This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Mailing Systems Technology.

Often when we work with international mailing addresses, we have such a near-focused approach to the topic that the addresses appear to be opaque and impossible to decode. As we spend more time looking at the address elements, we can see that, although the art and science of international addresses can be challenging, it can still make sense. Understanding the common elements and the international patterns is critical.

Let’s look at some of the general challenges that can be tackled. In domestic addresses, we are accustomed to seeing a primary address line containing the house/business number and street type such an avenue, boulevard, or circle. If available, secondary information, like floor, suite, or unit, is presented on the next address line. Lesser-used terms (such as pier, hanger, or lot) could also appear in secondary information. In most countries, these lesser-used terms are separate parts or address elements. In Germany, Wacholderweg or Einsteinstrasse could be presented as a compound term that includes a street name and street type. In France or Spain, the street type may precede the house/business number, as in Rue de la Paix or Calle Rodrigue, while in the United States, these uncommon terms come after the street name.

Generally, in international addressing, you run across similar elements but may see them in a different order in native or local languages. In international addressing, the matching and delivery process is strongly based upon the outlying descriptors beyond the normal street name, town, province, or postal code. The importance of final delivery also requires focus on elements such as building name, locality, or district, in whatever order the country specifies.

When it comes to postal codes, most people domestically understand the value for postal delivery. On international addresses, it is just as important. Often, people will omit a postal code or not properly format it. Not all postal codes are strictly numeric. Based on the country of the address, some postal codes have spaces or alpha characters and may contain punctuation. Proper formatting is key for machine matching and usability. The inherent knowledge to include a postal code makes sense to most people, but when you add the formatting and proper order placement, it can be daunting. Most people understand the logic of town, province, and postal code elements ordered on a city/state/ZIP line, with some countries preferring the order to be postal code, town, and then province presented in the mailing address. Varying the elements ordering can often delay or harm postal delivery.

When system changes are planned to support international addressing, people often think in programmatic terms such as increasing the length of address lines from 30 characters to 50 or 60 characters or increasing the number of address lines to seven or eight lines to capture the other data elements. That does not go far enough.

The challenges are not only on the delivery person but also fall on data processing and management of the international address. A key strategy within the postal arena is to parse the elements into separate buckets, give them appropriate names, and manage based upon stored elements. The Universal Postal Union (UPU), a constituent part of the United Nations, has developed the standard S42-8 for international postal address components and templates, which defines the rules for formatting the addresses for each country. The eighth version of S42-8 was published in February 2017, supporting over 50 countries and has a companion standard, S53-2, for exchange of name and address data in XML. Together, S42-8 and the expected S53-2 attempt to make a worldwide homogenous standard for storage and naming of the elements along with bundling of elements into workable components. The value of the UPU standard nomenclature on the address elements allows for proper address storage, re-composing, and address validation among all countries worldwide.

The result of properly handled and stored address elements provides the foundation for handling variations and nuances among addresses worldwide, both domestic and international. For example, in New York City, in the address 347 East 53rd St, East is a directional, while in East End Avenue, East is part of the street name. With properly stored elements, address templates can be formatted per UPU- and postal agency-approved address formats. Also, intelligent management rules or the rendition of the address label can be applied. S42-8 uses the Postal Address Template Description Language (PATDL) to support the rendition of the UPU address elements identified in S42-8 to enable proper address label formatting for most major countries within the guidelines of the postal agencies for delivery and readability. The UPU specifications include integrated rendition instructions for final presentation of addresses and support of integrated tables for validation and abbreviation of element data.

Although when looking at international addresses, the various orderings and combinations of the elements can be confusing, there is a longer-term solution for data management, parsing, storage, and data exchange among various entities. These are supported by participating postal agencies and approved through the UPU governing bodies to support worldwide addressing initiatives and can be extended to incorporate geocoding initiatives now being considered. As the increased worldwide delivery of purchased products and goods incorporate more international deliveries, these standards will gain more acceptance in daily address validation and usage to take the mystery away from the nuances of international address formatting and presentation.

Raymond Chin has worked as a consultant and postal addressing advisor for various companies over the course of 30 years. His knowledge of both domestic US and international addressing has been gained through his activity in industry events. He can be contacted at