Reading Paper Savings Bonds and Other Bond Certificates

Close-up of multiple savings bonds

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Paper savings bonds and other paper bond certificates may seem like old-fashioned investments, but many people still hold them. You may have them because of a lifetime of prudent investing. Or you may have received them from family or friends as birthday or holiday gifts.

It's important to know how to read savings bond certificates so you can interpret the information on them. It's also important to learn how to read paper corporate and government bonds if you hold any of those.

Printed bonds are more and more rare today. But some people may be holding onto them for sentimental value or because they prefer having bonds they can see and feel.

As of September 2020, $780 billion of paper securities of all types serviced by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation remained outstanding.

U.S. Savings Bonds

Almost all U.S. savings bonds issued these days are in electronic form because financial institutions stopped selling paper bonds in 2012. The U.S. Treasury Department currently issues only series EE and I bonds, and I bonds are the only ones available in paper form. Bonds may be redeemed, or cashed in, after 12 months, but you must hold on to them for at least five years if you want to avoid forfeiting the last three months of interest you would have earned.

There is now only one way to obtain paper series I savings bonds: you must buy them through the Internal Revenue Service using your income tax refund. Of course, some people still have series E, EE, or I paper bonds they purchased or were given as a gift prior to 2012.

If you still own series E savings bonds—which preceded series EE bonds—you should cash them in because they are no longer earning interest.

Regardless of how you got them, these paper bonds will have certain features in common.

The series of the bond is in the upper right of the certificate. The different series each have their own rules, interest rates, and features.

The bond's issue date will be printed on the top right below the series designation. The print date will appear below that.

The number in the top left is the face value. Series EE paper bonds were sold for half of that amount. Series I bonds and electronic EE bonds are sold at face value. The value of the bonds when they are redeemed depends on how long they have earned interest.

The purchaser's or recipient's name and address will be printed in the center left of the bond. The name of the co-owner, if there is one, is printed below that. 

The bond's serial number appears on the bottom right of the bond.

Series EE bonds are currently designed to double the purchaser's investment in no more than 20 years. Series I bonds earn interest for 30 years at a rate calculated using a fixed rate set at the time of purchase and the changing rate of inflation.

Corporate and Other Bonds 

Businesses frequently issue bonds to raise money. Federal, state, and local government entities also issue bonds to fund various projects.

If you own them in paper form, these bonds may differ significantly from each other, but all will contain some basic information about the bond issuer, the investment itself, and the bond's purchaser.

The bond certificate will show the face amount, or par value, in U.S. dollars if the bond was issued in the United States and in foreign currency if it was issued in another country. That is the amount the issuer must pay you at the bond's maturity after having made regular interest payments to you. The certificate may also show the interest rate and the maturity date.

The issuer's name will usually appear on the top of the certificate. The bond may also indicate the reason why the issuer borrowed the money. The certificate also should have a CUSIP number that is unique to that bond.

The bond may also show the purchaser's name or the name of the purchaser's brokerage. This may be printed on the certificate or written into a blank space.

You may not be able to receive money for the bonds from the issuer if the company or other entity that issued them went bankrupt or you are unable to prove legal ownership. Ownership of the certificates may also have been transferred, or the bonds may have been paid off. If the certificates are marked "cancelled" or have hole punches or slashes or are defaced in some other way, they are most likely no longer valuable as investments.

To find out if the bonds still have value, contact the issuer or the trust company listed on your certificates. If neither of these companies is still in business, you can try contacting the agency in charge of corporations for the state in which the issuer was based.

Even if you learn they aren't otherwise valuable, you should see whether the certificates you have are sought out by collectors before discarding them.

Key Takeaways

  • It's still possible to find paper U.S. savings bonds: You can buy them through the IRS, and some people still hold bonds they purchased years ago.
  • The series is located in the top right, with the issue date beneath it.
  • The face value is in the upper left. The name and address of the buyer or recipient are below that.
  • The bond's serial number appears on the bottom right of the bond.
  • Paper corporate and government bonds all contain basic information such as the face amount and CUSIP number.
  • These bonds may still offer money you can collect from the issuer or a collector.