Getting a check is almost always a good thing. The only catch is that you need to do something with the check before spending that money. Cashing a check is often free, but some places charge steep fees to convert a check to cash. Paying to cash a check can be frustrating, and it leaves you with less money to spend. So, where can you cash checks for free (or as little as possible)?
Your Bank or Credit Union
Your best bet for free check cashing is any bank or credit union with whom you have an account. At most institutions, account holders pay nothing to cash checks. Plus, you can deposit the check and withdraw cash later.
Depending on your bank’s “funds availability” policy and the type of check you’re cashing, you might not get access to the full value of the check. But getting $200 is typically allowed.
No Bank Account
If you don’t have a bank account, it’s probably worth opening one. Living without a bank account is certainly possible, but it takes extra energy and creativity to live that way. Going bank-free will probably only make sense if you can’t open an account for some reason. If you have a check in-hand—and especially if you expect to receive more checks in the future—you can use that check to open your first account. Opening an account will most likely save you a lot of time and energy.
Credit Unions Offer More Locations
If you’re a member of a credit union, you might have more options than you think for cashing that check. There are thousands of shared branching locations throughout the country, which allow you to visit other credit unions (that you’re not a member of) to cash a check.
Another option is to cash the check by taking it to the bank where the funds were drawn. In other words, go to the bank where the person who wrote the check has an account.
For example, if the check draws from an account at Bank of America, you can walk into a Bank of America branch and request cash. To determine which bank issued the check, look for the name of a bank or credit union on the lower-left portion of your check.
If you’re dealing with a government-issued check, things work differently. Although you can’t walk into the U.S. Treasury for cash, you should find those checks easier to cash at banks and retail outlets because they are considered safe checks.
It’s not always free to cash checks—even if you visit the bank where the funds were drawn.
Banks may charge fees to non-customers, so be sure to ask about costs before you proceed.
If you can’t visit a branch of the checkwriter’s bank, you can try other banks (banks at which neither you nor the checkwriter has an account). However, you may have a hard time finding anybody willing to cash a check, and you’ll be lucky to get it done for free. You can always ask, though.
Most retailers charge a fee to cash a check, though some stores may do it for free. Presumably, they hope you’ll spend some of that money while you’re there. From their perspective, cashing checks is not the worst idea in the world—when you’ve got cash in your hand, you’re more willing to spend. However, stores aren’t in the business of taking risks on bad checks, so don’t expect it to work every time. Your odds are best if you’re a regular customer, and the staff is familiar with you. Plan to endorse the check or sign it over to the store to get cash.
Some national stores will offer check-cashing services, but you can usually expect a fee of at least a few dollars. Kmart stores cash selected checks for $1 (or potentially less) if you’re a member of the Shop Your Way program. Walmart cashes checks of $1,000 or less in their Money Centers for $4 (checks greater than $1,000 cost $8). Anecdotally, Walmart has also been known to sometimes cash checks for free—especially government-issued checks (such as stimulus checks and tax refunds). Grocery stores are another option (typically around $4 or so), and they might even cash small personal checks. Ask about check-cashing at the customer service counter.
If you don’t need cash immediately, you can deposit your checks to a prepaid account—which is presumably linked to a prepaid debit card. You’ll be able to spend that money as soon as the check clears. You might even have some of the funds available immediately, depending on the card’s features and funds availability policy. You can eventually turn those funds into cash by making a withdrawal at an ATM.
To make a deposit, you use an app and snap a photo of the check with your mobile device. This app is an especially good option if you can’t open a bank account.
Prepaid cards can act as a substitute for fully-functioning accounts (although a standard bank account is probably best): You get to deposit checks, keep money safe, and spend with plastic.
As you travel busy streets, you’ll likely see check-cashing stores alongside—or inside of—payday loan shops. Those places cash checks, but it won’t be free. Check the fees carefully before you cash a check at a check-cashing store. There’s a good chance that you can pay less elsewhere.
Types of Checks
The type of check you have is important. Government-issued checks are best because they’re considered safe—less likely to bounce. That includes tax refunds, Social Security benefits, and other checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury. Local government checks are also somewhat “safe.” Personal checks—with information hand-written as opposed to computer-printed—are generally the riskiest type of check to cash. You might be able to cash these if they’re relatively small, but you’ll pay more.
No matter what type of check you have, verify that it’s legitimate. Sometimes government checks and cashier’s checks are fakes used for scams.