Priority Services from 1993 – Introduction
As with the inland services, the international registration, insurance, and express services were overhauled in 1993. However, while inland registration and express were combined in 1993 with all reference to registration dropped in 1998, the UPU services remained distinct. Royal Mail has changed the names it uses for them several times, apparently by analogy with the inland services, although the names used in these rebrandings often seem as if they were chosen in order to cause confusion!
These notes aim to explain the significance of each set of changes in relation to what services were offered.
"International Recorded" and "International Registered" 1993-2002
The overseas registration service in practice was very similar to the inland recorded delivery service, with little actual tracking and no more than the basic compensation available. For extra security and compensation the insured service was needed. This consideration appears to have been behind the 1993 rebranding of registration as "International Recorded" and insured mail as "International Registered".
Unfortunately for this stroke of marketing genius, however, the UPU terms for these services – "registered" and "insured" – still had to be used on the actual packets. This meant that "International Recorded" mail bore a label inscribed "Registered", and "International Registered" mail bore a label inscribed "Insured / Valeur Déclarée" ... which seems more confusing than was strictly necessary. So when checking the rate of a cover from this period, it is important to make sure you are looking at the right service!
In addition, from 1996 separate rates were quoted for each service when used in combination with Swiftair, the UPU express service (at a discount from the combined rates), and distinct half-and-half labels were used.
"International Signed For" and "Airsure" 2002-2014
In 2002, the nature of the international priority services was changed, with the insured post scrapped as a separate category. Instead, there were two (initially three) basic services corresponding to the UPU registered and express services, and an extra fee could be paid for additional insurance cover with any of them. (This was limited to £250 or £500 depending on the destination and service used – much less than the previous maximum of £2200.)
"International Signed For" was essentially the new name for the old registered/International Recorded service, and originally simply offered what the name suggested – a signature on delivery, with no accelerated handling.
"Airsure", and a rebranded version of "Swiftair" with a new logo, were two variants of express service with accelerated handling. The difference was that Airsure packets were tracked electronically all the way to their destination (and could only be sent to countries able to offer this as an option), while Swiftair packets were not and were simply signed for on delivery.
In the following year, this rather awkward division of overlapping options was streamlined. Swiftair was dropped as a separate category, and International Signed For packets were now fast-tracked onto the first available plane to the destination. Airsure packets could now be sent anywhere and offered priority handling, although electronic tracking was not guaranteed once the packet had left the UK and no signature was taken on delivery.
"International Tracked", "International Signed", and "International Tracked & Signed" 2014-date
From 2014 Royal Mail have offered three services under the above names. More recently, they have used the name "International Confirmed delivery services" as an umbrella term. All three cost the same (except as noted below), and the Royal Mail leaflets and website do not do a good job of explaining the factors that go into the choice of service to use! The notes below attempt to explain these, but the key point is that the choice depends largely on what facilities are offered by the destination country.
International Tracked & Signed "provides full end to end tracking, a signature on delivery and online delivery confirmation", while International Signed is "tracked until the point the letter leaves the UK" and "provides the reassurance of a signature taken on delivery". These are two variants of the UPU registered service and countries accept either one or the other, depending on whether they have online tracking or not. Originally the services could not be used to Post Office Box addresses (as these frequently do not provide a signature on delivery, and are generally not directly available to non-Post Office delivery companies that Royal Mail may transfer mail to in certain countries – e.g. Germany). More recently (from autumn 2017) Royal Mail merely recommend that they not be used to PO Box addresses. Africa and the Middle East, where PO Boxes are the normal method of delivery, have been an exception throughout.
International Tracked "combines full end to end tracking with online confirmation of delivery". It is the current UK branding for the UPU express service, which many countries appear to treat as entirely distinct from the registered service (unlike the UK). Quite a number of countries therefore accept International Tracked, and International Signed ... but not International Tracked & Signed, as they do not have online tracking! (This apparent anomaly is of course simply an artefact of the names chosen in the UK by Royal Mail.) In practice, the choice of Tracked or Signed may depend on the requirements of the sender's customer and/or insurer.
As a result of an ECJ ruling, from 31st January 2011 certain "enhanced" services that were not part of the basic universal provision became liable to VAT on the total charge, including postage, when used to EU destinations. International Tracked (but not the other two) was considered such a service and so cost 20% more when used to the European Union. As both International Tracked and International Tracked & Signed are generally available for EU destinations, the main use case for the more expensive service was where the packet was sent to a PO Box. This extra charge ceased as of 1st January 2021 when the UK left the EU Single Market/Customs Union.
From 2020, the prices for International Tracked and International Tracked and Signed to the new Zone 3 (USA) differ, and from 2021 the prices for the Tracked service are otherwise slightly less than the prices for the Signed services generally. From 2022 some reduced rates to specific countries were available when using International Tracked, initially for online postage only.