Berne: the heart of the world’s postal service

Whether it’s a parcel from Asia or that letter from overseas: thanks to the Universal Postal Union the world’s international postal services are like a well-oiled machine. But the organization that pulls the strings behind the scenes is largely unknown. And it, too, is part of the reason today is World Post Day, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.


How was European postal traffic in the 19th century? Already bustling, but pretty chaotic. Just a few private companies controlled the postal system, which was entangled in a confusing network of individual contracts. Anyone sending mail to another country in those days needed nerves of steel and patience – especially for letters and parcels going overseas.

And global postal traffic today? A global network with 5.3 million postal employees and 668,000 post offices and postal agencies. From a total of 313 billion letters a year, 3.6 billion are international, and of 14 billion parcels, 180 million are transported across borders – with a very strong upward trend (Figures are from 2017).

The Universal Postal Union – founded in Switzerland
Behind these figures is the Universal Postal Union – UPU. It was founded in Berne as the General Postal Union with 22 member countries on 9 October 1874. Visionary leaders assembled at the restaurant “Zum Äusseren Stand”. These leaders knew that an intergovernmental organization was needed to coordinate and regulate global postal traffic (see info box). They were proven right. 145 years later, the world’s second oldest international organization has 192 member states. And World Post Day, which originated on 9 October 1969, celebrates its 50th anniversary today. The day marks the year the UPU was founded as well as the importance of postal organizations worldwide.

To mark the occasion, we’re taking a look into the world of postal organizations. Because today the postal world is not only regulated and transparent, but also surprising and bizarre. So, to celebrate World Post Day, here are nine facts from the colourful world of postal services – because on the international stage, today’s postal services come in far more than just yellow.


  • Over 900,000 employees
    No postal organization employs more people than China Post. According to their own figures, the number stands at around 935,000. Another giant is the global operator Deutsche Post DHL, with around 547,500 employees in over 220 countries. This is followed by the United States Postal Service in the USA (around 497,000) and India Post (around 419,000).


  • Old, older, oldest
    Where’s the world’s oldest post office? Located in Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in the United Kingdom. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it has been in operation since 1712. It narrowly escaped closure in 2014 and has since been renovated.


  • The sky’s the limit
    Many mountaineers rub their eyes in disbelief when they see this: at Mount Everest base camp in Tibet at an altitude of 5,300 metres, China Post operates a post office – from the end of April until August, depending on the weather.


  • A post office under the sea
    It’s no joke. The world’s only underwater post office is located in the island state of Vanuatu near Hideaway Island, about 3 metres below sea level. Here, divers can stock up with special waterproof postcards.


  • Red, cylindrical and 600,000 in number
    Granted, the evidence is scant. But India is said to have the highest number of letter boxes – around 600,000, mostly cylindrical and red.


  • Letter boxes on the buses
    On the subject of letter boxes: in Detmold, North Rhine-Westphalia, you’ll find them on every bus on routes 701 to 709. The service is catching on, and they’ve been available in the new buses running in the city since the end of September.


  • More valuable than any other
    9 million euros is the estimated value of the one-cent postage stamp “British Guiana 1c Magenta”. Only a few square centimetres in size, it’s made of deep red paper and features a scribbled black signature. The original motif – a ship – is barely recognizable. But the stamp, which is more than 155 years old, is reckoned to be a one-off.


  • One municipality, two postcodes
    Back to Switzerland: there are two enclaves within the national territory – Germany’s Büsingen am Hochrhein and Campione d’Italia on Lake Lugano. Curiously, in addition to their national postcodes, both municipalities also have a Swiss postcode.


  • And which postal service is the world’s best?
    In 2017 and 2018, according to the UPU study “Integrated Index for Postal Development”, it was Swiss Post. And this year, once again, the company is on the top of the podium, as announced by the Universal Postal Union yesterday. Today, Wednesday, 9 October, Swiss Post CEO Roberto Cirillo will personally receive the award at the UPU headquarters in Berne. Find out here how delighted Swiss Post is about this award and what customers have to say about it.


What the UPU does

The Universal Postal Union…

  • regulates the international cooperation of the postal authorities, the operating framework for cross-border postal traffic and the compensation of the resulting postal charges (the so-called terminal dues);
  • ensures the prompt delivery of letters and parcels across national and linguistic boundaries;
  • also focuses on social issues, for example promoting writing skills for children and young people worldwide;
  • is undergoing ongoing reform and will elect a new Director General at the 2020 UPU Congress;
  • is the only UN organization headquartered in Berne;
  • has around 250 employees from over 50 countries.