A safe deposit box (or safety deposit box) is an individually secured container—usually a metal box—that lives in the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. It’s one of a number of services beyond banking that your institution may offer. If your bank does provide safe deposit boxes, you can rent one to keep your valuables, important documents, and sentimental keepsakes secure.

How Safe Deposit Boxes Work

When you rent a safe deposit box, the bank gives you a key to use, in tandem with a second “guard key” held by a bank employee, to access the box (if your bank uses a keyless system, you’ll scan your finger or hand instead). Either way, you’ll have to provide some type of identification—and your key, if it’s not a keyless system—every time you visit the bank to access the box.

You can rent a box in your name only, or you can add other people to the lease. If you opt for co-lessors, they will have equal access and rights to the contents of the box, so think carefully about whom you're thinking of adding. For example, people who have any addiction, financial, marriage, and/or judgment issues may not be ideal candidates—even if they’re family and you love them. Still, it’s usually a good idea to name someone else to the account, so that person can access the box’s contents when and if you can’t.

Safe deposit boxes are undoubtedly more secure than most people’s homes. Bank vaults, of course, are harder to break into and are located in secure areas with alarms, video cameras, and top-notch locks. They’re also reinforced to withstand fire, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. Still, that doesn’t mean you should put just anything in there. Here are tips to help you decide what to keep in—and keep out of—a safe deposit box.

Store Important Papers, Collectibles, and Heirlooms

Safe deposit boxes are a good place to keep your hard-to-replace documents—such as contracts and business papers, military discharge papers, and physical stock and bond certificates—along with small collectibles and family heirlooms. Keep in mind that the largest safe deposit boxes are usually just 10 inches by 10 inches and two feet deep, which leaves plenty of room for irreplaceable photos and Grandma’s wedding ring but not your antique doll collection.

Good things to store in your safe deposit box are important items that you won’t need frequent access to, including:

  • Personal papers, such as original birth certificates, adoption papers, marriage licenses, and citizenship papers
  • Copies—but not the only copies—of wills and powers of attorney
  •  Military records and discharge papers (e.g., DD 214s)
  • School transcripts and diplomas
  • Sensitive documents you wouldn’t want roommates, children, relatives, and visitors to stumble across
  • The deed to your house, along with any car titles
  • Paper stock and bond certificates (including U.S. savings bonds), if you have any (most are issued electronically these days)
  •  An inventory of your home’s contents in case you need to file a claim with your homeowner’s insurance policy
  • Important business papers and records
  • Important contracts
  • Hard drives and flash drives with backups and important data
  • Financially and/or sentimentally valuable jewelry, collectibles. and family keepsakes
  • Other documents or small items that would be difficult or impossible to replace

Even though safe deposit boxes are designed to withstand natural disasters, it’s a good idea to put anything that could be damaged by water into a waterproof container, such as a zippered plastic bag, to add another layer of protection (this can also help you keep your safe deposit box more organized). And before stashing those important papers and photos, make copies to store electronically on your computer or in the cloud. Just be sure your family knows how to access them.

Key Takeaways

  • Safe deposit boxes are designed to withstand natural disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
  • Never store the only copy of an important document in a safe deposit box.
  • Safe deposit boxes are especially useful for people who aren’t comfortable storing things in a digital environment.
  • It’s wise to have a co-lessor for your safe deposit box, but you should think carefully about who the best person would be.

Don’t Store Anything You’ll Need in an Emergency

You can generally access your safe deposit box during banking hours, which means not on holidays (or, depending on the bank, weekends). Store only items that you won’t need in an emergency. Passports, medical directives, the only copies of wills and powers of attorney, and other documents that you may suddenly need are better kept in a secure spot at home, such as a fireproof home safe that’s bolted to the floor or wall.

You’re better off keeping these items out of your safe deposit box:

  • Passports: Even if you’re not a frequent international traveler, you never know when you’ll need your passport for business, a spontaneous trip, or to help a relative or friend overseas.
  • The only copies of living wills, advanced medical directives, and durable powers of attorney: These are of little value if they are hidden away in a safe deposit box that no one can access. Tell your loved ones about the arrangements you’ve made and where they can find the documents.
  • The only copy of your will: This is especially true if you haven’t designated a cosigner to your safe deposit box. If you pass away or become incapacitated, it can be difficult for your loved ones to access your safe deposit box, and, therefore, the only copy of your will. It’s better to keep wills, living wills, medical directives, and powers of attorney in a secure place at home (such as that fireproof home safe) and tell a trusted relative or friend where they are and how to access them. (Also helpful: Give your medical proxy and the person who has your power of attorney copies of relevant documents.)
  • Valuables you haven’t insured: Even though items in a safe deposit box are secure, you should make sure they’re covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy or a special rider, just in case (there are even companies that specialize in insuring safe deposit box contents). Keep in mind that the money you have on deposit in a federally insured bank or credit union is protected, but items in a safe deposit box are not. Tell your insurance company that the items will be kept in a safe deposit box. You might get away with a lower premium, as the items will be more secure than they would be in your home.
  • Cash: Again, the money you deposit in a federally insured bank or credit union is protected up to $250,000 per depositor per bank, but cash in your safe deposit box is not. You’re much better off keeping cash in a savings, money market, or other type of bank account where it will be insured. You also might be able to earn a little interest, something that won’t happen if your cash is in a box.
  • Anything illegal: Firearms may or may not be permitted, so ask your bank for clarification if it’s relevant. Explosives, hazardous materials, and illicit drugs are a no-no, needless to say.

Safe deposit boxes can’t be accessed 24/7, so don’t put anything in them that you might need in a hurry.

The Bottom Line

While safe deposit boxes have been offered by banks for about 150 years—with various other types of safekeeping offered long before that—fewer people today are renting safe deposit boxes, opting instead for digital storage and home safes. This can make it easier to find an available box—or more difficult if your bank no longer offers them. Betty Riess, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said demand for boxes has dropped “significantly,” especially among younger customers who are more likely to rely on digital storage, adding that fewer than half of its safe deposit boxes are rented.

Still, safe deposit boxes can be helpful, especially if you aren’t comfortable with the digital storage environment. Some banks offer the boxes for free if you have a certain type of account or a certain balance with the bank. If you’re interested in renting a box, start with your local bank or credit union. If it doesn’t offer the service, ask its representative if he or she knows who does or look online to learn about the options in your area.