The first time I'd ever heard about a certified check was when we bought our first house.
We were supposed to bring a certain amount to the closing table and it had to be a certified check. And to get that check, I had to visit my bank.
I hated going to the bank. For whatever reason, it always took forever. Even when there was no one there. You sign your name on a clipboard with no other names on it and still wait ten minutes for someone to talk to you.
Sadly, that process has not improved much. But with some preparation, you can shorten the time.
If you need a certified check and are wondering what it is, where to get it, and how much it'll cost you… read on.
What is a Certified Check?
A certified check is a check that is guaranteed by a bank and draws its funds from your account.
To get a certified check, you have to go to your bank and request one. The bank will verify that all the information on the check is correct, that the account has sufficient funds to complete the transaction, and then sets aside that money in your account until the check is cashed.
When do I need a Certified Check?
It's for situations where you need to make a large payment, like the downpayment of a house. It's too large for cash to be practical. The seller may not be able to process an electronic payment or not want to pay the fees. Finally, the seller may not feel comfortable taking a personal check, since it is not secured in any way.
For these situations, they may request a certified check.
Certified Check vs. Cashier's Check
You may have heard people use “certified check” and “cashier's check” interchangeably – they are similar but not identical.
Both checks are backed by a bank, but they are slightly different.
- With a certified check, the funds are drawn against a personal account.
- With a cashier's check, the funds are drawn against the bank's funds.
When you get a cashier's check, you transfer funds from your account to the bank before transferred cashed. The funds are transferred to the seller once they cash the check.
In both cases, it's very hard for you to stop payment on a cashier's check or certified check. If you have a seller asking for one and you can't get it, or it's too expensive or hard, you can ask if they will accept the other type. In most cases, they will because to the seller it's practically the same.
How Long Is a Check Good For?
Checks technically do not have an expiration date. But many banks will not accept checks after a period of time to protect against fraud. This is why some checks will say “Not valid after 180 days” or “Not valid after 90 days.”
Cashier's checks are valid for 90 days after issuance to prevent fraud. If you have a check that is over 90 days old, you can contact the issuing bank to get a new check.
Banks may cash a check as old as six months, but this will vary from bank to bank. Some will process checks as old as a year, others won't. They are trying to avoid fraud and avoid bouncing checks.
What About Certified Check Scams?
Why do I care? A check is a check is a check, right?
The certified check is the cornerstone of the fake check and “mystery shopping” scam.
When you deposit a “certified check” (in quotes because it looks like a certified check, except it's a fake), your bank immediately honors it. It shows as clearing in your account. The scam relies on this because they ask you to go buy something at a Walmart or some other store. They give you a check for $2,000 and ask you to buy $1,500 in iTunes gift cards or something.
The check appears to clear but the usual confirmation/clearing processes is still happening behind the scenes. When they discover the check is fake, they will withdraw the money from your account. If you've already spent the money, you're left owing the bank. You won't be criminally liable because you didn't fake the check but you'll still be out the money you spent elsewhere and that can be a huge headache.
Where do you get a certified check?
You'll need to go to your bank or credit union. It's easiest at a bank where you have an account and have sufficient funds because then you'll just have to provide the check details once you've identified yourself (bring a government photo ID!).
After you write the check, the teller or bank officer will sign and stamp it (“certify” it).
If you decide to go to a bank that isn't your own, it will be a much more complicated process because you'll have to provide the identifying information AND bring the funds.
In either case, call the bank to ensure they are able to handle it (and how much it costs) when you show up. Sometimes on certain people are allowed to sign and stamp the check, you want to make sure they're in the branch when you show up so you don't waste your time.
How much does a Certified Check cost?
If the bank offers it, a certified check usually costs around $5 – $10. The bank has to do a little back office processing to certify the check.
Many banks don't offer certified checks. They will instead offer a cashier's check, which is similar enough and usually sufficient in most cases. In many cases, you will have to go to a bank to talk to someone before they will issue either check.
Can I Get a Certified Check From My Online Bank? Without in-person branches, can you still get a certified or cashier's check from your online bank?
It depends. My main online bank is Ally Bank and they do not offer certified checks or money orders. They can issue a cashier's check at no extra charge though. To get that, you need to call their customer service number at 1-877-247-2559.
Each bank has their own policy, cost, and shipping options so contact your bank to find out more. Many will charge you one price for USPS First Class mailing and a higher one for overnight, in case you're in a hurry.