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As someone who sends thousands of packages per year, I have more than my fair share of frustrating experiences with USPS tracking numbers. There’s not much more frustrating than checking your tracking and seeing that your package isn’t moving.
Add in the fact that my wife and I order at least one thing online every day and we’ve had just about every problem you can have.
We’ve experienced our packages not moving, tracking not updating (even though the package is delivered), packages going missing, packages not getting scanned, and more.
So what is actually going on with your tracking and what can you do about problems like these?
Well, luckily, understanding is most of the battle. Once you know how USPS scans packages (and how often) you’ll know whether or not something is a big deal and the steps you can take to fix it.
What To Do When Your USPS Tracking Isn’t Updating
If you are waiting for a delivery you’re probably a bit impatient and, if the item was expensive, slightly anxious.
I know that there haven’t been many things that made me more anxious than buying an iPhone off of eBay or a Louis Vuitton bag from Japan. In both instances, having a tracking number did a lot to keep me sane.
However, if it isn’t updating, you might feel that you’re left without a lifeline. But, don’t worry, it probably isn’t as bad or as long-lived as you think.
When USPS tracking isn’t updating, the most effective thing you can do is to be patient. Packages are typically not scanned in for 24 hours or more when they are dropped off and it’s not unusual for a package to not have updated tracking for 1-2 days even if it’s moving within the network.
While waiting is easier said than done there isn’t much else you can do. If you contact the post office they will tell you to “wait for 24-48 hours for it to turn up.”
Tracking numbers are not just for customers, they are also the method that USPS uses to locate a package so if it’s not updated, they will likely be able to tell you little that you don’t already know.
When Does USPS Update Tracking?
USPS typically updates tracking within 24 hours of a package being sent or dropped off at the post office. The main reason for a delay longer than 24 hours is that the package was dropped off after hours and wasn’t scanned in until the next day.
The problem is, the post office cannot update tracking or scan a package until they actually have the parcel. Many stores and sellers will “ship” an item and provide you with a tracking number several days before they drop it off. This is typically to buy them time and make the buyer feel like something is happening with their order.
If this happens to you the post office cannot do anything about it. Instead, contact the person shipping your package and ask when it will actually be dropped off.
How Often Does USPS Update Tracking?
It’s not unusual to have a package that is scanned in when the sender drops it off and then *poof* it disappears for several days. Often, during this time, the post office will simply tell you that “your package is moving within the USPS network and is on track to be delivered to its final destination. It is currently in transit to the next facility.” In other words, they’re not sure where it is but they have no reason to think that it’s lost.
USPS tracking is updated in real-time as packages are scanned in along their route. Packages are scanned in as they are delivered to a facility and again as they are loaded onto their next transport. There is rarely a lapse of more than 48 hours before tracking is updated again.
When Should I File A Claim?
If your tracking isn’t updating and your package has missed it’s delivery date…it’s probably time to get worried.
While USPS is generall quite reliable, there lose millions of pieces of mail per year. Your might be among them.
Luckily, however, you can file a claim and, when (not if) they can’t find it, you can get a refund up to the insured amount. However, you can’t do it instantly and the length of time you have to wait depends on how the package was sent.
- Priority Mail Express: You can file a claim as early as 7 days but no later than 30 days from the date the item was mailed.
- Domestic insured mail (including Priority Mail, Priority Mail Cubic, and First-Class Package Service – Retail): You can file a claim for a loss starting on the 15th day after mailing, but no later than 60 days from the mailing date.
- International shipments (Priority Mail International, First-Class Package International Service, and Registered Mail Service): You can file a claim for a loss starting on the 40th day (7th day for Priority Mail Express International) after mailing, but no later than 60 days from the mailing date.
However, there is also some discretion allowed so it may be slightly longer if the counter-person at your local office is aware of local weather delays, etc.
You can always call USPS to find out if you can/should file a claim.
How To Ensure That USPS Provides Tracking
If you’re worried about tracking there are two things that you can do to give yourself the best chance of having working tracking:
- Make sure the package is scanned when it is dropped off/picked up. If you’re the person that ordered the package you’ll have very little control over this. If you’re sending it, however, be sure to drop your package off at the counter and ask for a receipt.
- Be sure that your shipping method provides tracking. Several cheaper shipping options typically don’t come with tracking included unless you pay extra. If you ordered something small and light you might need to request that the seller provides tracking (which might mean you pay a couple of extra dollars).
What if USPS Didn’t Scan In My Package When I Dropped It Off?
If you order something from a store that sends out a large volume of orders it’s unlikely that each package will be scanned in when picked up by USPS. Rather, the sender will provide USPS with a SCAN Form (Shipment Confirmation Acceptance Notice) that lists everything that they sent.
Once the SCAN Form is registered every package will show up as “Accepted By USPS” and you start receiving tracking updates as it moves.
Smaller sellers (like myself) often drop off packages in a dropbox without a SCAN Form. This means that each package must be individually accepted and scanned by a worker.
Often this results in a tracking indicator reading “Pending Acceptance.”
If a USPS package is pending acceptance it typically means that the package has been shipped but not dropped off. Once the package is actually dropped off and scanned in tracking will update to “Your Shipment has been accepted”
If you dropped off a package and didn’t get it scanned, don’t worry. It will be scanned when it starts moving. When I drop off packages at the post office I don’t even tell anyone. I usually just leave them on an empty counter. I’ve never had any issues with it.
What If Your USPS Tracking Number Doesn’t Work?
There is the possibility that you have received a tracking number that simply doesn’t pull up anything from USPS.
If your USPS tracking number isn’t working you can wait for 24 hours for the system to update. If it still doesn’t provide tracking it is possible that it is a tracking number for a different carrier or that the sender gave you an incorrect number.
You can check whether your tracking number is actually for USPS by searching it on Universal Parcel Tracking which will give you an update regardless of carrier.
If it doesn’t pull up anything (and it’s been a day or two) then the tracking number doesn’t exist. Contact the sender and see if you can get a revised number.
4 Other Things That Could Be Wrong With Your Tracking
Beyond straight-up tracking issues, there are a bunch of ways that USPS tracking can fail to be helpful.
- Your package may be missent. While missent USPS packages are often returned to the sender it is possible that you will lose out and have to file an insurance claim if you didn’t include a clear return address.
- It might be stuck in an unsearchable zip code. USPS has a number of zip codes (01153 for example) that are specific to their own buildings or operations. This makes it very hard to get an accurate reading of where your package is and how fast it’s moving.
- It might be “in transit” for days. When USPS tracking shows that a package is “In Transit” it typically means that the item is moving within the network but may be taking longer than normal. If it has been a while since there was a scan update, the “In Transit” may simply be a placeholder until the item shows up again.
- You might have put in the wrong shipping address. Check your original order (or with the shipper) to make sure that your package is being sent to the correct location.
Despite the number of complaints that USPS gets about their packages, you have to remember that they handle literally hundreds of millions of items every day. We’ve sent and received hundreds of packages (most with successful tracking) and have had very few issues.
The biggest takeaway from all of my research and years of experience has been this: be patient. Packages almost always turn up, tracking usually gets updates as items get scanned, and, if not, you can always file a claim!
p.s. if all else fails, you can always try buying lost or undeliverable mail. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get your own lost package?