Find answers to many frequently asked questions. If you have a question that isn't answered here or for more information about the American Philatelic Society, feel free to submit a question or call 1-814-933-3803. Our staff will be happy to assist.

Specific questions about APS departments or services should be forwarded to the appropriate staff member as listed at Headquarters Staff.

FAQ Topics


Fundamentals of Collecting

United States Stamps

Buying / Obtaining Stamps

Inventorying/Valuing/Selling/Estate Advice

Advanced Information




Who invented the postage stamp? What country issued the first postage stamp and when?

Sir Rowland Hill is generally credited with the idea of requiring prepayment of postage and the use of postage stamps to show this payment. Previously the recipient of a letter had to pay for delivery and a large portion of the mail was refused. (Some people devised codes to convey messages on the outside of the letter so when the postman showed the letter to the intended recipient, the letter could be refused but the message was still received.) Hill advocated lowering the rates but requiring payment in advance. Great Britain issued the first postage stamps in 1840. Nicknamed the Penny Black, the stamps cost 1 pence and showed Queen Victoria. Although first to be issued, these stamps are not tremendously valuable as millions were used. Today a nice used copy can be obtained for around $100.

In what year and in what city was the first U.S. postage stamp made? Also, what image was on the first U.S. postage stamp?

The first two U.S. stamps were printed by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson and were issued July 1, 1847. The five cent red brown pictured Benjamin Franklin, the first U.S. postmaster general, and the ten cent black depicts George Washington. At that time stamps were not issued in a specific city on the first day of release.


Do self-adhesive stamps soak off?

Until 2007 almost all United States self-adhesives could be removed from the envelope by soaking in water for extended periods of time - about 20 minutes. However, the USPS has changed the printing specifications and most current U.S. self-adhesives will not simply soak off paper since their backing is oil based rather than water based. Therefore, an oil solvent is required to help remove the oil based backing. Here's a great video on a few suggested oil solvents and tips for removing the self adhesive stamps - How to Separate Self-Adhesive Stamps by Graham Beck.

What album would you recommend I purchase?

No single album is best for every collector. Many options exist ranging in price from under $20 to more than $1,000. And an album that may be best for you now might be inappropriate for you in ten years. Specific tips are provided in our brochure Three Tips for Stamp Collectors: Soaking Stamps.

I have a postage stamp without any country's name. How can I determine where it is from?

Only one country is permitted to issue postage stamps without including their name. This is Great Britain because it was the first country to issue postage stamps in 1840. In place of the country's name, Great Britain is allowed to simply include an image of the ruling monarch (frequently in the upper right hand corner of the stamp). Remember that many countries do not use English and thus you may not recognize the name. An on line country stamp identifier is available at

What's the difference between a new unused stamp and a new unused stamp with some type of cancellation marks on the front? Are they both considered new unused for collection purposes?

A stamp with cancellation marks generally would not be considered unused even if it still has its gum. Cancelled to order (CTO) stamps have been postmarked even if they have not been used. Sometimes the cancels are applied as part of the printing process and in other cases simply by a philatelic bureau so they can be certain that a collector can not subsequently use them for postage. While this almost always results in a nice clear cancel that does not obstruct the design, catalogs consider them used and most of our members consider cancelled to order stamps less desirable than postally used stamps.

What does F-VF mean?

Fine to Very Fine. The term is one of several grades generally used to refer to the centering of a stamp although it may also be used to refer to the stamp's overall condition. Typical terminology follows although some collectors and dealers will use additional categories such as extra superb or good (between average and fine):
Average (Avg) - The design is cut into by the perforations
Fine - Design is clear of all perforations but not well centered
Fine to Very Fine (F-VF)
Very Fine (VF) – Scott Catalogue values are based on this centering.
Superb - Perfect centering

What is the difference between carmine and red? Are there any color guides available to help me distinguish colors?

There are several color guides available from dealers who sell supplies, but some catalogs use different names to refer to the same colors. Exposure to light may also cause stamps to fade. The best solution may be to try to make a reference collection of stamps with known colors. (Damaged stamps are fine.) However, in the end if the color makes a significant difference in value you will probably need to get the stamp expertized. More information on having stamps expertized is available at the authentication area of our site.

How can I tell the difference between stamps issued both with regular gum and as self-adhesives?

Assuming the stamps have been used and soaked off the paper, take a look at the perforations. When water-activated stamps are separated the perforations do not break perfectly evenly. Most self-adhesive stamps are die cut so all the perforations will be exactly the same shape.

I have a stamp without any perforations. Is this a valuable error?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Imperforate errors are known on a number of U.S. stamps and typically range in value from about $10 to $1,000. However, some stamps have been issued imperforate as part of a souvenir sheet and a stamp's perforations may be trimmed off to make it appear that it is imperforate. Most stamp catalogs indicate whether a stamp should have perforations. Authentication may be needed to be certain you have an error stamp.

What does it mean for a stamp to be tagged? How do I determine this?

Tagging is coating applied on or in the paper or ink of postage stamps to help machines detect and cancel the stamp. Most U.S. stamps issued since the 1970’s are tagged with zinc orthosilicate and will glow yellow green under shortwave ultraviolet light. (Since the 1980s many stamps with denominations of less than 10¢ are not tagged.) Many other countries use tagging which will be visible under long wave ultraviolet light.

What is a watermark? How do I determine if a stamp has a watermark? Is it safe to use lighter fluid to detect a watermark?

Some paper is manufactured so that certain parts are intentionally slightly thinner than others. These thin parts form a pattern such as a country's coat of arms or initials. Watermarked paper is one method to discourage counterfeiting of stamps. Sometimes the pattern can be seen by simply holding a stamp up to light as is normally the case for quality bond paper. Watermarks on stamps from Italy are among those most easily seen. For stamps with tougher to see watermarks the most common method of detection is to use a fluid. The watermark should be easiest to see when the fluid first wets the stamp and when the stamp dries as the thinner portion of the stamp absorbs liquid quicker and dries quicker. Most commercial watermark fluids are toxic, flammable or contain hazardous materials that are only marginally safer than the traditional solvents such as lighter fluid and benzene. Recently, Clarity watermarking fluid was developed at the request of the American Philatelic Society to address these concerns and is available from many philatelic supply dealers. Further information is also available from

What are semipostals and what are they used for?

Semipostals are postage stamps which are used to raise funds for a charity. The first United States semipostal was issued to support Breast Cancer research. When issued this stamp cost 40¢ even though it was only valid for the 32¢ standard first class rate at that time. As postage rates have increased the cost of the Breast Cancer stamp has increased to 55¢ by 2009. The difference between the price and cost of first class postage helps fund research for the treatment and prevention of the cancer. Semipostals have been quite successful in some European countries and New Zealand but have been less well received in England and Canada. In the Scott Catalogue semipostals are listed after a country's regular issues and before its airpost issues and given the prefix B.

What is a "cut square?"

This term is normally used to refer to a corner cut from postal stationery (envelopes or cards with postal imprints). Many collectors find it easier to keep a 2" x 4" corner of the envelope with the imprint rather than the entire envelope. Some postmark collectors also save "cut squares" rather than the entire envelope.

What is an International Reply Coupon?

International Reply Coupons (IRCs) are a method to provide return postage to someone in another country. You can purchase a coupon from your post office and mail it to a person in another country who can then redeem it at their post office for postage to cover the basic international rate.

I found a dark blue stamp with the American Lung Association symbol in red on the left side. There is an angel in the bottom half of the stamp. Is this valuable?

This is a Christmas Seal and not a postage stamp. A postage stamp would generally have a country name and denomination. Christmas Seals are sent to individuals asking for a donation. Although not postage stamps, U.S. Christmas Seals are listed in the Scott U.S. Specialized Catalogue. Most have minimal value.

I found some old documents with stamps in our attic. Are they valuable?

What you have are probably revenue and not postage stamps. We recommend leaving these stamps on their original documents until you find out more about them. The Scott U.S. Specialized Catalog, available from many libraries, does list and value United States revenues. (In some countries the same stamps may be used for revenue or postage purposes. Typically such stamps used as revenues are less valuable than the same stamps used to pay postage.)

What is a cachet?

A cachet (pronounced ka-shay') is a design on an envelope, usually on the left side. Cachets are most commonly found on first day covers and typically are illustrations and or text relating to the subject of the stamp or event being commemorated.

What is a frank?

A frank is a marking on the face of an envelope indicating that postage has been paid or that the letter is to be carried free. Early presidents and postmasters often had the right to free franking. More recently, individuals in the military have sometimes received free franking for mail during armed conflicts.

What is a grill?

A security measure applied to some U.S. stamps between 1867 and 1874, grills are a pattern of small, square pyramids in parallel rows impressed or embossed on the stamp to break paper fibers. Grills were intended to allow the cancellation ink to soak in to the stamp easier to make it harder for people to remove cancels.

What is selvage?

The margin around the sheet of stamps. The selvage may include the plate number, copyright, and other markings.

I was told my cover would be worth more if the stamp were tied. What does this mean?

A stamp is tied if a cancel or postmark lands partly on the stamp and partly on the envelope on which it was used. This provides a greater degree of confidence that the cover was not faked by adding one or more stamps to it.

How do I get my kids/grandkids interested in stamp collecting?

Share the fun of the hobby with them. Let them collect what they want and don't impose a lot of rules. There is nothing wrong if they want to collect Cancelled to Order stamps because they are pretty (unless a significant amount of money is being paid for them). Topicals related to other interests attract many youth. The value of stamps usually has little relation to enjoyment. Don't panic if a few stamps are ruined, most of us have made mistakes at one time or another and it is one of the best ways of learning. A number of youth related sites are listed on our Just for Kids page.

United States Stamps

How do I collect a single of a self-adhesive?

Some U.S. self-adhesives have backing which allows for the separation of a single, however, many do not. For those that do not, the suggested method is to use the stamps surrounding the one you want to save and then cut the backing paper along the edges of the stamp to get your single. Leave your stamp on its original backing paper.

What are the most popular U.S. stamps?

According to the United States Postal Service, the most popular U.S. stamps based upon total sales are:

Stamp Subject Number of Stamps Saved
Elvis Presley 1993 124.0 million stamps
Wonders of America 87.5 million stamps
Wildflowers 1992 76.2 million stamps
Rock & Roll/Rhythm & Blues 1993 75.8 million stamps
DC Comics Super Heroes 2006 73.0 million stamps
Greetings from America 2002 71.4 million stamps
Insects and Spiders 1999 61.0 million stamps
Art of Disney – Romance 2006 57.2 million stamps
Legends of Baseball 2000 53.9 million stamps
Art of Disney Celebration 2005 52.8 million stamps
Linn's Stamp News offers an annual popularity poll for U.S. commemorative stamps where you can vote in several categories (best design, worst design, most important, and least necessary).
I have U.S. stamps with letters but no denominations? Are they still valid for postage?

Yes, they are. Below is a list of non-denominated postage stamps and their values:
A = 15 cents
B = 18 cents
C = 20 cents
D = 22 cents
E = 25 cents
F = 29 cents F rate make-up stamp 4 cents
G = 32 cents G rate make-up stamps 3 cents
G Postcard = 20cents
H = 33 cents H rate make-up 1 cent

May I photocopy U.S. stamps?

The images of many stamps are copyrighted and thus their use may be limited or require a license or payment of a fee. With this limitation, black and white illustrations of uncanceled United States and foreign postage stamps are permissible in any size. Color illustrations of uncanceled United States and foreign postage stamps must be less than 3/4 or more than 1½ times the size of the genuine stamps. Canceled United States and foreign postage stamps may be of any size whether the illustrations are in color or in black and white.

Note: Canceled U.S. and foreign postage stamps must bear an official cancellation mark, i.e., the stamps must have been used for postage. Also, the plates and negatives, including glossy prints, of any United States or foreign obligations must be destroyed after their final use for the purpose for which they were made. Printed illustrations of United States and foreign revenue stamps are permissible in black and white only. There are no size restrictions for revenue stamps. ("Know Your Money," U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991, #299-590, page 23)

How many stamps do I need to save to have a plate block?

For most U.S. stamps prior to the 1970's a plate block consists of four stamps in the corner of a sheet (two rows and two columns) with the selvage attached showing the plate number. However, beginning in the 1970's many U.S. stamps were issued with several different numbers appearing in the selvage and or the numbers appearing in locations other than the corner of the pane. In these cases it is best to consult a catalog to see how they list the plate blocks as in some cases as many as 20 stamps will need to be saved to have the plate block.

Who decides what stamps the U.S. issues? How can I request a stamp be issued for an event?

The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee makes recommendations to the Postmaster General for the final decision. Suggestions may be sent to Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 1753 North Lynn St., Suite 5013, Arlington, VA 22209-6432. More information including specific criteria used for the selection of subjects is available from

Is it legal to use old unused stamps?

Many countries demonetize their stamps after a certain period of time such as ten years. However, in the United States all stamps issued since the Civil War are still valid for use. It is still often possible to buy U.S. stamps from the 1940's through the 1980's at face value or even below face value from dealers. It is not legal to use stamps that were previously used even if the stamps did not receive a cancel.

How can I use precancelled stamps?

Individuals who want to use USPS precanceled stamps and stamped envelopes must complete form 3615 and file it at the post office where their mailings are to be deposited. There is no fee for this permit. Your office may require that you personally deliver any mail bearing precancelled stamps directly to the post office for mailing over the counter rather than dropping the mail in the slot. Section 604.3.2, of the Domestic Mail Manual provides the specifications for use of precancelled stamps.

Buying/Obtaining Stamps

I would like to start collecting stamps but I don't have much money. Do you have any ideas for obtaining stamps inexpensively?

Yes, take a look at our pamphlet 10 Low Cost Ways to Start Collecting Stamps

I would like to purchase a complete year set of stamps for my grandchild. How can I do this? My post office does not stock all new U.S. issues? How can I get them?

The U.S. and most other countries make available annual sets for purchase at the end of each year after all the country's stamps for the year have been issued. In the U.S. these are available at many larger post offices or can be ordered by calling 1-800-STAMP-24 or on the net at However if you are looking for a set from more than two or three years ago you will probably have to go through a stamp dealer. While purchasing such a collection may be a great way for your grandchild to learn about history, we do not recommend purchasing current stamps as an investment. Most U.S. stamps issued since 1940 sell today at or around their original face value.

How do I obtain a first day of issue cancel?

Purchase the stamp from your local post office. Place it on an envelope and mail the envelope inside another envelope to Postmaster, City (of the First Day), Zip Code-9999. Your cover must be received within 30 days of the date of issue of the stamp. You may wish to include card stock or something similar inside the cover to be serviced to reduce the chance of damage in the mail. If you use a peelable address label, this may be removed when you get the cover back so that you have an "unaddressed" first day cover.

I am interested in collecting stamps of a specific topic. How do I find out what stamps exist?

For many of the most popular topics books have actually been written that provide lists of the stamps on the subject. Search the American Philatelic Research Library's catalog for books and articles. The American Topical Association also has checklists for a couple hundred other topics such as outhouses and rainbows with more limited issues. Their contact information can be found on our list of affiliates. The affiliates list can also be checked for specialized societies that focus on the stamps of a specific topic.

Inventorying/Valuing/Selling Stamps

What software exists to inventory stamp collections?

EzStamp is a leading program.

I found several stamps in a chest of drawers that I bought. How can I find out if they are worth anything?

Most public libraries have a set of Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogues which lists and values postage stamps. Alternately a local dealer or club could probably give you an estimate of the stamps value.

Help! I just inherited a stamp collection. I'm not really interested in collecting or becoming a member, but I would still like to find out if it has any value and perhaps sell the collection. Can the APS offer me any assistance?

The APS (a non-profit, member-supported organization) offers a selling/appraising pack containing guidelines, suggestions, and the names and addresses of APS-recognized professional dealers for people seeking an equitable offer for their material. This information is available for $30 ($40 outside the US), postage and tax included, from the APS, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823. Make checks payable to APS and ask for the selling/appraising pack. Most of this information may also be found at various locations on this website.

I have some old stamps that I may be interested in selling. How do I go about this?

Consult with a dealer. Feel free to use our online APS Dealers database which you can search by geographical area or by specialty. You might also wish to visit your local library and consult the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue which lists and values postage stamps. You may find that just because stamps are old does not mean they are extremely valuable. A number of stamps issued by the U.S. in the 1800's list for the minimum Scott Catalog value of 20 cents. You should also not expect to be able to sell your stamps for the listed values. Many dealers sell stamps for less than the catalog values and to make a profit (and stay in business) they obviously have to purchase the stamps for even less. The vast majority of dealers are trustworthy but it is not a bad idea to verify that a dealer is a member of the American Philatelic Society (all dealers listed on the above mentioned dealer database are APS members), the American Stamp Dealers Association or the National Stamp Dealers Association as these organizations have established codes of ethics. If you are still concerned about receiving a fair price for your stamps you might consider visiting a local stamp show (see our Show Calendar). This would provide you with the opportunity to offer the material to several dealers and compare how much they will pay. You also may wish to contact a local stamp club where you might find help and advice.

Are used stamps of any value?

Yes, although in the vast majority of cases unused stamps sell for more, many collectors save used stamps and many of the most valuable stamps are used.

Tell me about the Face of Mars stamps. Are they really worth several thousand dollars?

No. About twenty years ago a promoter and non-APS member Alan Shawn Feinstein touted this set of postage stamps from Sierra Leone. His target market was non-stamp collectors. The philatelic community stayed away and there was much press in the stamp media warning collectors. But his ads were in non-philatelic newspapers and magazines so our warnings never reached those outside the hobby. The asking price was as much as several thousand dollars. The current Scott catalog lists the Face on Mars stamp (1171) with a value of $6.

How can I find out the value of my collection of 22 karat gold stamps?

What you have are not actual postage stamps but stamp replicas. Because few stamp collectors are interested in these and there is not much of a resale market, dealers are unlikely to pay much for such collections.

I have some German stamps that say 1 Billion Marks. Are these valuable?

Generally higher denomination stamps are more valuable than stamps of a denomination used for an ordinary letter. For example a used (or unused) U.S. $17.50 stamp is much more valuable than most 44¢ stamps. However, during periods of great inflation, such as in Germany in 1923, postage rates in those countries required the use of stamps with very high denominations to mail ordinary letters. Thus, these stamps have no great value (and actually are worth more properly used on a cover than mint).

Advanced Information

Where would I look for information about quantities printed of any worldwide stamp?

We know of no single reference for quantities printed of specific worldwide stamps. However, the information is often available if you know where to look. Advance publicity provided by some countries includes the intended print quantities. Outside of information provided by the government or postal administration, you will probably have to look to specialized catalogs. Our library catalog of over 25,000 books is searchable online.

How can I find out what the postage rate was in 1900?

Basic domestic U.S. postal rates are included in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of US Stamps and many other books. Two books by Beecher and Wawrukiewicz provide more comprehensive information about U.S. domestic and international postage rates. These books may be borrowed from the American Philatelic Research Library by APS members. Non-members may obtain the books through interlibrary loan. Many additional sources of rate information exist for the U.S. and other countries and are listed in the APRL catalog.

I have an envelope with a T inside a hexagon? What does this mean?

This is probably an insufficiently paid envelope sent between two countries. The T is the international symbol for postage due with "T" as the abbreviation for the French word "Taxe." The amount due is usually expressed in French centimes and double this amount converted to the recipient country's currency.


What are the rarest or most expensive stamps?

There are more than ten stamps of which only one copy is known. And while rarity is one factor in determining value, the pedigree or history behind the stamp often is more important. Some of the most famous and valuable philatelic items include:

  • 1d and 2d 1847 Post Office Mauritius stamps on 1848 cover to Bordeaux France – Sold for $3,829,500, November 1993.
  • United States 1918 24¢ Jenny Invert Plate Block – Sold $2,970,000, October 2005
  • United States 1868 1 cent Z Grill -- Traded for Jenny Invert Plate Block listed above, November 2005
  • Great Britain 1840 Penny Black stamp used May 2, 1840 to Bedlington – Sold by Harmers for $2,415,000 , March 1991
  • Sweden 1857 3 skilling Banco Yellow – Sold by Feldman for $2,270,000, November 1996
  • Norway 1855 Trondheim block of 39 4-skilling blue – Sold by Feldman for $2,249,086, April 2008
  • Brazil 1843 30-reis pair and 60 r in vertical strip of three – Sold by Siegel for $2,185,000, June 2008
  • Hawaiian Islands 1851 2¢ and 5¢ blue Missionaries on cover – Sold by Siegel for $2,090,000, November 1995
  • Baden, 1851 unused 9 kreuzer black on blue green error of paper color – Sold for $2,061,662, April 2008
  • Russia, 1857 first issue, 10 kopeck and vertical strip of three second issue 30 kop mixed franking cover – Sold for $1,794,818 by Feldman, October 2008


Is there significance to a stamp being placed upside down on an envelope?

Maybe. One reason for the requirement of prepaying postage was that many individuals developed elaborate codes to convey messages that could be transmitted by seeing the outside of the envelope and thus not requiring payment for the receipt of the letter. According to The American Philatelist, February 1985, p. 154 the following codes were used (assuming the person was not just in a hurry and was not in need of glasses):

  • Stamp crosswise in the left corner - My heart is another's
  • Stamp straight up and down in the left corner - Goodbye sweetheart
  • Stamp upside down in the right corner - Write no more!
  • Stamp in the middle at the top - Yes!
  • Stamp in the middle at the bottom - No!
  • Stamp diagonally across the right-hand corner - Do you love me?
  • Stamp diagonally across the left-hand corner - I hate you
  • Stamp in the top corner at the right - I wish your friendship


Scraping of this website is prohibited.

Copyright 2024, American Philatelic Society. All Rights Reserved.

Scraping copyrighted material without authorization violates the DMCA.

Become an APS Member!

Join the world's largest stamp collecting organization | Exclusive benefits!

Sign up for our e-newsletters!

Stay informed | stay connected.