How to improve your QSL returns

Last updated: 2001-05-05

Notice: © 1994 to 2001, Chris R. Burger. This document may be reproduced as required for personal use, and may be freely referenced from other Web sites. However, publication elsewhere requires express written permission from the author.

Early in 2000, I sorted a five-month backlog for the SARL Outgoing QSL Bureau. The task was probably less daunting for a grizzled veteran of the QSLing trenches than it would be for most people, but it still involved many hours of puzzling over bad handwriting, wondering about fictitious callsigns and just plain old slog.

It wasn't the end of my involvement either. Weeks after the SARL decided not to accept my proposal to take over the running of the outgoing bureau, my friend and neighbour Hal Lund ZS6WB retired. He ended up taking over both the incoming and outgoing bureaux. The incoming bureau requires a lot more work, and Hal has been doing little other than QSL sorting for the past year or so. I've remainined involved with the outgoing side, and have taken care of some of the sorting and packaging.

I enjoy the opportunity to get a glimpse at the outgoing cards, and have learned a few lessons that would probably be very useful to most. As I've also been at the other end, as a QSL manager who has sent over 200 000 QSL cards over two decades, I've decided to write down some practical tips to improve success with bureau QSLing.

One often hears complaints about poor QSL returns, especially via the bureau. However, QSLing does not have to be a frustrating or even an expensive task, provided it's done properly. As with most things, there are a few ground rules that one ignores at one's peril.

Rule 1: Get the contact correct in both logs

This rule sounds like a trivial one, but it accounts for a large percentage of QSLing disappointments. While sorting the bureau cards, I came across a few such contacts. For example, I found a CW QSL sporting an A57 callsign that looked strikingly similar to an AH7 callsign that is very active. Bhutan had been completely off the air for the better part of a decade. I'm pretty confident I would have heard about this operation! Other examples include CW contacts with 5A stations (Libya), that turn out to have been with HA stations (Hungary). Obviously, those having sent the cards will inevitably be disappointed.

Other mistakes might include not being absolutely certain that the other station logged your callsign correctly, or getting the date, time, frequency or mode wrong. The card is very unlikely to be answered if any of this information is false!

It must be said that no QSL is totally certain. Even the best operators make around 1% logging mistakes when they're very tired or under time pressure, so there is a finite risk that a solid QSO might not show up in his log. There can be few disappointments greater than having such a card returned, but it does happen.

Rule 2: Use a standard QSL design

Several of the bigger bureaux now use automatic sorting equipment, and all bureaux use standardised packaging. To ensure that cards can be handled in bulk, the IARU has published specifications to which all QSLs must conform. If your card does not meet the specifications, it is very likely to get lost somewhere along the route to its destination, or to be cut or folded to size so that it fits into packaging. The cutting or folding might not always be as gentle as you would have liked! A bureau manager also has the right to dispose of cards that do not comply, without notifying the sender.

A QSL card must measure 140 x 90 mm, be printed on board of between 175 and 250 gsm, and must have the lower 12 mm margin devoid of any printed information, except the callsign of the addressee.

One must also design the card to reduce the effort of reading it. Remember that some QSL managers deal with literally thousands of requests per month. If your card takes longer to deal with than the average card, it stands a better chance of not being answered correctly. Possibly the biggest single mistake is to have your callsign only on the back of the card. If the callsign is not on the same side as the QSO information, the manager will have to spend more time on the card, turning it over and possibly making a transcription error in the process, if not actually being tempted to ditch it!

A block containing destination callsign, date, time, band and mode is a good idea. A manager can then read all the relevant details at a glance. W4MPY and other QSL printers produce such cards, and you probably have some good examples in your collection. The "essay" type (where you fill in the blanks on a sentence about as long as your forearm) is not very readable, as the manager has to read the entire thing to look for all the QSO details.

A good idea might be to have a picture and some interesting information on the reverse side, for those who wish to display the card on the wall or in an album. The front must list the QSO information in a clear format, preferably in block form, and must clearly show your station's callsign. This side is for people who are interested in the QSO rather than the background information, such as QSL managers and those processing awards applications. Double sided cards are not much more expensive than single sided cards, and are certainly worth the effort. To re-iterate, though: Make sure your callsign is clearly visible on the QSO side!

Information to be included in the card includes: Sending station's callsign; receiving station's callsign; UTC date and time; band; mode. It is also customary to include the station licencee's name and address and the sent RST. Some also include station descriptions. The most important factor, though, is that a QSL manager must be able to see all the information at a glance, rather than having to read through lots of text to find it.

Rule 3: Find the correct QSL information

Virtually all desirable DX stations are swamped by QSL requests. A very active station in a rare location might get thousands of requests per month. Clearly, one's sense of humour is taxed severely in this situation. To solve this problem, many DX operators find QSL managers that will take care of the paperwork in return for... I haven't been able to figure out why managers do it, but it certainly isn't for fame, glory or money.

Time spent researching QSL routes is very much worth while. If a station has a manager and you send the card to the station itself rather than the manager, you have virtually no chance of getting a reply. On the other hand, most managers play the game and will QSL reliably, even through the bureau. There are notorious examples that demand payment for QSLs (including one South African!), but fortunately they are few and far between.

Of the bureau cards I sorted, I would estimate that less than a quarter of cards that should have gone to managers were correctly addressed. The majority were simply addressed to the DX station itself, and will never be answered. The senders will continue to complain about poor returns, and they will be right. However, their plight is fully avoidable.

The lower 12 mm of the card is intended to be used for QSL route information. For example, if you've worked 5X1T, just write "Via ON5NT" in the lower margin. The card must then be sorted with the ON stations, not with 5X.

When working portable callsigns (e.g. A25/ZS6BCR), send the card to the home callsign, unless requested otherwise. In this case, the card should be sorted under "Z" rather than "A", and sorted with the other ZS stations (rather than with A2).

QSL information is available freely on the Internet, but often you get what you pay for. One often sees conflicting or patently incorrect information listed. Possibly the most error-free source of information is the Golist, advertised in most of the amateur radio press. One can buy monthly issues or a quarterly or annual subscription.

To reiterate: Virtually all rare DX stations use QSL managers! Find out who they are, and you'll see your success rate skyrocket.

Rule 4: Comply with the rules of the bureau

Most bureaux, including the SARL bureau, require the cards to be pre-sorted before being sent. If you've ever sorted a large number of cards, you'll quickly understand why. It's not too hard for you to sort your own few hundred cards, but a bureau manager might be faced with thousands of cards. If they are not sorted, the task quickly becomes overwhelming. You may well find your cards being returned to you for sorting.

If you understand callsigns very well, you can group the cards together by bureaux. Simply send a single pile, with the different group bureaux in alphabetical order. For example, I tend to sort 7J, 7K and J callsigns together (they are all for the Japanese bureau), and file them just after I and just before K. Keep the US call areas separate. Mainland stations are divided into ten groups (0 to 9), with the offshore possessions (KL, KP, KH etc.) separate.

If you're like most of us, and you're not quite confident about which countries cards for UA, UN, UX, RP, UZ and UF stations should be sent to, sort the cards into prefix groups, (RA, RB, RC, UA, UB, UC etc.) and sort those prefix groups in alphabetical order. The bureau manager can then quickly group them correctly. By the way, UA, RP and UF are Russia; UX and UZ are both for the Ukraine, and UN is yet another country called Kazakhstan. If the contacts are from way back when, in the heyday of the USSR, you might want to send the UN and UZ to Russia, the RP to Lithuania, the UF to Georgia. If all this is news to you, maybe the alphabetical option is for you!

No dividers or elastic bands are needed to separate your cards; the bureau manager will quickly find the groupings and would probably prefer not to have to remove the elastic bands.

Alphabetical sorting is easy if you use a computer to print your labels. Just print them in alphabetical order, and then stick the labels without losing the correct order. Most modern logging programs will tell you which country a callsign is in, allowing you to almost automate the sorting into batches. If you manually sort cards, remember that digits come before letters. 9A2AJ comes before BV2A, and F5ABC comes before FH4AA. Also, note that 0 (zero) comes before 1 rather than after 9.

Rule 5: Tell the DX station why you want the card

Jaded operators and QSL managers often are not too keen to deal with bureau cards. Explain clearly why you badly need the card (e.g. for a new country on the specific frequency band).

If they see that you're very keen to get the card, and that it would be a meaningful card to you, they might just be coaxed into responding where otherwise they may have been tempted to take a day off and actually get on the air. They certainly have no desperate need to reply with yet another card to yet another DXer that will probably request yet another duplicate card next year.

Also be sure to thank operators and managers for their efforts. It does get noticed.

Rule 6: Use direct mail if required

Some DX stations or QSL managers simply refuse to work through the bureau. You have to decide how badly you want the card. If you simply cannot live without it or you're in a hurry, by all means send a direct request. Be sure to include a self-addressed envelope (SAE) and sufficient return postage. You cannot expect the DX station to fund your QSL quest, and you'll probably understand that the manager doesn't relish having to address hundreds of envelopes. Providing an envelope with your address is to your advantage, too: The risk of a transcription error or bad handwriting is completely eliminated if you yourself address the envelope. Printed labels, rubber stamps and even computer- printed addresses represent easy ways of getting addresses onto SAEs.

If the station was a DXpedition, expenses were incurred to activate the country for you. Include a contribution to those expenses if you possibly can afford it, in addition to the postage that you should always include. Contributions help to fund most DXpeditions, and the more people that contribute, the more likely the operators are to try something like that again. Don't worry that you're enriching the operators or paying for their holidays; having been through that excercise a few times, I cannot imagine that very many DXpeditions spin a profit!

QSLing ethics

While QSLing ethics might not directly affect one's returns, they do deserve some thought.

The first point to think about, is which contacts to QSL. Generally, there is no need to QSL if the other operator doesn't want a card. However, if the other operator sends a request, the general feeling among radio amateurs is that a reply is compulsory, regardless of whether the request was received via the bureau or directly. If a direct request includes sufficient postage, the reply should be sent by air mail. If no or insufficient postage is included, the reply can be sent via the bureau instead. This policy is endorsed by major organisations such as the Northern California DX Foundation.

There are, of course, DX stations and managers who handle direct cards only, and some even only if a handsome contribution is included. There is even a South African operator who openly follows this practice. He was most indignant about a remark to this effect on my Web site, and pleaded poverty when I suggested that he should handle bureau cards. However, when an offer was extended to find a sponsor to print cards free of charge, and even a manager to do the work, he declined. All I can say in his defence is that I appreciate the fact that he states his policy openly, so that the masses are not tempted into wasting their time and money with "inadequate" requests...

That brings me to the next point: If you decide to deviate from a reasonable QSL policy, at least play open cards. If someone asks for a QSL on the air, don't say "Sure" and then ignore the incoming request. Rather say straight away that QSLing is only to be done directly, or not at all.

Finally, note that any corrections at all render a QSL card useless for award applications. Awards rules generally specify that altered cards are unacceptable. Obviously, the award sponsor cannot determine whether the alteration was made by the sender or the recipient, and to exclude all alterations is to err on the safe side. If you have made an error, don't scratch it out or use correction fluid. Instead, destroy the card and start again. The expense is not that major, and the guy at the other end will surely feel the difference!

A QSLing strategy

Personally, I prefer to spend as little time on QSLing as I possibly can. Bureau cards are time-consuming to answer. I get around that problem by pre-emptively QSLing all contacts via the bureau once a year. During January, I first build a database of all non-duplicate contacts during the previous year. If I've worked a particular station on the same band and mode before, I remove the contact as the station will already have received a card for the contact. Once the database is complete, it normally contains several thousand contacts, depending on how busy the year's contesting has been.

I then sort the records so that the labels will be printed in the same order in which they should be sent to the bureaux. This order is generally alphabetical, but there are some exceptions. For example, cards for the Stateside bureaux must be sent to the different call areas, and be sorted by suffix (rather than prefix) within those call areas. I prefer to send them pre- sorted, so that the bureau managers do not have to do any unnecessary manual sorting.

Once the database is complete, I print labels for all QSOs. I then stick those labels on the cards. This process lends itself to unskilled labour, if your time is more valuable than your spare cash. Once the labels are stuck, I pull out all the cards that should go to managers, mark them as such and re-sort them as required. I also rubber-stamp all VHF QSLs with my locator, and all the Medium Wave contacts with a stamp that clearly identifies them as such. I also stamp all cards for which I require a reply for DXCC credit with a short explanation to that effect.

Once this process is complete, the cards are simply delivered to the bureau. It takes no more than an hour for 10 000 cards to be integrated into the outgoing bureau, because everything is pre-sorted.

Because air mail is expensive, I only use it in exceptional circumstances. If I need a card badly (for example if it would produce a new country on that mode), I assess the probability of getting the card through the bureau. If the station or manager is known to only work directly, I might consider sending a direct air mail request if I'm not likely to re-work the country on that same band or mode soon. If I estimate that a bureau card is likely to come eventually, and I'm in no particular hurry, I send the card through the bureau.

Sorting your cards for the bureau

This section is for those who understand country prefixes very well, and want to accommodate the QSL bureau manager to the greatest extent possible. If you don't understand prefixes that well, you may want to stick with alphabetical sorting and skip to the conclusion.

Generally, you should sort by country. The main exceptions are the USA and its possessions, Canada and Australia. These countries each have several bureaux.

The USA has eleven bureaux on the mainland. There are two in the fourth call area, and one for each other area. Fourth call area callsigns are split by prefix; single-letter and double- letter prefixes go to different bureaux.

US possessions are also dealt with separately. The bureaux are KG4, KH2, KH3, KH4, KH6, KL, KP2 and KP4. Remember that each of these bureaux also includes other prefixes. For example, the KH6 bureau takes all AH6, AH7, KH6, KH7, NH6, NH7, WH6 and WH7 callsigns, except that callsigns with an "H7K" do not go to this bureau. Likewise, the KP4 bureau accepts all KP3, KP4, NP3, NP4, WP3 and WP4 callsigns. If you're uncertain, simply sort them alphabetically and the bureau sorter will direct them where they need to go. Other fancy prefixes, such as KH8 and KH0, do not have bureaux and can therefore not be handled by the SARL QSL Bureau.

Australian callsigns are simply sorted by call area. There are nine bureaux; one for each call area, except that VK0 and VK9 are combined.

Canada has a bureau for each call area. Call areas might have several prefixes. VA3, VE3, XN3, XJ3 etc. all go to the same bureau (VE3).

To reiterate: If you find all this just a little too daunting, simply sort your cards alphabetically by prefix. The bureau manager can probably do this with his eyes closed, and will be able to sort things out in short order. Just don't present him with a pile of unsorted cards!

To conclude

Do these rules work? I believe so. I have used virtually only the bureau for my QSLing, and have very few countries unconfirmed on any band or mode. I estimate that I've received cards from over 300 countries via the bureau. It takes a little patience, but it actually leaves some pocket change to allow you to buy some radio stuff, instead of spending all of it on paperwork!

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