How to Receive US Mail With a Virtual Mailbox

How to Receive US Mail With a Virtual Mailbox

The mail system in Ecuador is not user-friendly. Far from it. As of writing (March 2022) we’re still in postal service limbo with the Government deciding the best model, probably with some privatization, to get this essential service back up and running.

We’ll get to your options for receiving mail in Ecuador in a moment. But, the good news is that at least receiving your mail in the US can be done easily, cheaply, and is largely a set and forget exercise. Yes, we’re talking about finding the best US virtual mailbox for your own personal situation. 

Virtual Mailbox vs Family/Friends? 

As a US expat, you’ll generally have two main options in the US for receiving your mail whilst you’re living in Ecuador. 

1) Family or Friends

Clearly, this is the cheapest option. And, depending on how responsible your chosen mail caretaker is, it’s also potentially the easiest to setup. 

If you go down this path, we also suggest signing up for US Post’s Informed Delivery service which will provide you with a scan of the outside of the envelope for free. This way you can have some idea about the contents of the package as it arrives and provide instructions for your caretaker.  

The downside is you’re relying on this person and you are placing this responsibility on them. Some expats don’t like the idea of placing this burden on their family/friends and would rather pay a modest fee (approx $200/year) to have a virtual mailbox service instead. 

2) Virtual Mailbox

This is the solution that many expats use to receive mail in the US. It’s the one I’ve also been using for years, both as a digital nomad and Ecuadorian resident.

I’m not a US citizen, but I do have a company based in the US complete with bank accounts and everything else that comes with having a US company. There are always letters to receive, forward or have stored for later. Including official letters from the IRS and debit/credit cards from banks. So, this service needs to be solid. 

How do Virtual Mailboxes work? 

The basic concept is simple; you pay a provider to receive, scan, forward & store your mail. There are numerous companies that provide this service, and which is best for you will normally come down to the plan inclusions.   

Plans for different types of users

Most virtual mailbox companies use a monthly pricing model, often with discounts if you pay yearly. But, be careful when comparing plans as you need to make sure you’re comparing apples with apples.

Number of scans included

Scans Included

Most providers will scan the outside of the envelope for no additional cost. But, opening up the mail and scanning these documents takes more time and is generally the key differentiator between plans and providers.

Some plans don’t include any document scanning, whilst others do. Depending on how much mail you’ll be receiving, you may find the ‘cheaper’ plan actually costs you more in the long run. This happened to me when I originally chose my provider as each scan was considered an extra that quickly added up. The following table illustrates this scenario: 

ProviderMonthly Cost
(Basic Plan)
Mail Scanning CostTotal Monthly Cost
5 Letters Scanned (2 pages each)
Virtual Post Mail$2010 scans free each month$20
US Global Mail$14.95$3 + .50cents/pg$34.95
Always check the plans for inclusions as you may be surprised what is counted as an ‘extra’.

Some plans allow for any unused scans to roll over to the next month, but most don’t. 

Heavy users may find the higher-priced plans actually provide a lot more value. 

P.O. Box vs Street Address

Some providers use P.O boxes whilst other providers use real, physical street addresses. There can be several disadvantages to P.O boxes: 

  • Can only receive shipments from USPS (not Fedex etc) 
  • Banks & government organizations often don’t accept a P.O box as an official address
  • If you have an LLC company, your registered agent needs to have a street address 
  • Can overfill if nobody checks it regularly

As such, we’d generally recommend opting for a provider that uses physical street addresses. 

Specific address requirements

A core limitation can be which state or city you’d like your new address. Some providers may have many different locations they use, but not all services (such as check deposits) are available from all locations. This can be particularly important if you’re running a business because of the state tax implications.

Depositing Checks

One of the most convenient offerings can be having the virtual mailbox provider also deposit your checks. This is generally an extra cost and you’ll need to make sure your bank offers a mail-in deposit service. If you receive a lot of checks, then you’d definitely want to choose a provider that offers good pricing for this service. 

Package Forwarding

This one can be super important for those living in Ecuador that need their packages forwarded to their international shipper or mule of choice in the US. Whilst you’ll most likely want to try shipping your packages directly to your shipper/mule, sometimes it’s simply not possible.

For example, perhaps you’re still confirming details with your mule and aren’t ready to send the package to them just yet. Sending to your virtual mailbox first may be the next best option. 

The missing link – Shipping into Ecuador

Shipping to Ecuador

It’s all well and good to secure a reliable virtual mailbox that will accept your US mail. But, then what? The most challenging piece of the puzzle is to then get it sent to Ecuador. You have 3 main options: 

1. FedEx or DHL 

This option is perhaps the most reliable, but it comes at a pretty steep cost. Sending a one-page letter to Ecuador can easily cost $80+. This type of service we’d generally recommend for only the most important documents such as visa documents (apostilles etc) or emergency credit cards. 

2. Ecuadorian Shipping Company

The relaxing of the 4×4 shipping rule now opens up more affordable options for shipping into Ecuador. So long as the package cost less than $400 & weighs less than 4kg, it may be a good candidate for the 4×4 program which attracts significantly less taxes than a regular shipment. 

Some companies will consolidate your packages before sending which helps keep shipping costs to a minimum. One example to start your search is Deblex

Others will send the package as soon as it arrives without consolidating. One example is Laarbox (operated by Laar Courier). 

Sometimes you don’t want your packages consolidated for security or other reasons, so it pays to do your research into how each shipping company will treat your packages. 

3. Mule

The lack of quality, affordable shipping options into Ecuador has allowed a thriving community of mules to operate. There are a lot of Ecuadorian families that regularly travel via the US & Ecuador. To offset some of their travel costs, they may offer to bring you items at a fee. But, there are other operations such as mules that operate with the sole purpose of making money and will make as many trips as they deem safe – ie before customs starts to get suspicious. 

There is a considerable downside to using mules, they are not regulated. If something goes wrong, which does happen, then you may find it very difficult to recover your goods. At a minimum, it’s always a good idea to get trusted recommendations from previous customers.

A good place to start your search for mules is this Facebook Group

Virtual Mailbox Price Comparison 

ProviderMail
Items
Internal
Scans
Extra
Scans
Deposit ChecksTotal Monthly Cost
Incl 5 Scans (2 pages each)
Virtual Post Mail2510$1 (up to
10 pages)
$4.95$20
Traveling Mailbox4035$0.5 / page$4.95$15
Anytime Mailbox*305$0.5 / pageN/A$12.45
US Global MailUnlimted0$3+
.50c / page
Free$34.95
Post Scan Mail305 items
(up to 10 pages)
$2 (up to
10 pages)
N/A$15
Monthly plans compared across 5 of the most popular virtual mailbox providers

* Anytime Mailbox uses a slightly different model that allows for many different locations with lots of variables in the pricing model. This makes it hard to provide average prices & we’ve just used one example for Texas.

Which provider do we use?

We’ve been using Traveling Mailbox for many years. We rarely go above their limits so their $15 monthly pricing works well for us. If you use this link when you sign up, we’ll receive a small commission.

Wrapping Up

Setting up a virtual mailbox can seem a little daunting at first but the process is pretty straightforward. The most time-consuming part of the process is actually changing your address with every single organization before you move. But, you’ll need to do this whether you use a friend or virtual mailbox service.

Once your new mailbox is setup, keeping track of incoming mail is now just a few clicks away. And, you don’t need to do any yearly maintanence – unless of course you’re unhappy with your current provider and need to find another.

We’d love to hear your feedback on your current virtual mailbox provider. Particularly if you have a recommendation for one we haven’t mentioned already.

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