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A postal order is a financial instrument usually intended for sending money through the mail. It is purchased at a post office and is payable at another post office to the named recipient. A small fee for the service, known as poundage, is paid by the purchaser. In the United States, this is known as a postal money order. Postal orders are not legal tender, but a type of promissory note, similar to a cheque.
History in the United Kingdom
The postal order is a direct descendent of the money order, which had been established by a private company in 1792. During World War I and World War II, British postal orders were temporarily declared legal tender to save paper and labour. Postal orders can be bought and redeemed at post offices in the UK, although a crossed Postal Order must be paid into a bank account. Until April 2006 they came in fixed denominations but due to increased popularity they were redesigned to make them more flexible and secure. They now have the payee and value added at the time of purchase, making them more like a cheque. The fee for using this form of payment falls into one of three bands - details are available on the Post Office website. The maximum value of postal order available is £250.00 with the fee capped at £12.50.
Despite competition from cheques and electronic funds transfer, postal orders continue to appeal to customers, especially as a form of payment for shopping on the Internet, as they are drawn on the Post Office's accounts so a vendor can be certain that they will not bounce. They also enable those without a bank account, including minors, to make small financial transactions otherwise than in cash. Postal workers in the United Kingdom use voided or cancelled orders in their training.
International use of the British postal order
The use of postal orders (or postal notes in some countries) was extended to most countries that are now part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, plus to a few foreign countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Thailand.
Canada and the United States
United States Postal Money Orders appear facially as a draft against an account held by the United States Postal Service, and the United States Postal Service requires a purchaser to know, in advance, where presentment of the instrument will occur. This is a defect in the current functionality of United States Postal Money Orders, as those intended for domestic use may not be negotiated if they are transmitted abroad. Consular Services do not assist United States citizens receiving United States Postal Money Orders even within Consulates or Embassies, which are technically places these instruments could be negotiated. The United States Postal Service maintains web services at www.usps.com, which maintains that both domestic and international United States Postal Money Orders can be presented for negotiation (cash) abroad, but while this is stated on the website, only special, more expensive United States International Postal Money Orders may be presented in these predetermined countries. In the United States, therefore, the instrument issued is determinative of all issues surrounding presentment, a fact concealed on the USPS website.
Canada Post issues only one money order, and will issue it payable either in United States or Canadian dollars. Canada Post Money Orders issued in Canadian dollars may not be presented for payment abroad, notwithstanding that those issued in United States dollars appear to be valid for presentment in the United States and its possessions. Because of this distinction, Canadians may misunderstand more easily when purchasing United States Postal Money Orders that presentment of the domestic (most common) instrument is not possible in Canada. Banks in Canada lack capacity to address this fraud against Canadians and have not engaged in reciprocity against the United States. All Canada Post Money Orders cost the same and appear the same facially, excepting the currency in which they are to be paid. In the United States, International Money Orders are pink and domestic money orders are green.
Purchasers of money orders should be wary of the presentment issues that face money orders outside their home country. Just because of assurances or published website details regarding presentment, the facts relied upon should be verified with an officer of the bank at which presentment is expected to occur. If the locale of presentment should change, purchasers should be aware that obtaining their funds may require that they retain contact with the issuer/purchaser, or assume the risk that the Money Order will be deemed invalid upon otherwise proper presentment.
Postal orders are gaining in popularity as collectibles, especially among numismatists who collect banknotes.
There is an active numismatic organisation in the UK called the Postal Order Society that was established in 1985 with members both domestically and overseas. They hold twice-yearly postal auctions of postal orders and related material from across the British Commonwealth.
A Defence canteen order was a variant of a postal order used in Australia during World War II. Purchased at a post office, it was payable to an enlisted person in goods from a canteen rather than being a cash instrument.
- George Archer-Shee, whose alleged cashing of a Postal Order to a fellow naval cadet led to a long-running court case and inspired Terence Rattigan's play The Winslow Boy.
- List of countries that have used postal orders
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