How to Address a Letter

These days, letter writing may not be as popular as text messaging or sending emails. Still, everyone should know how to compose a formal letter. You should also be able to address a letter to someone within your own country and to a recipient abroad. In this article, we’ll review some essential tips for addressing an envelope or a package. We’ll also discuss the essential components of a cover letter.

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Writing Your Return Address

Before you address a letter or package to your recipient, you’ll want to include your own name and contact information. This step is important because the post office or delivery service will return the item to that address if anything goes wrong with the shipment. To write a return address, use the following format:

[Your professional title, if applicable] [First Name] [Last Name]
[Company name, if applicable]
[Street Address]
[Apartment or suite number]
[City], [State] [Zip Code]

Of course, if you live outside the United States, you would write the last line according to your local postal designation.

For instance, if you live in Hong Kong, you might write something like this:

[Name of village, town or district (in CAPITAL LETTERS)]

If you live in South Africa, the last lines would look like this:

[Postal code]
South Africa

On an envelope, your return address should be handwritten or printed in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. Alternatively, the return address may be printed or affixed with a sticker to the upper flap-side of an envelope. For a package, the return address should be written on the upper left-hand side of the front of the package, unless the package has a form field for the return address elsewhere. 

Addressing a Recipient in the United States

When you write to someone in the United States, you should address the envelope with the following information:

[Professional title, if applicable] [First Name] [Last Name]
[Company’s name, if applicable]
[Street Address]
[Apartment or suite number]
[City], [State] [Zip Code]

You may use a professional title, such as Doctor or Professor, before the person’s name. For a judge, you would normally address the envelope to The Honorable [Full Name]. Otherwise, you could use Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs., or nothing at all. If you’re unsure of a woman’s marital status, use Ms. Whenever you’re unsure of a person’s gender, it’s best to address that person by first and last name rather than use the incorrect honorific. When you write to a family, you can either address the envelope to “The [Last Name] Family,” or you can address it to the heads of the household, adding the first names of any additional family members to the second line.

For example:

The Honorable Wendy Miller and Mr. Richard Miller
Laura, Tom, and Ricky

For a wedding invitation, it can be particularly important to list each recipient so the invitees understand who is invited. 

Be sure to add a stamp to the envelope or proper postage to a package!

Addressing a Recipient Outside the United States

As described above, the last line in a U.S. mailing address contains the city, state, and zip code. Outside the United States, the address format varies significantly by region and country. It’s best to look up the proper formatting for your destination to ensure successful delivery. Be sure to include the name of the country, especially if you are sending a letter or package to someone abroad. 

Honorifics and appropriate titles also differ, depending on the recipient’s nationality. For example, in countries with hereditary titles, known as peerage, you may need to address someone as “Lord,” “Count,” “Duchess,” etc.

Expect to spend more on a postage stamp for an international letter or package. Check with the postal service or mail carrier to be sure that you’ve paid the appropriate postage rate in order to get your mail to its destination. For a letter, always put the stamps in the top right corner of the envelope. 

Formatting a Letter

The sender’s address usually appears on the letterhead or in the top left corner of a letter. You do not need to include your name and professional title with your address in this location. On the next line, write any other important contact information, such as your phone number or email address. Under your contact information, write the date. You should use the proper date formatting for the country where your recipient will be receiving the letter. 

Below the date, write the full address, including the recipient’s full name, job title, company name, suite or apartment number, street number, street name, etc. 

After the recipient’s address, include your salutation with the appropriate title. For a formal letter, we recommend beginning with “dear,” as in “Dear Mr. [Name]” or “Dear Ms. [Name].” Again, whenever you’re unsure of a person’s gender, try to opt for gender neutral language. For example, you could write “Dear [First Name] [Last Name],” “Dear [First Name]” or “Dear [Job Title] [Last Name]”. Follow the salutation with a comma for informal letters or a colon for business letters. 

 In order to encourage your reader to respond, you may want to conclude the body of your letter with one of these lines. At the end of the letter, you can write a sign-off, your name, and your signature. A few common sign-offs include “sincerely,” “regards,” and “best wishes.” 

Writing a Cover Letter

A cover letter describes a special kind of professional letter, often used as part of a job application. The term “cover letter” can be used for any formal letter that provides context for additional documents and information. For example, you might include a cover letter with a loan application or a business proposal. A cover letter should be less than one page in length. The content should be customized based on the recipient, which may require you to do some research. Use the body of the cover letter to explain why the recipient should approve your application or proposal, and why you’re a good candidate for the job, loan, or contract. A cover letter is also a chance to give additional information that the hiring manager or decision maker would be unable to glean from your application alone. 

Often, you will not have much information about your recipient when you write a cover letter. Do research to discover a potential recipient’s name, such as the head of the human resources department or a bank manager. Whenever possible, address a cover letter to the attention of one person (often abbreviated “attn” in the address line), rather than to “sir or madam” or “to whom it may concern”.