What Does ACH Stand For?

Definition: Electronic Payments Made Easy

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In banking, ACH stands for Automated Clearing House, which is a network that coordinates electronic payments and automated money transfers. ACH is a way to move money between banks without using paper checks, wire transfers, credit card networks, or cash.

References to ACH can mean several things, depending on where you see it.

On bank statements (or in your transaction history), ACH means that an electronic payment was made to or from your account using your checking account information. Common examples of ACH transfers appear below. For any ACH transfer to move funds to or from your account, you need to authorize those transfers and provide your bank account and routing numbers.

On your bills, ACH means you have the option to pay your bills electronically. Other terms include eChecks, EFT, or AutoPay. Instead of writing a check or entering a credit card number every time you pay, you can provide your checking account details and pay directly from your account. In some cases, you control when payment takes place (the funds only move when you request a payment). In other cases, your biller automatically pulls funds from your account when your bill is due, so you need to be sure you have funds available in your account.

What Does ACH Mean?

What, exactly, does Automated Clearing House refer to? A definition of the terms might help:

  1. Automated: The ACH system consists of computers working together to process payments automatically. There’s no need to manually handle payments (on your part or the biller’s). ACH is a “batch” processing system that handles millions of payments at the end of the day.
  2. Clearing house: The network uses two central “clearing houses.” All requests run through either The Federal Reserve or The Clearing House. This allows for efficient matching and processing among numerous financial institutions.

Examples of ACH Transactions

You probably have more experience with ACH than you think. Individuals and businesses use ACH for everyday transactions such as:

  • Direct deposit of your wages (from your employer to your bank account)
  • Automatic payment of recurring bills such as energy bills, insurance premiums, and HOA dues. When you provide a voided check to your biller, you’re setting up ACH.
  • Payments from businesses to vendors and suppliers
  • Moving money from your brick-and-mortar bank to your online bank

As with any technology, using ACH means embracing the pros and cons. Let’s review those below.

What Does ACH Do for Consumers?

If you’re an individual, you may enjoy:

  • Getting paid by your employer quickly, safely, and reliably. There’s no need to wait for your paycheck to arrive or to deposit the check at your bank.
  • Automating your payments, so you never forget to pay (and your payments arrive on time)
  • Making purchases online without using a check or credit card. You pay quickly and avoid credit card processing fees.
  • Minimizing the number of pieces of paper floating around with your bank account information

The main drawback for consumers is that setting up ACH provides businesses with direct access to your checking account. They take the money to pay your bills whether you’re ready to pay or not. If you’re short on funds, you might prefer to pay a different way. Alternatively, you might want to prioritize when you have limited funds and pay only the most important bills first.

For more details on how consumers use ACH, read about setting up ACH debit.

What Does ACH Do for Businesses?

If you run a business, you benefit from:

  • A low-cost, non-labor-intensive way to transfer money
  • Paying employees without the need to print checks or pay postage
  • Getting paid by customers easily, quickly, and regularly—no more cash-flow crunches dependent on when you can get to the bank
  • Processing fees that are lower than credit card swipe fees
  • Getting paid by vendors—or paying suppliers—in a way that’s easy to track and safe (there’s an instant electronic record of everything)

Businesses face the same problem as consumers: There’s a direct link to your checking account, and any errors or unexpected withdrawals can cause problems. What’s more, businesses need to be careful of customers reversing charges and taking back payment. That said, it’s harder to reverse an ACH payment than it is to reverse a credit card payment.

Businesses need to be especially vigilant about monitoring for fraud. Consumers enjoy a high degree of protection against errors and fraud in their checking accounts, but business accounts do not have the same level of protection. If funds leave your account, it may be your responsibility to recover the funds (or take the loss).

Finally, businesses may need to purchase software or invest time and resources into transitioning to ACH transfers. However, they’ll most likely more than recoup those costs over the long run.

For more details on how businesses use ACH, read about ACH processing.

Computers That Talk

The ACH system is a network of computers that communicate with each other to make payments happen. There are two sets of computers for each payment:

  1. The side that creates a request
  2. The side that satisfies the request (assuming all goes well, which is usually does)

ODFI: Using direct deposit as an example, an employer (through the employer’s bank) creates a request to send money to an employee’s account. The employer is known as the Originator, and the employer’s bank is the Originating Depository Financial Institution (ODFI). That request goes to an ACH Operator, which is a clearinghouse that gets numerous requests throughout the day, and which routes the request to their destination.

RDFI: The receiving financial institution is the Receiving Depository Financial Institution (RDFI), which will adjust the account of the final accountholder—the employee receiving pay in this case—who is known as the Receiver.

Types of Transactions

ACH transactions come in two forms:

  1. Direct deposits are payments to a receiver, such as wages from your employer or Social Security benefits paid into your checking account.
  2. Direct Payments are requests to pull funds from an account. For example, direct payments happen when you pay utility bills automatically from your checking account.

Transactions (currently) don’t happen in real-time. Instead, banks use “batch processing” and process the entire day’s worth of requests at once. As a result, you don’t get paid immediately after your employer authorizes payment. Instead, the transaction takes one or two business days to move through the system. There are plans to speed up ACH payments, and same-day payments have already begun for selected transactions.