Hong Kong culture

You’ve got mail ... but no postcode: why Hong Kong does not use such numbers

There is 999077 for mainland mail bound for city, but it is unheard of in local postage and rarely used

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 10:25am

Whenever Hongkongers write their home address on a form for a foreign organisation, one box leaves most scratching their head: the postcode, which does not exist in this city of more than 7 million.

Such codes are used worldwide for mailing services, even in small jurisdictions such as Singapore. So why does Hong Kong not have postcodes?

What is a postcode?

It’s a group of letters or numbers assigned by a national authority to an area under its administration for the purpose of delivering mail. Postcodes are not related to the area codes used for international telephone services.

The system can be traced back to Britain, specifically the areas surrounding London in 1857. It was introduced during the end of the Anglo-Persian War to improve mailing efficiency.

Postcodes were subsequently extended to other highly populated cities across Britain, and eventually evolved to their present form.

What does a postcode look like?

In Britain, the code structure comprises one or two letters indicating the region, followed by one or two digits that signify the local neighbourhood, and a space, then another number and two letters allocated to the street.

For example, the postcode for Buckingham Palace in London is SW1A 1AA. In the United States, the postcode is called a zip code – for “zone improvement plan” – and comprises five digits, followed by a hyphen and four additional digits.

Why are there no postcodes in Hong Kong?

Interestingly, even as a former British colony, Hong Kong never adopted a postcode system, neither for overseas nor local mail. Delivery by Hongkong Post is generally regarded as effective.

Local officials briefly considered introducing a postcode system in 2000, but later shelved the idea, concluding the city is so condensed and small that a postal worker could still hand-deliver letters and packages without it. Unlike the US, which comprises 50 states, a federal district and 14 territories, Hong Kong’s physical size is only equivalent to that of a small state.

However, mail sent from mainland China to the city bears the postcode 999077. But almost no one in town uses this designation for mail sent within Hong Kong, and many don’t even know of its existence. When mail from overseas going to the city requires that a postcode be filled out, one can use 00000, HK.

Do other places lack a postcode?

Hong Kong’s neighbouring city, Macau, also lacks a postcode. But mail going from the mainland to the gambling hub has been assigned 999078. While the use of postcodes has become common for many people around the world, there are a few dozen countries that do not use them. They include the Bahamas, Jamaica, Panama and Sierra Leone.

How does the local mailing system work?

Hong Kong’s mailing service formed under the Postal Department even before 1842, when the city was ceded to Britain. The system began after merchants trading on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon peninsula complained that the absence of such a service had created significant inconvenience.

The first post office was founded on August 28, 1841, in Central, near the current site of St John’s Cathedral. Until 1860, it operated under the Royal Mail; later it was transferred to Hongkong Post. In 1862, the first set of Hong Kong postage stamps was issued. Curiously, before then, only British army members stationed locally could use British stamps. And throughout British rule, all Hong Kong stamps featured the Chinese characters for Hong Kong printed alongside the colonial power’s royal symbols. When the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, local stamps were printed with the name “Hong Kong, China”.

Hongkong Post continues to run the city’s mail system. Although it is a government department, since 1995 it has operated as a trading fund, meaning it handles its own revenues and expenses.

Do postcodes have downsides?

For countries that adopt postcodes relatively late, one issue may be cost. The Republic of Ireland did not use postcodes until 2015, when it introduced them in a roll-out that reportedly cost a total of €38 million (HK$349 million).

Critics pounced on the figure, saying that it had been wildly inflated by poor planning and the hiring of expensive consultants. They also pointed out that, two years after the roll-out, Irish postal service An Post found only 5 per cent of customers were using the codes.

In response, the government stressed the new system’s benefits for businesses and online shoppers, as well as the code’s function in helping emergency services locate addresses and even pinpoint firearms owners.

Over the last year, criticism of Eircode appears to have died down, and usage has risen. One Irish entertainment writer summed up the practicality of the new system, noting “Eircodes have stopped couriers delivering all the stupid stuff I order online to the wrong house”.

What is Hongkong Post’s future?

In recent years, the future of the 177-year-old Hongkong Post has been called into question because it has been handling less mail and incurred losses from digital competition.

In 2013, its annual losses stood at HK$114 million (US$14.5 million). The bulk of its expenses were the salaries for its 7,000 staff, prompting then financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah to announce in his 2015/16 budget speech that the role of traditional mail delivery needed to be reviewed.

A government spokesman said one option would be to consider how postal officials could work with the Airport Authority to provide delivery services for passengers who had checked in for flights.

“The post office should consider how to upgrade its service value during changing times,” he added. “It’s a question about its future.”

Additional reporting by David Vetter