How Long to Wait After Depositing a Check

The Longer the Better - Especially if it's a Biggie

Endorsing a check and deposit slip
You might want to wait before spending that money. Keith Brofsky / Photodisc / Getty Images

When you deposit a check, neither you nor your bank knows if the check is going to bounce. It’s wise to wait a few days before spending the money, but how long is long enough – and what can you do to protect yourself from con artists?

Funds Availability Rules

Your bank will allow you to spend a portion of your deposit shortly after you deposit a check. However, that doesn’t mean that the check is good or that your bank has actually received the funds from the other bank.

Unless there’s obvious fraud (or another problem), banks are required to make a portion of your deposit available to you.

A bank’s funds availability policy, along with internal policies, details how soon you can use your money. In many cases, the first $200 from personal checks is available within one day, and the remainder is held for several days.

It might be helpful to use two different categories to understand when you can spend money:

  1. Typical situations, when you have no reason to worry about a check that you deposited
  2. Suspicious situations, when you don’t know or don’t trust the check writer

In typical situations, you can use your bank’s funds availability policy as a guideline. In many cases, 100% of the money will be available within two to three business days, which is often faster than your bank’s hold policy allows.

However, you are always responsible for deposits you make to your account.

Even if your bank lets you walk away with cash, you might have to replace that money later if the check bounces.

When does a Check Clear?

The term “clear” can be confusing, and bank employees may tell you a check has cleared before it really has. The safest scenario is when money has been transferred from the check writer’s bank to you your bank – there was enough money in the check, writer’s account, and the check was not an obvious fake.

A check has not necessarily cleared just because the money is available in your account. Federal law requires your bank to make the funds available to you within a certain amount of time (whether or not the funds have actually arrived from the other bank).

When in Doubt

So what do you do about checks that you’re suspicious of? The best advice is to avoid taking checks if you have any concerns about the payment (see below for tips and alternatives), but that’s not always an option.

30 days: when in doubt, waiting for 30 days is a good start. Most problems will arise within that timeframe – checks from fake accounts and empty accounts should bounce, and you won’t be stuck with a debt to your bank. If the check is from a foreign bank, wait even longer. If there’s a problem with the check, you’ll hear about it within 30 days in most (but not all) cases.

Are you 100% safe after the money hits your account or after 30 days? No, nothing in life is 100% safe. As just one example, an account holder can claim that a check was written from her account fraudulently – even though the funds were paid to your bank, the funds will be returned.

The Risks

You’re taking several risks any time you deposit a check to your account.

Some of the risks are negligible, but others are significant.

The biggest risk is that you’ll spend money you don’t really have. Again, your bank will let you use money from a deposit before the funds have actually been transferred to your bank. In other words, your bank assumes the check is good: you can take out cash, spend with your debit card, and pay bills online. Banks do this partly as a customer service gesture, and partly because they’re required to.

If the check does not clear for any reason, you’ll need to reimburse your bank for the money you spent. That’s a minor annoyance if you’ve got plenty of money (you’ll just have less of it), but it can be a serious problem if your account is running low. A reversed deposit can bring your account into the negative, which means all of your payments will bounce until you fix the problem.

You won’t be able to use your debit card for purchases, and any checks you’ve written in the last few days will be returned.

Whenever you deposit a check you’re unsure of, be especially careful if it’s a large check. Cashier’s check scams work because of confusion about when checks clear, and there’s often nothing you can do to get your money back.

In addition to finding yourself in negative territory, you also risk paying hefty bank fees when you deposit a bad check. Your bank will charge a fee, and any checks that bounce because you have less money than you thought will also result in fees.

Ask Your Bank for Confirmation

It’s a good idea to ask your bank whether or not a check has cleared, but this might not be as helpful as you’d hope. Bank employees often assume you just want to know when you can spend money that’s subject to a hold. They don’t know exactly what your concerns are with a check, and sometimes they don’t even know that checks can bounce long after they’ve been deposited.

Many customers have been told that a check “cleared,” only to find out later that the check was no good. If things go sour, it’s not the bank’s problem or the customer service representative’s problem – it’s your problem.

If you want to find out if a check has cleared, explain your concerns to somebody at the bank. It’s best to talk to somebody that you trust and know is competent. Speak to a manager or visit a branch in person to be sure that there is no confusion.

Alternatives to Checks

If you’re worried about bouncing checks, request payment in different forms. The safest way to get paid is via wire transfer. The money will only show up if it really exists, and the transaction cannot be reversed. You can also ask for cashier’s checks or money orders; just be aware that those documents are sometimes faked (so you can run into the same problems you’d have with a bad check).

You can also use newer forms of payment. Some payment networks such as PayPal allow you to receive funds from customers and friends. However, you should research whether or not those payments can be reversed, and under what circumstances. For example, Venmo scams are popular with online con artists who get their payments reversed.