If you've ever written a check, you’ve probably noticed the string of numbers along the paper’s bottom edge.
Just like you have a Social Security number to help identify you, your bank account has a unique routing number that sets it apart from other financial institutions.
What is a routing number?
Your bank's routing number is a nine-digit number that identifies your bank as a member of the American Bankers Association (ABA).
Sometimes also called routing transit numbers, routing numbers are publicly available and serve as indicators of a bank's quality and legitimacy. They're only issued to federal or state-chartered financial institutions eligible to maintain an account at the Federal Reserve Service, the United States central banking system.
By attributing a unique identifier to each bank, ABA routing numbers also help clearing houses streamline check clearances and authenticate transactions between different financial institutions or between financial institutions and their customers.
The routing number specifies the state or branch where your account was opened and ensures deposits and withdrawals are made to and from the correct institution. No two banks have the same routing number.
However, some banks may use several different routing numbers for different types of accounts or transactions. For example, your checking account may have one routing number for wire transfers, another for ACH deposits, and a third for sending checks.
Where is the bank routing number located on a check?
Your bank's routing number is usually the first set of numbers located in the lower-left corner at the bottom of your check. It consists of nine digits altogether — the symbols surrounding the numbers are not part of the routing number.
And remember, the routing number isn't the only number found on your checks. You'll also find your bank account number and the check number.
Your account number usually follows the routing number on the same line and is written in the same typeface for electronic scanners.
The check number comprises three or four digits and identifies each check in your checkbook. It may also be at the bottom of the check on the same line as the account and routing numbers. Check numbers help track payments.
What is the difference between a routing number and an account number?
Your routing number and account number both serve the purpose of identifying your account, except at different levels of specificity. The routing number identifies the bank, while your account number identifies your specific account at that bank. You can think of them like your postal code and street address, respectively. Collectively they work in tandem to pinpoint where you live.
What is the account number on a debit card?
Credit and debit cards don't have routing numbers. And although the number on your card is sometimes called the primary account number (PAN), it is not the same as your actual bank account number.
Instead of your bank's routing number, the first six digits on your debit or credit card are the major industry identifier (MII) and the issuer identification number (IIN). These precede your card's account number, which, again, is different from your actual account number. The last digit on your card is the checksum number, which helps prevent fraud.
Where else can I find my bank's routing number?
Routing numbers are easy to find at the bottom of a check. But if you're like many, you don't use paper checks (or you just don't happen to have a check handy), there are a few other places you can find your bank's routing number:
- Bank statements. Most banks indicate your account information on your monthly statements, including their ABA routing number.
- Your bank's website. You can usually find your bank's ABA routing numbers on their website. But remember that some banks may use different routing numbers for different types of transactions, so make sure you get the routing number that corresponds to the transaction you want to make.
- The ABA online lookup tool. The ABA website lets you use their free ABA Routing Number Lookup tool to find up to two ABA routing numbers per day and up to 10 per month.
- Call your bank. If you're unsure about the number you've found online or you just prefer to talk to an actual human being, you can always call your bank and ask for assistance from a representative.
What do I need my routing number for?
Routing numbers ensure that money transferred between accounts arrives at its intended destination.
Here are a few types of transactions that might require you to obtain and enter your bank routing number:
- Wire transfers. You'll always need to specify the routing number when you send or receive money by wire.
- ACH deposits. When signing up for direct deposits — be it from your employer, the IRS for tax refunds, or your mutual funds — you need to provide both your bank routing number and your account number. Doing so may help you receive your funds more quickly.
- Paying bills. If you're signing up for automated bill payments from your bank account, you usually need to enter your routing number.
- Payment apps. Sometimes, when you sign up for a payment app like Venmo or Paypal, you may need to give the mobile app access to your bank account.
- Transfers between banks. If your budgeting practice involves having your checking account at a different bank than your savings account, you may need your bank routing number to set up ACH transfers between the two.
Do routing numbers change?
Yes. When banks merge, consolidate, or acquire other banks, the routing numbers associated with your account may change. Your bank will alert you of the change well before it takes effect, usually many months in advance. And in many cases, the old routing number will remain active for a few months after the switch.
Here are some things to keep in mind if your routing number is going to change:
- Get new checks: In some cases, your bank will allow you to keep using your old checks until they run out. If you have to stop using your old checks by a specific date, you can ask that your bank provide you with a free box of new ones.
- Review your bank statements: Go over your bank statements from the past 12 months and make a list of all recurring automatic transactions, like direct deposits and automatic payments.
- Reconfigure automatic transactions: After making your list, you need to change the routing number for each transaction. If you keep using your old routing number after it's been phased out, the transactions may not go through. For bills, you'll have to change your account information online or contact the providers by phone. For direct deposits, you may need to fill out some paperwork and provide a voided check.
The bottom line
Although you may not use it every day, your bank's routing number is a vital piece of information that helps make your banking experience run smoothly and guarantees your money gets where it needs to go.
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