A Post Office Box or PO Box is the name given to a service allowing users to pick up their post from the local sorting office rather than have it delivered to their house or business. In the UK, anyone with a permanent address can rent a PO Box, and this provides the user with a second address to which mail can be sent. The PO Box should not be confused with either post boxes, where letters should be posted, or private boxes, which work in a similar way but are leased out by private companies and not by the postal service.
How Does It Work?
To apply for a PO Box, a person or a company must show proof of a permanent address in the UK, usually by providing Royal Mail with recent utility bills or bank statements. This should be posted to the Royal Mail's PO Box offices1 along with an application form and payment, which is about £552 for a year's lease. The individual or business is then allocated an address like this one, which is for the complaints department of the BBC:
PO Box 1922,
Glasgow G2 3WT
Note that the PO Box address does not reveal the actual address of the owner. Instead, any mail addressed to the PO Box is held at the local sorting office, which in this case is in Glasgow, and the owner of the box has to visit that sorting office regularly to collect their post. However, the PO Box must be at the sorting office that would normally deliver your post3 - the Royal Mail will let you know where this is, and it is usually in the city or town mentioned in your address. Most letters and parcels that can be sent via the Royal Mail can be kept in the PO Box: 'Recorded Signed For' items still need to be signed for, but this can be done up to seven days after the item arrives. It is important to note that the Royal Mail won't accept packages from couriers, and that since other companies such as DHL and Fed-Ex require a signature, they cannot deliver to PO Boxes.
Why Use a PO Box?
A PO Box allows the user to distribute an address which does not reveal their actual location, and therefore gives them added security. For this reason PO Boxes often feature in spy novels as part of the tradecraft used by secret agents who would rather not get caught4. A PO Box can also be used to:
Separate business post from your normal mail.
Manage large quantities of mail more easily.
Provide a short and more memorable address.
Ensure letters are delivered to the correct address5.
Fully protect an individual's address in the case of members of the security services and armed forces, and also when the individual or organisation requires protection6. In these cases, special dispensation is required and is only given if an endorsement from the Police or a similar authority is provided.
Commit fraud (not advisable as this is illegal).