Address formatting for International Mailing?

by Derek Sivers

Anyone have any advice or wisdom from experience about address formatting for international shipping?

I'm starting to doubt the process of asking individual questions of "name, company, adddress, city, state, postalcode, country" because of complaints or misunderstandings from places like Ireland (no postalcodes), Germany (postalcode goes before city), Japan and England (many lines of address info needed).

Maybe the best approach is to just get the country as a option-select list of 2-character country codes, but leave the other lines wide open ("address1", "address2", "address3", "address4") for the person to fill in as they see fit.

The point here is not data mining, but shipping packages.


Thoughts? Advice?


2005-03-15 16:55:04
if you've time & will focus on just a few countries, do custom forms for each. Otherwise yes, line1...lineN. Or do custom for most-popular countries, generic for rest.

In storage, just a big text string (including linebreaks in right places) is needed.

I worked on something like this, but the site never went live, let's say that counts as half-experience.

2005-03-15 17:25:31
Freeform >textarea<
I run a small online craft supply store, specializing in hard-to-find stuff, and have customers all over the world. I've gone from the simple "Address 1", "Address 2", "City" etc method, to the line method you're proposing above, to a simple freeform textarea, with examples of address formatting for various countries. I trust my customers to enter their address as they see fit, and have regexp post-processors validate the address based on the country after they send the form.
2005-03-15 21:04:11
Middle-of-the-road solution
Have the discrete fields to capture/validate data, but also include a freeform textarea into which javascript on the page places the current best-guess formatted address -- thereby allowing the user to override badly formed addresses. Once the user has given that textarea the focus, set a flag to prevent the JS from editing the field.
2005-03-15 22:40:39
Freeform text
I think the address should be freeform except for one field - the country. If you can, allow the user to enter foreign characters into the address but make the user select the country from a list.

I suspect that addresses like that are the most efficient for the post offices handling your packages e.g. a US post office would only have to deal with "JAPAN" and Japanese postal workers won't have to grok the Romanized address.

2005-03-16 05:15:09
Freeform text is definitely the way to go

Use freeform text if mailing is the only concern. Usability problems in these forms are almost always a result of forcing people into a straitjacket that reflects the developer's address format. People know their postal addresses and are quick to type them in.

I live in Ireland and I hate the mandatory postcode/zipcode field. This is often mandatory for use with AVS verifrication of addresses for credit card transactions, but if a site knows I'm in Ireland then it should know AVS doesn't work here (no postcodes) so why mandate that field? Lazy.

Culture is also important if you implement a drop down country list. Am I in Ireland, R. Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Eire or any of the other variations I've seen. In the North of Ireland, that choice is politically loaded. Let people type in what they want, what they know will work.

2005-03-16 07:53:16
Why not start at the other end
What about doing the country code drop down first and then generating a form with the appropriate fields based on it. For example, if you pick Ireland, you don't get a postal code field.
2005-03-16 11:09:54
Free form. And don't even get me started on phone numbers!!
Like everyone non-US, I've been annoyed over this issue in more than fifteen years now.

Several of the comments have good ideas. The difficulty comes if you want to calculate shipping on line before the order is submitted.

But that depends on what data your shipper requires. It seems most U.S. shippers are only interested in country if you leave the States.

Country drop-down lists are also annoying, given the large number of countries. We're lucky, since more often than not we're next to Oman .. O-up arrow mostly works.

Perhaps country-specific information for the countries you know have specific forms. For country you can do typeahead like Google Suggest.

Or a separate textfield for the "postal address" part, and a textarea for street, suite, floor, mailstop etc.

Anyway, most of the stuff actually does get through, so for the postal services it seems a non-issue.

2005-03-16 17:11:04
Chinese Names
Got this email from someone reading this article. I've removed his name, since I didn't ask permission to post:

If you thought international addresses was bad enough, try getting the *name* of the recipient correct!

I am Chinese by birth and the order of my name is , i.e. "AAA" is my family name, "BBB CCC" is my personal name.

So, how do I fill the form of countless Westernised website that require a "First Name" and "Last Name"?

I usually fill them as "BBB-CCC" and "AAA", respectively, to get things like auto-generated
salutations correct, ("Hello, BBB-CCC...").

And you have even more trouble with Arabian, Indian, etc. names.

BTW, the following wikipedia entries will give you a flavour of the various combinations of names and addresses:

2005-03-17 00:14:29
Freeform >textarea<
>> have regexp post-processors validate the address based on the country

Is this just to make sure they didn't make mistakes?
Can you give any examples?
Is there actually a way to validate Japanese or British addresses? Or do you just use validation for some countries and not others?

2005-03-19 11:33:44
Slashdot story now, too
I posted this same question to Slashdot to get a bigger audience for it. If interested, see the comments there, too: Address Formatting for International Mailing?
2005-03-27 11:33:23
UK Addresses
Probably the simplest way to validate a UK address is to ask for the postcode and house number/name and then pass it to a web service that will provide the address(es). If you are getting enough orders, then the Royal Mail can supply you with files that you can use.

Personally, where I live my postcode applies to two roads. This is quite uncommon, but possible, so it should be checked.

2005-04-29 15:19:09
Address formatting information
I think BitBoost's website about this at International Mailing Address Formats
and Other International Mailing Information

is a pretty good source of information about (international) address formatting.
At least it explains many of the issues you
will have to deal with. The site's links section is also good IMHO.
2006-01-30 08:07:30

Well, I could have conceived and given birth to my own (CD) baby in the space of you posting this question and my response today. However! Thank goodness I am not with child, just yet!

This is a great website in the UK for when you're shipping CDs there.

It allows you to find postal codes (zip codes) if you only have an address, or the other way round. Good if you can't read someone's writing or need to find what road someone lives at etc...