What do you do about mail while cruising? A fixed postal address is kind of handy, even when your lifestyle is footloose. (photo above: one of the few remaining Royal Mail Ships, the St Helena, anchored of Jamestown). Even though most correspondence is digital, a few necessities make a real address important:
- Voter registration
- Bank / credit card accounts (electronic statements, of course, but try opening an account without an address!)
- Vessel documentation
- Taxes and tax forms (can’t fill out a W9 without one…might not get paid without a W9)
- Publishers/customers who insist on mailing checks
- Driver’s license
- International clearance (you almost always need to fill an address in somewhere on the forms. OK, you could make up a Mickey Mouse address, but it’s best to play by the rules when we’re guests in another country)
That’s not a big list, and it represents only a handful of pieces of mail per month, but it’s still unavoidable. Also, thanks to Jay Campbell (cruiser/photographer/lawyer) for pointing out that financial institutions are now getting tighter about enforcing the Patriot Act requirement for a residential address…better to get it now, than have a problem later. At least there are a lot of easy virtual mailbox services to choose from! Chatting with a woman last week who circumnavigated in the 80s/90s, when it was a complicated process involving a friend/family member, international forwarding hassle/cost/delays, and the nearest American Express office. Thank goodness THAT has changed!
So, how do you pick a mail service? On the surface, they all work about the same way: you get a physical address where your mail lands. Envelopes are scanned and available to review online. You decide if an envelope should be opened for scanning contents. If a piece of mail is physically neede (like a replacement credit card, vessel documentation), forward whenever you want; otherwise, click to trash.
I went through the due diligence to research different services recently when I considered changing ours, and share the results to help others. Factors I looked for:
- Address location
- Monthly fee
- Included pieces of mail per month
- Any bonus mail / concierge services
Other factors being mostly equal (a scan is a scan), the physical address is key: is there a personal tie to a particular state you want to maintain for voting or licensing? Or are you looking for income preservation by “moving” to an income-tax-free state? Unsurprisingly, several services are based in the tax-free states of Washington, Florida, Nevada or Texas (one service, Traveling Mailbox, has addresses in all four!). (Families: FYI, your home state bears no relevance to homeschooling regulations you are obligated to follow…only the regulations of the state in which you are physically present).
Looking at cruiser-friendliness and good value, three services stand out. The “annual” figure is my way to make sense of variable monthly fees by pricing the 12-month rate for a fictional account with two addresses, based on 20 pieces of mail (20 scanned envelopes) per month, from which five pieces (total of 20 pages) needed to be scanned. It showed some surprising differences from the at-a-glance monthly fees that seemed useful.
Dockside Solutions: Dockside Solutions bubbles up as an excellent service that ticks all boxes at a good value, and really understands the cruiser market. Among other cruisers using Dockside, Pacific Sailors Mike and Verena Kellner have have been customers for years. “Dockside Solutions has all the usual services you would expect, like scanning, forwarding, etc, but they also host cruiser get-togethers at their shop! It’s more like a community.” I think it’s especially cool that owner, Angela, keeps a map showing the locations of her clients all around the world…it’s clear that she loves what she does.
Saint Brendan’s Isle: Most cruisers know Saint Brendan’s Isle because they’ve focused on the cruiser and RV market for years. The Boat Galley’s Carolyn Shearlock is a fan and has great post all about it. They’ll assist with establishing residency, too, so you can keep your driver’s license and more. Florida is another income-tax-free state, which makes it a good candidate. You do have to be there in person to change residency, however.
Traveling Mailbox: Traveling Mailbox stands out as by far the best value among all the services. They’re under the radar for cruisers (well, everything except SBI seems to be), but shouldn’t be, considering the relatively low fee for the same services. I learned about them from Colin, a road warrior with an international bent, who has used them for a couple of years now and has been very pleased with the rapid turnaround (as little as three hours) on scan requests. Helpful if you’d like to move on from that anchorage with good wifi, but need to see your mail first! This is also the only service I’m aware of that offer a mobile app to help manage your inbox.
Other services met basic needs, but fell short in one way or another – commented in the notes here:
A mention for the service we use, Earth Class Mail. Great interface, gobs of options, nice humans responding when we have a question, addresses all over the place. They were the only virtual mailbox offering a Washington state address when we took off, and their service has been awesome. Yet I’d be unlikely to choose them again, because their prices have shot up as they target businesses instead of individuals. We are grandfathered into old pricing which keeps our rate competitive, but at some point I suspect that a low-value-customers like us will get squeezed out. If you want more services and aren’t price sensitive, they’re an excellent option, but others are a lot more affordable and offer all the services cruisers or full time travelers need. Along similar lines, US Global Mail is a premium rate relative to other services, but offers a relatively speedy turnaround of scanned documents: as soon as 15 minutes to within a few hours or the request. For some, that feature may be worth paying for (most services have a 24-hour turnaround, but what if you’re trying to leave port?).
Credit where it’s due: Thoughtful information that helped me came from this post from Colin’s Work Smart and Travel blog, and the source he started from Josh at Travel China Cheaper – check them out for more details and other experiences.
Disclaimer: Traveling Mailbox provides affiliate links. I used one here, which means if you click through and sign up with them, I’ll eventually get a little kickback. Affiliate links have exactly nothing to do with my opinions on the blog.