What You Need to Know About the Back of a Check

 © The Balance, 2018

The face of a check gets all the attention, but the back of a check is equally important. To turn a piece of paper into something that constitutes money, you need to know how to endorse a check properly. In the world of electronic payments, paper checks are still being used on a daily basis. They’re routinely used for important transactions such as rent payments, freelance gigs, or when you move your bank account.

While the front of a check contains important information, here's how to navigate the (equally important) back of the check.

What You'll See

Checks vary depending on who issues or prints them, but the back of a check generally has three separate sections.

Endorsement area: This is where you endorse—meaning sign—the check when you’re ready to deposit or cash the check. This might be as simple as adding your signature, but it’s safest to use an endorsement that restricts how the check can be used. If the check is lost or stolen after you endorse it, your restriction (such as adding "for deposit only") makes it hard (if not impossible) for someone to steal the money.

Security screen: This area is reserved for financial institution use and is not an area you’ll use as a consumer. Banks use this space to note the flow of events when a check is processed. You'll notice that this section is usually printed in very light ink (possibly with a pattern of lines) making it hard to photocopy and reproduce. When legitimate check stock is used, you’ll often find the words “Original Document” written in this space—but you have to look closely.

Security box: This is a security feature that contains a warning that helps discourage thieves from altering or copying the check. It also provides tips to help consumers determine if a check is actually legitimate. For example, it might suggest that you look for microprint or watermarks on the check.


Who Signs the Back of a Check?

There's a lot of confusion about where signatures go. Do you sign the back of a check when you write it or is that the recipient's job?

When you write a check, the only place you need to sign is on the front—right on the signature line. It is possible to include instructions on the back of a check when you write it. For example, “Hold for deposit until December 30, 2018.” The caveat is that you can never be 100 percent certain that your instructions will be honored.

If you received a check, you’ll need to sign the back to deposit or cash the check. Along with your signature, you might include instructions that limit how the check can be used. For example, if you’re mailing the check because you want to deposit it to another account you might write, “For deposit only to account 12345.” That way, no one else can cash the check if it’s lost in the mail.

Is a Signature Required on the Back of a Check?

Back of Check with Endorsement
Justin Pritchard

You can, in many cases, get away with depositing a check to your account without a signature (if the check was made payable to you). However, it is safest to sign the check. Without a signature, the check might be sent back to the issuer, resulting in fees and delays in getting your money. Even if your bank deposits a check without a signature on the back and you see the money added to your account, that check might get rejected a week or two later.

With personal checks, you’ll have a better chance of skipping the signature, but don’t be surprised if the bank hounds you for a signature on business checks or large checks.

The same is true if you’re making a mobile check deposit. Some checks include a checkbox to indicate that you’re using a remote deposit service—while some banks instruct you to write something about mobile deposits on your check. You might be able to get away with ignoring those instructions, but it’s best to ask your bank for guidance. If you don’t meet your particular banks' requirements, you may face delays in getting your money.

Numbers on the Back of a Check

Woman in bank filling out banking slip on counter
Bruce Ayres / Getty Images

You're probably familiar with the routing and account numbers on the front of a check, but what about those numbers printed on the back?

Numbers in the endorsement area (assuming they are pre-printed on the check and are not an account number) are often reference numbers used to track checks. They are especially helpful for businesses that print checks on blank check stock.

Numbers outside of the endorsement area are added by banks that handle the check when it is cashed or deposited. Those banks print their information on the check and then send it on to the bank that will ultimately release the funds.