In case you didn’t already know, there’s a cheap and affordable option to mail heavy media items like books and DVDs via the United States Postal Service. It’s a special shipping option called USPS Media Mail. But what is USPS Media Mail, when should you use it, and what does and does not qualify? Here’s everything you need to know about USPS Media Mail.
The History Of USPS Media Mail
The United States Postal Service’s commitment to shipping media at cheaper rates has a long history. Originally called Book Rate, the service was first launched in 1938 to help promote education in the United States. The idea was simple: creating a cheaper shipping rate for media would help encourage people to mail educational materials, like books, throughout the United States.
But as technology evolved, newer mediums like CDs, DVDs, and film were included and “Book Rate” was renamed to Media Mail. These cheaper USPS Media Mail rates are available to everyone as long as you follow the rules.
Why is Media Mail So Cheap?
Will you really save money by shipping packages using USPS Media Mail? Yes, absolutely. There are huge financial advantages to mailing qualifying packages using USPS Media Mail. USPS Media Mail rates might make your postage bill as much as 50% cheaper compared to Priority Mail.
USPS Media Mail rates are cheaper because the following extra shipping services are not included:
- Price Is Based On Weight And Size Not Zone: Unlike other shipping options from the US Postal Service, USPS Media Mail is based on weight and size, not zone. Normally, every zone that your package has to travel through is an additional upcharge in postage. This isn’t true with USPS Media Mail. To help reduce costs, the USPS eliminates these extra fees for Media Mail parcels.
- Slow Shipping: Another factor that helps reduce the costs of USPS Media Mail is speed. Media Mail is much slower than regular mail. Packages shipped using Media Mail will often be transported via ground, not air, and don’t receive any special priority treatment. Media Mail packages are usually delivered within a week but may take up to a month. If you need something shipped quickly, then don’t use Media Mail. Your shipment may arrive after your expected delivery date.
- No Included Insurance: Several of the USPS’s shipping options include free insurance just in case your package gets lost or damaged during transit. Media Mail does not. So if you are shipping things like vintage vinyl records or antique books, then choose a different shipping option that will reimburse you in case your package is lost or damaged. Unfortunately, you cannot add additional insurance to your Media Mail shipment.
- Not Available For Free Pickup: One of my favorite things about using the USPS to ship packages is they offer free home pickup for your packages. As long as you schedule a pickup the day before, your mail carrier will stop at your house and pickup your outgoing packages for free. However, Media Mail packages aren’t eligible for free pickup. Only Priority Mail Express, Priority Mail, International and First-Class packages qualify.
- No Delivery Confirmation Or Signature Confirmation: Some other perks missing from Media Mail are Delivery Confirmation and Signature Confirmation. So if you have something really important to mail, then it makes more sense to use another delivery option.
About the only option that you get from USPS Media Mail is USPS tracking.
What Qualifies As Media Mail?
The official list of materials acceptable for Media Mail is a little confusing. As a general rule of thumb, anything that you wouldn’t find at your local library probably isn’t acceptable. Here’s a brief list of what is covered under Media Mail.
- Books (8 pages or more without advertising)
- Play Scripts & Manuscripts
- Sound recordings
- Video recordings
- Piano Rolls
- Printed music
- Computer-Readable Media Files (must be digital versions of sound recordings, music, videos, books and other such media, not video games or miscellaneous document files)
- Medical Information (materials for distribution to doctors, medical students, hospitals, medical schools, etc.)
- Film Reels (16-millimeter or narrower width films, must be sent between individuals or educational locations, not between commercial theaters)
- Printed educational materials (charts, tests, etc.)
Some obvious omissions from this list include vintage mediums containing sound recordings like vinyl records, 8-tracks, and VHS and audio cassette tapes. Although they aren’t specifically mentioned, they still qualify.
There’s also a maximum weight limit. USPS Media Mail packages must be under 70 lbs.
Media Mail Isn’t Always Cheaper, Especially With Smaller Packages
Always weigh your packages and compare shipping services before purchasing shipping. Even if your package qualifies for Media Mail, First-Class Mail might be cheaper. This is especially true of lightweight packages. If your package is under 8 ounces, it’s less expensive to send it First Class.
Even though the difference between First Class and Media Mail may only be a few cents, First Class might be cheaper, and it has more features than USPS Media Mail.
What Cannot Be Sent By Media Mail?
Even though magazines, video games, comic books, graphic novels, and computer software might feel like they are covered by USPS Media Mail, technically they aren’t. Remember, media Mail was created to help promote education in the United States. The materials that you send via USPS Media Mail need to have some educational value. Things like a Call Of Duty video game, an issue of Maxim Magazine, or a pack of The Ladies Of Star Wars Playing Cards aren’t acceptable items for USPS Media Mail.
Most magazines, expect trade publications or magazines like Consumer Reports, contain advertising and are technically disqualified from Media Mail.
Here’s a brief list of what is not included under USPS Media Mail:
- Magazines (with ads)
- Films (movie theaters or studios can’t ship films to each other, only individuals)
- Loose photos (however, bound photo books are allowed)
- Computer hard drives (not allowed even if they contain digital files of books)
- Paperwork (contracts, business presentations, etc.)
- Video games
- Trading cards
- Comic books and graphic novels
- Blank media (cassettes, DVDs, CDs, etc.)
- Live animals (obviously)
While I understand the restrictions and purpose of Media Mail, it misses the mark in many areas. For example, a piece of sh*t Justin Bieber CD is covered under Media Mail, but an educational video game like Oregon Trail is not. Or a DVD and CD of the movie and soundtrack for The Watchmen can be shipped using Media Mail, but the comic book that the film was based on doesn’t qualify. Go figure.
Does The USPS Inspect Media Mail?
Unlike other shipping options from the US Postal Service, your Media Mail package can be inspected at any time for any reason.
According to section 2.2 of the United States Postal Service Domestic Mail Manual, “Media Mail and Library Mail can be inspected by postal authorities.” Regardless of physical closure, when articles are mailed at Media Mail or Library Mail prices, the mailer consents to postal inspection of the contents.
Why the specific exception allowing inspection? Because the Media Mail service is cheaper than other shipping options, people frequently try to abuse the system. As a result, Media Mail packages are some of the most inspected parcels in the US Mail system.
Over the years, I have received a couple of packages that have been opened and inspected. These were both packages that came from eBay sellers. If I had to guess, Postal Service inspectors pay special attention to mail from eBay users that might be trying to save money on shipping.
How People Accidentally And Purposely Misuse The USPS Media Mail Service
Most of the time, people misuse USPS Media Mail accidentally. Magazines, video games, comic books, and similar items do not qualify for Media Mail, especially when selling them.
Then there are people who purposely abuse the system. To save money, people hide items in DVD cases or hollowed-out books when mailing things like guns and money. They take advantage of the Media Mail option. Honestly, it’s quite ridiculous. You can search online for more examples of how people have been caught abusing the system.
What Are The Penalties For Abusing Media Mail?
The chance of your package being intercepted is unlikely, but the USPS does randomly check Media Mail packages. If they catch you breaking the rules, you will be penalized. The penalties for abusing Media Mail may include the following:
- Postage Difference Charge: If you used an online service like eBay, Amazon, PayPal or Pirate Ship to create a label and mail your package, then the USPS will probably just charge your account the difference.
- Postage Due: But if you mailed your package using another method, and they don’t have a way to bill you, then your package might get sent back or delivered postage due to the recipient.
- Mail Fraud: If the USPS notices repeated Media Mail violations for your account or deceptive tactics like using hollowed-out books to ship heavy items using Media Mail, then you could be charged with Mail Fraud.
How To Ship A Package Using USPS Media Mail
Put the stamps down. In order to mail something via USPS Media Mail, you will need to either take your package to your local Post Office or print a label online. Your shipment cannot qualify for Media Mail rates by simply putting stamps on your package yourself.
If you are an eBay Seller or Amazon Seller, pre-paid shipping labels will automatically be available to you if your item qualifies for Media Mail. Or if you have a cooking or(Amazon link) postage scale ($12 via Amazon) and a tape measure, then you can use Pirate Ship or PayPal to print an online shipping label yourself at home.
When requesting the Media Mail rate at a local USPS post office, expect to be asked several questions about the contents of the package. The clerk will confirm that your package qualifies and may even open it to make sure you are being truthful.
What Is Library Mail? – The Cheaper And More Restricted Cousin To USPS Media Mail
USPS Media Mail isn’t the only budget shipping option available from the US Postal Service. Library Mail is even cheaper than USPS Media Mail rates, but it’s restricted to educational institutions like schools, universities, public libraries, and museums among others.
NERD NOTE: What is Library Mail? Library Mail is an inexpensive way for libraries, academic institutions, museums, nonprofits and similar organizations can send items on loan to one another. These groups can mail up to 70 pounds of books, sound recordings, academic theses and other related media at a time for one low cost. The USPS charges $2.75 for the first pound and an additional $0.53 for each additional pound up to 70 pounds. Just like Media Mail, items sent through Library Mail cannot contain advertising or other non-media materials except for a packing slip. Items take 7 to 10 business days to arrive to their final destination.
What Is USPS Media Mail At USPS, And When Should You Use It?
If you’ve ever wondered, “What is media mail at USPS?”, then now you know. When used properly, USPS Media Mail rates can save you a lot of money from your shipping budget.
From Priority Mail Express to Parcel Select Ground, the United States Postal Service offers a variety of shipping services for your packages. But by far, the most cost-effective way to ship a package is via USPS Media Mail. It’s the cheapest but also the most confusing.
Using USPS Media Mail can save you a ton of money when mailing books to family and friends for the holidays. But abusing the system can result in embarrassing postage-due incidents for the package recipient or even a Mail Fraud charge for the sender. For heavier shipments that don’t qualify for Media Mail prices, your cheapest option might be USPS Retail Ground.
Follow the rules. If you do, you can take advantage of these cheap USPS Media Mail rates without worry. And remember, the USPS will randomly inspect packages. You don’t want to get caught shipping items that don’t qualify for special USPS rates. It could damage your shipper reputation and get your account banned.
Frank Wilson is a retired teacher with over 30 years of combined experience in the education, small business technology, and real estate business. He now blogs as a hobby and spends most days tinkering with old computers. Wilson is passionate about tech, enjoys fishing, and loves drinking beer.