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The Great Canadian ZIP Code Secret

I was recently in the U.S. on business. As a Canadian, I travel there quite often, and generally feel quite comfortable. Americans are similar to Canadians in many respects, and let's face it fellow Canucks, we all grew up on American television, so we're more comfortable with American culture than our own (It was years before I realized that Canadian Thanksgiving didn't involve pilgrims). But with all our similarities, the one place I get my Canadian difference thrust in my face more than any other is ... believe it or not ... at the gas pump.

Sure we Canadians prefer litres to gallons, and our money uses multiple colours (yes, I said 'colours' with a 'u'), but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about when I take my rental car to the gas pump for that final fill-up as I'm rushing like mad to catch my flight home, stick in my American Express credit card, and the gas pump smugly asks me for my ZIP Code! Sorry, I don't have one. Unfortunately, "no thank you" is not a valid answer to this question. The pump requires a five digit numeric code. In Canada, we have six character alpha-numeric Postal Codes in the form letter-number-letter-number-letter-number. The keypad at the gas pump won't accept a 'K' I'm stuck. Sure, occasionally I'll pull a fast one and enter one of the only two ZIP Codes that I know: 10001 (New York) or 90210 (Beverly Hills, of course). Usually, it just stares at me....and laughs...and then tells me to talk to the attendant. I saunter off into the booth while other patrons merrily fill up their tanks and drive away.

"Excuse me....I'm sorry...but...I'm Canadian, and don't have a ZIP Code".

This is usually followed by a stern look. The attendant then often asks me how much gas I want. How should I know how much gas my rental car used during my trip? I feel like I'm on the Price is Right or something. My strategy is to pick a number higher than the amount I'll actually use. Then I have to go back into the booth and beg for the difference to be returned to my credit card. When I fill out my expense report, I have to make sure both receipts are accounted for. If they don't ask me how much gas I want, they usually just tell me to leave the card with them while I pump, which frankly doesn't make me feel any better.

This inferiority complex and time waster has finally ended. For I now know the secret! And for the loyal readers of this blog, you're about to learn it too. (you're welcome)

It seems the ZIP Code question is a security check to ensure that the card matches the mailing address of the owner. The theory is that if a card was stolen, it would be less likely that the user would know the mailing address of the real owner, so they wouldn't enter a matching ZIP Code. The pumps are far from 'standard', so they're implemented in various ways, but in general, they stick to this algorithm. So what do you do if you have a six-character Postal Code instead of a five-digit ZIP Code? Here's the answer...

Take the three numeric digits from the Postal Code, and add "00" to make five digits. That's it, that's all! If your Postal Code is "Z1X 2Y3", then you would enter "12300". If you are Santa Claus and your Postal Code is "H0H 0H0", then you would enter "00000". Simple, eh? (Yes, we Canadians DO say "eh?" a lot).

This 'trick' was mentioned to me as I drove a colleague to the airport one day in my rental car. I wasn't sure if I believed him, but I was willing to test it. And I have. And it WORKS! Since pumps are programmed differently by each franchise, your mileage may vary (or should I say 'kilometerage' if I'm Canadian?) Anyway, it's worked for me every time!

So the next time you're pressed for time, in a foreign land, with no ZIP Code in sight, use this handy trick and the Americans won't be able to spot you. Of course, the beaver-skin hat and Tim Horton's coffee mug might be a bit of a giveaway.


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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for the tip DC. My desperate attempt the first time I encountered this clearly antiCanadian practice was to use the zip code I had memorized from childhood favourite kids show ZOOM, with their Boston Mass 000 2222 1111 333 4 diddy. Worked once. Never since.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobertH

Awesome tip. Happens all the time. Thanks Don.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

The trick is not working on Chevron gas stations. This is unfortunate because Chevron has a large footprint in California.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTesuji

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