How to Read a Check

1
What does a Check Show You?

Parts of a check, with a number next to each part. Use this diagram to understand what each is for
The parts of a check. Each blue number is explained in more detail below (and on following pages). Justin Pritchard

Checks have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to understand. 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 dealt with a few checks, it should be easy to find any information you need.

To learn what a check contains, use the image above as a guide. Each blue number is described briefly below, and you can click on the headings below to read a more detailed description.

If you’re just trying to write a check, see our step-by-step lesson (with more detailed pictures).

1. Personal information: this is information 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’ll find some contact information here. Sometimes a phone number appears here, but not always. It’s also possible that you’ll 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).

2. Payee line: this tells you who the check is written to or who will receive the funds – hopefully that’s you. It should include the 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 pretty much anybody can deposit or cash the check.

3. The dollar box: this is an unofficial note of how much the check is for. The check amount is written using numbers (instead of words, which you’ll see in #4) so you can quickly glance and read how much the check is for. However, if section #4 has a different number, the bank should use the amount that was written out in words.

4. The amount of the check: this is the official amount of the check. This section, 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 (so don’t spend the money unless you’re confident that it’ll actually be there).

5. Memo line: this is a space for any additional information the check writer wants to include. It might explain what the payment is for (“July Rent”) or include reference information like an account number.

6. Date line: this is supposed to tell you when the check was written – and in most cases that’s exactly what you’ll find – but some people “post-date” checks (by putting a future date on this line). When reading a check, this date doesn’t necessarily tell you when you’re allowed to deposit 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. It’s also important to verify that a check isn’t too old – look for anything like “Void after 90 days” or an issue date that was more than six months ago.

7. Signature line: this shows who signed the check. If there is no signature on a check you’ve received, contact the check writer – you might have problems depositing this check, and your bank might charge you additional fees if the check is not accepted. 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 drafts that you supposedly approved online or over the phone; if you don’t remember authorizing the payment, contact your bank immediately.

8. Bank contact information and/or logo: this tells you which bank or credit union the funds will come from. It is the bank where the check writer has a checking account. If you want to cash the check and receive the full amount, you may need to visit that bank (or a local branch) 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.

9. 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 (they’re printed with magnetic ink, and in decades past, computers could only read checks using those easy-to-recognize numbers).

10. 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, but it’s generally not something you’ll need to know if you received a check: your bank and the check writer’s bank will work with the ABA number and account number behind the scenes.

11. 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 is also printed on each check to help 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.

12. Bank fractional number: this is another format of the “address” that banks might use when processing payments. This is generally not something you’ll use.

The back of a check (not shown): whoever deposits or cashes a check will generally sign (or "endorse") on the back of a check. As the check is processed, banks will also stamp information on the check, leaving a record of when and where the check was handled.

2
Signs of Fraud

If you have any concerns about a check, examine it closely for signs of fraud. First, see if the check has any security features listed on the back (if it doesn't, you're off to a bad start). Next, review each of those features to make sure they're present. For example, grab a magnifying glass and look for microprinting.

Most legitimate checks are printed on high-quality paper with security features (the ink will change color or smudge if anybody alters the check). If your check has rough edges like it was cut with scissors or torn along perforations, there's something to be suspicious about.

3
Predict if it will Bounce

It's hard to tell if a check will bounce until you deposit it and let your bank collect funds. After that, you'll find out if the account was empty or you got a stolen check - but that process can take several weeks.

It is possible to ask the check writer's bank if funds are available in the account before you deposit the check. You won't always get an answer, but it's worth a try. You can also call money order issuers to get similar information.

For detailed information on checks, see How to Verify Funds on a Check. For money order information, see How to Verify a Money Order.

If you accept checks as part of your business, you can also sign up for paid services which search databases of bad checks and closed checking accounts. These check verification services might also guarantee to pay you if a check bounces after you've verified it.