Different courier services operate on all scales, from within specific towns or cities, to regional, national and global services. The world's largest courier companies are Aramex, DHL, FedEx, TNT N.V. and UPS. These offer services worldwide, typically via a hub and spoke model.
In ancient times runners and homing pigeons were used to deliver timely messages. When the horse became domesticated its use was rapidly adopted by couriers. Before there were mechanized courier services foot messengers physically ran miles to their destinations. To this day there are marathons directly related to actual historical messenger routes.
Many companies who operate under a Just-In-Time or "JIT" inventory method often utilize on-board couriers. On-board couriers are individuals who can travel at a moments notice anywhere in the world, usually via commercial airlines. While this type of service is the second costliest - general aviation charters are far more expensive - companies analyze the cost of service to engage an on-board courier versus the "cost" the company will realize should the product not arrive by a specified time (i.e. an assembly line stopping, untimely court filing, lost sales from product or components missing a delivery deadline, organ transplants).
There are many 'specialist' couriers usually for the transportation of items such as freight/palettes, sensitive documents and liquids.
The 'Man & Van'/Freelance courier business model is highly popular in the United Kingdom, with thousands upon thousands of independent couriers and localised companies, offering next-day and sameday services. This is likely to be so popular because of the low business requirements (a vehicle) and the lucrative number of items sent within the UK every day. Since the turn of the millennium there has been a noticeable increase in owner drivers, self employed couriers, operating mainly from home with a sole vehicle. Advantages of this rather than working for an established sameday courier firm are that they are able to offer far better rates to their customers. Self employed couriers come from varied employment backgrounds from non skilled through to highly qualified trades people.
Motorbike couriers still exist, but mainly in and around London (and other large cities), where there is often congestion, as they are much cheaper to run in heavy traffic.
Large companies such as APC Overnight, Interlink Express, Citylink and FedEx all now provide P.O.Ds online. Lots of the smaller companies and freelance 'Man & Vans' are unable to provide this, but this is changing with forever lowering costs of technology.
Royal Mail was up until recently a reasonable competitor of most of the large couriers; offering next day and special delivery services. This has however changed, with higher costs, strike action and a lowering public perception of the company. With companies like Royal Mail & The DX (who offer a private courier 'box network'), it can be difficult to draw a clear-cut line between postal services and couriers. Royal Mail now offer their own same day courier service, however it is often found to be uncompetitive and inflexible when compared to other national providers such as Dragonfly Services.
Some UK couriers offer next-day services to other European countries. FedEx and Interlink Express both offer next-day air delivery to many EU countries. Cheaper 'By-Road' options are also available, varying from 2 days delivery time (eg. France), to up to a week (eg. Former USSR countries).
Large couriers often require an account to be held (and this can include daily scheduled collections). Senders are therefore primarily in the commercial/industrial sector (and not the general public); some couriers such as DHL do however allow public sending (at higher cost than regular senders).
In December 2007, the Internal Revenue Service of the US 'tentatively decided' that FedEx Ground Division might be facing a tax liability of $319 million for 2002, due to misclassification of its operatives as independent contractors. Reversing a 1994 decision which allowed FedEx to classify its operatives that own their own vehicles, the IRS is auditing the years 2003 to 2006, with a view to assessing whether similar misclassification of operatives has taken place. FedEx denies that any irregularities in classification have taken place, but is facing legal action from operatives claiming benefits that would have accrued had they been classified as employees.
Many expedited courier companies are regional; small businesses which can also provide additional services such as logistics management, archive warehousing, messenger centers, outsourced mailroom services and coordinated airfreight forwarding delivery services.
In the UK, most of the couriers or despatch riders were motorcyclists when the sameday delivery business started to show up in London. These tended to evolved from taxi companies but soon regional courier companies were popping up throughout the country. Starting in the mid 1980s, bicycle couriers, who were more economical for shorter distance deliveries, began to supplant motorcycle couriers in the larger cities. Rising costs, including insurance premiums and petrol, made motorcycle couriers less competitive. Except for the metropolitan areas most of the sameday couriers throughout the country now use small vans to do deliveries. Under the current financial climate the trend has seen corpoate businesses evaluate courier costs and steer away from sameday couriers and tend to sway towards the cheaper next day delivery solution.
Even two-day delivery services use courier firms. Items that are mis-sorted, forgotten or just not picked up on a larger couriers route. When a mistake has been discovered, courier firms fill in the gap and ensure packages are delivered on time. One of the leading UK next day couriers APC Overnight ensure that any timed delivery mis-sorted parcels are urgently collected and run to their destination on sameday delivery vehicles to ensure that the customer still receives the service that they paid for.
In the US, the Obama-Durbin Independent Contractor Proper Classification Act of 2007 was introduced to deal with the problem of workers 'misclassified' as independent contractors. It is not clear what effect this legislation, if enacted, will have on the U.S. courier market. But if, as is the Act's intention, courier companies are forced to treat those workers that they previously declared independent contractors, as employees, with all the benefits thereof, then there is no doubt that costs will rise.
The employment status of the couriers of one of the UK's biggest sameday courier services, CitySprint, was challenged by the GMB trade union in December 2007. The challenge arises from the firm deciding to terminate the contract of one of its operatives. The GMB seeks to establish that more than 1500 CitySprint operatives currently classified as self-employed sub-contractors should be re-classified as employees.