What Does a Certified Check Mean?

Get the facts on the various kinds of certified funds

A man writing a check for
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When buying something expensive or important (for example, a home or an automobile which requires the exchange of a title), you might be asked to pay with a certified check. But other forms of certified funds might also be acceptable as payment. Learn about the variety of certified funds available with this review.

What Is a Certified Check?

A certified check is a check that has been verified (by the bank the funds are drawn on) as “good.” An officer of the bank certifies that the check writer had sufficient funds available and that the signature is genuine.

As a result, anybody accepting the check can be confident that the check will not bounce or be returned – assuming the check is legitimate and still valid.

After verifying that a check is good, the bank generally adds a stamp and signature to the check, as well as conditions (such as the check being good for up to 60 days). The bank should then prevent the check writer from using or withdrawing the funds that have been reserved for that check.

Because certified checks are “official” checks, the funds from a certified check are generally available within one business day after depositing the check, assuming you deposit the check in-person with a bank employee (at least the first $5,000 should be available, but banks can place a hold on amounts higher than that).

Compare a certified check with a standard personal check. With a personal check, you have no idea if the check writer has enough money in the bank to cover the payment.

Even if the money was there at some point, it can be spent before you have an opportunity to deposit or cash the check (which means you might not get paid, and you might have to pay fees for depositing a bad check). In many cases, banks only make the first $200 available when you deposit a personal check, and they wait several business days to make the remainder available (and you might want to wait even longer if there’s any doubt about the check).

How to Get a Certified Check

To pay with a certified check, visit a bank branch, where a bank employee can verify that you are the account owner and that you have funds available in your account. Ask what the requirements are before you write the check.

In many cases, you'll just write the check as you would normally, and bank staff will add the certification. As an alternative, you can simply get a cashier's check.

Certified Checks vs. Cashier’s Checks

Cashier’s checks are very similar to certified checks, and they might be easier to find if you need to pay with certified funds.

With a certified check, the account holder (an individual – that might be you) writes a check and the bank certifies the check. The funds come from your account when the check is eventually deposited or cashed.

With a cashier’s check, you essentially pay the bank (by handing over cash or having the funds transferred out of your account), and the bank creates a check written out to your payee. When the check is eventually paid out, the money comes from the bank’s account – not yours. 

For anybody receiving payment, the differences between a cashier’s check and a certified check are probably not meaningful – they’re both forms of guaranteed funds.

Anything Can Be Faked

Certified funds are a favorite tool for scammers. People believe that there is no risk in receiving payments that clear immediately, so they’re happy to send merchandise – or money – after getting a fake check. Banks often give you the benefit of the doubt and make the first $5,000 available immediately, so you think that the check has cleared. After fraud is discovered, your bank will hold you responsible for any money you’ve spent or withdrawn.

If you’re concerned about getting ripped off, there are several ways to reduce your risk:

Insist on a wire: Getting paid by wire transfer is safer than taking a certified check. The funds need to actually arrive from another bank before they show up in your available balance. That’s harder to pull off, and there’s a better paper trail (but wire scams also exist).

Verify funds: Contact the bank that certified the check and verify that the check is legitimate. Be sure to use a phone number that you know is legitimate – not a number printed on the check (because a fake check will have a fake phone number). Some banks will not help you, but it’s worth a shot.

Cash the check: Take the check to a branch of the same bank that the funds are coming from and try to get cash immediately. The teller will quickly be able to tell if anything is wrong.

Trust your gut: If something seems wrong, it probably is. Look for common red flags, such as transactions where you’re supposed to deposit a check and then send some of the money to somebody else (especially if you’re supposed to send with a wire transfer or Western Union). When you start making phone calls and things don’t add up – especially if the obvious signs like misspellings and poor print quality are present – it’s best to hold on to your pocketbook.

Other forms of Certified Funds

A certified check isn’t the only way to pay with certified funds. Any instrument that is treated as “guaranteed” or “cleared” money might do the trick. Every seller has his own criteria, but you might also be able to pay with: