There’s an old hobo legend that goes: a hobo can walk into a post office with a piece of cardboard or other material in the shape of an envelope and mail it without a stamp. The truth is, it doesn’t work that way. Mail in the U.S. requires postage but there are some interesting exceptions.
What Happens When You Send Mail Without a Stamp
If you’ve ever accidentally forgotten to include a stamp on a piece of mail you’ve sent out, you probably saw that piece of mail again in your mailbox after the post office sent it back.
The other scenario is the receiver will have to pay the postage. If the receiver doesn’t pay the postage it could become an unclaimed letter held by the post office for a time before the post office will destroy it or use the funds for the USPS.
How to Send Mail Without a Stamp: Be a Member of Congress
One privilege of being a member of Congress that you probably haven’t heard about is “franking.” Franking allows certain government officials to send mail without postage stamps for official business mail. Franking privilege dates back to 1600 in British Parliament but in the U.S. government officials could sign their name in the upper right hand corner until the 1860s and that would suffice for a stamp. Later congressional members started using rubber stamps of their signature rather than hand-sign all official business letters.
Mailing a Ballot
A 2018 Miami Herald story reported that in an effort to make voting easier for younger voters, they could send in absentee ballots without stamps because finding stamps proved such a hassle for young voters that it prevented them from voting. Younger voters quoted in the story said printing ballots was difficult because they didn’t own printers and many didn’t know how or where to get stamps to mail the ballot if they printed one out.
Good news for those ill-equipped to locate a post office on Google Maps, the postal service will deliver ballots without postage. The government will pay the postage for absentee ballots.