What Is a Certified Check?

Certified Checks Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

woman at bank counter
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A certified check is a check for which a bank has confirmed that there are enough funds in the account to cover the check. This tells the recipient that the check won't bounce if it is cashed within a set timeframe.

Learn how certified checks work and when you might need them.

Definition and Examples of a Certified Check

A certified check is a check that has been verified by a bank. An officer of the bank where the account is certifies that the account had sufficient funds available to cover the check's value. They also check that the signature is genuine. This lets the person accepting the check know that the check will not bounce or be returned as long as they cash or deposit it in time.

Certified checks are often used when you have to make a large purchase, such as a down payment on a house or a security deposit for a home you rent. Some private or smaller transactions may also require a certified check. For example, if you are buying a car from a private owner, they may ask for a certified check rather than a personal check to ensure that they are paid.

How Certified Checks Work

If you're paid with a certified check, that means the check writer visited a bank branch in person. There, a bank employee verified that person owned the account and had funds available to cover the check.

After verifying that a check is good, banks typically add a stamp and signature to the check. They may also note any conditions of the certification, such as the timeframe when it is valid. This is often 60 or 90 days. During this time, the bank should prevent the check writer from using the money that funded the check. If you deposit a certified check, you can often access the first $5,000 of the deposit the next day.

With a personal check, there's no way for you to know if the check writer has enough money in the bank to cover the payment. The check writer can spend it before you are able to deposit or cash the check. As a result, you might not get paid. You might even have to pay fees for depositing a bad check. A certified check avoids this problem.

Certified Checks vs. Cashier’s Checks

Certified Check Cashier's Check
Funds stay in your account  Funds move immediately to bank 
You write the check, bank certifies Bank issues the check 
Payee has confidence  Payee has confidence 

One alternative to a certified check is a cashier's check. Cashier’s checks are similar to certified checks. Depending on your bank, they might be easier to get when you need to pay with certified funds.

With a certified check, you are the one writing the check. The bank then certifies that there is enough money in your account to cover it. The funds come from your account when the check is deposited or cashed.

With a cashier’s check, you pay the bank by providing cash or having the funds transferred out of your account. The bank then creates a check written to your payee. When the check is eventually paid out, the money comes from the bank’s account, not yours. For both certified and cashier's checks, you may have to pay a small fee for the service, depending on the type of account you have.

For anybody receiving payment, there isn't much difference between a cashier’s check and a certified check. They’re both forms of guaranteed funds.

Alternatives to Certified Checks

Other ways exist to guarantee payment when you're making a purchase.

  • Wire transfers send money directly from one bank account to another. When the funds show up, the recipient can be certain the money is there.
  • Money orders are prepaid vouchers you can usually get from the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Cash is always an option for paying so your recipient can have confidence in the transaction. For large transactions, though, cash may not be a practical choice.

Risk of Certified Checks

Both certified funds and cashier's checks are favorite tools for scammers. These people may write a fake check and hope that they can use it to buy something before the scam is caught. Banks often make the first $5,000 (sometimes $5,525) of a check available right away before verifying funds are available. But funds are not cleared until the bank receiving them has verified they are real, whether or not they made the money available to the payee upfront.

If you think the check may be fake, contact the bank that certified the check and verify that the check is legitimate. Be sure to use a phone number you know is legitimate, not a number printed on the check. A fake check will have a fake phone number. You can also take the check to a branch of the same bank the funds are coming from and try to get cash right away. A teller might be able to spot problems.

Key Takeaways

  • A certified check is a verified check for which the bank has confirmed that funds are available in the checking account.
  • These checks can be used when you need to make a secured payment, such as for a down payment.
  • Cashier's checks and wire transfers are other ways to deliver certified funds.
  • These checks can still be subject to fraud.