New APO/FPO Restrictions Worry Patrons, Increase Costs

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If you live overseas, or you mail things to people overseas, there are new US Postal Service (USPS) regulations that will affect your ability to mail electronic devices with lithium ion batteries.  These new rules begin Tuesday, 16 May 2012.  Many servicemembers and their families are worried about the impact of these regulations on their ability to shop competitively for electronic needs.

What sort of items does this include?

  • computer batteries
  • pretty much every that starts with “i,”  iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc.
  • camera batteries
  • MP3 players
  • cellular phones
  • GPS devices
  • certain medical equipment
  • rechargable, battery operated power tools
  • cordless personal care items such as electric shavers and cordless hair curling irons
  • Bluetooth headsets
  • walkie-talkies, two way radios
  • portable DVD players
  • remote controlled toys
  • radio scanners

The new USPS regulations help bring US mail into compliance with the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Universal Postal Union, “both of which currently prohibit lithium batteries in mail shipments that are carried on international commercial air transportation,” according to the USPS update.

From the Military Postal System website:

“Effective May 16, 2012 USPS will prohibit in outbound international mail, lithium metal or lithium-ion batteries and devices containing lithium batteries. This prohibition includes mail sent to and from APO, FPO and DPO locations.”

What does this mean for the consumers?  A huge hassle and increased costs.  There are four possible solutions to the problem, none of them good.

  • You can utilize your local military exchange.
  • You can use a private delivery service, such as DHL, UPS or FedEx.
  • You can shop on your local economy.
  • You can find someone flying to your location and ask them to bring the item with them.

Let’s look at each of these options.

Using your local military exchange

If you have ever lived or deployed overseas, you can see the problem with this suggestion.  Military exchanges are physically incapable of carrying every electronic device, much less all the different batteries for the devices people already own.  In addition, their choices are very expensive compared to their internet counterparts.  Talk on my base started immediately, “Well, the Exchange better improve their electronics section.”  As we all know, that is unlikely to happen.

Utilize a private delivery service

This might work for some folks, in some locations, but it sure isn’t a solution to the problem.  As my friend once explained to a loan officer, “The FedEx camel doesn’t stop by my husband’s location.”  Even for non-remote locations, private delivery can be problematic.  Someone recently insisted on sending me a letter via private delivery service and I am still amazed that we received it.  We used my husband’s work address, thinking that would be better than our mystery street address.  Despite the fact that the front gate deals with similar situations daily, the company reported that delivery was unavailable because “no such address exists” and “business was closed.”  Really, it is a military base!

When service is available, it is not cheap.  I used DHL a few years ago because I had urgent paperwork and our local FPO was closed for a four-day weekend.  It cost me approximately $40 to send the same 20 sheets of paper that would have been less than $10 through the USPS.

In addition, items shipping via non-military channels will incur various taxes and fees for import into the host nation.

Shop on the local economy

For some items, this might be a viable option.  It will likely be expensive, with currency exchange rates and high taxes, but then customers will have to think more carefully about whether they really need to purchase whatever new item they are considering.  That isn’t all bad.

My other concern is that you will then have an electronic device that may or may not be dual voltage, and for which you may or may not be able to get a 110 power cord when you return to the US.  For example, my doctor has suggested that I purchase a small blood pressure monitor.  I can’t buy it online now, and even if I find one here that has English language and imperial measuring options, I will also need to make sure it is dual voltage and then find the right charger cords for the next place we live.  That isn’t likely to happen, so I’ll go without.  I’m sure my doctor will be thrilled.

Find someone flying to your location and ask them to carry the item for you

I don’t understand the science, but apparently carrying these devices onto planes is fine.  Therefore, asking someone to carry certain items might be the best solution.  I can already imagine groups of people pooling together to buy one plane ticket and sending someone back to the US to go shopping.  Sounds ridiculous but it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Think that the average customer doesn’t often buy electronics through the mail?  I only know my family’s experiences.  At this exact point in time, we have one computer that is supposed to go back to the manufacturer for service and I can’t send it.  I have the aforementioned blood pressure monitor that will go unpurchased.  I have also been considering the purchase of an iPhone, which will cost significantly more if I have to purchase it here.  That makes three things for this six person family, and the regulations haven’t even officially gone into effect.

I had considered quickly ordering/mailing everything we might need, but officials can’t say what will happen to items that are mid-shipment once the 16 May 2012 change occurs.

This will be huge inconvenience for families living overseas, and will increase their costs significantly.  However, the true problem lies with the individual soldier who is deployed to some really unpleasant place and can’t contact her family because she needs a new computer battery and can’t get one.

Military postal officials are investigating other methods of transporting hazardous mail but no announcements have been made.  They have cited the challenges of remote locations, volume and frequency.  In any case, mail would be the lowest priority for space on alternate transportation.

The USPS anticipates that further talks will result in more liberal guidelines.

” the Postal Service anticipates that on January 1, 2013, cus­tomers will be able to mail specific quantities of lithium bat­teries internationally (including to and from an APO, FPO, or DPO location) when the batteries are properly installed in the personal electronic devices they are intended to operate.”

For now, customers will be forced to make do with their existing electronics or seek alternate sources for obtaining the products they would previously have purchased through a mail retailer.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • Iko

    Great…..as if living OCONUS didn’t already have enough challenges. It sucks because I cannot count on the local PX/BX to have anything I need so I buy nearly everything online.

  • Vovo

    The real question is WHY are these batteries considered ‘hazardous’ now when they will be allowed in Jan of 2013?
    Why are we confirming to International law that hinders our ability to support our troops?

  • cruby23

    I just asked my post office & they said you could mail laptops & MP3 players internationally & to APO/FPO addresses. Did this rule not go into effect?

  • Louie

    So that explains on why I did not receive my oem plug adapter for my iPad. Thanks for the heads up with this information.