I'm an international student currently studying in a community college in the United States. I'm applying to a Japanese university and they require me to send them two recommendation letters from my professors directly via postal mail to Japan.

Do the professors have to pay to mail the letters?

  • 56
    The time a professor spends writing a letter of recommendations is a couple of orders of magnitude more valuable than the price of posting a letter. So, you might as well ask about the price of the printer ink they use up printing the letter, the envelope used for posting it, the price of the electricity to power up the computer and printer, the price of food consumed during the writing, …
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 9, 2021 at 22:30
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    Do professors worry about paying for mailing letters? I don't. I wouldn't, even if the cost of mailing a letter were to grow by a factor of ten.
    – MPW
    Jul 10, 2021 at 3:33
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    As writing letters of recommendation forms part of the job, I would assume the department pays for it (and handles the shipping including tracking if needed). I'm in the UK, but any odd bit of paperwork I had to mail out was always handled by the university. Jul 11, 2021 at 19:33
  • 3
    Correspondence (especially with other departments) is part of a professor's job. So the department will normally pay for the costs associated with it. Jul 12, 2021 at 15:23

6 Answers 6


Back when letters were normally sent by paper mail, the student usually provided a stamped, addressed envelope to the professor. Since letters are rarely sent now, I strongly suggest you do that too; your professors may have forgotten how it works. They might even have stamps that are no longer valid.

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    And even in the olden times, I would guess that the main reason to provide the stamped envelope was not to spare the professor the postage costs, but the effort required to prepare the envelope, write the address, double-check that everything is correct, etc.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 10, 2021 at 9:04
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    In addition to approving Wrzlprmft’s comment, I’m really surprised to see that they’d have to use stamps (as in postage stamps) at all. In our university (in Germany), we put the faculty stamp on the letter, all mail is then sorted by the internal university postal service and accordingly forwarded to the Deutsche Post (which delivers most mail in Germany). No postage stamps involved.
    – Philipp
    Jul 10, 2021 at 16:16
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    Back when letters were normally sent by mail, in many universities the letters would have been stamped by the Department administration, not by the professor. Jul 10, 2021 at 16:35
  • It also helps if you give the addressed envelope then you can make sure the address is correct and addressed to the correct person (which might be a secretary/administrator rather than the person your writing the reference to)
    – Rob
    Jul 12, 2021 at 11:02
  • @Philipp Not all universities are organized equal, though it certainly makes sense this way. (Sure the university doesn't have a stamping machine of some kind - not one applying physical stamps, of course.)
    – user151413
    Aug 24, 2021 at 18:35

Offering to pay the professor for the postage would likely make them uncomfortable. Accepting cash in return for writing a letter of recommendation would feel weird, like accepting a bribe, even if it only reimbursed them for a cost they would be incurring.

But providing them with a stamped, addressed envelope feels different. That is preventing them from incurring a cost on your behalf in the first place.

I realize this is essentially the same answer as Anonymous Physicist, but I wanted to emphasize that you shouldn't offer to give them any money, but just to give them the stamped addressed envelope.

One benefit of providing that yourself is that it takes the anxiety off the professor about it not getting there.

  • 1
    I agree that it would be a little weird to offer them crumpled-up fiver, but I'm not sure it'd be interpreted as a bribe--it's just adding even more friction to an already odd process (do they need to bring you the change? Keep the receipt? What if the dept pays?)--and for basically nothing. The stamped envelope doesn't introduce extra friction--and in fact, removes it. (Also, if you were overnighting something across the planet, offering to pay might actually be appreciated).
    – Matt
    Jul 12, 2021 at 0:28

It's not the postage that would raise concerns for me -- it's the work flow.

I could, in theory, drop it in my departmental mail bag with the right bar code attached to it, and it would probably work. "Probably" isn't good enough for me, though, when somebody's career is involved. I would make a call or two to make sure it would work, and hopefully I'd get a valid answer.

In practice, with such a request, I would probably just walk the letters into a Post Office, and pay for it myself, just to make sure it would be handled appropriately. Assuming it's under $20US or so, it's a cost I would gladly absorb for peace of mind -- so long as the situation doesn't come up too often!

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    First class international mail from US to Japan is $1.20 (up to an ounce). Priority mail is very pricey, though.
    – Buffy
    Jul 9, 2021 at 19:07
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    @Buffy: Per my comment on the question, I would eat tenfold that cost ($12.00) without blinking. Who wouldn't? Unless you really dislike the student, why complain about that?
    – MPW
    Jul 10, 2021 at 3:38
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    @MPW, I was emphasizing that it can be an inconsequential cost. IIRC priority mail to Japan can be around $70, however.
    – Buffy
    Jul 10, 2021 at 9:59
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    @Buffy If international priority is required for some reason, the professor would go to the department secretary and the department would pay for it without blinking. Personal anecdote: I got a letter with something close to overnight shipping from the US to Europe after I told the department they misspelled my name for some visa stuff.
    – quarague
    Jul 10, 2021 at 20:12
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    @MPW I mean, if you like more than one student, that can add up esp if you're not tenured. Jul 10, 2021 at 23:44

Most professors would be willing to do this, or their department would, but you can also offer to provide them postage for this. You could even take the sealed and addressed letters and post them yourself as an alternative.

But it would seem odd if anyone objected to paying for the postage.

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    you can also offer to provide them postage for this. As I was saying, the time a professor spends writing a letter is worth a lot more to them than the cost of a postage stamp, and yet it’s obviously unacceptable for a student to offer to pay for it. Can you comment on why you think it would be okay for the student to pay for the postage?
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 10, 2021 at 1:40
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    @DanRomik There's some argument to be made for fulfilling the social cues, as the student offering to pay meets with the tradition. Perhaps the answer could highlight this increasingly obscure historical factoid, but deciding whether acknowledging the tradition this way remains worthwhile also seems impossibly subjective.
    – user137975
    Jul 10, 2021 at 2:25
  • @AnonymousM sorry, I have no idea what tradition or historical factoid you’re referring to… I guess it really is pretty obscure.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 10, 2021 at 5:11
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    @DanRomik Fair. I'm fairly young all things considered, but by osmosis I've frequently heard (in the US) that offering to pay for postage is traditional for rec letters. But perhaps that's idiosyncratic and I'm just biased by anecdote. Given we have an answer and a comment reporting it, though, perhaps it'd be nice for an answer to consult whether that's a common tradition more thoroughly.
    – user137975
    Jul 10, 2021 at 5:24
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    @DanRomik My impression of the social rules, at least in America, is that you do not offer to pay if you're asking someone for a favor. In this case, you are not and cannot hire the professor to write the letter for you, so you do not offer to pay them. But it is acceptable and often accepted to pay auxiliary costs, like gas (for something they have to travel for), food (for something that takes an extended amount of time) or postage (if the favor involves mailing something).
    – prosfilaes
    Jul 10, 2021 at 22:56

Here is another perspective from a european university. At my place it would be most strange, if official mail, concerning someone from the institute in even the remotest possible way, would not simply be covered by the institute of the professor. There is also the option to send the mail personally (to make sure everything is done correctly) and then reimburse the cost from the institute (though you would have to be working for the institute).

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    This is what I would have assumed. Writing recommendation letters is part of the job. Expenses incurred to furfill the job are the problem of the employer. I would assume the faculty would have postage paid envelopes, or would reimburse. Now it might not be worth the effort of reimbursing, but in that case it's also not worth the student worrying about Jul 11, 2021 at 8:41

Another possibility: send the professor an International Reply Coupon. These are available from your local post office, and can be used by the recipient to send a letter first-class airmail. This works regardless of where your correspondent is. No currency exchange required.

  • mostly unrelated, but the purported scheme (cover story) invented by Charles Ponzi to attract "investors" was to arbitrage the International Reply Coupon!
    – Michael
    Jul 11, 2021 at 19:10

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