A certified check can seem like the stuff of spy novels, right alongside wire transfers and bearer bonds.
The reality is that certified checks are a common way to provide guaranteed payment. The bank guarantees payment for a certified bank check.
Don’t worry. You won’t need to be a secret agent to get one. Here’s how certified checks work.
What is a certified check?
A certified check is a check drawn on your account that has been certified by the bank for the face value of the check.
The bank certifies that the account has enough money to cover the check and verifies the signature on the check as valid.
When to use a certified check?
Certain types of transactions often require guaranteed funds. Some examples might include a security deposit for a new apartment or the first month’s rent.
You might also need a certified check to buy a used car or for the down payment on a mortgage. In these cases, a standard personal check might not be accepted, which is often understandable.
After all, there’s no guarantee for the payee that a personal bank account has enough money in it to cover the check.
Using a certified check doesn’t necessarily benefit the payer, although it can provide some advantages.
Instead, it provides a greater level of security for the payee (the recipient).
In some cases, the transaction can’t move forward without payment via certified check or some other type of guaranteed funds, such as a cashier’s check, money order, or wire transfer.
However, when compared to these other options, a certified check may be more convenient.
How to get a certified check?
If you need a certified check, follow these simple steps.
- Have the payee’s name and the exact amount before requesting the check. Accuracy is everything when getting a certified check. It’s important to get the details right the first time.
- Visit your branch and write the check in front of the bank teller. Part of the process of getting a check certified requires that the teller verify your signature. By writing the check in front of the teller, they can verify that you are the one who requested certification and signed the check.
- Show a government-issued ID. Your driver’s license will work for this, although you can also use a passport to verify your identity when getting a certified check.
- Wait for the teller to verify the funds and stamp your check as certified. This is usually a quick process.
- Pay the check amount plus the fee to certify the check. Some banks and credit unions don’t charge a fee for certified checks. Others do. If your bank charges a fee, expect to pay between $5 and $15.
- Keep the receipt until the check clears your account. In fact, it may be wise to keep the receipt indefinitely, depending on the type of transaction. If you used the certified check to pay for a car or a down payment on a home, keep the receipt with your other paperwork for the transaction.
Where to get a certified check?
There are only 2 places where you can get a certified check but there may be some alternatives as well.
- Banks: Your local bank is often the best source for a certified check. If you already have a banking relationship, many times you can avoid the fee. In some cases, banks may not charge a fee for certified checks at all. Be aware, however, that some banks no longer offer certified checks. Instead, expect these banks to offer cashier’s checks.
- Credit unions: Credit unions are famous for low fees. If you have an account with a credit union, consider using your credit union account to fund the certified check.
- USPS: The US Postal Service doesn’t offer certified checks because a certified check is drawn on an existing checking account. However, you can purchase money orders through the USPS. Current rules limit a single USPS money order to a face value of $1,000. For situations where you don’t need to make a large payment, the recipient may accept a USPS money order instead.
- Online banks: Many online banks offer cashier’s checks, which are another type of guaranteed bank check. Because there’s no teller or brick-and-mortar location, the bank can’t certify checks which requires in-person verification of your identity and signature. In many cases, the payee might accept a cashier’s check instead of a certified check.
How much is a certified check?
Expect to pay a small fee for a certified check, usually ranging from $5 to $15. However, the fee may be waived for certain types of accounts or if you meet certain balance requirements.
For example, some banks waive fees for premium accounts. Fees for cashier’s checks, which also guarantee the face value of the check, fall into a similar range as those for certified checks.
How safe is a certified check?
The safety features of a certified check largely benefit the payee rather than the payor because the funds are guaranteed.
However, a certified check can be a safer alternative to carrying a large amount of cash to pay for a transaction.
Of course, a certified check can be mailed or sent by courier as well, which you wouldn’t want to do with cash.
How to avoid certified check scams?
Scammers often use fraudulent certified checks to steal money or items of value. The stamp makes these checks look official and the promise of guaranteed money can be tempting. Government agencies including the FTC offer the following tips to stay safe and avoid check scams.
- Think twice before accepting checks for payment. In today’s high-tech world, making counterfeit certified checks or fake cashier’s checks is easier for tech-savvy scammers.
- Don’t accept a check payment for more than the selling price. This is a common scam that can net the scammer some extra cash in addition to the item you’re selling.
- Call the issuing bank or visit in person to verify whether a check is genuine.
- Consider using an escrow service if selling items online.
Other alternatives to certified bank checks
If you don’t have a bank account or if your bank doesn’t offer certified checks, you have some other options.
Most payees know that not all banks offer certified checks and allow alternative methods of payment.
A cashier’s check offers the most direct replacement for a certified check.
Both types of checks provide guaranteed funds, so in most cases where a payee requests a certified check, they will also accept a cashier’s check.
With a cashier’s check, you don’t draw the check on your own checking account. Instead, you purchase the check with cash or money from your bank account. Expect to pay a small fee in most cases.
Your payee might also accept a money order instead of a certified check.
You can probably buy money orders at several locations near your home but one of the best places to buy a money order is at the post office.
USPS money orders are the gold standard for money orders and are widely accepted.
Fees for USPS money orders range from $1.25 to $1.75 and you can purchase money orders with a face value of up to $1,000.
While wire transfers can be fast, often even clearing on the same day for US domestic transfers, they can be more costly than a certified check or a cashier’s check.
Expect to pay a fee of up to $35 to send a wire transfer, which is a way to send money directly from one bank to another electronically.
Bank fees for the payee are common with wire transfers as well. Because of this, you won’t find wire transfers as a payment option for some types of transactions.
ACH (Automated Clearing House) bank transfers offer another electronic alternative to certified checks.
In many cases, the transfer can take up to 2 days or longer to settle, however, which may make this method unacceptable for certain types of payments.
Federal rules also limit the number of ACH transfers for savings accounts. Bank rules may limit how much you can send via ACH transfer as well.
Money transfer apps
Popular money transfer apps like Paypal have been around forever, but a new breed of money transfer apps like Zelle make transfers easier and limit the role of the middleman.
Whether a money transfer app is a good fit depends on the type of transaction. For example, don’t expect to buy a car using
PayPal because this payment method can create risk for both parties. You might find a landlord willing to accept bank transfers through Zelle, however, which offers the transfer service for free.
Common Q&A about certified checks
How does a certified check work?
When you get a certified check, your bank or credit union verifies your signature and checks that you have enough funds available to cover the face value of the check.
The teller then “certifies” the check, using a special stamp and sometimes even using embossing to prevent alteration.
A certified check provides assurance for the payee because the bank guarantees the check amount.
Your bank may charge a small fee for the service of providing a certified check.
How long does it take to get a certified check?
Because getting a certified check requires visiting your bank or credit union in person, getting a certified check typically only takes about 10 minutes.
Consider visiting your bank when they are less busy to avoid delays.
How long does it take for a certified check to clear?
In most cases, the funds from a certified check are available one banking day after deposit.
However, banks may place a hold on amounts above $5,000.
In some cases, banks may place a hold on the entire amount depending on the history for the deposit account or if the bank has reason to question the check’s authenticity.
How long is a certified check good for?
A certified check doesn’t have an expiration date. However, the issuing bank may limit the amount of time for which the bank will guarantee the funds.
This differs from non-certified checks, which typically are good for only 6 months.
Can I pay cash for a certified check?
No. A certified check is drawn on a personal or business checking account.
To provide a guaranteed payment funded by cash, you can consider getting a cashier’s check instead.
Alternatively, you can deposit the cash in your checking account and then request a certified check.
What is the maximum amount for a certified check?
Unlike some other payment methods, like a money order, certified checks don’t have a maximum face amount.
The amount the bank can certify is only limited by your bank balance.
Can I request a stop payment on a certified check?
You can request a stop payment for a lost or stolen certified check after 90 days.
In this case, your bank reverses the transaction and makes your funds available again.
However, if another bank seeks payment for the certified check after this date, you may be liable for payment.
How to get a certified check without a bank account?
To get a certified check, you’ll need a checking account. The process requires that the bank verify the bank balance and certify the funds.
However, your payee may accept other types of payment, such as a cashier’s check, money order.
Neither of these options require a bank account to fund the payment.
Be aware that many banks or credit unions may not offer cashier’s checks if you don’t have a relationship with the bank.
How to send a certified check?
After your bank or credit union certifies your check, you can send the check as you would send any other check and can choose delivery options like USPS or a courier service.
However, because certified checks are often for large amounts and contract-based purchases, like buying a car or a house, many people deliver these checks in person at the time of the transaction.
How to cash a certified check?
You can cash a certified check at the issuing bank or through your own bank, although the process can vary based on which option you choose.
As with most other types of checks, you’ll need to endorse the check and you may need to show ID.
If you cash the check at the issuing bank, they may require your thumbprint on the check as well as your ID and signature.
How to verify a certified check?
If a certified check you’ve received is fraudulent or counterfeit, it can be a costly experience.
You can call the issuing bank to verify the check. However, it’s best to find the phone number of the bank online.
If the check is a fake, any phone numbers printed on the check may be part of a scam.
It’s also best to wait until the funds have officially cleared your bank before using the funds from the certified check.
Can a certified check bounce?
An authentic certified check is backed by the bank, so if the bank is in business and the certification hasn’t expired, you should have no problems with certified checks bouncing.
Fake certified checks are sometimes used in scams, however. So, it’s important be on the alert if someone offers to make a payment with a certified check.
These days, when you see the term certified check it’s useful to also think of cashier’s checks.
From the payee’s perspective, both types of payment offer similar levels of security. In fact, many banks have stopped offering certified checks altogether, opting instead to offer cashier’s checks.
However, don’t assume the two payment methods are interchangeable. Always verify with the payee before using an alternative form of payment.
As a payment method, certified checks are generally a safe way to transact larger purchases or payments.
They aren’t completely without risk, though. If someone you don’t know offers to pay with a certified check – or any type of check – be sure to verify the check with the issuing bank. If something seems too good to be true, it might be a scam.