ICAO and the Universal Postal Union



Established in 1874, the Universal Postal Union (UPU), with its headquarters in Berne, Switzerland, is the second-oldest international organization worldwide (after the International Telecommunication Union, ITU); it coordinates postal policies among member nations, in addition to the worldwide postal system, and became on 1 July 1948 a Specialized Agency of the United Nations. French is the official language of the UPU; English was added as a working language in 1994. There are five bodies within the UPU: the Congress, the Council of Administration, the Postal Operations Council, the Consultative Committee, and the International Bureau.


Plaque commemorating the Signing Ceremony in Berne on 9 October 1874

Today, almost 328 billion letters and 7.4 billion parcels are sent every year and airmail plays an essential role in their delivery; while the emergence of electronic communications caused a dramatic decrease in the number of letters sent, more and more parcels are delivered daily thanks to e-commerce growing at a double-digit increase. The UPU plays an important role in regulating worldwide traffic of international mail, establishing quality-of-service standards, establishing technical standards, and maintaining a system for compensating countries known as terminal dues. But also, in promoting the development of modern products and services, monitoring market trends, promoting international cooperation and technical assistance, and fostering a dialogue among all postal sector players.


Prior to the establishment of the UPU, each country had to prepare a separate postal treaty with other nations it wished to carry international mail to or from. In some cases, senders would have to calculate postage for each leg of a journey, and potentially find mail forwarders in a third country if there was no direct delivery. The use of postage stamps for prepayment of postage was not introduced until 1840, when the United Kingdom (UK) established a unified postage charge to be paid by the sender of a letter regardless of the distance it had to travel. The world’s first adhesive postage stamp, released in the UK in 1840, was known as the Penny Black for its price and colour.


General Postal Union – Front page of the Treaty of Bern (1874)

In 1862, US Postmaster General Montgomery Blair wrote a letter to the then Secretary of State William Henry Steward proposing the creation of an international conference, inspired by the structure of the Austro-German Postal Union, that would simplify and standardize international postal practices. The International Postal Congress gathered the following year in 1863 in Paris representatives of 15 European and American postal administrations. The decisive development came from Heinrich von Stephan, General Post Director for the German Empire; through his diplomacy, he managed to gather postal representatives from 22 countries in Bern from 15 September 1874. At the end of this Conference, the Treaty of Bern was signed on 9 October 1874 and the General Postal Union was created, as an intergovernmental body committed to developing a single postal territory to serve the entire globe. During this first Postal Congress, the International Bureau, operating under the supervision of the Swiss Confederation, was created to provide the secretariat for the new General Postal Union.


From 1874, the rates of postage for the conveyance of correspondence throughout the entire extent of the single postal territory were uniform and fixed by the UPU Congress. The principle of uniformity of charges introduced in the 1874 Berne Convention simplified and standardized the complex scales of postal charges that had existed under bilateral agreements. In addition to the uniformity of charges, there was another fundamental principle that governed the global postal network: the principle of reciprocity (also referred to as the principle of non-sharing of charges) expressed in the Convention, with the exception of the transit charges payable by the country of origin to the country of destination. Back in 1874, it was possible to speak of reciprocity; however, over time some countries found that they were receiving far more mail from abroad than they dispatched.


In 1875, Eugène Borel, a member of the Swiss Federal Council, was appointed as the first Director of the International Bureau of the General Postal Union. At the Second Congress of the General Postal Union which met in Paris in 1878, its name was changed to Universal Postal Union as the membership in the Union had grown so quickly.


The postal mechanism has kept turning its wheels, working around global events and challenges to move the sector forward. The Second Congress in Paris in 1878 introduced money orders.


The invention of postage stamps revolutionized the postal service, simplifying the tariff system for paying the cost of letters service and cutting losses to postal operators. Today stamps are much more than just a means of paying for a service, they have become the focus of a global market comprising different stakeholders. Introducing stamps to the e-commerce market has granted global collectors’ easy access to purchase international stamps they may have had difficulties finding through traditional dealers.


At the 1906 Rome Congress, this principle of reciprocity was challenged for the first time when the Persian delegation proposed an amendment to the article dealing with the allocation of charges in the Universal Postal Convention. The 1906 Congress rejected this proposal, arguing that the proposal was based on considerations that were totally foreign to the spirit of the Union. The principle of uniformity of charges was adapted to the economic realities of the world which, in the 1920s, were appreciably different from those of the preceding decades. The 1924 Madrid Congress gave administrations the option of increasing or reducing the basic charges within certain percentage limits. In 1929, visionaries noticed the rapid development of the airline industry and therefore added air transport to the UPU convention.


The Treaty of Bern was amended a number of times after its conclusion. On 10 July 1964 (at the 15th UPU Congress which met in Vienna), the UPU incorporated the treaty into a new Constitution of the Universal Postal Union, which is now the treaty that is ratified by states when they wish to join the UPU. World Post Day is observed on 9 October, recalling the date on which the Treaty of Bern was signed.


UPU Emblem


Monument unveiled on 4 October 1909

The UPU emblem is full of historic significance, and takes its inspiration from the Universal Postal Union monument erected at the beginning of the 20th century in Berne, Switzerland; it is located in the Kleine Schanze Park in the heart of the city, near the train station. The bronze and granite statue commemorating the Union's founding in 1874 was unveiled on 4 October 1909. It is the work of the French sculptor René de Saint-Marceaux, a member of the Paris Académie des Beaux-Arts. He was commissioned to produce the work following an international competition organized by the Swiss Government on the theme: "Around the world". De Saint-Marceaux's sculpture embodies the UPU's truly universal mission, depicting five messengers, men and women, dancing round around the Earth; they symbolize the five continents as they pass letters round the globe. The monument's symbolic representation was gradually accepted as the UPU's distinctive emblem. The logo appeared for the first time on the cover of the UPU's flagship magazine Union Postale in 1951, and was then used on envelopes and official documents. The UPU's Executive Council adopted it as the Union's official logo in 1967.


ICAO maintained a permanent and regular liaison with UPU’s Executive and Liaison Commission and cooperated with various working groups/committees on postal studies. From the early days through its Air Transport Committee, ICAO did a considerable amount of work on studies of the cost of carrying mail by air, mail services, and allied matters, and drafted views on the principles for setting international airmail conveyance rates and transportation charges. Documents and questionnaires were circulated to Contracting States for comments and sent to the UPU shortly afterwards. For the purpose of formulating proposals to be considered at UPU’s triennial congresses, statistical information and comments were provided by ICAO to UPU on airline operating costs and revenues, on commercial rights for the carriage of international air mail, the allocation of mail loads between national and foreign carriers and the resulting tendency towards imbalance between outbound and inbound loads, the effects of the introduction of long-range jet aircraft, the facilitation of international air mail transportation, etc.


The Joint International Air Transport Association/Universal Postal Union Conference which met in Cairo, Egypt from 22 January to 5 January 1951 to discuss airmail problems drew up a revised schedule of tariffs for the transport of mail by air. These new rates were to be recommended to the members of IATA for adoption. Other recommendations were made concerning the remuneration of air companies, the use of collector bags, practice regarding bills of lading and delivery, charges for insured mails, measures for the acceleration of airmail and the payment of transport charges when the mail was destroyed. In regard to its future program, the conference suggested that the Congress of Brussels in 1952 should adopt provisions to abolish the present categories of airlines and that it should establish a new system of remuneration for commercial aviation companies. The conference further suggested the establishment of a Liaison Committee between IATA and UPU.


By 1964, a growing number of countries were challenging the principle of reciprocity and calling for a change in the system because they received far more international mail than they dispatched, and argued that they should be compensated for the increased handling costs.


More importantly, without the UPU, countries could not be guaranteed mail service to and from nearly every signatory nation around the globe. Prior to 1969, postal administrations did not directly compensate each other for the delivery of international mail since it was assumed that each mail item generated a reciprocal response, resulting in a broad balance of traffic. However, this assumption of equilibrium became obsolete as imbalances developed and sharp differences in postal operators’ costs and efficiency were highlighted. The UPU reacted to these developments in 1969 (since its 16th Congress held in Tokyo) by introducing a mechanism that provided remuneration for the costs of transporting, handling and delivering cross-border mail and small packets in the country of destination. The fees that must be paid for these services are commonly referred to as terminal dues. Terminal dues have evolved from a simplified form of payment for weight imbalances in mail exchanges to a system that, for the largest mail exchanges, provides payment for work performed, as measured by the number of items delivered. The 1969 Tokyo Congress also adopted the establishment of a rate of 0.5 gold francs per kilogram of excess mail.


Adopted by the 1969 Congress in Tokyo, terminal dues were introduced on 1 July 1971 as a payment by the sending country to the receiving country for handling and delivering international surface mail.


Apart from the ordinary or extraordinary Congresses, the Constitution used to provide for Administrative Conferences for the consideration of purely technical questions. The Union has availed itself of this possibility only three times, among which the 1927 The Hague Conference, which laid down the first airmail provisions. See more information about this Conference at: Airline companies officially recognized as airmail carriers.


According to Article 53 of the Universal Postal Convention ICAO regularly provides UPU with a statistical compendium of the finances and traffic of international airlines in connection with the setting of airmail conveyance rates. Close cooperation was maintained with UPU on subjects such as the acceleration of airmail ground handling, the need for improved postal installations at airports, the shipment of perishable biological substances by airmail, etc.


The need for collaboration between the two Organizations on the question of shipment of dangerous items by mail became obvious from the 1980s and required to develop and update dangerous goods plans, guidelines and training to secure the mail. Preventing dangerous goods from entering the mail stream remains a challenge; that’s why training postal employees to be vigilant is crucial. Threats to the air cargo and mail systems as a whole require a global approach in the development and implementation of security requirements and best practices, including cooperation with relevant international organizations in addition to ICAO and UPU, such as the World Customs Organization (WCO, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). On 28 October 2011, a letter, signed by ICAO and UPU, reaffirmed the common will of both parties to collaborate on matters of common interest and to further intensify the cooperation outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by both organizations in 2009. At the UPU 25th Congress in Doha in 2012, it was recommended to establish an ICAO-UPU Contact Committee on airmail security and safety and to update the ICAO–UPU MOU signed in 2009 strengthening aspects related to the cooperation on airmail security.


ICAO and the UPU have a long history of working together to ensure the efficient and safe movement of air mail. Of critical importance is UPU’s input to the ICAO processes for setting international standards, recommended practices and guidance material for aviation security. UPU/ICAO collaboration has intensified due to increased aviation safety and security requirements. Both organizations participate in the work of each other’s security bodies, and training material for use by postal staff is being developed in collaboration with ICAO.


With the right partners, integration of data sources and, importantly, resources, the potential value of postal big data is enormous. Concerning e-commerce, ICAO and the Universal Postal Union (UPU), under the framework of the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), have been using each other’s e-commerce and traffic carried by airmail big data to determine trends and to forecast the growth of different categories of e-commerce carried by postal authorities using air transport. These trends and forecasts have played a significant role in highlighting the important role of civil air transport in the carriage of business to consumer (B2C) e-commerce parcels. As well, ICAO and the UPU are currently working on a study using big data to identify and report on the logistical constraints to the growth of e-commerce. The technology used to process, store and analyze big data is different from that used in traditional data processing and storage of data. ICAO is using Hadoop, an open-source Java-based programming framework that supports the processing and storage of extremely large data sets in a distributed computing environment. Looking forward, the use of ICAO big data applications is expected to play an important role in the effective and appropriate implementation of projects related to achieving ICAO strategic objectives, thus ensuring the sustainable growth of air transport.


The UPU celebrated its 145th anniversary in 2019. On 30 May 2024, the United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) issued three stamps (see below) to mark 150 years of the Universal Postal Union; the stamps were issued in three panes of 9, one pane for each of the UN post office. Each stamp shows the earth in the background and in the foreground an outlined figure carrying mail. On the 68¢ stamp, a bird and a letter are shown in the foreground. The 1.20 Fr shows a mailman holding letters and the €0.95 stamp has an aircraft with a letter inside. Each pane has a decorative border at the top.



World Post Day is celebrated each year on 9 October, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874 in the Swiss Capital, Bern. It was declared World Post Day by the 16th UPU Congress held in Tokyo, Japan in 1969. Since then, countries across the world participate annually in the celebrations. The purpose of World Post Day is to bring awareness to the Post's role in the everyday lives of people and businesses, as well as its contribution to global social and economic development.


There are today a countless number of collectors of postage stamps. The postage stamp offers a glimpse into a country’s cultural, artistic and historical heritage. Policies regarding the issue, sale and marketing of postage stamps are a matter for each Union member country. However, Congresses have set down from time-to-time guidelines and recommended postage stamp themes that are likely to contribute in a general way to strengthening the bonds of international friendship. The UPU has also undertaken a number of activities designed to promote philately.


Cover commemorating the Joint Meeting IATA-UPU held in Cairo, Egypt from 22 January to 5 January 1951.



Argentina – Second Thematic Philatelic Exhibition (TEMEX ’60, sponsored by AFITA, Asociación Filatélica Temática Argentina) held in Buenos Aires from 4 from 9 December 1960. During this exhibition, a total of 12 covers were released paying tribute to the United Nations, its Programmes and Specialized Agencies; all covers are similar except for the emblem, the colours of the UN Buildings in New York and the date of release. These covers were issued on different dates ranging from 4 to 9 December 1960; the above cover (see front and back) related to UPU was dated 8 December 1960. On the back of the cover, note the numbering and the number of 500 copies printed.


The 17th Quadrennial Congress of UPU (year of its centenary) was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Cover sent by the International Bureau of UPU to ICAO. Postmark dated 30 May 1975.


Uruguay – Postmark cancel dated 9 October 1978 (World Post Day) – UPU Emblem.

The stamp was issued on 17 October 1977 for the 30th Anniversary of ICAO.


Comoros – 22 November 1977 - First commercial flight Paris-New York of Concorde.

De Luxe sheet with diagonal gold overprint "Paris-New-York - 22 nov. 1977".

Graf Zeppelin airship, Concorde and UN ICAO Safety in the Air (stamp-on-stamp issued on 12 June 1978); UN building; UPU emblem for its 100th anniversary.


Hungary - Emblems of CAPEX 78 and the UPU. Capex 78 UNPA blue show cancel with the flight paths.

Canada became a member of UPU in 1878. CAPEX 78 International Philatelic Exhibition, held from 9 to 18 June 1978 in the Automotive Building, Exhibition Place, Toronto, was the occasion to commemorate the centenary of Canada joining the Union. The acronym CAPEX stands for Canadian Philatelic Exhibition.


Brunei – 30 April 1986 - Admission of Brunei to International Organizations (WMO, ITU, UPU, ICAO).

Achieving full independence on 23 February 1984, Brunei was admitted to UPU on 15 January 1985 and to ICAO on 3 January 1985.


Service cover sent from UN New York to ICAO 10 December 1993 – Word Post Day slogan (9 October).


Service cover sent from the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) in Bern, Switzerland to ICAO

Postmark dated 9 October 1996 – Word Post Day slogan with UPU emblem.