USPS tracking numbers

I noticed the other day that an app on my phone assumed that a long number was a USPS tracking number. I wondered how it decided that and did a little research. I assumed there was some structure to the number, at least a check sum if not more than that.

This turned out to be a deep rabbit hole. USPS and other carriers all have a variety of tracking numbers, either for different kinds of packages or formats that have changed over time. My impression is that much of what is publicly known about these numbers has been reverse engineered, not extracted from documentation. I decided to turn around before I spent any more time looking into this.

Then I took a more empirical approach. What if I change a few digits? That should break the checksum. It seems my app believes a positive integer is a USPS tracking number if and only if the number has 22 digits.

That’s not very clever. Or maybe it is. It’s not very clever at the deepest level. The app apparently does not care about false positives. But that might be a clever choice at a higher level. Simply assuming 22-digit numbers are tracking numbers is a good bet, and this is robust to any changes in how groups of digits are interpreted.

Update: It looks like the software checks whether the first digit is a 9. I can change other digits of a tracking number, but not the first.

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One thought on “USPS tracking numbers

  1. There are some (somewhat) relevant RFC (3886 et seq.) and ISO standards out there. As you say…. rabbithole.

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