What Is a Certified Check?

Guaranteed payment (when it's not fake)

woman at bank counter
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When buying something expensive or important, sellers might ask you to pay with a certified check For example, that may happen as you purchase a home or an automobile which requires the exchange of a title. But other forms of certified funds might also be accepted as payment. We’ll touch on a few of those and cover certified checks in detail here.

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.

Obtaining a check: After verifying that a check is good, banks typically add a stamp and signature to the check, along with any conditions (like limiting the check’s validity for up to 60 days). The bank should then prevent the check writer from using or withdrawing the funds that funded the check.

Funds availability: Because certified checks are “official” checks, a portion of funds should be available within one business day after depositing the check, assuming you deposit the check in-person with a bank employee. In many cases, at least the first $5,000 is available, but banks can place a hold on amounts higher than that.

Certified vs. personal: With a standard 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, the check writer can spend it before you’re able to deposit or cash the check. As a result, 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 obtain a cashier's check.

Certified Checks vs. Cashier’s Checks

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

With a certified check, the account holder (possibly an individual like you) writes a check, and the bank certifies the check. The funds come from your account when the recipient eventually deposits or cashes the check.

With a cashier’s check, you essentially pay the bank (by providing 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. 

If an “official” check turns out to be fake, your bank will hold you responsible for any money you spend or withdraw.

If you’re concerned about getting ripped off, you can reduce your risk in several ways.

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 a harder  scam 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 verify funds before you deposit a check, but it never hurts to ask.

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. A teller might be able to spot problems.

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 a portion of the proceeds 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 obvious signs like misspellings and poor print quality are present – it’s wise to pause and keep your money safe.

Other Forms of Certified Funds

A certified check isn’t the only way to pay with certified funds. Any instrument banks treat as “guaranteed” or “cleared” money might be acceptable. Every seller has their own criteria, but you might also be able to pay with: