19.03.2020 - For more than a century, the international reply coupon (IRC) has allowed someone sending a letter abroad to pay the postage for the receiver’s reply.
UPU member countries first flagged the issue of prepaid international postage in 1878 during their first Congress, held in Paris. While countries had developed their own prepaid postal reply cards, it wasn’t until the 1906 Congress in Rome that countries agreed on a new means of prepaying replies internationally. The UPU printed and circulated the first IRCs the following year.
Today, 95 countries sell IRCs, but all countries must exchange them. A customer that receives an IRC with their letter can simply bring it to the post office in exchange for the minimum postage for an unregistered priority item or airmail letter.
According to UPU IRC Specialist, Filomena Tchyombo, it is our basic human nature that has kept this veteran product in circulation after more than a century.
“The IRC’s secret to longevity is found in our human need to communicate, despite distances, languages, and borders,” says Tchyombo. “The IRC remains the simplest solution allowing for prepaid postal exchanges between the populations of industrialized countries and those of developing countries,” she adds.
Customers are using the IRC differently since the development of the Internet and decline of the letter as a popular means of personals communication. They now turn to the small slip of paper as a means to send school registration documents, confirm two-way communication between amateur radio stations, and even to return small e-commerce packets.
Philatelists are another group bolstering IRC sales.
The UPU’s Philately and International Reply Coupons Programme travels around the world promoting stamps and other philatelic products at international exhibitions. During the current Istanbul cycle, which began in 2017, the programme developed a promotion campaign for IRCs. Tchyombo says this drew unexpected attention from collectors.
Taking note of this new audience, the team has started to produce and sell special edition coupons – including one for the product’s 100th and 110th anniversaries, as well as one for the UPU’s 145th anniversary.
“Collectors have opened a new era for coupons, since we have to develop and renew the product to maintain their interest,” she explains.
One way the UPU is piquing philatelists’ interests in the product is by changing its design through regular competitions.
The UPU launched its first contest in 2006 to mark the IRC’s centenary. Sixteen countries sent in designs inspired by the theme “The stamp – a vehicle for communication”. Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Taran won the competition with his design inspired by Michelangelo, featuring two hands touching against a backdrop of stamps.
Since then, the UPU has held a competition to select a new design for each four-year work cycle.
“Over the years, the coupon has become an attractive, modern, colourful product and each cycle’s IRC is dedicated to a topical theme,” Tchyombo adds.
The world has since seen designs from Luxembourg, Czech Republic and Viet Nam, celebrating the stamp as a vehicle for exchange, water as a source of life and sustainable development through the postal sector.
Participants at the 27th Universal Postal Congress in Côte d’Ivoire will have the chance to pick a new look for the IRC sold between 2021 and 2025.
The new contest will be themed “Preserve the ecosystem – Protect the climate”. The theme was inspired by the United Nations’ international decades on “Ecosystem Restoration” and “Ocean Science for Sustainability”, which will take place between 2021 and 2030.
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