How to Read a Check

Checks have been around for a while, but they aren't as popular as they used to be—so you might benefit from some tips on how they work. Whether you’re cashing a check, making a payment, or setting up direct deposit, you need to know how to read a check. Once you’ve seen a few checks, you should have no problem finding the information you need on almost any check.

Personal Information

Parts of a check, with a number next to each part. Use this diagram to understand what each is for
Justin Pritchard

View details about the checking account owner. The funds will come out of that person’s account (or the business’ account, if the check came from a business like your employer or insurance company).

If you need to contact the check writer, you should see their contact information here. Sometimes, a phone number appears here, but not all checks provide phone numbers. You might also find handwritten personal information in this area (a cashier might require a phone number or driver’s license number in order to accept a check).

Payee Line

See who the check is written to or who will receive the funds—hopefully, that’s you. This section should include a specific name of a person or business that is authorized to deposit the check or cash it. In some cases, the check might be payable to “Cash,” which means almost much anybody can deposit or cash the check.

The Dollar Box

This is an unofficial note of how much the check is for. The check amount is written using numerals here (instead of words, which you’ll see in Number 4), so you can quickly glance and read how much the check is for. However, if section Number 4 has a different number, banks are supposed to use the amount that was written out in words.

The Amount of the Check

This is the official amount of the check. This number, written out using words, is more likely than the dollar box to reflect what the check writer actually intends to pay—so it is what you are legally entitled to as the payee.

However, you’ll only actually receive those funds if the check is legitimate and the check writer has sufficient funds available.

Sometimes people print fake checks, and it can take a while for your bank to figure out that you were scammed. Don’t spend the money unless you’re confident that it’ll actually be there, and verify with your bank, just to be safe.

Memo Line

This is a space for any additional information a check writer wants to include. It might explain what the payment is for (“November Rent”) or include reference information like an account number.

Date Line

This ideally tells you when the check was written—and in most cases, that’s exactly what you see. But sometimes people “post-date” checks by writing in a date in the future. The date written on a check doesn’t necessarily tell you when you’re allowed to deposit it or when banks will accept it.

However, if a check is post-dated, there’s probably a reason for that, so it’s a good idea to communicate with the check writer and find out what's going on. It’s also important to verify that a check isn’t too old—look for wording like “Void after 90 days” or an issue date that was more than six months ago.

Signature Line

This shows who signed the check. If there is no signature on a check you’ve received, contact the check writer—you may have problems depositing this check, and your bank might charge you additional fees if the check is not accepted as valid.

In some cases (if you’re reviewing transactions in your account, for example), you’ll see checks that don’t have a signature, but instead include a message saying “No Signature Required.”

Those items are probably payments that you approved online or over the phone. But contact your bank immediately if you don't recognize a payment.

Bank Information and/or Logo

This tells you which bank or credit union the check writer has a checking account at, and where the funds will come from. If you want to cash the check and receive the full amount, you may need to visit that bank (or a local branch of that bank) to do so. You can also deposit the check or try to cash it at your own bank, but your bank might only pay out a portion of the check and place a hold on the rest of it.

ABA Routing Number

This is an “address” used to find the check writer’s bank. If you’re signing up for direct deposit or ACH payments, you’ll need this number. However, it’s generally not helpful to know somebody else’s ABA number.

Why do these numbers look funny? They’re designed to be read by a computer. Banks traditionally printed account and routing numbers with magnetic ink, and in decades past, computers could only read checks using those easy-to-recognize numbers.

Checking Account Number

This is the account number that the funds will come from. Again, it may come in handy if you’re signing up for electronic payments out of your own account, but it’s not something you need to know when you receive a check. Your bank and the check writer’s bank will use the ABA number and account number to process payments behind the scenes.

Check Number

This identifies the specific check you’re holding. In many cases, the ABA number and account number are the same on every check that a check writer uses. To reduce confusion, a check number also appears on each check to help you keep things straight.

If you receive multiple payments from the same check writer, it might be helpful to note the check number in your records. Likewise, it’s a good idea to make a record of every check you write (including the check number) in your check register.

Low check numbers (such as 101) suggest that a checking account is new, so use caution when accepting these checks.

Bank Fractional Number

This is another format of the “address” that banks might use when processing payments. This is generally not something you need to do anything with.

The Back of a Check

Whoever deposits or cashes a check typically signs (or "endorses") on the back of the check. As banks process that payment, they also stamp information on the check, leaving a record of when and where the check was handled.

Article Sources

  1. National Credit Union Administration. "Understanding a Check and Balancing a Checkbook." Accessed Apr. 27, 2020.

  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "I Received a Check Where the Words and the Numbers for the Amount Are Different. Is This Check Valid and for How Much?" Accessed Apr. 28, 2020.

  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Can a Bank or Credit Union Cash a Post-Dated Check Before the Date on the Check?" Accessed Apr. 29, 2020.

  4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Can I Cash a Check at Any Bank or Credit Union?" Accessed Apr. 29, 2020.