What is a shipping label?

A shipping label displays all the information a carrier like USPS needs to deliver a package to its intended destination, including names, addresses and tracking codes.

Fri Oct 23 14:36:00 EDT 2020

Back in the day, most of us had no choice but to haul our packages to a carrier’s physical store. No longer. Today, the ability to purchase online shipping labels from carriers like USPS®, UPS® and FedEx® has transformed shipping tasks for everyone: business owners, entrepreneurial makers, dedicated DIYers, those seeking contactless shipping and anyone wanting to avoid a trip to the carrier.

Whichever way you prefer to purchase them, in person or online, it’s important to understand the purpose of shipping labels, how they work, your purchasing options and how much you can expect to pay.

What is the purpose of a shipping label?

The sole purpose of a shipping label is to ensure your package reaches its destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. Each player along the shipping supply chain requires its own type of information. So, in addition to being incredibly difficult to peel off that box you want to reuse, shipping labels are also designed to be incredibly efficient at displaying a lot of information in a relatively small space.

How do shipping labels work, exactly?

Shipping label templates vary from carrier to carrier to best meet their specific routing and storage processes, but for the most part they all include the same standardized information. There are only three types of shipping label information a sender is responsible for providing:

  • Your name and address
  • The recipient’s name and address
  • The level of service requested/purchased (Priority, Overnight, Two-day, etc.)

Those other seemingly random letters, numbers and bar codes found on a shipping label are automatically generated by your chosen carrier and each has a distinct purpose. Using a USPS shipping label as an example, here’s a brief description of each element.

Example of a USPS shipping label with seven key elements called out

  1. OneCode: Contains all the information needed for delivery, readable from any direction by a scanner
  2. Level of Service: Displays method of delivery purchased from the carrier (Priority Mail in this example)
  3. Name and address of sender
  4. Name and address of recipient
  5. Machine-readable Tracking Number: Allows carrier to track package
  6. Human-readable Tracking Number: Allows customer to track package
  7. Custom Area: Allows for brief custom messages

Can shipping labels be handwritten?

Sure, you can neatly handwrite the shipping address yourself, but you’ll still need a carrier barcode. Carriers generate shipping labels digitally as part of their shipping process, and each carrier has its own distinct requirements and templates. That’s not something you can recreate by hand (that is not intended as a challenge, do-it-yourselfers).

Using an official carrier shipping label helps ensure your information is accurate and easy to read, scan and track. It can also save you money. A few major carriers offer discounts if you purchase shipping labels online, either through their websites or through an online shipping service. Subscribing to an online service offers the most value for frequent shippers. SendPro® Online offers discounts of up to 40 percent off Priority Mail (and 5¢ on every First-Class letter). Subscriptions start as low as $4.99 per month, which means you can save with even relatively low shipping volumes.

What is the correct way to place a shipping label on a package?

Place your shipping label in the pre-designated space on your package if it has one. If it doesn’t, place it anywhere that will be easy for your carrier to see and scan. Here are a few more DOs and DON’Ts to follow:

  • DO ensure your package is large enough to display the entire shipping label without it wrapping around the edges. The industry standards for shipping label sizes are:

    • 4×6 inch
    • 6×3 inch
    • 4×4 inch
  • DO adhere your shipping label securely to the package using clear tape, glue or self-adhesive labels.
  • DO ensure the shipping label’s edges are all smooth and in place.
  • DON’T place your shipping label on the package’s seams or any tape if it can be avoided. Speaking of tape, a question asked by many …

Can I tape over a shipping label?

You can use clear tape on all four sides of your shipping label to secure it to your package. It is not recommended that you tape over the bar code or any other scannable elements or the scan might fail. 

Where can I get a shipping label?

You can go to a carrier’s location in person to purchase shipping labels, but we’re also living in the digital age and so are the major carriers. You can save time and money using one of the following options:

  • Carrier website:
    Every major carrier offers online tools to help you create printable shipping labels that meet their requirements. This is an acceptable option if your shipping volume and expenses are low. It saves you a trip to the carrier’s store and you’ll know your shipping label is formatted correctly.
  • Online shipping service: 
    SendPro Online automates and aggregates everything you need for shipping in one place. This includes purchasing and creating shipping labels from all the major carriers, scheduling package pickups and more. You’ll also save substantially on shipping costs due to the bulk rate deals SendPro Online has with the carriers.

How much does a shipping label cost?

Generating a shipping label doesn’t cost you anything, but you can’t ship a package with it until postage is paid for. Shipping rates vary by carrier and level of service and options like insurance and tracking. If you do a large volume of shipping, you might be able to negotiate a bulk rate with your carrier.

In general, there are two things you can always count on:

  • You’ll pay more if you purchase shipping labels at a carrier’s physical store.
  • You’ll pay less if you purchase shipping labels online.