Battling the bureaucracy, one postal package at a time

I spent four hours last week trying to “liberate” some boxes from the Czech postal service.  It was an enlightening experience that took me deep into the bowels of a bureaucracy.  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t just about a Czech bureaucracy.  Every nation has them.  But thanks to Ceska Posta, I have the following stories.

My wife took pity on me by sending some boxes by air mail, well in advance of our house stuff’s slow trip by boat from Boston to Prague a few weeks from now.

Weeks after the packages were sent, nothing showed up at my apartment.  The manhunt began…

1. Using an online track & trace (in English thankfully, but with nicely mangled phrases), Ceska Posta informs me that for some packages they had attempted delivery. And that others were in some sort of customs process.

No notice had arrived in my mailbox about this.  Why?

  • It turns out my name wasn’t on any mailbox at the apartment for the first few weeks of tenancy.  Why?  My employer rented a short-term flat on my behalf, so their name was on the lease, though I was a named sub-lessor.
  • Mysteriously, my name shows up on a mailbox a day later without my asking.  I use my key, but it won’t open.  Why?  The property managers put my name on the wrong box.
  • That night, I open the mailbox and voila!  Notices from the post office start spilling out.
  • Some of which say (when translated by a co-worker) that items will be returned to sender within days.

Yikes!  The clock is ticking.

2.  Online track and trace had its own arcane messages.  Herewith is one:

(begin)

Posting number of an item affixed in the Czech Republic: CV911110562VV.
Item was posted on 22.04.2010.
Item was on 24.04.2010 dispatched to the Czech Republic.
Item was accepted on 27.04.2010 at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120.
Item presented to customs clearance on 27.04.2010.
The item stored at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120 on 05.05.2010.
Customs clearance discontinued on 05.05.2010. Addressee called upon cooperation (my emphasis).

(end)

“Called upon cooperation”?  Holy sh*t!  What kind of meeting for “ko-operation” am I invited to?

3.  An empathetic co-worker agrees to accompany me to the two post offices where my stuff is being held.  I think his role in our office is a “fixer”, as he seems to relish the forthcoming fight with the bureaucratic machine.

4. We get to the first building.  Outside of office “A” there are chairs.  People are nervously pacing the hallway.  A chime sounds, and the next party is invited to enter.  We enter, only to find another set of chairs, there for no apparent reason.

The sheaf of official notices is presented.  We are directed to office “B” down the hall.

In office “B” several supporting pieces of paper are retrieved from a file.  They are stamped in multiple places and given to us.  We are invited to return to office “A”.

In office “A”, my passport is requested for review (your passport is asked for everywhere.  I’m waiting to be asked for it in a coffee queue).  I’m asked for a copy of my lease.  Thankfully, I had read up on the topic of immigration and knew that proof of accommodation was another common requirement for various government processes.

The official then asks for me to fill out an affidavit that these are personal belongings, meant to accompany me as a (now semi-official) resident.  The purpose of which is to avoid any customs or excise fees.

However, there is no form.  Instead, the official pulls out a binder and begins reading phrases, which my Czech co-worker is furiously writing on a clean sheet of paper.  My affidavit is thereby constructed.

Some of the other documents are stamped.  By then, these papers are a sea of ink; there had to be 10 stamps on each.  We are asked to proceed to office “B” for further processing.

After more furious stamping in office “B”, we are done.  Four of my 8 boxes are released.  They are crushed, and wrapped like mummies in Ceska Posta packing tape in an apparent effort to stop the contents from spilling out.

“Have a nice day!”, everyone says to each other in pleasant, singsong tones.

5.  Off to the other post office, located in my neighborhood.  Apparent, these four boxes passed through customs without any affidavit needed.  Though the contents we nearly identical.  A little while later, after struggling with a computer system from a bygone era, the clerk presents the packages.  Crushed.  Mummified.

“Have a nice day!”

6. Two more boxes were still being processed by customs.  I asked my co-worker if he wanted to bet on the outcome: would they both pass customs and proceed to the neighborhood post office?  Would they require another visit to the affidavit-takers?

NE!  (No.)  One box went to customs for affidavit-retrieval, and the second to the neighborhood depot.  The arbitrary processing was a beautiful thing.

7.  So why does this bureaucracy still exist?

One has to keep in mind the central role of the Czech post office and its legacy as the main interface to the government on many matters.  For example, you can still go to the post office to pay your rent, utility bills, mobile phone bill, etc.  They are in effect the central payment processor for the whole economy.

So the post office is designed to remain involved.  Processes are designed to ensure full “utilization” of its employees.  Ceska Posta was never, and is still not, about getting money from you.  Such is the legacy of the communist era.  Heck, this whole experience of mine cost me nothing in fees but for a few taxi rides.

No, it’s about ensuring the bureaucracy justifies its existence with mandatory, arcane policies and processes.

And that, my friends, we can find in our governments the world over.

Oh yeah, for a “documentary” on how this all works, watch the movie Brazil

Postscript:

My wife, in parallel, had sent a desperate email to a general mailbox at Ceska Posta.  In it, she made a plea for help in locating the boxes and telling us how to get them.  Days later, a thoughtful reply arrived.  The email had been forwarded through multiple people.  It was clear that with each reading, someone had made an effort to get it to the right person.  They might be working for a bureaucracy, but they’re nice people.

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8 thoughts on “Battling the bureaucracy, one postal package at a time

  1. Since the packages were crushed and mummified you didn’t tell us whether there was any damage. If there was damage, I’m sure that would have been a bureaucratic nightmare.

  2. Hello,
    I also face the same situation.
    I send an EMS package from my home country to Czech,
    and it shows that:
    Customs clearance discontinued on 17.05.2011. Addressee called upon cooperation.
    However, I have no Czech friend who can accompany me to the post office where my stuff is being held.( I think my item is at Office of Exchange 220 00 – pošta Praha 120, too) And I’m not live in Prague.
    Do you know what can I do?
    Thank you very much.

    1. Hi, a visit to the post office is required. And a Czech speaker is required to help sign paperwork regarding customs declaration. If you go to http://www.expats.cz, there are a few services that offer translators to help deal with local businesses and government. I suggest you start there.

  3. Thanks for your replying.
    But the “post” you mean is in Praha or any post in Czech is ok?
    I wrote an email to Czech Post about 4 days ago, and finally they reply me today. They said that I will recieve a registered mail with directions. However, I never recieve any register mail. Did you get any register mail to tell you how to do to get your boxes?

    I really hope I will get my box…

    Thank you for replying.

  4. Thanks for replying again.
    Then I think I will go to Prague.
    Hope I can find a Czech person to go there with me…

  5. Hello,
    I check the Czech Post website and find some possible solutions.
    They mention that:

    Can the Czech Post act as my clearance agent?
    The Czech Post can present consignments containing goods imported from non-European Union countries along with the relevant declaration forms for customs clearance on behalf of its customers once they have authorised the former to act as their clearance agent (Authorisation Form (pdf, 91 kB)). Once authorised, the Czech Post will become the partner in all communication with the Customs Administration, even if necessary to apply remedial measures (appeals, renewed clearance procedure, etc.).
    The Czech Post acts as clearance agent for its customers (recipients of consignments) for the purpose of release of the goods contained in the consignments into the relevant customs regime (mostly free circulation regime) and assessment of customs duty and/or VAT on the value of the goods. The consignment will be delivered to the addressee after completion of the clearance procedure. The assessed duty will be paid by the Czech Post to the Customs Administration and collected from the recipient – along with administrative fees, if any, and the fee for presentation of the goods for clearance and services of clearance agent – on delivery of the consignment.
    Customers who decide not to authorise the Czech Post to act as their clearance agent will have to arrive in person to the Post Office Prague 120, Plzeňská 290/139, Prague 5, and file a customs declaration form with the local customs officials. The customer becomes a party to the customs clearance procedure and has to prove all facts relevant for release of the goods into the proposed customs regime. This includes presentation of evidence relating to the goods, in particular evidence of the customs value of the goods.
    Regardless of whether you are a regular or occasional importer, you can still use the Authorisation Form (pdf, 91 kB) to authorise us to act as your clearance agent. This authorisation applies only to customs clearance of consignments and remains valid until revoked. If you decide to use our services as clearance agent, complete the form and send it by post to our Customs Declaration Department at Česká pošta, s.p., Oddělení celní deklarace, Plzeňská 290/139, Praha 5, 220 00, or scan it and send it by email to cd-praha120@cpost.cz. Received authorisations will be archived in accordance with the Record Keeping Rules of the Czech Post.

    So I think I can just fill the form and email to them.
    Anyway, thanks for answering my questions. I hope the experience will help more people who face the same situation like me.

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