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Gifts in the Mail: What's Legal and Illegal?

Person packing up a box of returns to send back to company
By Richard Dahl on December 03, 2020 12:08 PM

Thanks to the pandemic, you're probably changing your holiday gift-giving plans.

Your family gathering may be smaller than usual, but you still want to give gifts to family members and friends who won't be there. So you're realizing that you'll need to mail the gifts or have them picked up for delivery.

If you're smart, you've also made plans to do it as soon as possible. The U.S. Postal Service and private delivery companies like FedEx say they anticipate record package volume this holiday season and are urging people to act quickly.

But in your haste, it might be wise to think about whether the things you intend to ship are actually legal. Most of the items we typically give as presents are obviously legal to ship – clothing, toys, books, etc. But there are some commodities that are less obviously legal and may be subject to restrictions.

Let's take a look at some of them.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Take liquor, for example. It might be tradition that you always give Uncle Charlie a bottle of his beloved Old Sawbones for Christmas, but don't think you can just package up a well-cushioned bottle of his choice booze and send it. The Postal Service won't ship alcohol — period. FedEx and UPS will ship liquor, but only from licensed distributors or manufacturers.

Liquor shipping across state lines is governed by a maze of state and local laws, which also come into play when you're thinking of mailing booze. It's much easier to ship liquor in-state, so if Uncle Charlie is in another state the best option is to order Old Sawbones online from a liquor store near him and have them or a service like Drizly deliver it.

Firearms are restricted in many ways. If there's a gun you envision as the perfect gift for your cousin Clive, it may not be as simple as just sticking it in the mail to him. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the sender and receiver of a firearm must generally be a Federal Firearms Licensee, so you would have to arrange the delivery through them. ATF does provide an exception, however, for long guns (rifles and shotguns). If you're a non-licensee, you can send a long gun (unloaded, of course) to another person in your state or to a licensee in another state. ATF also says that handguns cannot be put in the mail. They must be transported by common carrier.

Thinking of sending a box of fancy French cigarettes to the unrepentant smoker in the family? Forget it. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are restricted items and can only be mailed in limited circumstances. Cigars, on the other hand, are not restricted. Go figure.

Living Creatures

Want to send a cute rabbit to Aunt Eleanor for Christmas? Don't even think about it. Neither the Postal Service nor any commercial delivery service will handle pets or any warm-blooded mammals except in limited circumstances.

But if you'd like to send fish, amphibians, reptiles, or even bees, you're in luck.

Of course, restrictions apply, so let's look at a couple of them.

If, for instance, you'd like to send a small, cold-blooded creature via the Postal Service, you can do so. But it must not require any food, water, or attention during its transport or create “obnoxious odors."

Or let's say you'd like to give nature-loving Grandpa Chuck the gift of bees. The Postal Service and UPS both allow ground shipment of bees, subject to their packaging requirements and prominent disclosure about the contents, but if air transport is required, the Postal Service says it can only be a queen honeybee with up to eight attendant honeybees. We don't know why, but it certainly smacks of regal influence.

Or perhaps you'd enjoy nothing more than sending a snake (non-poisonous, of course) to delight your strange but lovable niece, Elvira. If so, be forewarned: It's difficult. Neither the Postal Service nor UPS will touch snakes of any kind. FedEx is the only carrier that will transport snakes, but they require a “live reptile certification" that can only be obtained after you complete a series of tests. But take heart! There are third-party snake shippers like this one who have already passed FedEx's test and would be happy to give you a quote.

And, Finally, a Few More Things

  • Perfume is another touchy commodity for the mail. There are two types of perfume – alcohol-based and oil-based – and the Postal Service will not ship alcohol-based perfume internationally or mailed domestically using air transportation. Within the U.S., the Postal Service will ship either kind via ground transport. UPS and FedEx consider perfume “dangerous goods" and will ship it under a contract or if special measures are taken.
  • The U.S. Postal Service is the only company that ships cremated remains, but you must follow their strict rules. You must use USPS's Priority Mail Express and its Cremated Remains Kit to ensure secure packaging.
  • It's legally risky for individuals to send medicine or drugs through the mail. Medicines are controlled substances and are strictly regulated; prescription medications can only be mailed by distributors who are registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Meanwhile, mailers and shippers alike must know the contents of the package and treat them accordingly.
  • Even though cannabis has become legal in many states, it's still against the law to mail it – even within a state where it's legal. Why? Because pot is still illegal at the federal level and the Postal Service is a federal entity. Private carriers won't transport pot, either.

If you're not sure about the legality of shipping the gift you have in mind, it might be a good idea to check the rules that have been set by the Postal Service and the private carriers:

Happy gifting!

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