How Counter Checks Work

Your bank can print some checks for you if you temporarily run out

Image shows a counter-check and a pen on a string sitting on a wooden table. The images above show a bank teller, a hand filling out a check, and someone holding the check. Text reads:

Image by Kyle Fewel © The Balance 2019

Checks don’t fit in well with today’s instant-access world: When you're running low, you must order them several weeks in advance so they can be printed with your information on them. But if you’re in a pinch after having run out of checks before your new ones arrive, you can often get several instant counter checks from your bank to meet your temporary need.

A teller or personal banker can print counter checks for you. They will have your account information on them, so they work just like regular checks. Your ABA routing number and account number appear on the bottom of each check in that familiar computerized MICR font. Some banks include your name and address as well, but for the most part, these checks are very basic, and merchants can usually tell when you’re using a counter check.

When you first open an account at a bank, you will probably be given several counter checks to get you started before your official checks arrive.

Pros and Cons of Using Counter Checks

What We Like

  • Get paper checks right away without waiting for an order to arrive

  • Easy to get by visiting your bank branch

What We Don't Like

  • Banks may charge a printing fee of up to $2 per check

  • Banks often issue only a few counter checks at a time

  • Merchants might be suspicious of counter checks because the check number must be written in by hand

Instant access: The main benefit of a counter check is that you have what you need—a check—with a trip to the branch. Instead of waiting for a shipment of checks, you can start writing checks right away.

Cost and limits: Banks usually charge a small fee to print checks at the branch, so expect to pay roughly $1 to $2 dollars per check.  Also, you can only get a few checks at a time; you’re not going to walk out with 50 checks.

Suspicious merchants: If you’re planning to make a payment with one of these checks, be aware that merchants don’t always want to accept counter checks as payment. Even if the bank prints your personal information on the check, counter checks usually don’t have a check number, which is a strong signal to merchants that the check is a counter check. Merchants might fear that you’ve opened a brand new account (which signals greater risk for them) or that you’re using a poorly made counterfeit check.

How to Get Counter Checks

Visit your bank or credit union’s branch to request a counter check. Before you make a trip to the branch, call and make sure counter checks are available there. Find out what the process is and whether you need to use any particular branch. Of course, if you use an online-only bank, you can’t get counter checks because there is no branch to visit.

Once at the branch, ask the teller or personal banker to print the checks, show your ID, and complete any other steps required by the bank. You should have your checks in-hand in just a few minutes.

How to Fill Out Counter Checks

Writing a check with a counter check is the same as using any other check:

  1. Write the date in the upper-right corner.
  2. Write the name of your payee on the line next to “Pay to the order of.”
  3. Write the amount of the check in numeric form in the box on the right.
  4. Write the amount using words on the line under the payee line.
  5. Include a “memo” or any reference information if you like.
  6. Sign the check near the bottom-right corner.

You might also need to write your personal information on the check, usually in the upper-left hand corner. Again, some banks print those details for you. If not, whoever you’re writing the check to will probably want to know how to contact you if any problems arise. For example, they may require you to provide your name and phone number at a minimum. Retailers often want your address and driver’s license number as well.

How to Use Fewer Checks

If you’re out of checks, and you find yourself in this situation often, try to use fewer checks.

Although counter checks are helpful, it takes time to go to the branch, and it’s less expensive to order checks from a printer.

To use fewer checks, take advantage of technology:

Cashier's Checks

Counter checks are not the same as cashier’s checks, which are also checks that your bank prints on demand. Cashier’s checks are for “cleared” or guaranteed funds, and they have payee information printed on them. Counter checks are not for guaranteed payments, and the payee information must be filled in.

Article Sources

  1. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. "Regulation CC (Availability of Funds and Collection of Checks)." Accessed March 31, 2020.

  2. U.S. Bank. "Consumer Pricing Information Addendum," Page 6. Accessed April 11, 2020.

  3. PNC. "Consumer Schedule of Service Charges and Fees Performance Select Checking," Page 2. Accessed April 11, 2020.

  4. Chase Bank. "A Guide to Your Account." Accessed April 11, 2020.

  5. Citizens Bank. "What Is a Cashier’s Check?" Accessed April 11, 2020.