Room allows multiple different names to be used on the box — which could be useful for multiple DBAs. Unlike its competitors, Parcel Room does not appear to have any limitation on the number of exterior and interior scans, aside from how many pieces of mail be stored in one of their "small" physical mailboxes. They mention on their website that "We open and scan all letter mail", so if one were to always immediately request that they shred incoming mail as soon as it has been scanned, then theoretically there is no limit within the Personal plan.
Although their website likely won't win any design awards, PhysicalAddress.com offers all of the popular mailbox services, with locations in seven different American cities. The lowest-price location is in Boise, Idaho, costing only $7.98 per month. Las Vegas, Nevada is just one dollar more. An extra two dollars would be enough for a mailbox in Atlanta, Georgia, or Dallas, Texas, or Orlando, Florida. Reflecting a higher cost of living, a Laguna Beach, California mailbox would be $10.98 per month. As expected, Wall Street, New York is the priciest plan, at $19.98 per month.
All of these plans include envelope and content scans, an unlimited number of mail recipients, support seven days per week, free registered agent, secure shredding, and other features that would be of interest to digital nomads and other long-term travelers. Unlike other companies, this one is wise enough to include on their websites screenshots of what their interface looks like for customers using web access or their Android or iPhone app. They even have an affiliate program, although it appears to be lacking an affiliate-specific URL that one could provide to prospective customers. Support is provided by phone and email.
PO Box Zone
Contrary to the name of the company, if you were to opt for PO Box Zone, then you would not be provided with a USPS Post Office box, but rather a virtual one, located in your choice of Las Vegas, Nevada or Casper, Wyoming. Their cheapest plan for low-volume customers costs $99 per year, if billed annually. Letter scanning up to 10 pages would be an additional dollar; a piece of mail comprising 11-20 pages would be two dollars; 21-30 pages would be three dollars. Scanned mail can be downloaded from their website to your computer, or transferred to a cloud solution such as Dropbox or Google Drive.
To have up to 10 letters forwarded to another address, in a single package, would cost $5.50, plus the actual postage. They provide mail and package storage at no extra charge, for up to six months, which is much longer than most other mail processing companies. Like most of their competitors, they automatically discard junk mail. One seemingly unique feature is that they can provide regular mail forwarding, on a daily, weekly, fortnightly, or monthly basis.
Headquartered in Anaheim, California, PostScan Mail has more than 200 locations throughout the United States (89 in California alone), as well as one location in Switzerland and one in the Czech Republic. They provide all the typical services — mail receiving, scanning, forwarding, storage, and shredding. Unlike most other companies, their online accounts feature customizable mail management filters, which allow you to automatically perform operations based upon characteristics of each particular mail item received.
The "Starter" plan could be as low as $9.95 per month, depending upon which location you choose. It allows for the receiving and processing of up to 30 mail items per month, and the opening and scanning of up to five of those. The ambiguity of the monthly fee is because each location is run by a "partner", like a franchise. The potential disadvantages are the same as those noted above for Anytime Mailbox, which operates in a similar manner.
Unlike its bigger competitors, Scan Mailboxes does not have locations all over the United States, but rather just one, in Austin, Texas. Yet they still provide all of the regular services that one would expect. Their lowest-cost yearly plan ("Basic") is priced at $180, and it allows for the exterior scanning every month of up to 30 envelopes or packages, and the interior scanning of up to five of those. To increase those limits to 100 exterior scans and 30 interior, one can opt for the "Standard" plan, at $270. In addition, it supports three separate business names.
The company is a Texas registered agent, which could be valuable to anyone interested in forming a limited liability company, corporation, or a nonprofit organization in Texas. Scan Mailboxes could then act as your agent for receiving and processing legal business documents.
St. Brendan's Isle
Reflecting their focus on customers traveling by cruise ship or RV, St. Brendan's Isle requires that any new customer first choose a non-virtual service plan (the cheapest one is "Traveler Special", at $11.99 per month) and then add an additional service for scanning mail (the cheapest one is "Standard", at $7.99 per month). It provides for exterior scanning of up to 40 pieces of mail. If you want the staff to open one of them and scan its contents, then that will cost an additional $0.50 for the envelope and another $0.50 for the first five pages; additional pages are free. This piecemeal approach to pricing could result in long-term costs higher than expected.
The company is apparently located in the Jacksonville, Florida area, and each customer would receive a street address in Green Cove Springs, Florida.
Possibly the best known of the many virtual mailbox companies, TravelingMailbox offers all of the features that one would expect, as well as unlimited cloud storage of one's scanned mail and the ability to organize that mail into separate folders online. The standard addresses are located in Sanford, North Carolina, while the premium ones are in the Midwest (nine different cities, as of this writing), the Northeast (nine cities), the Southeast (six cities), the Southwest (five cities), and the West (11 cities).
Their "Basic Plan" costs $15 per month for the standard addresses and more for any of the premium ones. All of them provide exterior scans of up to 40 envelopes per month, 35 interior page scans, free mail shredding, up to three mailbox recipients, junk mail filtering (which does not count against your monthly allotment), and unlimited cloud storage. The higher-level plans add a feature that I have not seen offered by any other company, namely, unused scans are rolled over to the next month.
US Global Mail
With a modern website and a focus on technology, US Global Mail distinguishes itself from its many competitors that look like shipping and forwarding companies that merely added virtual mailbox capabilities as an afterthought. As one would expect, they handle the receiving and scanning of all incoming mail, except for junk mail, which is recycled. In addition, they plant a tree for every new member who signs up for their service. Customers can view the incoming mail on the company's website or using their app.
Their basic plan costs $14.99 if billed monthly, and only $9.99 if billed annually. It provides 45 days of free mail storage, free check deposit, and one name on the account (premium plans allow multiple family members and even multiple companies). Unfortunately, the website currently does not make clear how many exterior scans that includes, if any. Interior mail scans cost three dollars (presumably per month) plus $0.50 for every page — which could result in a higher overall cost than most of the other companies available. The website also does not clearly state all of the possible locations. They do allude to San Diego, California and Naples, Florida, but do not seem to have a list of all possibilities. Regardless of the mailbox location, all of the incoming mail is forwarded to their headquarters in Houston, Texas — undoubtedly adding a delay to customers seeing their mail scans.
Some of the suite numbers used by former customers are used again. In those cases, mail addressed to former customers is either discarded or shipped to them. If the mail is for an address that is no longer active or no longer belongs to them, the mail is returned to the sender.
With a rating of A+ from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), USA2Me offers a wide range of mail and shipping services, including their online mail manager system, which comes with any of their mail forwarding accounts. All incoming mail pieces are scanned, and customers can request content scans of any of them. Their "Basic" plan has a one-time setup fee of $23 but no monthly fee. The cost of scanning the contents of each letter is three dollars for up to six pages, and $0.50 for each additional page. For travelers who have minimized their incoming mail to few if any pieces each month, this company might prove to be the least expensive.
The Best Choice?
If you are in the market for a virtual mailbox service, which one would best serve your needs naturally depends upon what those needs are and how much you want to spend to fulfill them. Do you typically receive dozens of pieces of mail every month, or, like me, almost none? Do you want to be able to view and manage your mail using your smartphone, but not be limited by a company's website? In that case, you would want to choose a company that provides a phone app. Do you only want to do business with a company ranked highly by the Better Business Bureau? That would significantly reduce the number of viable options. Do you plan to live outside the United States but continue to purchase products from US companies? In that case, look for a company that has years of experience in international package forwarding.
Regardless of your needs and budget, it is fortunate that there are plenty of promising candidates from which to choose.