How Safe Deposit Boxes Work (And What You Shouldn’t Keep In Them)

Safe deposit boxes (also called safety deposit boxes) can be valuable for keeping valuable items safe. However, it’s important to know precisely how safe deposit boxes work. 

If you’re not clear on the rules, you might get stuck in an unfortunate situation where you can’t get your items out of your safe deposit box.

In this article, we’ll tell you how a safety deposit box works and what you need to know before you get one. 

Table of Contents
  1. How Safe Deposit Boxes Work
    1. Safe Deposit Boxes Come In Varying Sizes
  2. What to Keep In a Safe Deposit Box
    1. Paper Investment Certificates
    2. Precious or Heirloom Photos/Photo Negatives
    3. Property Documents
    4. Car or Other Vehicle Titles
    5. Personal Letters or Memoirs
    6. Birth, Death, Marriage, and Divorce Certificates
    7. Jewelry and Collectibles
  3. What Not to Keep In a Safe Deposit Box
    1. Jewelry and Collectibles
    2. Cash
    3. Passport
    4. Life Instruction Documents
    5. Spare Keys
    6. Prohibited Items
  4. Safety Deposit Box Pros and Cons
  5. Are Safe Deposit Boxes Actually Safe?
  6. Tips for Smart Safe Deposit Box Use
  7. Final Thoughts on Safe Deposit Boxes

How Safe Deposit Boxes Work

Safe deposit boxes are located inside bank branches. Banks keep the boxes in a vaulted room that is safe from fire, water, and a variety of other potential hazards. 

When you go to the bank to rent a safe deposit box, you’ll need to fill out an application. 

As a renter, you’ll pay (on average) $30 up to $150 or more per year to rent a safety deposit box. The bank will provide you with the only two keys that exist for your box.

The number of people who can access your box is limited, depending on the financial institution. 

Don’t expect to be allowed more than three signers on the box as a basic rule. 

When you want to get in and out of your box, you’ll probably need to sign in when you get to the bank. Some banks might have electronic sign-in capabilities. 

Depending on the bank, you may have to make an appointment to get into your box. 

Vaults aren’t designed to accommodate large numbers, so banks often limit the number of many people who can access their boxes simultaneously. 

There are limits on how many people can be in a vault for security reasons. After all, most people don’t want a crowd of people around when they’re going through their items.

In addition, some banks might have smaller rooms inside the vault to give added privacy to you as you attend to your box.

And the vaults are often monitored by a bank employee or security guard when you or someone else access their safe deposit box. 

Safe Deposit Boxes Come In Varying Sizes

Also, safety deposit boxes come in a variety of sizes. The smallest ones are usually big enough to fit folded legal documents, roughly 2 in. x 15 in. x 24 in. long. 

The sizes go up from there, depending on the bank that holds the boxes.  Some banks offer boxes that are 10 in. x 10 in. x 24 in. or more in size.

Understandably, the larger the box you choose, the higher the rental fee you should expect to pay. 

Next, let’s talk about what you should keep in your safe deposit box–and what you shouldn’t. 

What to Keep In a Safe Deposit Box

What you keep in your safety deposit box depends on your personal preferences. However, there are some guidelines for what you should (and shouldn’t) keep in them.

Here are some suggestions as to what you should keep in them. 

Paper Investment Certificates

Most investment purchases these days are recorded electronically. 

However, suppose your stock or bond purchase came with a paper investment certificate. In that case, you may want to store that certificate in your safe deposit box, especially if the certificate is an heirloom or from a company or entity you don’t recognize. 

When not stored correctly, the value of the stock shares is at stake, but the value the certificate may hold as an antique is at stake.  

Precious or Heirloom Photos/Photo Negatives

You should store precious photos and negatives in your safety deposit box. 

Since you likely don’t look at or need them often, a safe deposit box can be a great way to store them away from potential hazards such as tears, water damage, or accidental discard.

Property Documents

Another item you may want to consider storing in your safe deposit box is the document folder containing information on the property you own.

You should keep track of the deed to your house, mortgage papers, as well as past disclosure forms from when you bought the house.

If you store them in your safe deposit box, you’ll know exactly where they are in the rare case that you need them. 

Car or Other Vehicle Titles

Titles to your cars, boats or other vehicles also fall into this category. You’ll need these items when you sell or transfer titles to another party.

While you can purchase replacement/duplicate titles, doing so takes time and money. Keep your vehicle titles in a place where they are easy to access.

Personal Letters or Memoirs

You may best keep letters from the early days of your marriage or courtship or letters from long-gone relatives in a safety deposit box as well. 

You won’t need them often, and it’s important to preserve these historical mementos properly. 

Keep other mementos in your safe deposit box as well, such as diaries, journals, and memoirs. 

Birth, Death, Marriage, and Divorce Certificates

Birth, death, marriage, and divorce papers are essential documents that must be kept safe. 

However, you probably won’t need to access them very often, and for that reason, it might make sense to keep them in your safe deposit box. 

Keeping these documents safe is crucial, as replacing them can take time and cost money. 

If you need the replacement of international records, expect it to take even longer. Note that the government agency you’re working with will need verification that you are entitled to the document to replace these items. 

The verification process varies based on the state from where you require the copy.  

Jewelry and Collectibles

Jewelry and collectible or heirloom items you don’t wear very often could also be kept in a safe deposit box. 

Since these types of items are often quite valuable (and irreplaceable), you’ll want to secure them in a place that’s accessible only by you and other people you trust.

Be sure to keep a list of which jewelry pieces (and other valuable items) you have in your safe deposit box. 

Having a list will prevent future uncertainty about where items are stored. 

Next, let’s talk about what not to keep in a safe deposit box.  

What Not to Keep In a Safe Deposit Box

While safe deposit boxes are handy, there are some items that you may want to keep in a safe at home or another location. 

Jewelry and Collectibles

Wait… didn’t you tell me that it was okay (and maybe even wise) to keep my jewelry and collectibles in a safe deposit box?

Yes, yes, I did. However, there is one significant caveat we need to talk about: Insurance. 

It’s essential only to keep fully insured jewelry, collectibles, and heirlooms in your safe deposit box because the bank will not guarantee them for you.

As a safety deposit box holder, you are responsible for insuring the contents of your box. Read your safe deposit box agreement for details.  

Cash

While it’s tempting to keep cash in a safe deposit box, doing so might not be the best choice. The number one reason for this is that items in a safe deposit box are not easily accessible. 

If the bank is closed, you’ll have no access to your cash. In addition, some safe deposit box agreements forbid the storing of cash. Read your contract for details. 

Lastly, cash stored in your safe deposit box isn’t earning interest. So while it’s always a smart move to have some cash on hand, you’ll be better off investing the majority of your cash.

If you’re feeling hesitant about investing, at least put the cash in a high yield savings account.

Passport

While it may be tempting to keep your passport in your safe deposit box, you may want to think twice before doing so. 

There may be a reason why you need to leave the country quickly, such as to see a sick or injured friend or relative.

If your passport is in your safe deposit box and you get a call to come to see someone on the weekend, you could have a two-day wait before you can leave the country. 

Keep your passport in a safe location at home instead. For instance, you could buy a small vault and permanently adhere it to the floor in your home. 

Life Instruction Documents

Wills, living wills, and power of attorney documents should be quickly accessible in the event of an emergency. 

If your life instructions or your partner’s life instructions are in your safety deposit box, you won’t be able to access them quickly if need be.  For that reason, I recommend keeping these types of items in a safe location at home. 

Spare Keys

Spare keys should be easily accessible as well. Therefore, a safe deposit box is not the best place to keep them.

Instead, consider keeping copies at home or giving copies to a trusted friend or relative. 

Prohibited Items

All safe deposit box agreements list items the bank does not permit you to store in the box; firearms and explosives are examples.

Read your agreement carefully and avoid storing prohibited items in your box. Doing so could result in confiscating the box and its contents. 

Next, here are a few safe deposit box pros and cons. 

Safety Deposit Box Pros and Cons

Pros: 

  • Secured storage where thieves can’t easily get access
  • Safe from most weather or terroristic mishaps

Cons:

  • Limited hours and availability
  • Losing/misplacing your keys can be costly
  • No laws to protect SDB owners against loss

This last “con” is essential. If you happen to lose one or both of your safe deposit box keys, you will be responsible for having the box drilled to get a new lock fitted. 

Banks often charge up to $200 or sometimes more for this service. Here are some other tips for clever, safe deposit box use.

Are Safe Deposit Boxes Actually Safe?

While Safe Deposit Boxes provide secure storage for millions of Americans, they are not guaranteed against loss. In fact, SDBs operate in a sort of legal “gray” zone. There are no federal laws that protect the assets held in safety deposit boxes, and there are no rules that force financial institutions to compensate box owners in case of loss. So while it’s unlikely, there are many instances where individual losses have occurred.

Tips for Smart Safe Deposit Box Use

  • Have one or two co-signers/co-users listed on the box: your spouse and one other trustworthy person, such as your adult children
  • If you are leasing the box as a representative or business entity, be sure appropriate paperwork is filed with the bank or on your person when you seek entry
  • Make a separate list of what is in the box and keep it at home or with a trusted family member/friend
  • Visit the box and update/view the contents at least annually

Final Thoughts on Safe Deposit Boxes

Safe deposit boxes can be an excellent tool for storing valuable items. However, the limited hours’ availability of your bank and strict content rules could make them a hindrance for you. Consider the valuables that you want to store. Then, weigh the pros and cons and decide whether you should rent a safe deposit box or keep a small, secured vault at your home or office. 

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About Laurie Blank

Laurie Blank is a blogger, freelance writer, and mother of four. She’s psyched about teaching others how to manage their money in a way that aligns with their values and has been quoted in Bankrate.

She's a licensed Realtor with Edina Realty in Minneapolis, Minnesota (also licensed in Wisconsin too) and has been freelance writing for over six years.

She shares powerful insights on her blog, Great Passive Income Ideas, that will show you how you can create passive income sources of your own.

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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