Note: This blog is our personal view on the best service providers for expats. We make no money on referring customers to these services.
When we decided to move to Costa Rica, it was going to be my sixth international move and sixth country in ten years. I’d been lucky through all the previous moves – my mother was in one place and let me use her home as my permanent address in the U.S. so I could continue to get essential mail from banks, the IRS, wedding invitations, and some magazine subscriptions I could never manage to cancel.
But with the mail piling up, and wanting to avoid burdening our family members, we decided to look into alternatives as to how we could continue to receive our U.S. mail abroad. Turns out there are many options out there!
Here are our research results on the best virtual mailbox and international mail forwarding services available to American expats today.
What is a virtual mailbox?
A virtual inbox receives your physical mail, scans the envelopes, and allows you to review those scans online in a secure portal. You can then request various services. You typically have the options: recycle, shred, open & scan, forward, or store.
Perhaps most useful, you can ask the service to open any individual letters and scan the contents, allowing you to read your mail online.
This type of service is great for Americans who want to maintain a physical mailing address in the U.S. Physical mail is often the only option, especially with sensitive or official material from banks and government agencies. Or you may just want to continue to receive mail from friends and family, without asking them to pay exorbitant rates to send you mail abroad.
What is an international mail forwarding service?
An international mail forwarding service will receive U.S. mail and forward any letters or packages you select to an international destination. If you receive any important item in the mail, like a new credit card, your forwarding service can ship it to you in your new country of residence. This service will come with an additional fee, depending on the size of the package or letter, the destination, and how fast you want it to arrive. You’ll need to provide your address in your new country, pay for customs, and be patient as you wait for your mail to make the international journey.
Note: These two services are often combined. Each company below gives you the ability to read your U.S. mail online AND forward selected letters and packages internationally.
What to look for
An address in a convenient location
As you look for the best service for your needs, you’ll want to pay attention to the available addresses. You may want an address that is close to a friend or family member who can physically pick up your mail if needed. You may want an address in your home state, or in a state that is advantageous for your small business.
All companies reviewed below provide secure online portals where you can read your mail. But you may also be interested in the security of your physical mail.
The companies below fall into 2 general categories. The first group outsources mail services to small mom-and-pop shops, Fedex and UPS locations, and other local companies. These companies typically offer hundreds of possible addresses. The second group keeps all operations in-house and therefore can only offer a handful of possible addresses, but they may be able to provide better oversight and screening of employees opening your mail.
International forwarding options and rates
If you think you’ll be forwarding mail regularly, be sure to look at both the company’s rates to forward (usually they charge an extra fee to facilitate the service) AND the rates charged by the shipping companies they work with. Some companies below will ship your mail using USPS. Others let you choose among many shipping services - UPS, FedEx, Express, and more.
Recipient numbers to fit your household
The most affordable plans below typically cover only one recipient - perfect if you’re signing up as a single person, but perhaps not a fit for a family. If you want to be able to read mail addressed to multiple people, you may need to sign up for an upper-tier plan.
How much U.S. mail do you think you’ll receive each month? The services below all have slightly different monthly limits on pieces of mail that they will receive and scan, although you can typically pay an additional amount per letter if you go over the limit.
You may also want to factor in junk mail. Some services below will sort out junk mail before scanning, so the junk doesn’t get included in your monthly limit. Others are more cautious, and will include all mail in case it’s not junk.
Most companies will store your mail for up to a month before recycling or shredding. In this time, you’ll be able to request that any item of mail is opened and scanned, or (in some cases) get it picked up locally. Some companies also offer extended storage options for an additional fee.
Will you be receiving physical checks in the mail? Would you like them to be deposited on your behalf, instead of requesting mail forwarding? Some companies below offer this service, typically for an additional fee per check.
Do you have a good friend or family member who’s willing to pick up your mail from time to time? You may want to look for a company that offers a local pick up service. This could save you a lot of money if you can avoid international forwarding. Of course, the address must also be conveniently located for your friend.
Comparison Table - Services We Recommend
US Global Mail
Virtual Post Mail
Starts at $4.98/month. Most plans $5-15/month
Starts at $9.95/month, upgrade to Plus at $14.95/month for multiple family members, longer mail storage time
Varies based on location. Starter is usually $15-20/month, Standard is $5 more, Premium starts at $30/month
Starts at $20/month
Addresses in 48 states and 40 countries
4 US address options. Some come with a premium monthly charge.
4 options: Delaware, California, Nevada, and Florida
Open & scan service
Varies, usually 5-10 pieces of mail included
Charge for every scan
5 items/month included
10 scans/month with the Starter subscription, 50/month with Plus, 90/month with Premium.
Mail volume received
Varies depending on location, typically you can get 5-10 pieces of mail/month with the cheapest plan
Starter packages are for 30 items/month
25 items/month with Starter subscription, Unlimited items with more expensive plans
Extra fee, varies by location
$1 for 10 pages, then $0.15/page
Varies on which couriers are accepted.
Provides up to 80% off standard international shipping rates
Yes, choose USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.
Yes, choose USPS, UPS, FedEx or Express
# of recipients
Varies, options available for multiple recipients
The Plus plan allows for up to 10
The Standard plan provides 2, the Premium provides 6
2 with starter subscription, 5 with Plus, 20 with Premium
Varies, usually 30 days free
Basic gives 45 days, Plus gives 90.
30 days free for mail, 7 days for packages
Depends on location, most do not offer
Yes, $10 per deposit
Yes, a good budget option + the most address flexibility
Yes, great international shipping rates and good value for an in-house operation
Yes, although a bit pricier than other options
Yes, especially for small businesses
Services we do not recommend:
Earth Class Mail: Charges are high for limited services and the service charges for cancellation and reactivation
iPostal1: Mail scanning comes with an extra fee, not the right service for expats
Important facts to remember:
Taxes and customs: Each country has its own customs, tariffs, and taxes on packages arriving from outside the country. These can be shockingly high, so be sure to check how much you’d pay in your new country of residence before forwarding a package!
P.O. Box Limitations: UPS and FedEx will only deliver to physical addresses, NOT P.O. boxes. If you want to receive packages from these services, be sure to check that the address you get with your subscription is not a P.O. Box.
State taxes: When you set up a physical address in another state, it typically does NOT come with any state tax requirements, but there are exceptions. New York and California are particularly known for interpreting any address in their state as residency, and therefore often come with state tax requirement. To be safe, you may want to avoid getting an address in these states.
Change of address form: You can fill out a change of address form with the U.S. Postal Service to get your mail sent to your virtual mailbox + forwarding service. Doing this might result in your mail taking longer to arrive, but it will also simplify your set-up. Once you’re done using your virtual mailbox + forwarding service, you can easily revert any change of address with the USPS.
Closing your account: U.S. Postal Service regulations require mail forwarding services to continue to accept incoming mail for 6 months after the date of cancellation. That means you may continue receiving mail to your forwarding service and might have to pay forwarding or storage fees for six months. After the six-month period your mail forwarding service will return all mail to sender or (more likely) shred it. This is another reason why we recommend using a change of address form (see above).
Anna Sosdian is the co-founder of StartAbroad, a concierge international relocation service. She spent nine years working in East Africa as an HR lead and operations specialist for multinational social enterprises before moving to Costa Rica. You can reach her at Anna@StartAbroad.com
Additional Resources from StartAbroad and its Partners
Learn more about how we can support your international relocation here
Check out our interview with longtime expats about expensive mistakes to avoid when moving abroad
Our partner, Make Costa Rica Home, has excellent resources on its Information Hub
Find excellent information on a range of relocation topics on our Topics page