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Names, Addresses, Telephone Numbers

 

Common everyday artifacts that require some internationalization effort include names of people, companies and institutions, postal addresses for them and telephone numbers, as well as, believe it or not fax numbers.

Once again, this site does not reinvent the wheel, nor do we try to provide complete data. You will find the site of the i18nguy Tex Texin helpful.

His site also supports our philosophy of not trying to provide all data you may need: some guidelines are no longer there, others are out of date. Even systems like telephone numbering schemes and postal address systems, which are pretty stable and complex, have changed substantially.

Remember the new countries after the Soviet Union went away, or the German five digit postal codes, or the French ditching their telephone area codes?

And there are also new players in the form of big multinational freight companies like DHL, UPS, FedEx, and you are well-advised to look at their addressing and labeling guidelines. They do not conform to 100% to the general International Postal Union system.   

 

Physical Addresses

Have a look at the article on the UXMatters website. If you can choose, use an address format that is as generic as possible. However, you may find that your operations folks insist on, say, a mandatory zip code/postal code. They may have a good reason: you are not shipping to a country that does not use postal codes. In that case, make it mandatory, worry about other countries later.

Another common bone of contention is the “state” or “region” field. A form for a U.S. Address will always come with a “state” field, and Europeans typically complain about this. They either do not have “states/regions”, or they have them but do not use them.

The fact of the matter is that a postal letter or package in the United States can be delivered successfully without specifying the state. But the United States Postal Service wants you to add the two-letter state abbreviation. You could even try just the zip code without a city but NOT in a software product if you value your job.

Practical question: how many digits for zip codes or postal codes to use?

Answer: more than the five or six you might expect. In the U.S., for example, you can add the “+4Zip Code”.

Now, if you went and sent something to a five-digit German postal address without specifying a city, that letter may or may not arrive.

Why? Because small German towns need both the zip code and the name of the town. Almost inconceivable but true. German small towns can share the same zip code. Which, for me personally, led to a USPS person telling me the destination town did not exist. They had, and maybe still have, only a single match in their computer system for each German zip code, namely the alphabetically first one. I added the desired town in the “street” field, and the letter arrived.

Big companies, like Mercedes, have the luxury to have their own zip codes, so you won’t run into the “does not exist” rebuttal.

User interface layout and design: For simple address labels on letters, the closer the interface layout approximates a real address block, the better, in my opinion. Use the form validation to make sure all required information for a given destination is present. Using the validation for this allows you, for example, to have a “state” field for France that people can ignore.

 

Non-physical addresses

That would be primarily your bank or money transfer information. Changes are afoot in Europe to get everyone on the SEPA system. So look this up.

 

Names

We all have them, or rather any number of names from one to, well, almost as many as you want. This article gives you an idea of folks with many names. However, unless you need to send something to the King of Saudi Arabia in person, you should not worry too much.

For many countries, especially Asian, you should at least consider two names, the correct script (Japanese or Chinese) and a Western version of the name.

Companies may require more than one field, too, because the name the general public uses may not match the legal name.

I lump in titles with names, although they are not generally part of a legal name. Again, some things can be a bit strange in places. In Germany, for example, a “doctor” (medical, phd, engineering) can be added to the name of a person and becomes part of their name.

Know your customer: You will want to consider who your customer is and who they deal with. If you are a retailer shipping to the general public, you should either omit titles altogether or limit them to the minimum, Mr., Ms., Mrs. will be sufficient.

If you are a military hardware company dealing with government and brass, you may want to make sure that you use the official name of a country (Mexico is not just Mexico but the Estados Unidos Mexicanos), and the top brass and high-ranking government officials like to see their titles in from of their names.

Beware of defaults: There is German trucker with the name Keiner. Which would be the appropriate translation of ‘None’. The man has a hard life with computer terminals that ask at an unmanned gate for the name of the trucking company and the driver. And while you may not want to ship to Mickey Mouse, there may well be a customer named Mick Mouse. And there is a King George in the United States.

 

Transliteration of names

Transliteration is the rendering of a script (or “alphabet”) in another script. You encounter them daily in the news and in print, where all these Russian, Arab, Chinese, etc. names magically appear using the standard English alphabet.

Transliteration has been used widely, and there are different systems in use, so beware of any product requirement that simply states “transliteration required”.

For general purpose transliteration for software testing of foreign scripts, have a look at Google Blogger.

One special case is the transliteration for use on passports or for compliance with various lists of people banned from trading. The Wikipedia article on the Russian system is eye-opening.

 

Telephone, Fax

Many websites have information about the country codes and the telephone numbering plan. The strict traditional division into small fields in entry forms, the old pda style, if you will, has been gradually abandoned in many software products. For good reason. New cellphone networks have made area codes tied to city or county obsolete. Demographic change causes splitting of area code locations, and in some countries it took cellphones for people to adopt the U.S. Style “letter instead of number” telephone numbers, for example 1-800-HIT-ME (just kidding).

These days, I recommend a single field where possible, so international prefix + area code + subscriber number + extension.

This makes is as easy as possible to live with numbers that have no area code, and causes little to no disruption when a system is changed.

Again, your validation routines need to figure out if a number is valid. For automated calling, your code will decide what happens to the digits that need to be dropped in international calls.