Countries - and address formats - change


by Merry Law, president of WorldVu LLC

Since 1990, 26 countries have come into existence and 9 ceased to exist. The breakup of the U.S.S.R. alone added 14 countries to the world's total. Yugoslavia's split has resulted so far in 6 countries. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and Timor Leste split from Indonesia. Other changes have also occurred – and more are expected.

In just the last 8 years, there have been more than 80 changes in postal addressing formats around the world. Some of those new countries kept their former address structure as they worked out their own new system. Regime changes can lead to new names for countries, states and provinces, and cities, as well as the address structure. For example, more than 30 countries have changed a postal code since 1999. Iraq's old 5-digit code was replaced by a new 5-digit code. As countries grow, so might their code from 4 digits to 5 digits or more. Mechanization also plays a role with more refined machine sorting, as it has been in the U.S. with the ZIP + 4.

More and more countries are instituting zip or postal codes. At least 20 countries have introduced postal coding systems since 1999. The Universal Postal Union (UPU), the international body that facilitates the flow of international mail, is actively encouraging the establishment of postal codes by its member countries and, according to their Web site, "117 UPU member countries use postcodes as part of their addressing systems."

One final caveat in this discussion: having a postal code does not always mean using a postal code. One country designed a postal code system in the 1990’s but requested that the code not be used until this year. Another has said, ""We forecast that maybe in the first year, only 10 percent of the population will be effectively using the code." The reasons why a country may not wish to use a postal code or why their citizens may adopt it less quickly can vary greatly with individual circumstances. It may be a cultural attachment to tradition, resistance to the introduction of automated equipment, limitations in literacy or communications, or some combination of all of these.

As I track changes for subscribers to WorldVu’s Guide to Worldwide Postal-Code and Address Formats, I have noticed a few trends that create some special problems for those of us that maintain multinational customer databases.

International Addresses require more space.

As we all know, addressing practices vary between countries and a customer database must be capable of handling those variations -- from a simple address with a city and postal code but no street address for large German companies to a 7 or 8 line address in the United Kingdom. The table below, with some statistics derived from a number of international databases maintained in the U.S., gives an indication of the differences in the standard addresses.

Average number of address lines

Maximum lines

Average number of characters/line

Maximum characters/line


























Obviously, there is wide variation. Depending on the specific countries, actual addresses may be longer than given in the table above, both in the number of lines and in the number of characters per line. One of my favorite examples is Escherheimerlandstrasse, a street name in Frankfort, Germany, which is abbreviated Escherheimerlandstr. A colleague in the U.K. tells me his home address has 9 lines if it is written in the manner prescribed by Royal Mail. However, many local people add 2 lines using an “outdated” (but still used) traditional format.

Among those countries that have postal codes, the codes range from 2 to 10 characters, may be completely numeric or have both numbers and letters, and may have embedded spaces or dashes. State, province or territory divisions used in addresses show a wide range of formats as well, from 2 upper case characters to lengthy name written out in full. (Although not the subject for this article, telephone numbers also vary greatly in length from 4 to 15 numbers without the country code.)

And since we are usually addressing a person we also need to consider the differences in names. This can range from individuals with a single name -- Myanmar and Indonesia come to mind – to lengthy compound personal and family names in Spanish or Arabic. Honorifics can vary from the simple 2 character abbreviations used in the U.S. (Dr., Mr., or Ms.) to compounds, such as Dr. Dr. Ing., and lengthy words that are not abbreviated, such as Al- Sayyeda.

Consider the language-related issues.

Other than the fields and lengths, the main issues in gathering and storing address information are linguistic ones. The use of accent marks and "foreign" characters must be confronted. Consider the entry, storage and printing of these characters when deciding whether to enter them or replace them. Most can be replaced with acceptable equivalents. However, some recipients will not be pleased with what they will consider a misspelling – perhaps in a personal name.

Should parts of the names and addresses be translated or not? While consistency is important, this is an area where the answer is not a simple yes or no. Country names should be easily understood by the delivery personnel in the country where you mail; so translate country names consistently into your language. (Do bear in mind that they may need to be changed if your mail is sent from any other country by direct injection.) The address should be easily understood by delivery personnel in the destination country, so do not translate post office box and street address information or city names. Whether to translate honorifics and corporate titles depends on how the information will be used. Keep in mind that some corporate titles do not translate well or accurately.

What can you do?

Determine how the addresses will be used. While correct addresses vary with the country, the "best" address may vary with the purpose of the mailing and type of delivery. A more formal and personalized letter might well require less abbreviation than a postcard mailing, for example. The particular use will dictate many of the decisions that need to be made.

Build a database with sufficient space and flexibility, knowing that changes will occur. If the designers and programmers are aware from the beginning that changes will occur, they can plan for it in advance and make those changes go more easily for everyone.

Be cautious in creating mandatory or required fields. Not all countries have state and province or post code and not everyone has a first and last name. Requiring them can lead to erroneous “filler” entries that must later be removed.

Establishing rules for entries with preferred languages and abbreviations for each of the elements in the address template will allow for greater consistency. This, in turn, will permit more accurate sorting, selections and de-duplication.

Educate your staff on the possibilities and keep them and yourself informed. Processing of addresses and correction will be done more quickly and easily and incorrect addresses will be spotted faster. You will end up with a better database and a more efficient and cost-effective operation.


This article on international addresses is the first in a series. In the next two issues, Merry will write on the various formats and standards for international addresses and how the reality differs from the ideal and on what specific changes that have occurred recently in what countries. ______

Merry Law, president of WorldVu LLC, oversees their publications and international marketing programs. Merry is editor of the Guide to Worldwide Postal-Code and Address Formats and developed the innovative Accurate Worldwide Addresses software. She led the DMA's seminar on international direct marketing Strategies to Successfully Expand Abroad in April , 2007.

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