Courier services have been around since the days of homing pigeons and foot messengers. While most of us understand the concept (letters and packages are taken from one place to another), it can be tricky to tell the difference between a courier and the local postal service.
What is a courier? How is a courier service different from a postal service? Whether you’re shipping packages to friends, or sending letters to clients across the world, here’s how to tell the difference between these service providers.
What is a courier service?
A courier is a person or company that delivers products, packages, and documents. Couriers prioritize speed, and most will offer same-day or next-day delivery.
Some couriers specialize in certain types of deliveries. Others offer a wide range of delivery options for everyday consumers and businesses.
So, whether you need to send a birthday present to a friend or ship a package to a customer, you can use a courier service to get your package where it needs to go.
Because couriers operate similarly to traditional mail, it’s easy to assume they’re the same thing or related. But is this true?
Is a courier the same as mail?
No, a courier is not the same as mail.
Regular mail is transported and delivered via the public postal service.
Postal services are typically government agencies. They handle the sorting and delivering of packages and letters within their home country and, sometimes, abroad.
Examples of postal services include:
The United States Postal Service (USPS) in the U.S.
The Canada Post in Canada
The Australia Post in Australia
The Royal Mail service in the United Kingdom
Public mail services ensure that everyday citizens and businesses alike have an easily accessible way to mail letters and packages.
Although couriers are privately owned, they can still deliver anything the regular mail service can deliver. If you need to send an important letter to someone, you can also use a courier service to ensure your message arrives as quickly as possible.
So, to clarify:
Is UPS a Courier? Yes.
Is DHL a Courier? Yes.
Is USPS a Courier? No. USPS (United States Postal Service) is a postal service.
What’s the difference between a courier and a postal service?
Postal and courier services are similar in nature. They both move documents and packages from one point to another. But are some key differences (apart from ownership).
Courier services prioritize speed, so they generally offer quicker delivery times compared to postal services. That’s not to say that postal services can’t be speedy. But couriers have made efficiency and speed their main selling points.
For example, couriers may offer same-day or next-day delivery with a specific delivery time window. If you have an important package that needs to be delivered in the morning, a courier can make sure that happens.
Postal services, however, can’t offer that guarantee. They may offer next-day delivery, but you cannot specify a time window.
Because couriers offer more specialized services and quicker delivery times, prices are typically higher compared to a postal service.
Postal services offer more basic shipping and delivery options, so the costs are generally lower.
3. Real-time tracking
Both postal and courier services offer tracking services. But courier services can offer real-time tracking (or as close to real-time as you can get).
With real-time tracking, you know exactly where your shipment is and an estimate of when it will arrive at its destination. Even when shipping internationally, tracking is updated regularly so that you can follow the steps of your shipment.
Postal services offer more basic tracking services. Tracking information is only updated when the package or item is scanned by a postal employee.
How are couriers tracked?
Courier companies have sophisticated logistics that allow them to track shipments using GPS. In some cases, couriers can even sync with a driver’s GPS to pinpoint their location in 20-60 seconds.
If you, as a customer, use a courier service to send a package to a customer or friend, you can also track your package in near real-time thanks to these GPS systems.
4. Specialty services
Some couriers may offer specialty services and have more flexibility when it comes to deliveries. For example, they may be able to pick up and drop off orders last-minute if they can squeeze it into their schedule.
But it’s important to note that this kind of specialty service is typically only offered by smaller, localized courier services. Larger international courier services like FedEx or UPS do not offer this level of flexibility.
Drivers for these couriers are assigned a specific route with multiple delivery stops for each shift. They check off each stop as they go, and there’s no wiggle room to add last-minute deliveries in most cases.
What are the types of courier service?
Courier services can be classified in a few different ways. In the sections below we’ll look at couriers that:
Offer different service speeds
Operate in specific locations
Specialize in particular services
1. Couriers that offer different service times
Couriers tend to offer quick delivery times, but they can also offer standard shipping options for items that aren’t time-sensitive.
a. Overnight couriers
Large courier services like UPS, FedEx, and DHL offer overnight delivery, but some local couriers may also offer this service.
To get shipments to their destinations so quickly, couriers will typically use:
Air transport for destinations that are 200+ miles away
Trucks for destinations that are less than 200 miles away
Overnight shipping is just one option for time-sensitive shipments. Many couriers also offer same-day shipping options.
b. Same-day couriers
Let’s say that you have an urgent document that needs to be sent across town like yesterday. Same-day courier services can ensure that your shipment reaches its destination in hours — not days.
Same-day couriers tend to be local service providers, although some large courier services like FedEx offer same-day services.
Naturally, this kind of speedy service comes at a higher price and will have restrictions. For example, you may need to ship out your item by a certain time of the day to guarantee same-day service.
For ultra-time-sensitive items, same-day courier services are the ideal option.
c. Standard couriers
Large courier companies like UPS, FedEx, and DHL also offer standard shipping that’s similar to what postal services offer. Deliveries take longer to reach their destinations, but the shipping cost is generally lower.
2. Couriers that operate in specific areas
Couriers often focus on location-specific services to improve speed and efficiency. Small and large-sized couriers exist in the following spaces:
a. Local courier services
A local courier is like a hyper-local post office. These shippers operate within a certain city or locale, allowing them to offer rapid delivery times and same-day service. You may find specialized services in this space (more on this below) or even some that cater to e-commerce businesses.
For example, Amazon Flex is a courier type of service that provides local e-commerce delivery, sometimes within two hours, from the warehouse to the customer.
b. National courier services
National couriers focus on nationwide delivery and have the logistics in place that allow them to offer same-day deliveries or options up to a week, depending on priority. These companies operate delivery services 24 hours a day to keep parcels and documents moving.
c. International courier services
International shipping can include shipping between two or multiple countries. These long-distance couriers often have their own vehicle fleets. Larger international courier services like UPS even have their own airplanes and jets that allow for unmatched delivery speed between countries.Delivery options may be next-day or take several days, depending on where the shipment is picked up and dropped off.
3. Couriers that offer specialized services
Certain deliveries require special procedures that must be followed from the time of pick up to drop off. For example, in the United States, medical couriers must meet HIPAA requirements when transporting certain medical samples.
For example, a medical courier must:
Maintain specific certifications, such as a HIPAA certification
Follow temperature control and packaging recommendations. For example:
Must be kept at 2°C - 8°C (35.6°F - 46.4°F)
Temperatures will vary, depending on the specimen, but often require room temperature
Must be packed in medical specimen containers and be labeled appropriately
Note: Follow the specific handling and transport guidelines in your country/region. These figures are general guidelines.
Legal couriers specialize in delivering important documents to their final destination in accordance with strict deadlines. Acting as an express courier, these professionals work for:
Delivery routes for a legal courier must be highly optimized to allow for same-day delivery of documents to and from multiple courts, government buildings, and state offices. Documents may include contracts, court papers, and other legal tenders.
Other specialized courier services also exist outside of medical and legal services.
What about DIY delivery for businesses?
Business owners can skip delivery companies and take a DIY approach. It’s possible to save on overhead and improve delivery times if you do it yourself, but even small shipping services can struggle with logistics.
For example, one FedEx Ground shipping company in California operated 20 trucks and delivered to 2,500 addresses daily.
The owner analyzed their routes and realized there were extreme inefficiencies. The team turned to Routific to handle route optimization and reduced annual net operating costs by 17%.
When a business is in its infancy, keeping shipping services in-house can help you save money and improve delivery times. However, scaling without a proven logistics and route optimization solution in place can lead to:
Orders piling up
Poor customer service
Working with a local courier to handle your delivery needs is often the better option. You won’t have to take on the expense of hiring a delivery driver, paying benefits, or maintaining delivery vehicles.
If you do decide to handle the delivery of packages yourself, you can better manage your same-day couriers with the help of advanced routing solutions, such as Routific.
How Routific simplifies and streamlines deliveries
Routific works with businesses to streamline deliveries. For example Trunkrs, a next-day delivery startup, struggled with an in-house logistics system that didn’t scale well. As the company grew the system slowed down, and drivers were left waiting for hours while orders piled up.
In search of a better solution, the Trunkrs CTO tried using Routific’s API to manage route optimization for their in-house system. Within days, the inefficiencies were resolved and Trunkrs was able to speed up processing time, delivery faster and scale their operations. They became one of the top 5fastest growing tech companies in the Netherlands, with a 98.6% on-time delivery rate.
Rene Emery is a B2B/Finance/SaaS writer who focuses on clear, concise, and optimized content. Leveraging 12+ years of experience, she relies on her work with hundreds of companies worldwide to create content that speaks to readers and makes difficult topics easy to understand.
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