Parts of a Check and What the Numbers Mean
Learn what to write in each space on a check
Checks don't come with instructions, and if you make mistakes when writing one, it could affect you financially. But 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.
In addition to being necessary for writing a check yourself, understanding the parts of a check helps you:
- Order new checks.
- Make sure check orders come out correctly.
- Set up direct deposit instructions.
- Verify that any checks you receive are filled out properly.
Reference the examples of a completed check and a blank check as you read through a detailed explanation of each component.
Parts of a Check: An Overview
Each of the blue numbers corresponds to an important aspect of this blank check. Scroll down for both the name and purpose of each of these sections. Some aspects of a check are self-explanatory, such as the date. Others have interesting quirks that are unique to check writing, such as writing out dollar amounts with words.
- The personal information section provides details about the account owner, who is the one paying money.
- The payee line designates who can receive the money.
- The dollar box displays the value 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 date line 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 9, but it's often presented in another format in the upper right corner of the check, as well.
The back of a check, which isn't pictured here, includes a space for endorsements. A check is supposed to be endorsed, or signed by the recipient, before it is deposited or cashed.
The upper-left corner of a check typically shows personal identifying information about the account owner, and it is almost always pre-printed on checks.
This section generally includes:
- Your name
- A home address
- Your phone number
This information is usually either the contact information associated with the bank account or the contact information you choose to have printed when you order checks from your bank.
If you're concerned about privacy, you can limit the amount of information on your checks or take steps such as using a post office box instead of your home address.
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. This makes it easier for them to protect themselves in case of check fraud.
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.
Use the recipient's full name, rather than a nickname, to avoid any confusion or difficulty for the person depositing the check.
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, "1,250.00" instead of "one thousand two hundred fifty") in the dollar box.
For security, you want to make it as difficult as possible for someone to alter the number you write in this box.
- Write the numbers as far to the left as possible.
- Clearly enter a decimal and any numbers after the decimal.
- Include ".00" for round dollar amounts.
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.
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.
If there is space either before or after the amount you write out, you may want to strike through it with a single line in order to prevent anyone from altering the value of your check.
On this line, cents are written as fractions of a dollar, rather than as full cents. Since there are 100 cents in every dollar, put the number of cents above the number 100.
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. Use the memo line to:
- Add details for your personal recordkeeping.
- Include an account, invoice, or transaction number for paying bills.
- Add notes when you're writing checks to friends or family.
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. However, you should not use the back of the check for writing any memo information.
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.
Generally, if you notify your bank or credit union about a post-dated check in a timely manner, that notice is valid for six months. If you notify them verbally, rather than in writing, the notice is valid for two weeks. In that time, they should not cash the check before the date written on it.
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 can be compared to the account holder's signature on file.
Signing is the last step of writing a check, and it should only be completed after double-checking all other sections of the check. If you sign an otherwise blank check and lose track of it, whoever finds it can put whatever they want in those empty spaces.
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. They may charge a fee or refuse to cash it if you're not a client.
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.
A check number is a reference number that will help you:
- Balance your checkbook.
- Track which checks have been processed by your bank.
- Know which checks are still outstanding.
Some checks have the check number printed in MICR to help prevent fraud.
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 toward 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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can you use a check with an old address?
A check doesn't have to have your current address in order for you to use it. As long as the routing and account numbers on the check are current, the check is valid and your bank can process it.
What information is required on a personal check?
Different vendors and service providers may have different requirements for the personal information you include on a check. Some of them will allow you to write in missing information such as a phone number. Usually, having your name and address (or PO Box) printed on the check is sufficient. The more information you have printed on the check, the more access potential thieves have to your identity.
Do check numbers matter?
Check numbers are for your reference so you can keep track of transactions. The bank doesn't rely on check numbers when processing checks, and it's possible to clear multiple checks with the same number.