How Does Certified Mail Work? Everything You Need to Know!

how does certified mail work

Since it was first set up in 1775, businesses across the country have relied on the US mail service to keep their operations running smoothly and to send and receive documents in a secure manner.

And, despite the many technological innovations of the modern world, we all still rely on the postal system every day. In fact, in 2017 alone, the United States Postal Service (USPS) delivered close to 149.5 billion pieces of mail.

While many of these sent articles included junk mail and other nonessential items, the majority of mail processed each year is very important.

As a way to provide added security and delivery assurance for sending the most important items, the US mail service offered Certified Mail as an alternative mailing option in 1955. This service is strictly regulated to ensure that items are sent and received correctly by providing detailed tracking information and delivery confirmation.

But how does Certified Mail work? Here we explain everything you need to know about Certified Mail: from what it is to who uses it.

What Is Certified Mail?

Although many of us are familiar with the term ‘Certified Mail’, you may still be wondering, ‘what does Certified Mail mean?’

Certified Mail is one of many domestic mail services available in the US. Each article mailed using the Certified Mail service is allotted a unique tracking number. This provides added security and reassurance for the sender.

With the Certified Mail service, the recipient must sign for items received. This serves as a way to confirm delivery.

If the sender has requested it, he or she will then receive a receipt to confirm delivery. This receipt is a legally-recognized proof of postage.

The Certified Mail service does not guarantee when the sent item will reach the recipient. But, you can purchase the Certified Mail service for First-Class Mail, First-Class Package Service, or Priority Mail. It’s these different services which determine how soon the sent item will arrive.

While you can insure items sent via registered mail, you cannot add on insurance for items sent using the Certified Mail service.

How Does Certified Mail Work?

There are several steps to the process of sending items via Certified Mail. The system operates in the same way for all items, from letters to packages. So, if you were wondering, ‘how does a certified letter work?’, it follows the same process as any item sent via Certified Mail, which is as follows:

Step 1: Initial Tracking

Each article sent via the Certified Mail service has a bar-code and unique tracking number on the envelope. This enables the USPS to scan mail items so that they can be tracked via the USPS tracking system.

Every Certified Mail item is scanned for the first time when it’s accepted into the mail stream at the post office.

Step 2: Continuous Scanning and Tracking

As it makes its way to the addressee, the sent item is then scanned and tracked at various USPS sorting and automated processing centers.

If the sender wishes, he or she can search the unique tracking number online to view where the sent item is. Being able to locate and follow the progress of the sent item gives added reassurance to the sender while the item is still in transit.

The last stop for the sent item before delivery is the nearest post office to the addressee’s location. After this point, the tracking information logs that the item is ‘out for delivery’.

Step 3: Delivery

Finally, the mail worker who delivers the sent item must scan and track the recipient’s signature, as required on delivery. The item is then logged as ‘delivered’ on the online tracking information. The recipient’s signature is then kept on file for two years as proof that the item has been received.

Do You Have to Sign for Certified Mail?

Among the many benefits of certified mail, the main advantage is the assurance of delivery confirmation. And, since this can only be provided by the signature of the recipient, the definitive answer is: yes, you do have to sign for certified mail.

If there is nobody at the delivery address to accept or sign for an item sent by certified mail, then the postal worker responsible will not be able to deliver it. And if you are the recipient but you refuse to sign for the sent item, the postal worker cannot give it to you.

Even if the sender has not requested a delivery receipt, the Certified Mail service always requires signed proof as confirmation that the mail item has been delivered.

If nobody is at the delivery address to accept the sent item, it will be returned to the nearest post office and the addressee will be notified of the attempted delivery.

Delivery may be attempted again. If not, the item will remain at the local post office for collection for two weeks. If the addressee goes to collect the item from the post office, they will also be required to sign for the item to be able to take it.

If the item is not delivered and no one picks it up from the local post office, USPS will return the mail item to the sender.

The Different Certified Mail Delivery Options

When posting items by Certified Mail, the sender can choose from several specific options. These relate to whether or not they wish to receive a delivery receipt and if they want to restrict who is able to receive the item.

Here are the names of the different certified mail delivery options:

Certified Mail

This standard service provides a unique tracking number which the sender can then check online to confirm that the sent item arrived at its destination.

The postal worker responsible for delivering the item can deliver it to anyone who receives mail at the given address. This can mean that the person who signs for the item is not necessarily the intended recipient.

Certified Mail with Return Receipt

For an extra fee, a Return Receipt – which is also known as a ‘green card’ – is attached to the item sent by Certified Mail. The recipient must sign and date the green card when they receive the sent item. The sender then receives the green card back through the mail.

Certified Mail with Electronic Return Receipt

For an added fee, the postal worker responsible for delivering the Certified Mail item can create an electronic version of the Return Receipt green card as a PDF document. This receipt includes an image of the recipient’s signature or an approved hand-stamp.

Like electronic billing, this offers a quicker and more convenient service for businesses to receive delivery confirmations. And, for companies that send a lot of certified mail, it’s also much easier to have electronic return receipts on file than to keep track of green cards.

Certified Mail with Return Receipt and Restricted Delivery

This is the strictest of the various certified mail options. As well as a Return Receipt, this service provides added reassurance to the sender regarding who is able to receive the sent item.

The Restricted Delivery service means that the postal worker can only deliver the certified mail item to the recipient, or an authorized agent.

Return Receipt After Mailing Service

If the sender doesn’t opt for a Return Receipt at the point of sending, they can still purchase the Return Receipt After Mailing service up to two years after sending an item via certified mail.

Who Uses Certified Mail?

Because of the added security of certified mail, government agencies and law firms often use this service.

It is especially useful when a company or organization need a legally-recognized proof of delivery. This might be required when sending important contracts, court papers, or tax audit notifications.

The Restricted Delivery service can also prove useful for these organizations as a way to guarantee that the addressee has received the sent item in their hands.

And, as a signature is required on reception, this provides confirmation which the sender can access up to two years later. This can prove useful in delayed or long court cases where the recipient may deny, or claim to have forgotten, receiving the mail item.

Everything You Need to Know About Certified Mail

It’s clear that the Certified Mail service provided by USPS has many benefits. As such, it continues to be a unique and valuable mailing service that provides added reassurance for many organizations and businesses.

And, thanks to this guide, you should now be able to answer the question, ‘how does certified mail work?’ with a clear understanding of what the service involves.

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