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Certified Mail® Explained

Most people think of Certified Mail® as mail that comes with a green paper postcard that’s signed by the recipient upon delivery, setting Certified Mail apart from other sorts of mail. In fact, the “Green Card” is just one option when using Certified Mail. In this article, we’ll explain the important role Certified Mail serves for businesses, government and individuals, the options you have when using Certified Mail and how Certified Mail software will save you lots of time and money.

What is Certified Mail®?

Certified Mail is an Extra Service provided by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) that provides you with official verification that your letter was sent and delivered. Certified Mail plays an important role in business and legal affairs as Certified Mail receipts and delivery confirmations are considered prima facie evidence in legal proceedings by local, state and federal courts across the USA.  Approximately 190 million pieces of Certified Mail are mailed annually, according to USPS reports.

How is Certified Mail® Used?

Certified Mail is used by businesses, government and citizens for a large number of reasons. Here are six broad categories:

  1. Parties in legal proceedings use Certified Mail to prove that they mailed relevant documents to other parties, and also that those documents were received. Certified Mail receipts and delivery confirmations are considered prima facie evidence in legal proceeding by local, state and federal courts around the United States.
  2. Hundreds of state and local statutes, in every state, require Certified Mail for the transmission of specific documents, such as the foreclosure notices and insurance policy cancellations.
  3. Governments use Certified Mail for important communications with citizens, such as jury duty summonses, tax assessments, tax collections, citations, the granting of zoning variances and the findings of planning committees.
  4. Businesses and other organizations depend on Certified Mail to prove the mailing of specific items in circumstances that might lead to future litigation. For example, accounting firms use Certified Mail to file state and local tax returns, just in case the IRS misplaces tax returns and the accounting firm needs to prove timely mailing. Likewise, automobile manufacturers often use Certified Mail to deliver recall notifications to their customers. And oil exploration companies use Certified Mail to delivery royalty checks to investors. The use Certified Mail is wide-ranging. 
  5. For individuals, Certified Mail communicates a sense of urgency and legitimacy when delivered, separating Certified Mail from standard first class mail that can often be overlooked.
  6. For marketers seeking a one-to-one relationship with existing or prospective clients, Certified Mail enables them to deliver mail that is more likely to noticed. It also enables them to track each Certified Mail letter to the recipient who signed for it.

How Does Certified Mail Work?

You have several choices when it comes to using Certified Mail:

1. If Proof of Mailing is what you require, you have two options:

a. You can complete the Certified Mail Receipt – USPS Form 3800 – and attach it to front of the mail piece. The Post Office stamps the receipt, handing a portion of the receipt to you while the rest of the receipt stays on the mail piece. The unique 22-digit code on the receipt enables you to track the item via the USPS website. The carrier is allowed to leave the Certified Mail piece with anyone who signs for it at the given address. The USPS website will show the delivery date, but not the signature.

Image of Certified Mail receipt

b. There is an easier way that eliminates the Certified Mail Receipt and trips to the Post Office altogether.’s web based software makes it easy to prepare Certified Mail cover sheets and labels that include USPS® IMpb tracking technology and PC Postage, resulting in a Certified Mail envelope (see below) you can drop in any mailbox or leave for your Postal Carrier to pick up.

A Proof of Acceptance (Electronic), the image shown below, posts to your account soon after your Certified Mail® letter receives its first outbound scan, which is normally within a few hours of mailing. The Proof of Acceptance (Electronic) is accepted as prima facie evidence that the Post Office physically took possession of the Certified letter at a specific date and time. The POA has been deemed by the IRS to satisfy TITLE 26, Subtitle F, CHAPTER 77, Sec. 7502 of the US Treasury Code with “Timely mailing treated as timely filing and paying.”

Image of Proof of Acceptance (Electronic)

2. If you need proof that the Certified Mail letter was delivered and signed for, you also have two options:

a. The first is to use Certified Mail with Return Receipt. You fill in the USPS Form PS 3811 – also known as the “Green Card” – and attach it to the back of the envelope. The Postal Carrier will not hand over the Certified Mail piece until the Green Card has been signed by someone at the recipient’s address, and the Green Card is then returned to you via regular mail.

Image of USPS Green Card

The Green Card is the original method of receiving a signature. It dates back to the 1955 launch of Certified Mail® and it has some drawbacks. First, it is a manual process. Not bad if you only need to a single Certified Mail letter, but a hassle when preparing several Certified Mail letters at the same time. Second, you often wait many days for the Green Card to return after it is signed, which can be a costly delay when an important legal or asset recovery process can’t go forward without the signed Green Card in hand. Third, the Green Cards don’t always come back to you as you expect. They may get co-mingled accidentally with someone else’s mail and lost. And sometimes the Green Cards return without a signature. Finally, courts require you submit the original signed and dated Green Card to prove Proof of Delivery. Scans or copies are not accepted. This often means storing signed and returned PS 3811 forms for years, just in case they are needed. All in all, the labor costs for preparing, sending, retrieving and filing the Green Cards can easily double or triple the USPS fees for each piece of Certified Mail® you send.

b. The second option is using Certified Mail® with Return Receipt (Electronic). The USPS introduced the electronic Return Receipt (“RRE”) in 2004 to eliminate many of the issues around the Green Card. The recipient’s signature, time and date of delivery are captured by the Mail Carrier and returned to you electronically as a PDF document you can download from the USPS website and save on your own PC or server. No more worrying that your Green Cards get lost. No more need to retain Green Cards in files, as any print out of the Return Receipt (Electronic) is accepted by the IRS, State Tax Authorities and Courts as the legal equivalent to the Green Card.

Image of Return Receipt (Electronic)

Certified Mail® software from makes the most of the Return Receipt (Electronic) as it adds the recipients full address to the file and posts the PDF file to your account within 24 hours of the Mail Carrier delivering the Certified Mail® letter. The software also keeps the Return Receipt (Electronic) in your account for 10 years so you always have a backup when you need it.

3. When you need proof that your mail was received by a specific recipient: Using Certified Mail® with Return Receipt and Restricted Delivery, the mail carrier is authorized to deliver the item only to the specific addressee on the mail piece or to someone acting as the addressee’s authorized agent. Restricted Delivery is most often used for contracts, legal documents and other sensitive papers. It works whether you are using Green Cards or the Return Receipt (Electronic).

How much does Certified Mail® cost?

The 2020 fees for using Certified Mail® are detailed in the below. These fees are in addition to the postage cost for the particular First-Class or Priority Mail item being mailed. For example, a 1 oz. letter sent via Certified Mail® with Return Receipt costs $.55 for postage + $3.55 for Certified Mail® + $2.85 for the Return Receipt Green Card, a total of $6.95.

USPS Certified Mail® Fees2020
Certified Mail® (using PS 3800 form)$3.55
Return Receipt with Green Card (using PS 3811 form)$2.85
Return Receipt Electronic PDF (replaces Green Card)$1.70
Restricted Delivery$5.45

How long does Certified Mail® take to be delivered?

The easy answer is as long as it takes the USPS to move your mail from place A to B. and if using a Green Card, back again. But there is more.

When you are sending Certified Mail® that requires a signature, if no one is at the home or business to accept the mail piece, a delivery reminder slip is left by the mail carrier requesting the recipient picks up their mail at the post office. If no one picks up the letter after five to seven days, the USPS attempts a second delivery, and if that doesn’t work, a third and final delivery attempt is made after 10 -12 days. If three delivery attempts are unsuccessful the USPS marks the letter ‘Unclaimed’ and the letter is returned to you.

Fortunately, when using web based software, every part of the mailing process the software touches gets faster. We’ve already explained how the preparation and sending is made much faster by eliminating the manual forms and trips to the Post Office. Proof of Acceptance (Electronic) is received within hours of your Certified Mail® being picked up, and the Return Receipt (Electronic) is posted to your account within 24 hours of the Mail Carrier receiving a signature, thus eliminating the Green Card altogether.


We hope you found this information to be helpful. We feel it’s important for you to understand the different options available to you when using Certified Mail® so that you can choose and pay for only what you need.

If Certified Mail® is important to your business, watch our video below to learn how our online Certified Mail® software simplifies your preparation and management of Certified Mail®, lowers your postage fees and labor costs, and provides you with much faster receipt of Proof of Acceptance, Proof of Delivery and the signed Electronic Return Receipt.

How Works

If you have any questions, contact us toll-free at 888-462-1750 or by email.
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