For those who write out checks regularly, the process becomes almost automatic. However, if you haven’t written many checks, it can be confusing. Checks are being superseded by electronic transfers, but they aren’t obsolete yet.

Here are the steps needed to know how to fill out a check and explain the numbers preprinted on each one.

Key Takeaways

  • Paper checks are infrequently used today, thanks to electronic transfers, but sometimes you still need one.
  • There are five mandatory steps to writing out a paper check.
  • The preprinted numbers on a check assure that the funds go to the right place.
  • If you write a check without money in your checking account, the check will bounce, meaning it will be sent back to the payee for insufficient funds.
  • Always endorse a check made out to you right away.

The Steps of Writing a Check

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Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2021

  1. Date. Fill in the date on the blank line at the top right corner of the check. The month/day/year format is standard for the United States. This is extremely important as this lets the bank know when you wrote the check, and it shows if the check is postdated, meaning it should be cashed on or after the date on the check.
  2. Recipient's name. Write the recipient's name on the blank line after the phrase "Pay to the Order Of." This can be an individual, an organization, or a business—whomever the check is going to. For an individual, be sure to include the first and last name, and for an organization or business, use its full name. 
  3. Amount (numerical form). In the box to the right of the recipient's name, fill in the amount in dollars and cents using numbers. Make sure to write the amount as close to the left-hand side of the check as possible to avoid anyone filling in a new amount.
  4. Amount (expanded word form). The dollar amount should also be written in expanded word form on the blank line below the recipient's name. Cents, however, should be written in fraction form and write small to ensure the entire amount can be written out as this is the legally recognized amount on the check you write out.
  5. Signature. Sign your name on the line at the bottom right corner of the check. Your signature is mandatory—the recipient will not be able to cash the check without it. Double-check to make sure you have written out your signature before you hand over or mail the check.
  6. Memo (optional). At the lower left is a line where you can, if you choose, note what the check is for, or write in your account number for, say, the utility company you're paying with that check. It can also indicate that the recipient should apply the money to what you owe and not some other item. For example, if you are using the check to pay for something at your child's school, you could write your child's name and grade in the memo line.

The advent of online banking means you can check your paper file against the electronic one.

Routing Numbers, Account Numbers, and Check Numbers

The numbers running across the bottom of the check represent the following:

Routing transit number. The first sequence of numbers represents your financial institution’s routing transit number. This code identifies your bank, allowing the check to be directed to the right place for processing. 

Account number. The second sequence of numbers is your unique account number. It was assigned by the bank when you opened the checking account.

Check number. The last sequence of numbers is the check number. It is also featured at the top of the check, beneath the date. It helps you track the payment later if needed.

Balancing Your Checkbook

When you write a check, spend cash, or make a deposit into your checking account, you can use the check register in your checkbook. This section of your checkbook is meant to act as a recorder of all of your financial transactions, including ATM withdrawals, online transactions, debit card payments, and check writing. By writing it all down, you can see how much money is going in and out of your account.

By hand-recording your transactions either with an online register or a paper one, you may safeguard against spending money that has not to shown up or withdrawn out of your bank account. It can take a few days for transactions to show online, and it is easy to forget a transaction if you don't record it shortly after it occurs.

Check your balance in your account before you write checks, so you don't write a bad check.

Practical Advice

Most banks and credit unions allow you to do your banking online, which may be more secure than sending out or keeping track of paper checks. However, if you use paper checks, keep a few things in mind when using checks. First, when writing one, always use a non-erasable pen, preferably in blue or black ink. Don't let anyone add numbers to your check by writing out the amount by starting on the far left of the assessment and drawing a line after the last digit to keep it from being added to.

Double-check to ensure you have signed your checks properly using your full legal name, and write the correct date out as well. Keep your checkbook as well-protected as your wallet, don't leave it lying around, and make sure to keep the carbon copy of each check written. Try to avoid writing out checks for cash, too, and order checks directly from your bank regularly to keep from running out of paper checks, especially if you use them often.

Special Considerations

When you cash a check made out to you, it needs to be endorsed, which means you sign the back of the check on the appropriate line and add the date. Most banks provide a few blank lines and a mark to indicate where to sign the check. You must sign in the right place, or the check may be invalidated.

You can deposit a check once you have endorsed it, at a teller window or an ATM at a branch of your bank. You can also electronically deposit by taking a picture of the front and back of an endorsed check and using your bank's deposit app.

It's easy to order new checks when you need them, and often you can order checks directly online from your bank or order them at your bank.

The Bottom Line

While the ability to pay online from a checking account has greatly reduced the need to issue paper checks, there are still times when one is needed, so it is essential to know how to fill it out correctly. In addition, knowing how to write, endorse, and deposit a check is an integral part of early financial education.

How Do You Write a Check for Blank Checks?

You fill out the name, date, and amount both in numerals and long-hand (the legal figure) and sign it.

What Happens If You Write a Check With No Money in Your Account?

If you write a check and have no money in your account, it will be returned for insufficient funds. Writing a check without money in your account, willfully or by accident, the person you wrote it out to won't get paid. Your bank account will become overdrawn so that you will have a negative amount in your checking account, and you will be hit with fees for a returned check.

What Is Bouncing a Check?

Bouncing a check means you have written a check without having money in your account.

Who Gets Charged for a Bounced Check?

The person who wrote the check gets charged fees for a bounced check.

Can You Write Yourself a Check?

Yes. It is legal to write a check to yourself.