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USPS Lost & Found: What Happens to Undeliverable Mail & Packages


Have you ever mailed a package or letter, only to have it disappear into the vast network of the USPS, never to be seen again? It’s a frustrating experience, leaving you wondering what happened to your precious mail and how to get it back. Fortunately, the USPS has a system in place to handle undeliverable mail and packages, but navigating this process can be confusing. This blog post will guide you through the steps involved, explaining what happens to your mail when it can’t be delivered, and providing answers to some common questions.

Table of Contents

Reasons for Undeliverable Mail

The most common reason for mail being undeliverable is a simple mistake: an incorrect address. This can happen for various reasons, including:

  • Incorrect Address: A typo, a missing apartment number, or an outdated address can all lead to a mail delivery failure.
    • Prevention: Double-check the address on every piece of mail you send. Use USPS address verification tools to ensure the address is accurate and complete.
  • Insufficient Address: Missing information like apartment number, suite number, or building name can prevent mail from being delivered.
    • Prevention: Always include all necessary address details. If unsure, contact the recipient to confirm the complete address.
  • Address Change: The recipient might have moved without informing the USPS or the sender.
    • Prevention: Notify the USPS about any address changes using the official Change of Address form. Also, update your address with any important senders like banks, utility companies, and magazine subscriptions.
  • Other Reasons:
    • Damage or Obstruction at Delivery Point: A damaged mailbox or a blocked path can prevent the mail carrier from accessing the delivery location.
    • Return to Sender Requests: The recipient might have requested a return to sender on the mail.
    • Package Refused by Recipient: The recipient might have refused to accept a package for various reasons.

What Happens to Undeliverable Mail?

Once a mail piece is deemed undeliverable, it embarks on a journey through the USPS system:

  • Mail Sorting Centers: The mail piece is transported to a mail sorting center where it is processed and scanned using barcode technology. The USPS uses sophisticated automation to sort through a high volume of mail, making the process as efficient as possible.
  • Attempts to Deliver: Mail carriers will attempt to deliver the mail based on the information available. If there’s a minor address issue, they might try to determine the correct location or even leave a notice at the recipient’s door to inform them that they have mail to pick up.
  • Return to Sender: If the USPS cannot deliver the mail after a reasonable attempt, it will be returned to the sender. The mail carrier will often leave a return receipt in the sender’s mailbox, indicating that the mail was returned.
  • Disposal: Unfortunately, not all undeliverable mail can be returned to the sender. If the address is too vague, or the sender can’t be located, the mail might be disposed of securely. Sensitive information like financial documents and personal data are handled with extra care during the disposal process to prevent identity theft or fraud.

What Happens to Undeliverable Packages?

Undeliverable packages are handled differently than letters and postcards, with a more complex process due to their size and value. Here’s a breakdown of what happens:

  • Attempt to Deliver: Similar to letters, the USPS will make multiple attempts to deliver the package based on the provided address and tracking information.
  • Return to Sender: If the package cannot be delivered, it will be returned to the sender. This process can be time-consuming, and the sender may be charged additional shipping fees.
  • Storage & Holding: If the sender cannot be located or doesn’t want the package returned, the package will be held at the local post office for a certain period. The USPS has a designated timeframe for storing undeliverable packages before disposal, and the sender might incur storage fees for exceeding this timeframe.
  • Disposal: Undeliverable packages that are not claimed by the sender or returned to the sender will be disposed of securely. Packages containing valuables or sensitive information will be processed carefully to ensure the privacy and security of their contents.

How to Find Lost Mail and Packages

Finding a lost mail piece or package can be stressful, but the USPS offers several resources to help you track your mail and locate it:

  • Tracking Numbers: For parcels, the tracking number is essential for locating and monitoring your shipment. It allows you to track the progress of your package online or through the USPS mobile app. Simply visit the USPS website or open the app, enter your tracking number, and you’ll be able to see where your package is and when it’s expected to arrive.
  • Contacting the USPS: If you are unable to track your mail or package using the tracking number, or if you believe it’s been lost, you can contact the USPS customer service department to inquire about it. They can help you investigate the matter and provide updates on your mail’s location. You can contact them via phone, online forms, or social media.
  • Filing a Claim: If you are unable to locate your mail or package and believe it’s been lost, you can file a claim with the USPS. You will need to provide specific information about your mail piece, including the tracking number, the sender’s address, and the date of mailing. The USPS will investigate your claim and determine if you are eligible for compensation. If your claim is approved, you will receive reimbursement for the value of your lost mail or package.
  • Other Resources: The USPS website provides additional resources for locating lost mail and packages. You can access information on common delivery delays, USPS policies, and FAQs to find answers to your specific questions. You can also find information on how to protect yourself from mail theft and other security risks.

Preventing Undeliverable Mail & Packages

The best way to avoid the hassle of undeliverable mail and packages is to take steps to prevent them in the first place. Here are some tips:

  • Verification of Address: Double-check the address on every piece of mail you send. Use USPS address verification tools, which are readily available on their website, to ensure the address is accurate and complete. This small step can save you a lot of trouble and frustration.
  • Keeping Address Updated: Notify the USPS about any address changes using the official Change of Address form. You can also update your address with any important senders like banks, utility companies, and magazine subscriptions. Doing so will ensure that your mail and packages are delivered to the correct location.
  • Packing and Labeling: When sending packages, use sturdy packaging materials that will protect the contents during transit. Be sure to use clear and legible address labels, and include the complete address, including apartment number, suite number, and building name.

FAQ Section

Here are answers to some common questions about undeliverable mail and packages:

  • What if I think my mail is stolen? If you suspect that your mail has been stolen, you should report the theft to your local post office and to the police. The USPS may be able to provide you with more information about how to file a claim for stolen mail.
  • How long does it take to return undeliverable mail to the sender? The time it takes to return undeliverable mail to the sender can vary depending on the destination and the reason for the undeliverability. Typically, it can take a few days to a few weeks for the mail to be returned.
  • Can I track my mail if I only have the sender’s address? No, you cannot track mail using only the sender’s address. You will need to have the tracking number to track a package.
  • What are the deadlines for filing claims for lost mail or packages? The deadline for filing a claim for lost mail or packages is 60 days from the mailing date.
  • What happens to undeliverable mail addressed to a deceased person? Undeliverable mail addressed to a deceased person will be returned to the sender. The USPS may also notify the sender of the death of the recipient.
  • What should I do if I receive someone else’s mail? If you receive someone else’s mail, you should try to return it to the sender. You can do this by writing “Return to Sender” on the envelope and dropping it in a mailbox. If you don’t know the sender, you can take the mail to your local post office and ask them to help return it.


Navigating the world of undeliverable mail and packages can be confusing, but with a little bit of knowledge and the right resources, you can manage this process effectively. By understanding the reasons why mail may not be delivered, the process for handling undeliverable mail and packages, and how to locate lost mail, you can minimize stress and frustration. Remember to always double-check your address, notify the USPS of any address changes, and use tracking numbers for parcels. By taking these steps, you can ensure your mail and packages are delivered safely and efficiently.