How Long Does it Take for a Check to Clear?
How Long Does It Take for a Check to Bounce?
When you deposit a check, neither you nor your bank knows if the check is likely to bounce. It’s wise to wait before spending the money, but how long is long enough—and what should you do to protect yourself from bad checks?
For starters, don’t assume you’re in the clear, even if your bank lets you spend money from a deposit.
Funds Availability Rules
By law, your bank makes a certain amount of funds available for withdrawal shortly after you deposit most checks. This availability doesn’t necessarily signify that the check is good or that your bank actually received funds from the issuing bank.
Banks are required by law to make a portion of the check amount available to you soon after deposit.
Unless there are clear signs of fraud or other problems, banks follow a funds availability policy, which details how soon you can use your money. Many types of checks and deposits are required to be available to you the first business day after a deposit is made. In many cases, the first $200 from personal checks is available within one business day. For a non-”next-day” check, up to the first $200 must be made available, according to the Expedited Funds Availability Act. Your bank may hold the remainder for several more days.
It might be helpful to use two different categories to understand when you can spend money:
- Typical situations, when you have no reason to worry about a check that you deposited
- Suspicious circumstances, when you don’t know or don’t trust the check writer
How Long Does It Take for a Check to Clear?
Checks typically take two to three business days to clear. Aside from the accessibility required by law, individual banks may make more funds available before checks actually clear.
You Bear the Risk
You are always responsible for deposits you make into your account. Even if your bank allows you to walk away with cash or transfer money out, you might have to replace that money later if the deposited check bounces.
The term “clear” can be confusing, and bank employees may use the term loosely. To be safe, find out precisely when money transfers from the check writer’s bank to your bank. If that transaction happens successfully, there was enough money in the check writer’s account, and the check was not an obvious fake.
Your Available Balance
A check has not necessarily cleared just because the money is available in your account or appears on a receipt. Again, federal law requires your bank to make the funds available to you within a certain amount of time, whether the funds actually arrived from the other bank or not.
When in Doubt
So what do you do about checks that arouse suspicion? 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 Is a Good Start
Finding out about a bad check can take weeks. When in doubt, wait for 30 days before using the funds from a check. Most problems should arise within that timeframe. Checks from fake accounts and empty accounts should bounce within a few weeks, giving you time to avoid debts with your bank. If the check originates from a foreign bank, wait even longer.
Are you 100% safe after the money hits your account, or after 30 days? Not necessarily. As just one example, an account holder can claim that a check was written from her account fraudulently. Even though the check cleared, your bank must return the funds to the rightful owner. You may need to figure out who scammed you and consult with an attorney about your options for recourse.
More Details About Your Risk
You’re taking several risks any time you deposit a check to your account.
Some of the risks are negligible, but others are significant. People reported more than 27,000 fake check scams in 2019, according to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Database. The losses resulting from those fake checks totaled more than $28 million.
The biggest risk is that you’ll spend money you don’t really have because your bank lets you do so.
Banks don’t make you wait for funds to get transferred from a check writer’s bank. Instead, your bank assumes the check is good: You can use your deposit to withdraw cash, spend with your debit card, and pay bills online. Banks do this partly as a customer service gesture, and partly because of the aforementioned legal requirement.
Negative Account Balances
If a check does not clear for any reason, you need to reimburse your bank for any money you spend. That’s a minor annoyance if you’ve got plenty of money, 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 unpaid.
Whenever you deposit a check you’re unsure of, be especially careful if it’s a large check. Cashier’s check scams work in part because of common confusion about when checks clear. If someone sends you a check but you can’t keep the full amount of the check, this is likely a scam. They may instruct you to then send back money in some format (gift cards or wire transfer), but if you don’t realize the check was fake before sending them funds, you’re losing money.
In addition to finding yourself in negative territory, you also risk paying hefty bank fees after you deposit a bad check. Your bank will charge a fee for insufficient funds, as well as potential overdraft charges. The people or businesses that you attempt to pay with nonexistent funds may also charge you fees.
Confusing Answers From Your Bank
It’s smart to ask your bank whether or not a check has cleared, but this might not be as helpful as you’d expect. Bank employees often assume you just want to know when you can spend money that’s subject to a hold. They don’t know the exact nature of your concerns, 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 bounced. If things go sour, it’s not the bank’s problem or the teller’s problem—it’s your problem.
If you want to verify 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 limit confusion.
Alternatives to Checks
If you’re worried about bouncing checks, request payment in different forms. Wire transfers are viable alternatives. The money only transfers if it exists, typically appears within a few days, and there's often an electronic trail for law enforcement to follow, if necessary. You can also request cashier’s checks or money orders—just be aware that thieves routinely use fake documents, so you can run into the same problems you’d have with a bad check.
You might also try newer forms of payment, like apps and online tools.
Services like PayPal allow you to receive funds from customers and friends. You'll still need to practice safety and familiarize yourself with payment dispute or claim processes should issues arise. For example, Venmo scams are popular with online con artists who use the service to get free goods.
Legal Information Institute. "U.S. Code § 4002 - Expedited funds availability schedules." Accessed Sept. 18, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. "Don't Bank on That Check." Accessed Sept. 18, 2020.
Federal Reserve Board. "A Guide to Regulation CC Compliance." Accessed Sept. 18, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. "Don’t Bank on a 'Cleared' Check." Accessed Sept. 18, 2020.