Parts of a Check and What the Numbers Mean
At first glance, checks can seem intimidating. The intimidation is understandable—checks don't come with instructions, and any mistakes could affect you financially. The best way to overcome this unease is to break down each part of the check. Once you understand the different parts of a check, you’ll feel confident completing, receiving, and depositing paper checks.
Checks contain pre-printed information that's important to understand, as well as blank sections that need to be carefully and accurately filled in each time you write a check. Understanding your checks helps you order new checks and make sure the order comes out correctly. You'll also need to reference sections of a check to set up direct deposit instructions. If somebody writes you a check, someone who understands checks can verify that the check was filled out properly so there won’t be a delay in getting your money.
Reference the examples of a completed check (displayed above) and a blank check (displayed below) as you read through a detailed explanation of each component.
Parts of a Check: An Overview
The image to the left is an example of a blank check. Each of the blue numbers corresponds to an important aspect of a check. Scroll down for both the name and purpose of each of these sections. Some aspects of a check are self-explanatory, while others have interesting quirks that are unique to checks, such as writing out dollar amounts with words.
- The personal information section provides details about the account owner—the one paying money.
- The payee line designates who can receive the money.
- The dollar box displays the amount of the check in numerical format.
- The amount of your check is written out in this section using words instead of numbers.
- The memo line is a space for any notes about the purpose of the check.
- The dateline serves as a timestamp for the check.
- The signature line verifies that the account owner has approved the payment.
- Your bank’s contact information and/or logo is usually printed on the check.
- Your bank's American Bankers Association (ABA) routing number tells banks where to find the funds for the check.
- Your account number at your bank is another identifier that lets the recipient know where the money for the check will come from.
- The check number (note that this appears in two places) is a security measure to identify each payment and prevent fraud.
- Your bank’s fractional ABA number contains the same information as the ABA in list item nine, but it's often presented in another format in the upper right corner of the check, as well.
The upper-left corner typically shows personal identifying information about you, and it is almost always pre-printed on checks.
Your name is the most important part, but this section may also include a home address or phone number. If you're concerned about privacy, you can limit the amount of information on your checks. One of the ways you could protect your privacy would be to use a post office box instead of your home address. However, it's not uncommon for retailers to require certain details to accept a check. They may handwrite your phone number on the check, for example.
In this section, you specify who will receive funds from your checking account. Write the name of the person or organization that you wish to pay, also known as the payee. Only the payee is allowed to deposit the check, cash it, or endorse it to someone else.
If you don't want to name a specific person or organization, it is possible to pay your check to the order of "Cash." However, this is risky because anybody can cash the check, not just your intended payee.
Write the amount of your check in numerical format (for example, "1,250" instead of "one thousand two hundred fifty") in the dollar box.
This box is sometimes called the "courtesy box" because it appears on the check as a courtesy or convenience. The number in this box is not used to determine the legal amount of your check. Instead, the official amount comes from the line below, preceding the word "DOLLARS."
In theory, both amounts should match, but sometimes they don't. In those cases, the written words take precedence over the numbers in the dollar box.
For security, it's best to write the numbers as far to the left as possible. This prevents somebody from altering the check and inserting another number before the number you entered. You should also clearly enter a decimal and any numbers after the decimal. Even if you're paying a round dollar amount, it's best to add the "00" after the decimal to be safe.
Check Amount Written Out With Words
On this line, write the amount of your check using words (as opposed to using numerals). For example, if you write a check for $10.50, you would write "Ten and 50/100" in this section.
Note the fraction in the example above. Cents are written as fractions of a dollar, rather than as full cents. Since there are 100 cents in every dollar, you can just put the number of cents above the number 100. For more explanation and examples, read about putting dollars and cents into words.
As mentioned above, the amount written out with words is the official amount of the check. If there's any difference between the dollar box and the amount written in words, the bank is supposed to ignore the dollar box. That's because words are harder to alter than numbers.
The memo line can be used to write an unofficial note on your check. This is entirely optional and it can be written in informal terms.
Some use the memo line to add details for their personal recordkeeping. For example, a business owner paying a supplier may include their account or transaction number on the memo line for clarity. Others simply add fun notes when they're writing checks to friends.
You don't necessarily need to get everything on the memo line. You can write additional information just about anywhere on the front of a check, as long as it doesn't cover up any important information, but avoid using the back of the check.
Enter the date in this space. If you want to delay the transaction, you can write a future date and notify the bank. However, you can't simply post-date checks and expect the bank to delay the transaction. Banks generally have no obligation to adhere to the date written on the check, unless you explicitly notify them.
The payer signs the check at the line on the bottom right-hand corner of the check. This is a security feature, and the signature is compared to the account holder's signature on file. This should be the last step of writing a check, and it should only be completed after double-checking all other sections of the check.
A signature makes the check official. If you sign an otherwise blank check and lose track of it, whoever finds it can put whatever they want in those empty spaces. They might decide to pay themselves a million dollars, and while that check would bounce for many people, it would be a legal transaction if you did have the funds to cover it.
You may find the letters "MP" next to the signature line. It indicates that the check includes a security feature called microprinting. Microprinting involves tiny words on your check that cannot be detected by the naked eye.
Your Bank's Contact Information
Your bank's name appears on every check you write. However, this section doesn't contain important info, such as the routing number. A phone number and address may be included, or you might just see the bank's logo.
If you received a check from somebody, this section tells you where they bank and where the money will come from. If you want to cash the check, you may be able to do it at that bank (any branch location—not necessarily at the same address shown on the check). However, banks have no obligation to cash anyone's check, and they may decide to charge a fee or refuse to cash it.
ABA Routing Number (MICR Format)
The routing number, found at the bottom left of your check, serves as an "address" for your bank. With that number, other banks can get in touch with your bank and collect funds from your account when you write a check. While this is the same information as the fractional ABA, the routing number along the bottom of the check is written in a specific font with a special ink. Known as "Magnetic Ink Character Recognition," or MICR, this allows checks to be easily read and processed by computers.
Your Account Number
Your account number is also located on the bottom of a check, and it also utilizes MICR.
In most cases, there are three numbers at the bottom of a check, and your account number is the one in the middle. Some checks use a different format, so it's a good idea to confirm your account number. For example, business checks and checks created by an online bill payment system have a slightly different format. A good way to find your account number is to look for the "⑈" symbol. Your account number appears just before that symbol.
The Check Number
A check number is simply a reference number that helps you keep track of the checks you write. It will help you balance your checkbook and keep track of which checks have been processed by your bank (and which checks are still outstanding).
This number usually appears in two places, both the upper and lower right corners. Again, checks may be formatted differently depending on where they are printed. A good tip for finding the check number is to look for the smallest or shortest number—that's often the check number.
ABA Routing Number (Fractional Format)
In addition to the MICR line along the bottom of the check, the bank's ABA routing number is generally also printed in its fractional format on the upper right corner of a check. In some cases, the number is elsewhere, but if you're working with a personal check, you should look towards the upper right.
Just like the MICR line, this number represents the bank, its location, and the Federal Reserve branch which services the bank. ABA routing numbers are more than a century old, and the fractional format helped bankers identify important information before the advent of MICR.