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The Anatomy of a Check


Back in the good old days, a check was just a letter that told your bank to let the person presenting it have a certain amount of your money. The banker compared a signature on file to the signature on the letter; if it matched, your creditor got his money. But in the mid-1700s, British bankers began printing cash letters with serial numbers and banking information, supposedly so they’d be easier to read and keep track of (and, one would suspect, so they could start charging an extra fee). It wasn’t long before checks became the formalized documents they are today. Whether you order checks online or buy them from the bank, they all have certain elements in common — and they’d better, or they’ll never make it back to your bank.

Basic check features

Take a look at your current checks. In the upper left corner, you’ll see some personal information: your name and address, to start with. Some of us have our phone number and/or driver’s license number printed there too, since most places that take checks are going to ask for those anyhow. In the upper right corner is the serial number; generally, check numbers are sequential, starting at either 101 or 1001. On some checks, a fractional number sits somewhere between the personalization and check number; this identifies your bank. Below the check number is a space for you to fill out the date. This is handy when you need to postdate a check, or pretend like you really wrote it a couple of days before the gas bill was due.

The middle of the check is where it gets dangerous: the payment block. First comes the “Pay to the order of” line, where you inscribe the name of the person or business you’re paying. Following it is a box where you pen the amount to be paid, in numeral form (for example, “5.49″). Beneath that is a line where you write in the amount again, this time spelling it out (e.g., “Five and 49/100 Dollars”).

Beneath the payment block is your bank’s name and address. Below that is a line titled “Memo” or “For” — so your spouse can see, weeks later, why you happened to write that check. Beside it, and extending to the lower right corner of the check, is the signature line, where you sign the check. Ideally, this is still so the banker can compare it with a signature on file if necessary.

The funny-looking numbers at the very bottom are the check’s most important features, at least as far as the bank is concerned. They’re printed with a special ink that’s readable by an electronic scanner; this process is called Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR), and it revolutionized check processing when it was introduced in the 1950s. The first string of numbers, which starts in the lower left and contains nine digits, is the bank’s routing number. It’ll always start with 0, 1, 2, or 3. Without this routing number, the clearinghouse computer that processes the check won’t know where to send it to collect their money. The next set of numbers is your bank account number; it always has six or more digits, and is assigned by your bank. It’s followed by a repetition of the check number.

Pattern Recognition

Which brings us to a final note about personal checks: many people are under the impression that you have to buy them from your bank. Not so! As long as your checks are printed with the proper information and you have the money in your account, the bank has to accept them. In fact, you’ll find that online mail order checks will usually cost you significantly less than the ones the bank has to offer.

You may also want to visit our check comparison guide to see the offers from popular online check ordering companies.