Make note of these important deadlines in November and December.

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The holidays are upon us, which is why it's important to shop for and mail out your gifts promptly during the season. After all, is there anything worse than learning that a special holiday gift you sent to a loved one arrived the day after Christmas? And picking out the perfect present is only half the work: You'll also need to plan ahead to ensure your gift reaches the intended recipient on time, too. Though Christmas falls at the end of December, mail carriers have cut-off deadlines that are established weeks beforehand—and they're even more pressing for Hanukkah, which is celebrated earlier this year. 

Nearly all of the leading mail services in the United States will share recommended shipping deadlines in the weeks leading up to the official start of the festive season. To ensure that your presents arrive at their destination intact and on time, we asked representatives from each major shipping service for the need-to-know mailing dates, including the United States Postal Service (USPS), FedEx, and the United Parcel Service (UPS). Keep in mind that online retailers may have their own deadlines for holiday delivery that should be made available to you before placing your order. To make sure you spread joy in time, you'll want to know exactly when to ship packages while the pandemic continues.

Packing a gift box to send to family.
Credit: Bryan Gardner

United States Postal Service

While the peak mailing season for the Postal Service starts before Thanksgiving and lasts until New Year's Day, it still ramps up most around Christmas. "The busiest time of the season for the Postal Service begins two weeks before Christmas," says Kim Frum, the senior public relations representative for the United States Postal Service. "It's expected that customer traffic at all Post Office locations will steadily increase beginning the week of December 6, with the week of December 13 to 18 anticipated to be the busiest mailing, shipping and delivery week of the season." In turn, shipping as early as possible and consulting recommended deadlines will ensure your packages are delivered before December 25.

Since Hanukkah often begins before Christmas, most mail carriers are operating normally, as this is not considered a federal holiday. It falls early—between November 28 and December 6—this year, so pay close attention and send out presents accordingly so they arrive by the first night. As for Christmas? If you plan ahead and can package your gift more than 10 days in advance of December 25, you'll be able to take advantage of USPS's ground shipping options, which are often much more affordable than similar options with other carriers. According to Frum, the cut-off date for all customers wishing to have their gifts delivered by December 25 via ground shipping is December 15 (this includes domestic addresses anywhere in the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska).

USPS offers First-Class postage on packages weighing up to 16 ounces or greeting cards, and those need to be sent by December 18. If you miss the ground shipping date, then your next best bet is Priority Mail, which has a firm deadline of Monday, December 20. Priority Mail packages are stored in standard boxes that are shipped at a flat-rate to zip codes across the country and you can load up to 70 pounds in a single box at the same rate.

Don't fret if you've waited until the very last minute to get a gift out to your loved ones; USPS offers a next-day shipping option with Priority Mail Express, which is more costly than other options, but it'll get your gift to its destination on Christmas Eve if you send it by December 23. Keep in mind that the USPS services all air, army, fleet, and diplomatic post offices abroad; you'll need to ground-ship your gifts by November 6, or send it by Priority or First-Class Mail by December 9 for on-time Christmas delivery. You can find all of USPS' shipping dates and options by checking the USPS' newsroom here

FedEx

FedEx's full holiday shipping schedule is available here; notably, in some city markets, you can ship items on Christmas Day and have it delivered just a few hours later. Like USPS, you can choose to send items via ground transportation at a reduced rate, and gifts should be on trucks by Tuesday, December 15 in order to reach domestic locations by Christmas Day. If you're planning to send gifts to loved ones abroad in Canada, Mexico, or Puerto Rico, the carrier has guaranteed overnight delivery on gifts sent via FedEx International Priority Mail if they're sent by December 23. See more FedEx options and their holiday schedules here.

United Parcel Service

UPS retail locations operate on a limited schedule in the days leading up to Christmas Eve (and won't be delivering on Christmas Day), but customers can ship items around the world using their international services up to a week before Christmas arrives. While some ground packages need to be in transit as early as December 15, gifts can be flown internationally using UPS' Air packages by scheduling pickups through December 22—and the absolute last day for scheduled delivery on Christmas Eve for UPS packages is December 23. "The last days to ship to help ensure delivery on or before December 24 can be found on the year-end schedule," says Matthew O'Connor, the senior manager of public relations for UPS.

Schedule a Package Pickup

It's worth checking to see if your carrier offers package pickups to avoid long lines at shipping centers, too. In an effort to protect both employees, as well as customers, the Postal Service offers free, contactless pickups. "Customers pressed for time can schedule a free package pickup when the carrier delivers your mail. It's free regardless of the number of packages," Frum says. "Restrictions apply, please see the online FAQ on Package Pickup for more information. If customers can't get to a Post Office to purchase postage or drop off their packages, the Postal Service offers a free Click-N-Ship feature which allows customers to order free Priority Mail boxes, print shipping labels, purchase postage and also request free next-day Package Pickup."

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