Remote Operations

Virtual address or virtual mailbox? How to know which one you need

May 28, 2024
Minh Mai

The way we work has evolved in the 21st century, and nothing has changed more drastically than where that work happens.

Some businesses will never need to build a headquarters or rent downtown office space. Everything happens digitally, and it’s all remote.

But even if your small business doesn’t have (or need) conventional office space, you still need a mailing address. Virtual mailboxes and addresses are increasingly popular solutions to this problem, but which one is right for your business?

This blog post will show you exactly what the differences are between virtual addresses and virtual mailbox services. We’ll also help you understand which one is right for your business.

What is a virtual address?

A virtual address is a location that is typically owned by a mail service entity. The service provider allows other businesses to claim the address as their own, and it serves as a stand-in or replacement for the business’s actual physical address.

Many LLCs use a virtual address for their business address, especially if they don’t have a physical street address (such as digital-first companies or home-based online businesses).

Getting a virtual business address isn’t overly complicated — here’s how it works: 

  1. A business or individual signs up with a virtual address provider and picks an address.
  2. Next, they fill out and submit USPS Form 1583, though some virtual address providers (like Stable) assist with this part of the process.
  3. That’s it! The business can start using their virtual address on correspondence, marketing materials, and legal paperwork from the IRS, banks, and other government entities.

On their own, virtual addresses don’t include mail handling services, which is the biggest difference between them and virtual mailboxes. 

Admittedly, the line between the two can be fuzzy. Every virtual mailbox comes with a virtual address, and some virtual address providers offer limited mail handling services as an add-on.

Note that a virtual address isn’t the same thing as a P.O. box, and that’s a good thing. Post office boxes are an effective way to receive physical mail, but you may not be able to use one as your business address for certain legal purposes. 

They also have other limitations, including size restrictions and limited access hours, and you can only receive USPS mail, not packages from FedEX, DHL, UPS, and other couriers and shipping services. Plus, a P.O. box address can give off an amateur vibe, harming your professional image.

In contrast, a virtual address is a real location your business can claim as its own and use for various registration, tax, and licensing needs. It looks and sounds like a real street address — because it is one!

Benefits of a virtual address

Using a virtual address service offers all sorts of advantages, including:

  • Privacy: If you run a business out of your home, you may not want to disclose where you live. A virtual address helps protect your privacy.
  • Professionalism: Similarly, your home address might have a street name that gives it away as residential (think Meadowlark Lane). A virtual address can put you in the central business district of your city or another prestigious location, lending your brand professionalism.
  • Flexibility: A virtual address frees you from any specific location, allowing digital nomads and freelancers to roam freely.
  • Reduced costs: Even with occupancy and prices both dropping considerably over the last few years, office space downtown is still expensive — especially if you have no specific business reason to be downtown. Virtual addresses cost far less, and often come with other business service offerings (like how Stable offers mail scanning and remote check deposit capabilities).

Limitations of a virtual address

Virtual addresses are a great idea for many businesses, but they aren’t the right fit in every situation, as they do come with certain limitations. If any of these limitations would hamper the way you do business, a virtual address might not be the right choice for you.

  • No true physical access: Your virtual address is a real place, but your presence there is 100% virtual. You won’t have access to any office space, and there isn’t a front desk (at least, not one that represents your business). If you need a place to meet clients (and clients expect that place to be the address on your business card), this might not be the right approach for you. 
  • Limited physical mail service: Virtual addresses don’t automatically come with mail service. If you expect to receive business mail regularly, you may want the expanded services offered by virtual mailbox providers.
  • May confuse searchers: If your customers or prospects are likely to look you up on Google Maps, virtual addresses can sometimes create confusion or make you look less reputable (since you usually can’t have a Google Maps listing at that address). 

Plus, many low-cost virtual addresses map to actual retail mailing/shipping shops. It could be that some shipping store (let’s call it Mailboxes R Us) is managing your virtual address, but you might not want clients to know that.

Who needs a virtual address?

If your business or organization doesn’t expect to receive a high volume of mail, then a virtual address could be right for you.

Here are a few scenarios where a virtual address could be especially valuable: 

  • Nonprofits that want to establish more credibility
  • Small LLCs and freelancers who don’t want to associate their home address with their business 
  • Businesses expanding into new markets that need a local address
  • Influencers who want to keep their home address private
  • Individuals who can’t use a P.O. box to register their business or open a business bank account in their state  

What is a virtual mailbox? ​​

A virtual mailbox is a physical location owned by a mail service entity that accepts, processes, and stores mail on behalf of its customers. It provides the same service as a virtual address provider and then some, adding in mail management, mail scanning, mail forwarding services, and more (depending on the provider you select).

Confused about how virtual mailboxes work and what makes them different from virtual addresses? These concepts do overlap considerably. The difference is in scope and service — virtual mailboxes always include a virtual address, but virtual mailbox services add a whole lot more features to the mix. 

Here’s how a virtual mailbox works: 

  1. Upfront, the onboarding process is the same as it is with a virtual address. You start by signing up with a virtual mailbox provider, picking an address, and filling out USPS Form 1583.
  2. After that, you can start using your virtual address for all correspondence.
  3. Here’s where the two services differ. The virtual mailbox provider now receives and processes all of your mail, uploading it to a secure online mailbox. You can view your mail online, have it forwarded, shred unneeded and junk mail, or (sometimes) pick up items in person. 

What about virtual offices?

One important point of clarification: virtual addresses and mailboxes aren’t the same thing as virtual offices. 

Virtual offices offer physical office space and meeting rooms, usually on a pay-as-you-go or rental basis. Virtual office plans typically include most of the elements you’d get out of a virtual mailbox (including that virtual address), but the additional real-world elements drive up costs significantly. 

Don’t get us wrong — the virtual office route is still much cheaper than renting full-time office space for your LLC. It’s just likely to cost you quite a bit more than a virtual mailbox service, and you may end up paying for resources you don’t actually need.

Benefits of a virtual mailbox

Using a digital mailbox service offers many more advantages than sticking with just a virtual address. Virtual mailbox services provide these benefits (in addition to the ones we listed for virtual addresses, all of which still apply here):

  • Access scanned copies of mail digitally: Quickly triage your incoming mail, get rid of what you don’t need, and send the important documents and packages on to your physical address.
  • Confidentiality and security: You might not think about mail theft much, but it’s an increasingly common problem. A virtual mailbox service adds a level of privacy and security to mail reception and storage.
  • Reduced clutter and storage needs: Physical mail takes up space. Filtering your mail and receiving only the mail you actually want reduces your storage needs and keeps clutter at bay.
  • Savings on shipping costs: Many virtual mailbox services will bundle mail and small packages, saving you money on shipping expenses.

On top of these benefits, many virtual mailbox providers offer additional services and capabilities, either built into their plans or available as add-ons. 

For example, Stable can deposit checks automatically and provide registered agent services. Stable also integrates with the office tools you’re already using, allowing you to automate your mail processes.

Limitations of a virtual mailbox

As effective as virtual mailboxes are for businesses of all shapes and sizes, there are certain limitations when it comes to using this kind of service.

  • No physical spaces: Virtual mailboxes don’t usually include physical office or coworking spaces. So, if your business needs a distinct place to meet clients in person, most virtual mailbox services won’t meet that requirement.
  • No reception or answering services: Unlike virtual office services, virtual mailbox providers don’t offer any kind of phone answering or receptionist services. 
  • May confuse searchers and in-person customers: Like virtual addresses, virtual mailboxes don’t give you a physical storefront or office space. Depending on how your business operates, this could create confusion for clients who might attempt to drop by your listed address.

Who needs a virtual mailbox?

If your business could benefit from a virtual address but also plans to receive mail regularly, then a virtual mailbox service is a good idea

Here are a few types of businesses that virtual mailboxes work especially well for:

  • Fully remote businesses
  • LLCs and freelancers who receive physical mail
  • Startups and solopreneurs
  • Small businesses running out of personal residences

Partner with Stable to get the best virtual address and mailbox

If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur looking for a better way to handle your postal mail, Stable is your ideal virtual mailbox partner. 

Stable provides quality, trustworthy virtual mailbox services (and virtual addresses to match), and you can choose from professional business addresses in five major U.S. cities.

Stable also offers a wide range of cost-effective services that can save you time and enhance your business operations, like check deposit, mail storage, mail forwarding, and registered agent services.

Ready to explore what a virtual mailbox can do for your business? Start the process with Stable today.

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