ZIP Code

A 1973 stamp encouraging people to use the ZIP code on letters and parcels.

A ZIP Code is a postal code used by the United States Postal Service (USPS). Introduced in 1963, the basic format consists of five digits. In 1983, an extended ZIP+4 code was introduced; it includes the five digits of the ZIP Code, followed by a hyphen and four digits that designate a more specific location.

The term ZIP is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan;[1] it was chosen to suggest that the mail travels more efficiently and quickly (zipping along) when senders use the code in the postal address. The term ZIP Code was originally registered as a servicemark by the USPS, but its registration expired in 1997.[2]


Early history and five-digit ZIP Codes

A 1963 U.S. Post Office sign featuring Mr. ZIP.
Stamps USA, Markenheft IMG 1699.JPG

The early history and context of postal codes began with postal district/zone numbers. The United States Post Office Department (USPOD) implemented postal zones for numerous large cities in 1943.[3] For example:

Mr. John Smith
3256 Epiphenomenal Avenue
Minneapolis 16, Minnesota

The "16" was the number of the postal zone in the specific city.

By the early 1960s, a more organized system was needed, and non-mandatory five-digit ZIP Codes were introduced nationwide on July 1, 1963. The USPOD issued its Publication 59: Abbreviations for Use with ZIP Code on October 1, 1963, with the list of two-letter state abbreviations which are generally written with both letters capitalized.[4] An earlier list in June had proposed capitalized abbreviations ranging from two to five letters.[4] According to Publication 59, the two-letter standard was "based on a maximum 23-position line, because this has been found to be the most universally acceptable line capacity basis for major addressing systems",[4] which would be exceeded by a long city name combined with a multi-letter state abbreviation, such as "Sacramento, Calif." along with the ZIP Code. The abbreviations have remained unchanged, with the exception of Nebraska, which was changed from NB to NE in 1969 at the request of the Canadian postal administration, to avoid confusion with the Canadian province of New Brunswick.[4]

Robert Moon is considered the father of the ZIP Code; he submitted his proposal in 1944 while working as a postal inspector.[5] The post office only credits Moon with the first three digits of the ZIP Code, which describe the sectional center facility (SCF) or "sec center." An SCF is a central mail processing facility with those three digits. The fourth and fifth digits, which give a more precise locale within the SCF, were proposed by Henry Bentley Hahn Sr.[6] The SCF sorts mail to all post offices with those first three digits in their ZIP Codes. The mail is sorted according to the final two digits of the ZIP Code and sent to the corresponding post offices in the early morning. Sectional centers do not deliver mail and are not open to the public (though the building may include a post office that is open to the public), and most of their employees work the night shift. Mail picked up at post offices is sent to their own SCF in the afternoon, where the mail is sorted overnight. In the case of large cities, the last two digits coincide with the older postal zone number[citation needed] thus:

Mr. John Smith
3256 Epiphenomenal Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55416

In 1967, these became mandatory for second- and third-class bulk mailers, and the system was soon adopted generally. The United States Post Office used a cartoon character, which it called Mr. ZIP, to promote the use of the ZIP Code. He was often depicted with a legend such as "USE ZIP CODE" in the selvage of panes of postage stamps or on the covers of booklet panes of stamps.

In 1971 Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette reporter Dick Baumbach found out the White House was not using a ZIP Code on its envelopes. Herb Klein, special assistant to President Nixon, responded by saying the next printing of envelopes would include the ZIP Code.[7]


In 1983, the U.S. Postal Service introduced an expanded ZIP Code system that it called ZIP+4, often called "plus-four codes", "add-on codes", or "add-ons". A ZIP+4 Code uses the basic five-digit code plus four additional digits to identify a geographic segment within the five-digit delivery area, such as a city block, a group of apartments, an individual high-volume receiver of mail, a post office box, or any other unit that could use an extra identifier to aid in efficient mail sorting and delivery. However, initial attempts to promote universal use of the new format met with public resistance and today the plus-four code is not required.[8] In general, mail is read by a multiline optical character reader (MLOCR) that almost instantly determines the correct ZIP+4 Code from the address—along with the even more specific delivery point—and sprays an Intelligent Mail barcode (IM) on the face of the mail piece that corresponds to 11 digits—nine for the ZIP+4 Code and two for the delivery point.

For Post Office Boxes, the general (but not invariable) rule is that each box has its own ZIP+4 code. The add-on code is often one of the following: the last four digits of the box number (e.g. PO Box 107050, Albany, NY 12201-7050), zero plus the last three digits of the box number (e.g., PO Box 17727, Eagle River, AK 99577-0727), or, if the box number consists of fewer than four digits, enough zeros are attached to the front of the box number to produce a four-digit number (e.g., PO Box 77, Juneau, AK 99750-0077). However, there is no uniform rule, so the ZIP+4 Code must be looked up individually for each box.[citation needed]

Postal bar code

The ZIP Code is often translated into an Intelligent Mail barcode that is printed on the mailpiece to make it easier for automated machines to sort. A barcode can be printed by the sender (some word-processing programs such as WordPerfect[9] include the feature—but is not recommended as the address to ZIP lookup tables can be significantly out of date). It is better to let the post office put one on when it processes the piece.[citation needed] In general, the post office uses OCR technology, though in some cases a human might have to read and enter the address.[citation needed]

Customers who send bulk mail can get a discount on postage if they have printed the barcode themselves and have presorted the mail. This requires more than just a simple font; mailing lists must be standardized with up-to-date Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS)-certified software that adds and verifies a full, correct ZIP+4 Code and an additional two digits representing the exact delivery point.[citation needed] Furthermore, mail must be sorted in a specific manner to an 11-digit code with at least 150 mailpieces for each qualifying ZIP code and must be accompanied by documentation confirming this. These steps are usually done with PAVE-certified software that also prints the barcoded address labels and the barcoded sack or tray tags.[citation needed]

This means that every single mailable point in the country has its own 12-digit number (in theory). The delivery-point digits (the 10th and 11th digits) are calculated based on the primary or secondary number of the address. The USPS publishes the rules for calculating the delivery point in a document called the CASS Technical Guide.[10] However, when confronted with two addresses like 18 and 18C, often CASS will assign the same 12-digit number to two distinct mail delivery points. The last digit is always a check digit, which is obtained by summing all 5, 9 or 11 digits, taking the residue modulo 10 of this sum (i.e., the remainder after dividing by 10) and finally subtracting this from 10. (Thus, the check digit for 10001-0001 00 would be 7, since 1+1+1=3, 3≡3(mod 10) and 10–3=7.)[citation needed]