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What is the Cheapest Way to Ship Internationally? Large Flats

The “large flat” is the cheapest way to ship internationally. What is the “large flat”?

It’s a flexible, large envelope.

Sometimes, they are called Manila envelopes.

Manila envelopes.png
CC BY-SA 4.0 by Mattsjc on Wikimedia Commons

My Story

A few weeks ago, I was asked to send a document internationally, and not knowing the postal rates, I found a price that, ultimately wasn’t any cheaper than eBay’s shipping.

I have since found a slightly cheaper method.  I do not recommend it, and I’ll explain this later, but it is the cheapest way to send a small item internationally.

The Flat

A flat is a large envelope.  The standards for international shipping define a flat as a large envelope, where the envelope exceeds 6.125″ or 11.5″ or 0.25″ thickness.

That’s to say, if it’s wider or longer than 6.125″ or 11.5″, or thicker than 1/4″, then it’s a flat.

The flat must be less than 15″ x 12″ and less than 0.75″ thick.  It must also not be rigid or lumpy.

According to the 2007 FAQ:

Q. Are items sent at First-Class Mail flats rates (large envelopes) required to be flexible and “uniformly thick”?

A. Yes. Large envelopes as well as padded mailing bags must be somewhat flexible (not rigid) and uniformly thick. Items mailed in large envelopes cannot have more than a 1/4 inch variance in thickness. Also, mailpieces must be rectangular with a maximum thickness (at the thickest point) of 3/4 inch. A mail­piece that exceeds any one of the maximum physical dimensions (15 inches x 12 inches x 3/4 inch thick) is classified and priced as a package (parcel).

Here’s a screenshot from page 71 of Notice123.pdf, the USPS book of postage rates.

As you can see, the highest price is $12.13, and it’s for a 16 ounce flat. That’s a full pound!

So, if you can find a way to put your lightweight items into flats, and make them behave like paper documents, you can send it via international mail for under $10.

The magazine I sent was around 10 ounces.  So it could have gone out for $10.31. Apologies to the buyer.

I still would have used the Ebay Global Shipping program.

Why Use the Global Shipping Program?

Liability.  Ebay requires you to get the package to someone’s door.  If the tracking doesn’t indicate delivery, then you need to refund the entire purchase price, and the shipping.

So, if you send a $6 magazine, and the postage was $8.48, you’re at risk of losing out on $14.48 if the magazine doesn’t arrive.  If the magazine cost $1, then, you’re going to be at a net loss of $9.48.

If you use the global shipping program, it costs more for the customer, but the risks are far less.  Your obligation under GSP is to deliver it to the Ebay facility.

After it arrives there, all the liability falls upon Ebay to deliver the product.  If Ebay fails, then Ebay eats the cost of the refund.

When I sell a cheap magazine, that’s what I do.

When I sell an expensive magazine, which I do occasionally, I use Priority Mail and the GSP. That’s because PM includes insurance.

If you don’t sell a lot of high-value magazines, this is the way to go.

What if You Sell Many High Value Magazines?

If you sell many high-value magazines, where the price of the magazine substantially exceeds the cost of shipping, then using the lower cost shipping may make sense.  It lowers the cost to the consumer, and could increase sales volume. Think about it:

$20 magazine + $9 shipping = $29 delivered

Suppose the magazine cost you $5.

If you lose one magazine in the international postal system, your net loss is $14.

Because each magazine has a $15 profit margin, you can get to $1 profit by selling one more magazine successfully.

The issue here is one of volume and mailpiece quality: you need to sustain a steady volume of sales to justify the risks of lost mail.

I think shipping internationally is hard enough that if you don’t do it often, you may make a mistake. So you need that profit margin, and frequent international sales, to know your flat will make it through the system.

If you specialize in mailing things like magazines, you should learn to ship the large flat, and mail it directly. The costs are lower, and risks are higher, but you can raise the handling fee a little bit to cover the losses.

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