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OPINION & ANALYSIS

What’s in a name? Getting to grips with the Swedish postal system

OPINION: I'd never thought before moving abroad that something as simple as the procedure for delivering a parcel could differ so much between different countries. Oh, how wrong I was...

a woman collecting a parcel from an ICA supermarket
Good luck persuading postal workers to deliver your parcels if they're addressed to your nickname. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

In the UK, where I grew up, parcel delivery regulations are relatively loose. Friends have sent letters to me addressed to all manner of nicknames based on my name, Becky, with “Beckminsterfullerene” a particular highlight. These letters always reached me without issue, as the UK’s postal service, Royal Mail, is relatively unbothered about whether the name on the post matches the name of the recipient.

I suspect that this is partly due to the fact that the UK has no up-to-date records of all residents, with their full legal name tied to their current address.

The closest we have to this system is a census is carried out once a decade, supplemented by the electoral register, listing registered voters’ address and name. This means that the British postal service, Royal Mail, does not have a country-wide population register against which they can check addresses against the names of the people who actually live there.

Sweden, however, could not be more different. The name on your parcel must match the name on your ID, or they will refuse to hand over your parcel. This isn’t just postal service workers being difficult – their IT system will not approve parcel delivery if this ID doesn’t match.

Here, parcel delivery and the postal service is closely linked to the folkbokföringsregistret – the population register, where everyone living in Sweden with a personnummer (a Swedish identity number) is listed with their name and current address. Not being listed on this register is the reason why some people living in Sweden without a personnummer sometimes may have trouble receiving post.

This can be extremely irritating, but actually makes sense in my opinion – if the postal service can’t confirm that the recipient lives at the address, then how do they know that important post isn’t being delivered to the wrong person? With vital documents such as bank cards and pin numbers still being delivered by post, this is actually a smart protective measure against identity theft and fraud.

As you may expect, my friends and family at home find this hard to believe, as they are used to a system where the name on the parcel is completely unimportant. This has led to some infuriating discussions at my local supermarket where I pick up my parcels, with postal service workers refusing to hand over my post for a number of seemingly trivial reasons. Scroll down to read some of my best (or worst?) stories.

1. The Christmas present saga

Last year, my dad sent me a pair of trainers as a Christmas present. To make postage easier, he decided to order them directly from the website to my address in Sweden, rather than ordering them to my parents’ home in the UK first.

In theory, this was a good idea, saving postal costs for him and saving the environmental impact of two journeys instead of one.

In practice, I didn’t get the parcel until February, two months after he ordered it.

The reason for this was that he, without thinking, had addressed the parcel to Becky. Unfortunately, my legal name is Rebecca. The parcel arrived at my local post office in good time for Christmas, so I dutifully grabbed my Swedish driver’s licence and my ID card from the Tax Agency and headed out to pick it up.

When I got there, they refused to hand it over. I patiently explained that I was, in fact, Becky, and that Becky is a common nickname for Rebecca.

“I understand,” said the postal worker, “but I still can’t deliver the parcel to you, as it doesn’t match the name on your ID. You’ll have to call Postnord [the Swedish postal service] and ask them to change the name on the parcel in our system before I can hand it over.”

She helpfully gave me Postnord’s phone number and sent me on my way.

Later that day, I called their number, and was met with a 45 minute phone queue – understandable, considering this was just before Christmas, and just before the UK was due to leave the EU, so they were undoubtedly bogged-down with calls asking about customs information.

Eventually, I got through and explained the issue. “We can’t change the name,” they informed me. “You’re not the sender of the parcel, so you’ll have to ask the sender to change the name instead”. I sighed, thanked them for their time and called my dad. He doesn’t speak Swedish, so I drafted an email for him to send to Postnord.

My shoes were on a shelf like this five minutes away from my apartment for two months. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

A few days later, he got a reply. “According to the system, this parcel was sent from a shoe company, not from you. You need to contact the shoe company and get them to change the name instead.”

At this point, we were getting quite annoyed. There were only a few days left to Christmas, and the parcel was only going to be stored in the post office for 60 days before being sent back. The UK was due to leave the EU in January 2021, meaning that we would have to pay import tax if it got returned before we could sort this out.

We contacted the shoe company, based in the UK, and the British customer service representative was perplexed. She was happy to help change the name, but the Postnord website had no information in English, so I had to painstakingly translate the relevant pages. She informed me she would see what she could do, but with Christmas and New Years coming up, they were unlikely to be able to get it done before January.

We waited. January came and went, and the problem still hadn’t been resolved. With just a few days left until the parcel was to be sent back to the UK, I tried one last time to pick it up.

I had a thought – maybe if I took my UK passport with me, they would be able to hand over the parcel? Swedish driving licences have a barcode on the back which postal workers scan, automatically uploading ID into the postal system, meaning errors can’t manually be fixed by postal workers. My foreign passport doesn’t have this barcode – maybe they can change the data manually?

I stood in the queue, heart racing, feeling like I was about to do something illegal. I smiled and handed over my passport like everything was normal. The postal worker typed in my details and went to collect my parcel.

“Is this really happening?” I thought. “Have I gone through all of this when I could have just gone in with my passport instead?”

I still don’t know whether my name was updated in the system or whether she manually input my name as Becky instead of Rebecca.

One thing is certain though: my dad has never sent a parcel to me addressed as Becky since.

2. The baby gift addressed to my newborn daughter

You may have thought that was my only story – if only!

Another issue I had goes back to when my 18-month-old daughter was a newborn. One of my English friends had very kindly ordered a book addressed to me, my husband and our daughter.

Unfortunately, she had only written our first names on the parcel. This was an issue for a number of reasons: firstly, my newborn daughter did not yet have a passport, so there was no way of proving her identity.

Secondly, my husband’s last name was not on the parcel, so we couldn’t prove his identity.

Thirdly, it was addressed to Becky rather than Rebecca, meaning that my name didn’t match the name on the parcel.

Still waiting for your newborn’s passport? You’ll have to wait before you can collect their first post. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Finally, me and my daughter were still waiting for our personnummer applications to be approved, meaning our names were not listed in the Swedish population register and therefore we didn’t exist on the postal service’s system.

I went down to the post office with my husband’s passport, my passport, our wedding certificate, my daughter’s birth certificate, wearing my daughter in our baby carrier. This wasn’t enough. They believed we were who I said we were, but their system wouldn’t let them hand over the parcel without valid approved ID.

We had the same issue as above – she had ordered the parcel directly from Amazon to save postage rather than sending it directly from the UK, so they were responsible for changing the names on the order.

Unfortunately, they were so slow to act that the parcel was returned.

We did get the book in the end though – we ordered it ourselves from a Swedish company instead and my friend sent over the money.

3. The wedding present addressed to the wrong last name

The final story for this article happened after my husband and I got married. I had chosen to keep my last name, something I had mentioned to family and friends in the run-up to the wedding. A woman keeping her name upon marriage is unusual in the UK, so most of my British friends and family had assumed I would take my husband’s name instead.

Despite this, my mum very excitedly sent a parcel to us after the wedding with some gifts from family. She followed British naming customs, meaning that parcels are addressed to Mr & Mrs, followed by the husband’s first initial and last name. Understandably, this confused the Swedish postal service.

Titles such as Mr and Mrs are uncommon in Sweden, and letters addressed to married women are not addressed to their husband’s name (quite rightly if you ask me), so they were confused as to why I was trying to explain to them that the parcel was addressed to me, despite the initial and last name not matching my own name.

Shes going to have to update her name in the population register before picking up any wedding presents. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/Scanpix

If this wasn’t bad enough, my mum had also misspelled my husband’s surname. By some miracle, the postal worker agreed to hand over the parcel once I produced my husband’s passport and explained that my British mum wasn’t particularly used to writing Swedish surnames, not without reluctantly commenting “I shouldn’t really be doing this…”.

Somewhat exasperated, I rang my mum and patiently explained that no, I hadn’t changed my surname and no, people don’t really use Mr and Mrs here, and yes, it is important that parcels match the recipient’s legal name.

All credit to her, she hasn’t done it again – although I do still call her before she sends a parcel just to make sure.

Member comments

  1. Wow, did not know this, thanks for bringing it to our attention in an interesting article.
    I do send stuff to Sweden occasionally from Australia, not had a problem, presumably because it has been correctly addressed.

  2. This article brought back memories when we first moved to Sweden 11 years ago. As holders of Cypriot passports (EU country), we thought that our Cyprus issued ID will work until we get our Swedish ID. The 1st problem we had was when we picked our internet modem from the local ICA supermarket. When we showed them the ID, they couldn’t scan it and therefore would not accept it. We tried to explain that Cyprus is an EU country and thus our Cypriot ID should be accepted but the lady answered that Cyprus is not an EU country. We were understandably chocked and explained that the immigration accepted us as EU citizens and gave us letter to confirm this but the lady wouldn’t be convinced. Finally, we had to bring Swedish relatives who could receive the package on our behalf. This happened many times with the post office as well as the bank but was solved when we got our Swedish ID. The thing is that, even if the staff would accept our explanations, they had to scan an ID, otherwise the system will not register it

  3. I had a similar experience 15+ years ago.

    I was out of the country, and had my parents mail a few letters and a small package to my friends place in Sweden, so he could receive them and hold them until I returned. My name was on the letters and package. But it was his address. Swedish post wouldn’t deliver them. Blew my mind that they even knew who was supposed to be living in the address. Nothing of the sort would happen where I come from. Packages are delivered to an address, regardless of the name. But it seems that in Sweden packages are delivered to a name at an address.

    Kind of amazing. More evidence of how well organised the Swedes are, I guess. This could never be pulled off in most countries.

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For members

OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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