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 increasingly rare today, but some people may be holding on to them for sentimental reasons or because they prefer having bonds they can see and feel.

Key Takeaways

  • It's possible to find paper U.S. savings bonds. You can buy them through the IRS, and some people hold bonds they purchased years ago.
  • Paper corporate and government bonds contain basic information, such as the face amount and CUSIP number.
  • These bonds may still offer money that you can collect from the issuer or a collector.

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. Department of the Treasury 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. However, 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. Although, 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. These bonds are no longer earning interest.

The series of the bond is indicated 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 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 

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

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. Still, 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 a 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 name of the purchaser or their 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 if 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 "canceled," have hole punches or slashes, or are defaced in some other way, they are most likely no longer valuable as investments.

To find out whether 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, contact the agency in charge of corporations for the state in which the issuer was based.

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

Article Sources

  1. TreasuryDirect. "Treasury to End Over-the-Counter Sales of Paper U.S. Savings Bonds; Action Will Save $70 Million Over First Five Years." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  2. TreasuryDirect. "Comparing Series EE and Series I Saving Bonds." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  3. TreasuryDirect. "Using Your Income Tax Refund to Buy Paper Savings Bonds." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  4. TreasuryDirect. "Series EE Savings Bonds." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  5. TreasuryDirect. "Interest Rates and Terms for Series EE Savings Bonds." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  6. TreasuryDirect. "May 2005 and Later (EE Bond Rates and Terms)." Accessed June 6, 2021.

  7. TreasuryDirect. "Series I Savings Bonds Rates & Terms: Calculating Interest Rates." Accessed June 6, 2021.