How Does The USPS Tracking System Work?
USPS packages are tracked by number. Tracking numbers are automatically assigned when a shipping label is created. The barcode on the shipping label is scanned to track the package as it moves through the USPS system and up to the final delivery (or attempted delivery).
Automated Processing Equipment Takes Care Of The Initial Tracking
Before your package reaches your local post office, all the tracking scan events are created by USPS automated processing and sorting equipment. The exception to this is if a third party, a Shipping Partner, provides scan information while the package is in their system prior to them delivering it to a USPS facility. Once the package finally reaches your local post office most of the remaining scans are done by handheld Mobile Delivery Devices (MDDs).
Manual Scans Track The “Final Mile” Deliveries
In 2002, the USPS implemented the Managed Service Points (MSP) program to scan barcodes at the delivery unit (your local post office) and on specific points along your postal carrier’s line of travel, including Stop The Clock (STC) scans, which are when a package is delivered (or when delivery is attempted). IMDs (Intelligent Mail Devices) scanned tracking barcodes. This information was used both as a means of measuring postal service efficiency and providing customers with a means of tracking their packages.
In 2013, USPS began rolling out MDDs, which are Mobile Delivery Devices that capture GPS locations along the postal carrier’s route, as well as the delivery GPS location when a tracking barcode is scanned as “Delivered”. The devices they used prior to this didn’t include GPS. The scans performed by MDDs are submitted to the USPS Regional Intelligent Mail Server (RIMS) network. GPS coordinates can typically track within 10 meters of a location. Of course, all this is dependent on the scan occurring at the delivery location.
Many locations are still using the older IMDs, which do not provide GPS tracking location.
Recipients Can Track The Shipping Progress Of Their Package
Using the tracking number that was generated when the shipping label was created, people can monitor the progress of their package as it moves through the USPS system. Packages can be tracked online or text updates can be requested.
USPS provides Product Tracking & Reporting (PTR) scan events as mail is processed through their system. The scripted scan events provide a brief description of the package’s status at the time of the scan.
You see can a full list of all the tracking scan status messages as well as descriptions of each message by visiting our USPS Tracking Status Scan Code Events List page.
The Tracking System Isn’t Perfect
Package tracking at the local delivery level isn’t perfect because it relies on network connectivity and user familiarity and compliance with USPS policies, among other things. Scans might not occur at the delivery location if the device is having issues. When device malfunctions occur, postal workers have to enter the data manually. Scans uploads might be delayed and GPS coordinates are missed if there are network connectivity issues or satellite signal obstructions (mountains, tall buildings, etc) which prevent scanned data from reaching the Regional Intelligent Mail Server (RIMS) network. Rain can also interfere with the MDD’s laser scanner’s ability to read the tracking barcode.
The USPS Inspector General performed an audit in 2019 and found that a fairly small percentage of Stop The Clock scans (when a package was marked as delivered) occurred at the post office rather than at the actual delivery location. That means some packages were pre-scanned as delivered before they even left the post office for delivery. (See Improper Scans below)
How Do I Track My USPS Package?
There are plenty of ways to track your USPS package as it is scanned through the system. Here are three ways to get the information directly from USPS. You can also check tracking through your order link from most online retailers and eBay. Additionally, there are several apps available to provide tracking for most commercial delivery services.
Send a text to 28777 (2USPS) with your tracking number followed by the keyword AA (which stands for All Activity) (e.g., 9205512345678912345678 AA). The keyword is optional. For a list of all 20 of the keyword options, visit USPS. No account sign-up required for text messages.
Check Your Tracking Number Online
You can enter your tracking number online directly through the USPS website here. No account sign-up is required using the online system.
Track Your Package Using the USPS Mobile app
Track your package on your phone using the USPS Mobile app.
Sign Up For Informed Delivery(!)
Informed Delivery is a free service that let’s you preview your incoming mail and packages that are processed through USPS’s automated processing equipment. This service can be accessed on your phone, computer, or app. More about signing up for USPS Informed Delivery is available here.
As you get further down this page, you will understand why we recommend you sign up for this option for all your future mail and packages. The USPS now takes photos of many of the mailings and packages as they are initially processed. With Informed Delivery, you can see what should be headed your way, even mail you weren’t expecting. It’s a really good way of tracking what should be arriving shortly, and identifying what is running late or didn’t come at all.
What Does It Mean When USPS Tracking Hasn’t Been Updated For A Few Days?
There are a few instances where USPS might not even have your package yet. If your package’s tracking information says “Shipping Label Created” or “Pre-Shipment Info Sent USPS Awaits Item”, that means the sender printed out a shipping label but the package hasn’t yet been received by USPS or a shipping partner.
Check the tracking information to make sure your package isn’t at a shipping partner facility
USPS isn’t in possession of your package yet if your tracking information says “Picked Up By Shipping Partner, USPS Awaiting Item”, “Arrived Shipping Partner Facility, USPS Awaiting Item”, or “Departed Shipping Partner Facility, USPS Awaiting Item”.
Shipping Partners are not part of USPS, but they can perform tracking scans on packages they receive or pick up from sellers that they will eventually deliver to USPS. Shipping Partners are like a package delivery middleman. They get a special discounted postage rate from USPS because they pre-sort a minimum of 50 or more packages and deliver them in bulk to the USPS hubs that are closest to each package’s final destination.
If your tracking information says that the package is with a shipping partner, the Shipping Partner will get it to USPS once they have at least 50 packages to drop off. Shipping Partners provide logistical services to sellers at USPS’s discounted Parcel Select rates, and try to get packages out to USPS as quickly as possible, but it’s not uncommon (especially during the holidays) to see it take 2-8 days before packages are handed off to USPS.
If your package tracking status says your package is with a Shipping Partner, you can find out ways to figure out which one has your package and can read more about that here.
If your package is in USPS’s possession
USPS provides Product Tracking & Reporting (PTR) scan events as mail is processed throughout their system. Not every single scan is listed in your tracking status, just the scans that are classified as “external”.
Depending on how far your package travels, it may start by being dropped off at a post office, then go onto a sorting facility near the sender, then travel by truck or plane to another sorting facility (close to its destination), and lastly to your local post office, and then head out with your postal carrier for final delivery.
If your USPS tracking is not updating even those the tracking status message shows that it is in USPS’s possession, this could be due to a variety of issues. We’ll include some of the most common reasons then go into more detail below.
Common Reasons Your Package Tracking Status Has Not Updated
- The package is in transit, so there’s nothing to report until it gets to its next location.
- The package is waiting to be loaded, unloaded, processed and/or sorted.
- Your local post office or postal carrier didn’t scan the package or there was a problem with the scanning equipment or signal.
- There’s a problem scanning the label or barcode.
Is Your USPS Package Stuck In Transit?
Once a package has “Departed USPS Facility”, it’s not uncommon for there to be a lapse in tracking updates while a package is “In Transit”. “In Transit” is a status that usually is applied when a package has not had a scan in 18 hours. That’s the period where your package is on a truck or in a plane while it’s on its way to either another USPS Facility or to your local post office. It could be on a loading bay waiting to be loaded, or waiting to be processed after being unloaded. How far your package has to travel, traffic conditions, or weather can impact the “In Transit” time. USPS doesn’t scan packages while they are “In Transit” or waiting to be loaded, unloaded, or processed, so there’s nothing to report. The exception to this is if your package is in transit status and there is a severe weather event, in which tracking might indicate “Weather Delay”.
Have There Been No USPS Tracking Updates After “Arrival At Unit”?
The tracking scan event “Arrival At Unit” means your package has arrived at your local post office. It should be sorted fairly quickly by the clerks at the post office, and marked as “Out For Delivery” by the next business day. If you haven’t seen an update to your package’s status, you can contact your local post office to see if there’s an issue.
Does Your USPS Tracking Say Out For Delivery But You Still Haven’t Received It?
Once a package has been scanned as “Out For Delivery”, it should mean that your package has left your local post office and is on a postal carrier’s truck on route for delivery that day. The USPS website says that all deliveries should be made by 5pm, but it’s not uncommon for the expected time to be as late as 8pm (or even later in extreme cases).
A few things can impact what time your package will arrive. Traffic, local weather conditions, staffing changes (vacations, sick, etc), route changes, etc. If there’s a high volume of deliveries a different mail carrier might be sent out to deliver those packages in addition to the regular mail delivery by your normal mail carrier. That second postal carrier might arrive hours after your regular mail was already delivered.
If your package was marked as “Out For Delivery” but wasn’t delivered that day and was instead returned to the post office or there was a problem with the delivery, your mail carrier or local post office is supposed to re-scan the package with a new status indicating why. But that doesn’t always happen.
If you haven’t received your package by the following day, you can contact your local post office to follow up.
Less Common Reasons Your Package Tracking Is Not Updated
- The package label and/or barcode is missing or illegible.
- The postal carrier (or RCA/CCA) didn’t scan the barcode after attempting delivery.
- The package was damaged during processing/sorting.
- The package ended up in USPS Mail Recovery Center.
What Can I Do If USPS Tracking Says My Package Was Delivered But I Didn’t Receive It?
In this scenario, there are a few things that could have happened.
- The package will still possibly be delivered soon, however the postal worker, their supervisor, or their substitute (CCA) improperly scanned the package as delivered before reaching your residence. (See Improper Scans below)
- Delivery was attempted but failed due to issues, and the scan has not updated.
- Your package was delivered to the wrong address.
- The package was labeled to the wrong address.
- Your delivered package was stolen from your residence.
- The package was lost while out for delivery, and was improperly scanned as delivered before reaching your residence.
When a postal carrier scans a package as “Delivered” on the MMD device, the software also attaches the GPS coordinates of the location. If you didn’t receive the package, you should call your local post office or submit a Missing Mail request as soon as possible to verify that it was actually delivered to your address and/or identify to which address it was delivered.
If delivery was attempted but failed, the postal carrier is supposed to update the tracking status with the reason delivery failed. Contact your local post office for more information.
If your package was delivered to the wrong address, your post office can use the GPS information and should retrieve the package and return it to you.
If the post office confirms that GPS coordinates show the package was delivered to your address, there is a possibility your package was stolen. Depending on the value of the contents and whether insurance was purchased, you may be able to file a claim.
In the image below, the USPS tracking information initially indicated the package was delivered; however, they delivered it to the wrong address. On online Missing Mail request was filed by the intended recipient the following morning. The post office retrieved the package from the wrong address and delivered it the following afternoon. Oddly, the USPS tracking information didn’t update the external delivery date; It did show that a claim had been filed but it still showed the package as having been delivered the previous day. And, the package was delivered to the mailbox, not the porch. Interestingly enough, the research information only appeared on eBay’s tracking information but was not displayed on the USPS tracking website.
When Does USPS Consider My Package Missing?
If your package has not been scanned as “Delivered” and it has been more than 5 days since your priority package was mailed or 14 days for regular mail since your package was mailed , you can file a Missing Mail request with USPS. The USPS says that most mail is delivered within 2 to 9 days of mailing, so it might be a good idea to wait until day 8 or 9 before submitting a Missing Mail request.
What Can I Do If My USPS Package Is Lost?
If you suspect your mail is lost and it has been more than 5 – 9 days since it was first scanned into the system, immediately file a Missing Mail claim. No harm, no foul if your package still arrives at a later date. But if it is in fact missing, you will want USPS to begin tracking it down as soon as possible or at the very minimum at least start the process.
Mail that can’t be delivered for what ever reason as well as items that randomly end up in postal drop off boxes (wallets, purses, batteries, phones, keys, etc) are sent to the USPS Mail Recovery Center (MRC – their version of lost and found), formerly known as the “Dead Letter Office”. In 2014, the MRC processed 88 million items. That’s a lot, but it also includes undeliverable junk mail, trash, etc. The total of items that were processed as having a value of $25 or more brought that number down to 12 million (13% of total items received). A 2014 report showed that 21% of processed items (3% of total items) ended up being returned to customers as a result of research requests.
MRC’s general policy (depending on how the item was mailed) is to catalog and store any items that can’t be delivered and have a value of $25 or more. Loose items can be disposed of within a day; see this list for a breakdown. They’ll store the remaining items from 30 to 120 days. After that, if it has any value and does not contain any personally identifying information, it is sent to a contractor for public auction. From 2012 to 2014, the MRC auctions generated $11 million dollars in revenue.
The MRC is supposed to process items within 7 days of receipt, but it has taken as long as 2 months.
Improper Tracking Scans
People make mistakes. We’re only human. And postal carriers are no different.
Improper scans are package scans that were performed outside of USPS’s policies regarding how and when packages are to be scanned. It’s important to note that improper scans represent on a tiny fraction of the billions of proper scans performed.
Improper scans don’t necessarily mean a postal carrier was intentionally acting improperly. It could be a new carrier assistant not familiar with protocol (someone picking up the route when the primary is on leave, vacation, etc), the carrier was acting at the direction of their supervisor. MDD malfunction contributed to carriers waiting until they returned to the post office to update a package’s status, rather than entering the data into the MDD using manual mode.
There were noted instances in the USPS Inspector General’s audits noted that delivery unit employees performed scans in order to clear out the EOD (End Of Day) report. Supervisors didn’t update package delay information for mail brought back to the post office.
How To Contact USPS
Online: via their form here
By phone: 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777)
Their current hours of operations (11/2020)
Monday – Friday 8 AM – 8:30 PM ET
Saturday 8 AM – 6 PM ET