Postal and courier services

Postal and courier services form a key part of the global communications infrastructure, with high economic and social importance.

Postal and courier services includes express delivery services.

Developments in the sector

In recent decades, the sector has undergone radical changes — from a regulatory, operational and technological perspective — throughout the world.

Technological changes have confronted mail operators with new forms of competition from other communication services (e.g. e-mails), but also presented new opportunities, e.g. increased demand for parcel delivery as a result of the e-commerce boom and the just-in-time shipment of goods to support global supply chains. This is a rapidly growing area which is playing a key role in supply chain management and logistics.

Market-oriented reforms have been undertaken in most countries: public postal operators have been corporatized and/or privatized and the scope of postal monopolies reduced. Furthermore, new regulatory issues have arisen as a result of the liberalization of postal markets.

Current commitments and exemptions

A total of 58 WTO members have commitments on courier services and/or postal services (counting EU-25 as one) as of end-2020.

Treatment of the sector in negotiations

Postal and courier services are included in the services negotiations, which began in January 2000. The principles of the General Agreement on Trade in Service (GATS) apply to trade in postal and courier services (including express delivery ) , as for all services.

At the outset of the services negotiations, a number of negotiating proposals were submitted — by both developed and developing countries (i.e. the European Communities, Mercosur and Bolivia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States) — on either postal, courier and/or express delivery. In 2005, the EC submitted a proposal for a reference paper in the sector (TN/S/W/26), and a group of members (EC; Hong Kong, China; Japan; New Zealand; Switzerland; and the US) suggested guidelines for scheduling commitments in the sector (TN/S/W/30).

All of the negotiating proposals pointed to an inadequacy of the Services Sectoral Classification List (MTN.GNS/W/120), which distinguishes postal and courier services on the basis of the nature of the service providers rather than of the services provided — i.e. postal services are essentially defined as those rendered by national postal administrations. Proposals were made for improved classifications, including in TN/S/W/30.

In terms of market access, proposals have underscored the need for commitments resulting in more extensive coverage of these services in members' schedules of commitments. In identifying barriers to market access and national treatment, some proposals have emphasized the existence of monopolies, while others have focused on measures discriminating against foreign suppliers.

Some members encouraged the undertaking of additional commitments in others' schedules to address certain regulatory issues. Anti-competitive practices, cross-subsidies, universal service obligations, independent regulators and licensing procedures are some of the issues mentioned in this regard. The right of members to define the kind of universal service they wish to maintain was not questioned, as suggestions focused on such aspects as transparent, non-discriminatory and competitively neutral implementation.

For information on the negotiating objectives expressed by members, see the annexes to the reports by the Chair of the Special Session of the Council for Trade in Services to the Trade Negotiations Committee in 2005 (TN/S/20 and TN/S/23).

Following the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference of December 2005, a group of members prepared a plurilateral request on postal and courier services, including express delivery, in March 2006.

The request encouraged members to provide substantially unrestricted market access, as well as effective national treatment, for services carried out under competitive conditions. It also suggested the undertaking of additional commitments, where possible, so as to have measures in place to address unreasonable practices by dominant suppliers, to ensure that any licensing requirements were transparent and reasonable, and to guarantee the regulator's independence from any supplier. The request also set out a series of objectives with respect to sectoral classification of commitments, e.g. clarifying that the sectoral description covers all competitive service suppliers, including monopolies, if these operate in competitive conditions outside their exclusive rights.

The request recognized that government intervention may be necessary to ensure the universal supply of quality basic postal services, including through direct government-supplied services and the designation of exclusive suppliers.