What is a certified check?

Certified checks are useful for large payments, like down payments and security deposits, because your bank assures the payee you have enough to cover the check.

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Key Takeaways

  • Certified checks are personal checks where the bank verifies on the check that you have enough to cover its value

  • Only banks and credit unions certify checks, so consider a money order if you don’t have a bank account

  • Banks generally charge a fee of about $10 for certified checks

A certified check is a personal check where your bank confirms that you have enough in your account to cover the amount on the check. The bank will also freeze the money in your account so that it will be there when someone cashes or deposits the check.

Certified checks are a type of official check, which means that the bank has either created or otherwise guaranteed payment worth the amount on the check. Cashier’s checks are another common type of official check. Official checks are all very similar and it’s possible your bank offers only one type.

While not often necessary, certified checks are useful in situations where you need to pay a large amount of money and cash isn’t a realistic option. Certified checks are also good when you don’t know the person writing the check and want assurance that their payment will go through.

Only banks and credit unions offer certified checks, so you will have a difficult time getting one if you don’t have a bank account. Most banks also charge a fee, averaging about $10, for official checks.

When to use a certified check

You may want to use a certified check if you’re making a payment that’s too big for cash. For example, you may be required to use one (or some other official check) to make the down payment for a mortgage or the security deposit for an apartment. Banks or other financial institutions may also require a certified check if you’re transferring a lot of money from one to another.

(Want to know how much down payment you can afford? Try our mortgage calculator.)

Certified checks also provide protection when you don’t know the check writer. Perhaps you’re selling something online and don’t know the buyer. Accepting a personal check as payment is risky; it’s possible they don’t have enough in their account and the check will bounce. A certified check gives you a guarantee that their payment will go through.

How to get a certified check

Since a certified check is a personal check, you will need to have your own checks. That means you probably need a checking account or money market account.

Once you have written a check, take it into a branch of your bank or credit union. The process of getting it certified is quick and painless, as long as you have all the necessary information prepared. Simply talk with a teller or bank employee and they will help you.

To get a certified check, you need

  • An account with at least the amount written on the check

  • A government-issued ID, like a license, passport, or green card

  • The payee’s name and other information to write on the check

  • Payment for the check

If you don’t have a bank account, you will have a difficult time getting a certified check. It’s possible a bank will write a check for you and allow you to pay them the check value in cash, but that’s not common. You can get a high-yield savings account through our partner, Fiona.

The cost of a certified check

In addition to having enough to cover the value of the check, you will need to pay the fee, which is generally around $10. However, some banks charge as little as $4 while others are as high as $15. Banks may also waive the fee for you if you have some type of preferred account.

The easiest easiest way to pay the fee is to pay from the same account you’re using to pay the check. You can also pay in cash.

Alternatives to certified checks

Certified checks are useful in particular situations, but you should also consider an alternative, depending on how much money you’re sending (or receiving) and where it’s going.

Cashier’s checks

As mentioned earlier, a cashier’s check is another type of official check. They are useful in many of the same situations and also have an average fee of around $10. Many banks offer either certified checks or cashier’s checks, not both. If your bank offers only a cashier’s check, it’s good to know what they are since they work slightly differently.

With a certified check, the bank is just certifying that you have enough to cover the amount you’re writing a check for. With a cashier’s check, you pay the money directly to the bank and then the bank writes a check, in its own name. This offers a bit more of a guarantee to your payee that the check will go through.

Money orders

A money order is a good option when you need to send a large amount of money but don’t want to go through a bank.

With a money order, a third party writes a check for the payee and amount you specify. Money orders are guaranteed to go through because you pay the amount of the check up front. So if you give someone a money order, they know that you have already proven you have the amount written on the check.

The big caveat is that money orders usually come in a maximum amount of $1,000. If you need to send more, you will need to send more than one, potentially over multiple days. There is a fee for money orders, but it’s only about $3.

Many locations offer money orders, including banks, convenience stores, grocery stores, Western Union, and post offices. If you want to send a money order in the mail, the post office is particularly useful.

Wire transfers

Wire transfers are the fastest way to move money, including sending money internationally. Funds can transfer within a few hours. You will need to pay for that speed, however. Wire transfer fees are usually about $30.

Learn more about sending money from one bank to another.

Digital payments

The simplest (and cheapest) way to transfer money is through a digital payment. There are a number of apps for this, such as PayPal, Venmo, and Zelle. These digital services use ACH payments, typically have no fee, and take only a couple of days to process. Many banks offer digital payments through their online banking platform.

Learn more about sending money to someone without a bank account.

Avoiding fraud with certified checks

Because certified checks are seen as a more secure type of payment, there are scams where people use counterfeit checks. There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from certified check scams.

First of all, you should always be cautious of large payments from strangers. When you receive a check, call the bank that certified the check. The bank should have their phone number on the check, but look up the bank on your own. Get a number from the bank’s website, and then ask if the person paying you really certified the check there.

And don’t forget that you will need to get the check during bank hours if you plan to call a bank and talk with someone. See which banks are open today.

If you receive a check and you think it’s fake, notify your bank immediately. They will be able to verify that it’s real, and they can help you take the next steps if it’s fake. Don’t spend any of the money until the check clears. If you spend some of the money but then the check turns out to be fake, you will be on the hook for repaying your bank.

You also shouldn’t accept a check worth a different amount than what you agreed to. One of the most common scams with certified checks is for someone to send a fake check worth more than you agreed to and then ask you to send back the excess. Because of the processing delay, by the time your bank notifies you that the check is fraudulent, you have already sent a payment to the scammer.