Career Guides

Career Guide for Couriers

Couriers and messengers pick up and delivery packages and documents when same day delivery is essential. The jobs are primarily centered around metropolitan areas, though most cities have some courier services available.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to be a successful courier.

Courier Summary

  • A high school diploma is sufficient for most positions; those operating a vehicle require a valid State driver’s license.
  • Little or no change in employment is expected over the 2008-2018 period.

Working as a Courier

Couriers and messengers move and distribute documents and packages for individuals, businesses, institutions, and government agencies. They pick up documents and packages from customers and deliver them to their final destinations, usually within a local area. Because they only travel to nearby locations, couriers and messengers often specialize in same-day delivery. Some offer faster service, such as delivery within one hour. Couriers and messengers also deliver items that senders are unwilling to entrust to other means of delivery, such as important legal or financial documents, passports, airline tickets, medical specimens, and occasionally donated organs.

Couriers and messengers receive their instructions either in person or by mobile telephone, two-way radio, or wireless data service. They then use that information to pick up items and deliver them to their destinations. They may take payment upon pickup, and are often responsible for obtaining signatures upon delivery.

Some couriers and messengers carry items only for their employers, often law firms, banks, medical laboratories, or financial institutions. Others act as part of organizations’ internal mail system and carry items mainly within an organization’s buildings or entirely within one building. Many couriers and messengers work for messenger or courier services. Those with experience may open their own courier and messenger business and work as independent contractors.

Couriers and messengers reach their destination by several methods. Most drive vans or trucks, but some drive cars or ride motorcycles. In congested urban areas, messengers sometimes use bicycles to make deliveries. Some may travel by foot.

Work environment. Couriers and messengers spend most of their time making deliveries alone and are not closely supervised. Those who deliver by bicycle must be physically fit and be able to cope with all weather conditions and the hazards of heavy traffic. Car, van, and truck couriers must sometimes carry heavy loads, either manually or with the aid of a hand truck. They also have to deal with difficult parking situations, traffic jams, and road construction.

Couriers and messengers are responsible for the items they deliver until they are in the hands of the customer. Often, deliveries contain valuable or sensitive information and with it, expectations of safe and timely delivery making the job stressful at times. The pressure of making as many deliveries as possible to increase one’s earnings can also be stressful and may lead to unsafe driving or cycling practices.

The typical workweek is Monday through Friday; however, evening and weekend hours are common.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most couriers and messengers train on the job and are not required to hold more than a high school diploma. Communication skills, a good driving record, and good sense of direction are helpful.

Education and training. Most courier and messenger jobs do not have formal education requirements; however, a high school diploma may be helpful in getting a job. Couriers and messengers usually learn as they work, sometimes training with an experienced worker for a short time.

Those who deal with hazardous or sensitive packages such as medical samples or donated organs may need to take a course in safely and effectively handling these items.

Licensure. Almost all couriers and messengers are required to have valid State driver’s license. Having a clean driving record is usually helpful.

Other qualifications. Couriers and messengers need good knowledge of the area in which they travel and a good sense of direction. In addition, good oral and written communication skills are important because communicating with customers and dispatchers is an integral part of some courier and messenger jobs.

Many couriers and messengers are required to provide and maintain their own vehicles, especially those who work as independent contractors. Almost all two-wheeled couriers own their own bicycle, moped, or motorcycle.

Those who own their own courier and messenger business must be able to keep basic accounting records and pay their own taxes.

Advancement. Couriers and messengers have limited advancement opportunities. However, some companies may offer experienced workers preference when assigning jobs, which means they receive higher-paying contracts and more work when business is slow.

Some independent contractors become master contractors. Master contractors organize routes for multiple independent contractors for courier agencies.

Employment for Couriers and Messengers

Couriers and messengers held about 122,400 jobs in 2008. About 17 percent worked in healthcare; 12 percent worked in the local messengers and local delivery industry; 12 percent were employed by couriers and express delivery services; and 9 percent worked in legal services. About 19 percent were self-employed independent contractors; they provide their own vehicles and, to a certain extent, set their own schedules. However, they are like employees in some respects, because they often contract with one company.

Job Outlook

Little or no employment change is expected through 2018. The need to replace workers who leave the occupation will create the majority of job openings.

Employment change. Little or no change is expected over the 2008-18 decade. Although individuals and businesses continue to value package delivery services, the need for document delivery services has been greatly reduced due to the widespread use of computers and the Internet. Many documents, forms, and other materials that were once hand-delivered are now transferred in digital format. Wider acceptance of digital signatures has reduced the number of legal and financial documents that need to be moved from place to place.

Nonetheless, some demand for courier and messenger services will continue to arise, especially for items that cannot be sent electronically, such as blueprints and other oversized materials, securities, and passports. Couriers will also be required by medical and dental laboratories to pick up and deliver medical specimens and other materials.

Job prospects. Job opportunities will arise out of the need to replace couriers and messengers who leave the occupation. Additionally, a continued need for parcel delivery, both within urban areas and between cities, will result in some jobs for couriers and messengers. The vast majority of openings are expected to be in large urban areas.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Couriers and messengers 43-5021 122,400 122,000 -400 0
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Couriers and Messengers

Median hourly wages of couriers and messengers in May 2008 were $11.22 per hour. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.08 and $14.10. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.88, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $17.77. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of couriers and messengers in May 2008 were:

Medical and diagnostic laboratories $12.05
General medical and surgical hospitals 11.85
Legal services 10.83
Couriers and express delivery services 10.75
Local messengers and local delivery 10.00

Couriers and messengers who are full-time employees usually receive the same benefits as most other workers. About 21 percent are union members, which may lead to higher earnings, better benefits and more job stability. Most independent contractors do not receive benefits, but may have higher earnings. If uniforms are required, employers generally provide them or offer an allowance to purchase them.