Routing Number: How to Find it and When to Use it

Of the different types of numbers on the front of a check, the routing number can seem the most mysterious.

The routing number, also known as an ABA routing transit number, serves as an address.

In effect, the routing number tells the banking system which bank holds a given bank account.

routing number
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ABA routing transit number history

The history of the routing number dates to 1910. The American Bankers Association (ABA) introduced the number to eliminate confusion when processing checks.

Many banks have similar names. This can lead to processing errors.

However, a routing number gives an exact location, not unlike a street address or an IP address.

Although introduced to process checks efficiently and accurately, routing numbers have found new utility in today’s banking world.

Checks haven’t gone away yet. But their use is less common today as online payments and electronic payments gain in popularity.

Now, routing numbers help process transactions ranging from direct-deposit paychecks to electronic payments through mobile apps.

While the technology changes, the role of a routing number remains the same.

The routing number still tells the banking system which bank holds the account. Both banks and credit unions use routing numbers as their “address”.

However, a growing number of other payment methods also use routing numbers as a way of sending money.

What is a routing number?

The routing number is the nine-digit number on checks that identifies your bank.

You’ll also see this number referred to by different names. For example, you may also find the routing number called an ABA routing transit number or ABA RTN.

The routing number on a check uses special features that include a specific font printed in magnetic ink.

This is a technology called Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR).

These features allow the use of sorting machines and help ensure readability. This process helps route the check to the right bank for processing.

How to find a routing number?

Whether setting up direct deposit or setting up a payment app, there are times when you’ll need to find your routing number.

  • Paper bank check: Finding your routing number on a check is often easiest because it’s on the bottom left of the check. Look for the number with 9 digits. Account numbers and check numbers can vary in length but only the routing number has 9 digits.
  • Paper bank statement: Most banks don’t provide the routing number on printed bank statements. Instead, you can find the routing number on a check. You can also find your routing number by using your bank’s mobile app or by calling customer service. Alternatively, you can find your routing number through the ABA website.
  • Banking app: Online accounts and mobile banking accounts can be another way to find your routing number. Designs for apps and websites vary, so you may have to dig around a bit. However, you’ll often be able to find the number quickly.
  • Bank customer service: Of course, you can also get your routing number by contacting your bank’s customer service staff. Just reach out by phone or visit a branch. Be prepared to identify yourself, as is common with calls to financial institutions.

Where is the routing number on a check?

routing number on a check from union bank
source: ublocal.com

On the bottom of a check, you’ll find 3 numbers printed in a special font.

The first of these numbers is the routing number, which you can identify by counting the number of digits. A routing number always has 9 digits.

On the same line, also called the MICR line, you’ll also find your account number and the check number – in that order.

All these numbers are machine readable. This speeds processing and reduces errors.

Account numbers and check numbers can vary in the number of digits they use, but only the routing number uses 9 digits.

This helps you identify the routing number easily.

What do the check routing number digits represent?

Much as with zip codes, the numbers that make up a routing number have distinct meanings.

  • First four digits: The first 4 numbers in a routing number represent the Federal Reserve Routing Symbol. These 4 numbers help the banking system know how to process the check. There are 12 Federal Reserve Banks throughout the US, all of which service a geographic area called a district.
  • Fifth through eighth digits: Next, you’ll find the 4 digits that indicate which bank or financial institution within the Federal Reserve District the check is drawn upon. This series of numbers is also called the ABA Institution Identifier.
  • Ninth digit: The ninth number within a routing number is a “check digit”. This can be used to verify if a routing number is valid using a special math formula. However, if you need to verify a routing number, it may be better to contact the bank directly.

What do you need your bank routing number for?

While most often associated with checks, routing numbers are also used elsewhere and perhaps even more frequently than with checks. Here are some of the more common reasons to use a routing number.

  • To set up your account online: You may not need your routing number to set up an online account with your own bank. But you’ll need it for other online accounts that can access your account. For example, personal finance software and accounting software typically require a routing number.
  • To set up direct deposit: If you want to get paid directly by an employer without having to deal with checks, you’ll need your routing number. Often, you’ll also need to provide a copy of a voided check for verification.
  • To make an electronic funds transfer: To send money with a bank transfer, you’ll need your routing number and account number. You’ll also need both numbers for the recipient. Think of these as the “to” and “from” addresses that you’d find on a letter.
  • To receive an electronic funds transfer: For incoming transfers or payments, you’ll need to provide your routing number and account number to the payor.
  • To deposit money in another person’s name: Many banks don’t allow deposits into someone else’s account. However, transfer services like Zelle allow you to send money to another person’s account. You may need your routing number to get set up with the service.

Routing number vs. account number

You’ll find both the routing number and your account number on the same line at the bottom of a check.

There are some similar functions to each number. But each serves as a unique identifier and uses a different number format.

  • Similarities: Both numbers help to identify the bank account owner and tell banks how to process the check. The routing number identifies the Federal Reserve District and the bank or financial institution within that district. The account number provides the “address” of an account at the bank identified by the routing number.
  • Differences: Besides the differences in function between a routing number and an account number, you’ll also find a difference in format. The most obvious difference is in the number of digits. A routing number always has 9 digits as defined by the ABA’s Routing Number Policy. This policy has been in place for over 100 years. An account number may have 5 digits – or 10, or some other number of digits. Each bank can choose their own system for account number formats. However, the 9-digit format is reserved for the routing number.

What to do if the routing number changes

If your bank is acquired or merges with another bank, your routing number might change as well.

If you have a lot of services tied to your account or receive direct deposits, it’s important to update these with your new routing number.

  • Follow bank instructions when routing and account numbers change. You’ll receive instructions from your bank or credit union that explain why your routing number changed. They’ll also explain what you’ll need to do to make updates. To be accurate, you’ll want to start using the new number as soon as possible. But don’t worry. The old routing number will still work for a while even after the change. Banks also provide advance notice if your routing number will be changing.
  • Update the routing number for automatic deposits and withdrawals. If you’re like most US households, chances are good that several automatic transactions each month use your routing number. Give the new routing number to your employer if you have direct deposit. Also, update any providers that automatically debit your bank account. Services paid by debit card don’t need to be updated unless your bank gives you a new debit card number.
  • Check your past bank statements to be sure you haven’t missed anything. It’s easy to overlook automated transactions that use your routing number. Check your bank statements to be sure you’ve updated everyone who needs your new routing number.

ABA routing transit number lookup

Sometimes you may need to look up your routing number or check on the routing number for a check you’ve received.

You can get the information you need directly from the American Banking Association.

Common Q&A about RTNs:

How to transfer money using routing number and account number?

You can transfer money from your bank account using your bank’s Bill Pay service or a bank-to-bank funds transfer.

The latter is also called an ACH transfer. These methods use your routing number and account number.

New services like Zelle make sending money easier than ever.

However, which method you use may depend on the purpose of the money transfer.

How to withdraw money with account and routing number?

Many times, the simplest ways to withdraw money with your account and routing number are by writing a check or by making a withdrawal at the bank.

In the latter case, expect to show your ID.

Do I need a routing number for international transfer?

Check with your bank to find out the number you’ll need for international transfers.

For example, international wire transfers use a BIC/SWIFT Code rather than an ABA routing number.

What is an ACH routing number?

The terms routing number and ACH routing number are used interchangeably, and both refer to the 9-digit code used to identify a US bank.

An ACH routing number is more commonly called an ABA routing number or simply a bank routing number.

Does a wire transfer need a routing number?

For domestic wire transfers, you’ll need the routing number and account number for both the sending and receiving accounts.

For international wire transfers, you’ll need the SWIFT Code rather than the US routing number.

What is a routing number on a debit card?

Debit cards don’t use routing numbers, at least not at the consumer level. Instead, you’ll use your debit account number for debit transactions.

Is a Swift Code the same as a routing number?

While similar to a routing number, a SWIFT Code is used in international money transfers.

A routing number is only used in domestic money transfers.

Can a bank routing number be 8 digits?

Technically, a routing number uses 8 digits to identify the Federal Reserve District and the specific bank or financial institution.

However, routing numbers in use today utilize 9 digits. The 9th digit used to verify the previous 8 digits according to a math formula.

Can routing numbers start with 0?

Nearly all routing numbers do start with a zero. However, a routing number can also start with a 1, 2, or 3.

Are routing numbers different for wire transfers?

Domestic wire transfers within the US use standard ABA routing numbers. International wire transfers use a similar type of identifier called a Swift Code.

Bottom line

Many times, your routing number operates silently in the background.

There aren’t many situations in daily life where you’ll need it. There’s no need to memorize your routing number.

Instead, just know where you can find it, as detailed above.

Also, be sure to make updates if your routing number changes. In cases where you do need to use your routing number, be sure to double check the number.

Any transaction that uses your routing number will fail if you don’t have the correct number.

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