Desert Snail Mail
How locals get mail in Qatar (shipment options)
Some thoughts about online shopping & home delivery in Qatar
How I got my mail in Qatar (as an exchange student)
Final thoughts on my mail experience in Qatar
My birthday card sent from home in the U.S.
I was an exchange student in Qatar, which meant for four months I had an overseas mailing address . . . more or less. See, I quickly learned that mail in Qatar wasn’t like mail in the U.S. in that it’s a bit trickier to get a hold on, well, your mail.
Truth be told, though, I should have suspected something was up with the mailing system after that guy from Northwestern visited VCU-Richmond and told me that if I ordered a pizza in Doha I wouldn’t tell them “402 Rosewood Lane” I’d say, “Al Wakrah, Al Areesh Street, next to the Baskin Robbins, on the second house to the left with a blue door.” If that’s what it was like to get a pizza delivered, I should have known getting a piece of international mail was going to be one heck of a process.
However, getting mail in Qatar wasn’t impossible, not by far; it just took a little time to figure it out.
So, how did locals get mail?
Qatar had a national mail service, the Qatar Post (shorted to “Q-Post”). No lie, I’m not 100% sure how this works because I didn’t know it existed until my last week in the country, but what I do know is that they offered P.O. Boxes, there’s an option for home delivery (for a hefty price), and there were a considerable number of branches scattered around the country (including one in Education City).
Private mail services were very popular in Qatar, probably because they make it incredibly easy for the 90% expatriate population to ship things back and forth between the 100+ countries they’re from. DHL, FedEx, UPS, and Aramex were a few that I knew worked in Qatar.
Dealing with some of these servicers is how I learned about mail forwarding: Assuming the recipient has an account with the mail servicer, you can send a package to the company’s U.S. address (with the account number of the individual written on said address), and then the servicer sends it to their branch overseas (where the person is able to pick it up, usually for a fee). I had this experience with Aramex, but each servicer is different and comes with their own perks and levels of ease.
I want to note that USPS still works in Qatar, as in to say, you can still address a letter directly to a Qatari address, drop it in the mail, and the mail will eventually arrive in Qatar. The only catch is that this can get really pricey really fast because of weight and international shipping rates. The box my mom sent me wound up being $66! Insane.
Pause: Online shopping
I feel compelled to talk about online shopping for a minute. Growing up in the U.S., online shopping was an easy norm by 2018, especially the epic but frighteningly addictive monster that is Amazon. In Qatar, I learned that people can still order things off Amazon, but it could sometimes be a bit roundabout. There’s some stuff that Amazon ships directly to Qatar, but other things required a U.S. mailing address (which is where private mail services can come in handy).
Me, I never ordered anything offline, but I did wonder just how popular online shopping was in Qatar. It didn’t seem unpopular necessarily, but part of the appeal of online shopping is that your stuff can come right to your doorstep, which wasn’t really an easy option in Qatar. I also wondered if perhaps a lack of online shopping culture contributed to why Qatar was packed with a variety of different stores that seemed to meet both peoples’ needs and those bizarre unnecessary whims we sometimes get (especially when we’ve got cash to burn). You can read more about my shopping experience in Qatar in the post Having Fun in Qatar, but I’ll tell you at least this one thing: There are a lot of malls, ranging from whack to awesome, and from cheap to bougie as hell.
I started thinking about all this, though, because my friend in Doha wanted my mom to ship her some stuff along with the things my mom was going to send me. These things were available to purchase directly online, I knew that for a fact, but for some reason it was easier for someone in the U.S. to buy them and ship them over as snail mail to a 3rd party than for the recipient to order it online. There could be a dozen of reasons for this, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the relationship between online shopping and Qatar, especially when it came to American products.
Alright, so how did I get mail?
I didn’t sign up for a Q-Post P.O. Box, and I definitely didn’t subscribe to a private mailing service, so how did I get mail while I was overseas?
First let me talk about getting mail sent directly to the female residence halls, where I lived. They had lots of mailboxes in the lobby, presumably for students, but come to find out the P.O. boxes in the girls’ dorm were inactive. That said, the student at the front desk said that my university (VCUQ) would provide me with a mailbox instead.
So, I asked VCUQ about the mailboxes and they said that they didn’t have mailboxes for students, but that students could get their mail sent directly to the university. They told me to address my mail to the VCUQ P.O. Box and, as long as it had my name on it, it would make its way to me.
I just want you to see how many times my name and address is written on this box and how much tape is on this thing. Whew.
I felt uncomfortable getting personal items sent to the school, but it worked out. Whenever a package came, I would get an email from . . . I don’t know, actually. Some sort of university services office, the sort of place that hands out mail and wall putty. I only received two mailed items: A surprise birthday card from my grandmother and a care package from my mom (which held another care package from my grandmother inside).
Boxes in boxes . . . boxception! And a sweet note! Parents can be great, man.
This was the first time I had ever really received mail from my immediate family. After all, I lived with them until I was 18, and when I moved out I moved to a university 15 minutes away from their house, meaning that if there was anything they needed to send me, I could just pick it up in person. I didn’t even change my own mailing address when I was in uni; all my mail still came to their house because their house was that close and provided a much easier a retrieval process (especially considering the mail service at VCU-Richmond was a mess, to the point where they had to reconfigure the whole thing my senior year).
Seeing the way my mom organized the package, though, it made me wonder what sorts of things were able to be sent to Qatar. See, I hadn’t thought about it before, not even for the items I requested be sent to me. I assumed that if it wasn’t something hardcore illegal (like a bag of cocaine) or a health hazard (like a pound of raw bushmeat), it was probably fine to send. Well, come to find out, that’s really the only rule you need to remember: Don’t import illegal or hazardous objects (like pork, alcohol, or perishable food). I’d also be wary of getting “illicit materials” mailed in, like pornography or sex toys; Qatar isn’t a huge fan of anything sexual, so if Customs recognize something “obscene” in your package (or luggage by the way), they might confiscate it.
See how she deconstructed the box for this over-the-counter dietary supplement and put it in a clear bag? That’s what I mean about the way my mother organized the package she sent. Also, some people were concerned about bringing (or mailing) haircare products into Qatar. If you notice that jar of Cantu, you have your answer: Haircare products are fine to bring/mail, your curls will not have to suffer.
I will say, though, that it took a long time for stuff to get from the USA to Qatar. Of course, it’s normal for international shipping to take longer than domestic, but it was about three weeks before I got my mail. It’s also good to remember that holidays are different in Qatar vs. the U.S., so during times like Ramadan or Eid, the whole country is basically working part-time, and mail services can be slower than usual.
My grandmother’s Valentine’s gift to me. Aww.
My grandmother’s Valentine’s card to me! Double aww!
It was bizarre not to know anyone's address, not even my own. It was bizarre to simply be in a place where the mail service norms were different than what I was used to in the U.S. (where for 20 years my experience had been exclusively USPS, UPS, and those unmarked Amazon vans). It was odd to be in a place where I couldn’t just listen for the mail truck outside my house, or put my outgoing mail in a public mailbox on campus, or walk out the door to be surprised by a package that nobody rang the doorbell for. However, it was nice to know that things could indeed be sent from the U.S. to Qatar in one piece, even if it took a while. It was also nice to feel some international love from my family. And, at the end of the day, it always felt like a pleasant surprise to get stuff in the mail so far from home, even the stuff I knew was coming. Though receiving mail is a pretty minor experience in the grand scheme of memorable moments, it wound up being a special part of my study abroad experience.