The politics of postal codes

Let’s face it, I’m a geek. After more than 20 years of minutely studying address systems, I still come across new information and it still interests me.  For example, you wouldn’t think that politics would affect postal codes, would you?  But in many parts of the world, it does.

In The Netherlands, for example, where postal codes have four digits, a space and then two letters, the two letters are never SS, SA and SD. Why?  Because the SS (Schutzstaffel), the SA (Sturm Abteilung) and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) were all repressive organisations of the Nazi regime, and, as The Netherlands suffered badly when occupied during the Second World War, those abbreviations are carefully avoided.

In Croatia, post-independence postal code ranges skip straight from 10 to 20, anecdotally to avoid assigning the code 11, which belonged to Belgrade in Serbia when both countries were part of Yugoslavia and which no Croatian municipality wished to take on.

Some countries assign codes to areas outside their political control, or maintain codes for areas lost.  Pakistan reserves a range of codes for parts of Kashmir which it claims but are under Indian control. A range of South African codes which had been used for South West Africa before it became independent Namibia form a hole in their system.

Many countries which have broken up maintain the codes used in the previous country – Russia and many of its sister countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Serbia and Bosnia and Hercegovina from their Yugoslav days, to name but a few.

Regional rivalries and province problems

On a more local scale, postal code boundaries often do not coincide with local government boundaries. Why should they?  They are created for entirely different purposes.  But in some countries systems were designed to coincide neatly with regional areas.  Often time has blurred this neat match.  When codes were created for Italy in 1967, for example, they were based on provinces.  Since then large numbers of new provinces have been created making creating a match between code and province a much more hit and miss affair.

In France the codes seem to match with the provinces (departments) well, but, as ever, the systems have diverged over the years.  New codes had to be created for the growing suburbs of Paris, whilst when some of the overseas territories changed status and split, postal codes failed to follow suit.

Then there are those places whose postal codes depends on where you’re sending your mail from. Most of us sending an item to Northern Cyprus would use the 4-digit code used in the rest of the island, but send anything from Turkey and you’d use a 6-digit Turkish code commencing with 922.  For most of us, Hong Kong doesn’t have a postal code system, but send mail from China and you’d use the code 999077.

There’s plenty of facts about postal codes that you’d probably never need to know.  But there’s plenty more that you do need to know.  For a good selection of both, take a look at Practical International Data Management.

  • Peter Keane

    Fascinating post. Postcodes don’t exist in Ireland yet – they are being introduced within the year. We don’t know what they’ll look like yet – will they avoid certain acronyms? Let’s wait and see…