Certified Checks Explained — Including How To Avoid Fraud

Learn how to use certified bank checks.

Sometimes you need to make a large purchase or a put up a deposit and ordinary payment methods just won’t do. A certified check is a type of check, available at a bank or credit union, which is considered a safe form of payment. Before choosing to use a certified check, find out about its features, pros and cons, and how it compares with other forms of payment.

This guide to certified bank checks will cover:

What Is a Certified Bank Check?

A certified bank check is a personal check that has been certified by the bank the check is drawn upon. When a bank certifies a check, it verifies that the signature is genuine and that the personal account being drawn upon contains sufficient funds to cover the amount of the check. By certifying the check, the bank earmarks the funding amount written on the check to guarantee payment and prevent the money from being used for any other purpose.

Why Do You Need a Certified Check?

A certified check, also known as an official check, can be used when the person you’re paying requires a form of guaranteed payment that a regular personal check doesn’t provide. Here are some examples of transactions that might require a certified check:

  • Mortgage closing fees
  • Rental deposits
  • Car purchases
  • Other big-ticket items from a private seller

Certified Check vs. Cashier’s Check vs. Money Order

Certified checks are similar in some ways to cashier’s checks and money orders, but they are also different. Here’s how certified checks compare with cashier’s checks and money orders.

Certified Check vs. Cashier’s Check vs. Money Order
Certified CheckCashier’s CheckMoney Order
Guaranteed funds YesYesYes
Require ID for issuance Yes YesYes
Where To GetBanks and credit unionsBanks and credit unionsBanks and credit unions
Retailers
U.S. Postal Service
Check-cashing companies
CostApprox. $10 on average$10 to $15 on averageTypically $5 or less
UsesGood for large amountsGood for large amountsFor amounts under $1,000

Certified Check vs. Cashier’s Check

Both certified checks and cashier’s checks are available at banks during the same business day that you request one. Here’s a breakdown of their similarities and differences:

Similarities

  • Both are used when funds need to be guaranteed.
  • Both require identification to be issued.
  • You can get either from a bank or credit union.
  • Both types of check must be verified by your bank.
  • A variable financial institution service fee is charged for both types of check.
  • Both check types can be used for large purchases.

Differences  

  • A payer uses personal checks as certified checks; a bank prints cashier’s checks.
  • Cashier’s checks are available online; certified checks are not.
  • Banks earmark certified check funds; banks hold cashier’s check funds in escrow.
  • When the check is cashed, certified check funds come from your bank account; cashier’s check funds come from the bank.

Related: How Much Does a Cashier’s Check Cost?

Pros and Cons of Certified Check vs. Cashier’s Check: Which Is the Best Option?

The pros of using a certified check or a cashier’s check are that they are both considered guaranteed funds, and sometimes banks don’t charge for them if you have a specific type of checking account. One con is that both types of checks can be faked by scam artists.

In the instance that you’re torn between choosing a certified check versus a cashier’s check, the biggest difference is that the certified check is based on earmarked funds from the payer’s personal account, whereas the cashier’s check is drawn on the bank’s funds, which could provide an extra level of security for the person receiving the money.

Keep Reading: Certified Check vs. Cashier’s Check — Here Are the Differences

Certified Checks vs. Money Orders

Hands down, a money order is easier and more convenient to get than a certified check. Here are the other ways they compare:

Similarities

  • Both certified checks and money orders are considered guaranteed funds.
  • Both require prepayment.
  • Both can be used for various purchases or payments.
  • Both can be faked.

Differences

  • Money orders are available at more locations; certified checks are available at banks and credit unions only.
  • Money order fees are cheaper: Typically $0.70 to $5; certified checks are typically around $10.
  • Money orders often aren’t available in amounts over $1,000 each; certified checks are available in much larger amounts.
  • Money orders don’t require you to have a bank account; certified checks often do.

Pros and Cons of Money Order vs. Certified Check

One advantage with money orders is that they are more readily available than certified checks. A disadvantage of certified checks is that they are only available at banks and credit unions.

A drawback of money orders is that they are often not available in amounts over $1,000, which means you would need to purchase several to guarantee a large amount of money. Not only is this inconvenient, but each money order also requires a separate fee, which means you could pay more in fees than you would for a single certified check.

In addition, if you purchase a money order with a credit card instead of a debit card, it will likely be processed as a cash advance, which will include fees and interest.

Learn More: What Is a Money Order and Where Do I Find Them?

How To Get a Certified Check

Not all banks offer certified checks, so you might want to call ahead before visiting your bank’s local branch. If your bank or credit union does offer certified checks, you’ll need to go inside the bank to make your request. Have your identification ready. Once you fill out the check with the amount you need, the teller will verify that your banking account contains the funds and will mark your check as certified.

Depending on the bank, a fee might apply. Here are a few examples of certified check fees:

Certified Check Fees
Issuing BankFee
Discover$0
TD Bank$8
Santander Bank$10
SunTrust$8; fee waived for Signature Advantage, Advantage Checking or Exclusive Checking account holders
Citibank$10; fee waived for Citigold and Citi Priority account holders

Fraud Issues With Certified Checks

Any time you receive a certified check for payment, you should inspect it for signs of fraud. Although the presence of one red flag doesn’t necessarily mean a check is fraudulent, the more signs you see, the more likely you have received a bad check.

Here are some indications that a certified check is bad:

  1. The check stock is flimsy.
  2. The check is missing the payer’s or the bank’s address.
  3. The payer’s or bank’s name is misspelled.
  4. Different fonts are used on the check.
  5. Stains or discoloration are present on the check.
  6. The routing and account numbers — aka Magnetic Ink Character Recognition numbers — on the bottom of the check appear shiny. These numbers are supposed to be printed in magnetic ink so that MICR machines can read them. Magnetic ink appears dull.
  7. The MICR numbers are missing.
  8. The routing number for the bank is incorrect. You can look up routing numbers for banks online.
  9. The check number is low. For example, a personal check numbered from 101 to 400 or a small business check numbered from 1001 to 1500 could be fraudulent.

Must Read: Don’t Get Caught in These Check Scams

What Happens If a Bad Certified Check Is Used?

Just because you cash a check and the funds are credited to your bank account does not mean the check is valid. Federal banking rules dictate that the funds from a deposited check must be available within one or two days, which is often before the check has cleared. You could potentially deposit a check and spend the available funds before being notified by the bank that the check was bad. Unfortunately, if that happens, you, as the account holder, will be held liable for replacing the counterfeit funds.

Both the American Banking Association and the Federal Trade Commission recommend taking these steps if you’re the victim of a counterfeit check scam:

  1. Don’t deposit the check; report it to your bank.
  2. Report the check to the Federal Trade Commission.
  3. Report the check to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service if the fraudulent check was sent via mail.
  4. Report the check to your local and state consumer protection agencies, such as the Attorney General in your state.

Cynthia Measom has written about personal finance for over a decade.

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