Canadian postal code

From Academic Kids

A Canadian postal code is a string of six characters that form part of a postal address in Canada. Like British postcodes, Canada's postal codes are alphanumeric. Most other postal and ZIP code systems use only numbers. Canadian postal codes are in the format of ANA NAN, where A is a letter of the alphabet, and N is a digit, with a required space separating the third and fourth characters. An example is K1A 0B1, which is for Canada Post's Ottawa headquarters. Currently, according to Statistics Canada, about 840,000 postal codes exist in Canada.

Canada Post provides a free postal code look-up tool on its website (, and also sells off-line postal code look-up tools in the forms of hard-copy directories and CD-ROMs. Many vendors also sell validation tools, which allow customers to properly match addresses and postal codes together.



Postal zones were used in Canada as early as 1925, with the city of Toronto being the first city to receive such a system for sorting mail by destination. This system divided the major cities into a series of zones, for instance a 1960 Canada Post example letter was from "Toronto 3, Ontario" to "Winnipeg 5, Manitoba," with the number indicating a part of the city. In 1961 the system served five cities: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. London, Ontario was later divided into zones. The system became increasingly unworkable, however. In the large cities the codes were made two-digit, and in Toronto and Montreal three-digit codes were introduced. The codes changed regularly causing confusion and higher costs to businesses.

As the large Canadian cities continued to grow, and with them the volumes of mail passing through the country's postal system, it became more challenging for employees who hand-sorted mail to memorize and keep track of all the individual letter carrier routes within each city. Advancing technology that allowed mail to be delivered at a faster speed also contributed to the pressure for these employees to properly sort the mail. Canada was actually one of the last western countries to get a nationwide postal code system. A report submitted to Canada Post in 1969 recommended adopting a more general "postal code" system, leading to greater feasibility of automated mail sorting in Canada. Canada Post first implemented the new postal code system on a trial basis at the municipal level in Ottawa beginning on April 1, 1971, finally advancing to a provincial-level trial of the system in Manitoba, and then in turn, gradually rolling out the system to the rest of the country from 1972 to 1974. The rollout was marked by a large advertising campaign costing some $545,000. Every Canadian was mailed a package giving their new postal code, an instruction booklet, a group of pre-paid letters to tell friends and family your new postal code, and a free address book. Postal codes were not made mandatory, but advertisements ran stating that letters without postal codes would arrive later since they had to be sorted by hand. One 1975 Toronto ad generated controversy by showing a man writing a postal code on the bottom of a thonged woman with the ditty We're not stringing you along/Use postal codes you'll 'thing our 'thong/Don't be cheeky you've all got them/Please include them on the bottom. The ad ran only once before being accused of sexism by NDP MP John Rodriguez. The Postmaster General later apologized for the ad. Today, mail addressed to a Canadian location without using a postal code is nearly unheard of.

The introduction of such a code system allowed Canada Post to easily speed up, as well as simplify, the flow of mail in the country. However, when the automated sortation system was initially conceived, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, as well as other relevant unions, objected to it, mainly because the wages of those who ran the new automated machines were much lower than those who had hand-sorted mail. The unions ended up staging job action and public information campaigns, with the message that they did not want people and business to use postal codes on their mail. March 20, 1974 was declared "boycott the postal code day" and the union promised that letters with postal codes would be given preferential service. Eventually the unions started being compensated once the automated system was put into use and eventually generating significant revenue for Canada Post. The boycott was called off in February 1976. Typists also criticized the decision to make the code alphanumeric, arguing that an all-number code was far easier to type. Canada Post defended this decision by stating that the all-number system in the United States had failed as there were too few combinations.

Components of a postal code

Forward sortation areas

 ┌─ Postal district
K1A 0B1
Sortation Area
Local Delivery

A forward sortation area (FSA) is an entity denoted by the first three characters of any Canadian postal code. The first letter of an FSA determines its "postal district", which covers a major geographic region or metropolitan centre. Outside of Quebec and Ontario, postal districts cover whole provinces and territories. Quebec has three postal districts, while Ontario has five, because of the large sizes of those two provinces' populations. At the low part of the population curve are Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which share a postal district. Canada Post decided not to give Nunavut its own postal district when the territory was created in 1999, simply because of its relatively small population. The digit in an FSA specifies if the area is urban or rural. A digit of zero indicates a wide-area rural region, while all other digits indicate urban areas. The second letter of an FSA represents a specific rural region, entire medium-sized city, or section of a major metropolitan area.

Missing image
Map of Canadian postal districts.

A directory of FSAs is provided here, divided into separate articles by postal district. Individual FSA lists are in a tabular format, with the numbers (known as zones) going across the table and the second letter going down the table. The FSA lists specify one representative community located within each rural FSA. Medium-sized cities may have one dedicated FSA, while larger cities have more than one FSA within their limits. For FSAs that span more than one city, the city which is allocated the most codes in each such FSA is listed. For cities with a small number of FSAs (but more than one), the lists specify the relative location of each FSA in those cities. For cities with a large number of FSAs, applicable neighbourhoods and boroughs are specified.

Local delivery units

A local delivery unit (LDU) is the name given to the last three characters of a postal code. An LDU denotes a specific single address or range of addresses, which can correspond to an entire small town, a significant part of a medium-sized town, a single side of a city block in larger cities, a single large building (or even a portion of a very large one), a single (large) institution such as a university or a hospital, or any business that receives large volumes of mail on a regular basis. LDUs ending in zero always correspond to postal facilities, from regular post offices all the way up to sortation plants. In urban areas, LDUs may be specific postal carriers' routes. In rural areas where direct door-to-door delivery is not available, an LDU can describe a set of post office boxes or a rural route. One particular LDU, "9Z9", is used exclusively for Business Reply Mail. In rural FSAs, the first two characters of an LDU are usually assigned in alphanumerical order by the name of each community.

Local delivery unit lists are not provided here, as LDUs are always being added, changed, or deleted at one-month intervals, and as Canada Post already has a page on its website ( that provides the same function as such lists.

How many postal codes are possible?

Because of the use of OCR technology in Canada Post's overall mail-sorting process, the letters D, F, I, O, Q, and U are not used in postal codes, due to their visual similarities to other letters and digits, especially when rendered as cursive handwriting. The letters W and Z are used in postal codes, but are not used as the first letter of any postal code at the present time. This scheme allows for an upper limit of 3,600 FSAs, and with 2,000 possible LDUs in each FSA, this allows for a theoretical maximum of 7.2 million possible postal codes. The practical maximum is a bit lower, as Canada Post reserves some FSAs for special functions, such as for test or promotional purposes, as well as for sorting mail bound for destinations outside Canada. The current Statistics Canada estimate of 840,000 active postal codes only represents about 12 percent of the entire postal code "space," leaving more than ample room for expansion.

Postal barcodes

Upon reaching the first major Canada Post sortation facility, the postal code on a piece of mail is changed into a barcode, which is printed usually on the lower-right corner of the faced envelope. For regular-size pieces of mail, a UV-fluorescent barcode is applied, while for larger envelopes, a special four-state barcode known as PostBar is used, which encodes additional relevant information along with the destination postal code. The complexity of the symbologies used do not make manual pre-printing of the barcodes practical, especially considering that the special ink used in the fluorescent barcode is not normally available to the public. However, businesses that want to reduce costs by pre-printing their own 4-state barcodes can enter into a licensing agreement with Canada Post, which includes either existing computer software for properly printing barcodes, or the exact symbology specifications for businesses that wish to develop their own barcode software. Not all pieces of mail are barcoded, since a fraction of the mail that comes into the Canadian postal system is already sorted.

Canada Post also uses a simpler optical mark recognition system for encoding postal codes, which is printed to the right of the destination address on an envelope. This code, which uses three rows of four marks each, and is always applied before sending the envelope into the postal system proper, is simple enough to be printed manually with just a template and a pencil.


Urbanization is the name given by Canada Post to the process where a community with a rural postal code (i.e., a code with a zero in its FSA) has that code replaced with urban postal codes. The rural postal code can then be assigned to another community, or retired altogether. Canada Post decides when to urbanize a certain community when its population reaches a certain pre-chosen level.

Santa Claus

In 1974, staff at Canada Post's Montreal office were noticing a considerable amount of letters addressed to Santa Claus coming into the postal system, and those letters were being treated as undeliverable. Since those employees did not want to fathom those writing the letters, mostly young children, being disappointed at the lack of responses, they started answering the letters themselves. The amount of mail sent to Santa Claus increased every Christmas, up to the point that Canada Post decided to start an official Santa Claus letter-response program in 1983. Approximately one million letters come in to Santa Claus each Christmas, including from outside of Canada, and all of them are answered, in the same languages they are written in.

Canada Post commissioned a special address for mail to Santa Claus, complete with its own dedicated postal code:


H0H 0H0 was chosen simply because it looks like "Ho, ho, ho".

While the geographic North Pole is not located in Canada per se, the boundaries of Canada extend northward to it and converge at it.



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