Promissory Note: What It Is, Different Types, and Pros and Cons

Promissory Note Definition

Investopedia / Tara Anand

What Is a Promissory Note?

A promissory note is a written and signed promise to repay a sum of money in exchange for a loan or other financing. A promissory note typically contains all the terms involved, such as the principal debt amount, interest rate, maturity date, payment schedule, the date and place of issuance, and the issuer's signature.

Although financial institutions may issue them—for instance, you might be required to sign a promissory note to take out a small personal loan—promissory notes also allow companies and individuals to get financing from a non-bank source. This source can be an individual or a company willing to carry the note (and provide the financing) under the agreed-upon terms. In effect, promissory notes can enable anyone to be a lender.

Key Takeaways

  • A promissory note is a financial instrument that contains a written promise by one party (the note's issuer or maker) to pay another party (the note's payee) a definite sum of money, either on demand or at a specified future date.
  • A promissory note typically contains all the terms pertaining to the indebtedness, such as the principal amount, interest rate, maturity date, date and place of issuance, and issuer's signature.
  • In terms of their legal enforceability, promissory notes lie somewhere between the informality of an IOU and the rigidity of a loan contract.

Promissory Note

How Promissory Notes Work

Promissory notes can lie between an IOU's informality and a loan contract's rigidity. An IOU merely acknowledges a debt and the amount one party owes another. A promissory note includes a promise to pay on demand or at a specified future date, and steps required for repayment (like the repayment schedule).

In its simplest form, a promissory note might be a written promise to repay a family member. State or federal securities entities may regulate more complicated promissory notes.


Typically, there are two parties to a promissory note: The promisor, also called the note's maker or issuer, promises to repay the amount borrowed. The promisee or payee is the person who gave the loan.

Secured vs. Unsecured Promissory Notes

A promissory note can be secured or unsecured. A secured promissory note describes the collateral—typically property—that secures the debt or amount borrowed. For example, if the borrower owns property, the lender can use the car as collateral until the debt is repaid. If the borrower doesn't repay the loan, the lender can take possession of the property.

An unsecured promissory note doesn't involve collateral. In this case, if the borrower doesn't repay the loan, the lender can try to use standard debt-collection procedures.

In either case, the lender holds the promissory note until the debt is repaid. Typically, those drafting a promissory note will consult with an attorney to make sure the note follows any state or federal laws around loans or investments.

A Brief History of Promissory Notes

Promissory notes have had an interesting history. At times, they have circulated as a form of alternate currency, free of government control. In some places, the official currency is in fact a form of promissory note called a demand note (one with no stated maturity date or fixed term, allowing the lender to decide when to demand payment).

Promissory notes and bills of exchange are governed by the 1930 Geneva Convention of Uniform Law on Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes. Its rules also stipulate that the term "promissory note" should be inserted in the instrument's body and contain an unconditional promise to pay.

In the United States, promissory notes are often used in when getting a mortgage, student loan, or a loan from a friend or family member. They're also sometimes issued to corporate clients.

A promissory note is usually held by the party owed money; once the debt has been fully paid, the note must be canceled by the payee and returned to the issuer.

What's Included in a Promissory Note?

A promissory note should include all the details about a loan and the repayment terms. In addition to the names of the borrower and the lender, it may also include:

  • Name and address of borrower and lender
  • Maturity date
  • Sum borrowed
  • Payment schedule
  • Interest rate and how interest is calculated
  • Prepayments process
  • Overdue payment interest charged
  • Default
  • Waivers, amendments, and governing law for the promissory note

Promissory Note Repayment

There are several different structures for repayment of a promissory note, but most involve repaying the principal plus interest. The interest rate can be fixed or variable and calculated daily, monthly, annually, or another way. In some states, interest rates may be capped by state law. A certified accountant and attorney can advise you on the tax or legal implications of the promissory note's repayment schedule.

Here are various repayment approaches for a promissory note:

  • Installment note: The most familiar repayment approach is through installments, with the borrower making regular payments; the repayment schedule and interest payments can vary.
  • Simple note: For smaller loans, borrowers might arrange a lump-sum repayment on a specified date, meaning that's when you'll repay the whole amount in the promissory note.
  • Open-ended note: This promissory note allows you to draw on an operating or other loan over time and repay your draw plus interest by a specific date.
  • Demand note: Sometimes, a promissory note may specify "on demand" repayment, meaning that the note must be repaid at the lender's request at any time.

Types of Promissory Notes

Student Loan Promissory Notes

Many people sign their first promissory notes as part of getting a student loan. Private lenders typically require students to sign promissory notes for each loan taken out.

Some schools allow federal student loan borrowers to sign a one-time master promissory note, allowing receipt of multiple loans for up to 10 years if the school certifies the student's continued eligibility.

Student loan promissory notes outline the student borrower's rights and responsibilities and the loan's conditions and terms. By signing a master promissory note for federal student loans, the student promises to repay the loan amounts plus interest and fees to the U.S. Department of Education.

The master promissory note also includes the student's personal contact and employment information and the names and contact info for the student's references.

Mortgage Promissory Notes

Homeowners usually consider their mortgage an obligation to repay the money they borrowed to buy their residence. But actually, the signed promissory note represents a promise to repay the mortgage or loan, along with the repayment terms.

Typically, the Note includes:

  • Amount you owe
  • Mortgage loan's interest rate
  • Ways your interest rate can change, if you have an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM)
  • Payment dates
  • Repayment length of time
  • Where you send payments
  • Consequences of not making monthly mortgage payments

The promissory note describes the debt's amount, interest rate, and late fees. A lender holds the promissory note until the mortgage loan is paid off. Unlike the mortgage or deed of trust, the promissory note is not entered into county land records.

Corporate Credit Promissory Notes

Promissory notes are commonly used in business as a means of short-term financing. For example, when a company sells products but hasn't yet collected payments, cash may run low, leaving the company unable to pay creditors. The company may ask creditors to accept a promissory note to be exchanged for cash after the company collects its accounts receivables.

Or the company may ask the bank for cash in exchange for a promissory note. Promissory notes offer companies a credit source after exhausting other options, like corporate loans or bond issues. A note issued by a company in this situation is at a higher risk of default than, say, a corporate bond. The corporate promissory note's interest rate will likely provide a greater return than a bond from the same company, as high risk means higher potential returns.

These notes must be registered with the government in the state where sold and with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

If the note is not registered, the investor has to analyze whether the company is capable of servicing the debt. Companies in dire straits may hire high-commission brokers to push unregistered notes on the public. If the company defaults, the investors' legal avenues may be somewhat limited.

Investing in Promissory Notes

Company or corporate promissory notes are rarely sold to the public. When they are, it is usually at the behest of a struggling company working through unscrupulous brokers who are willing to sell promissory notes that the company may not be able to honor.

Or the note may be part of a scam sold by life insurance agents or online or out-of-state investment advisors. Some sellers may know nothing about the investments' true origins—the notes may be for companies that don't exist. Notes promising "low risk, high yield" investments may lead to a type of fraud, according to the SEC.

Before investing in promissory notes, ensure all of the following are true:

  • The person selling the "promissory notes" is licensed to sell securities 
  • The company offering promissory notes is legitimate and can repay debts
  • Promissory notes are properly registered the SEC, state securities regulator or legally exempt from registration
  • If guaranteed or insured by a foreign insurance company, contact your state department of insurance to make sure the company can do business in the U.S.

Investing in promissory notes involves risk. These notes are only offered to corporate or sophisticated investors who can handle the risks and have the money needed to buy the note. To help minimize these risks, an investor must register the note or have it notarized so that the obligation is publicly recorded and legal.

What Does a Promissory Note Contain?

A form of debt instrument, a promissory note represents a written promise on the part of the issuer to pay back another party. A promissory note will include the agreed-upon terms between the two parties, such as the maturity date, principal, interest, and issuer’s signature. Essentially, a promissory note allows entities aside from financial institutions the ability to provide lending mechanisms to other entities.

What Is an Example of a Promissory Note?

One example of a promissory note is a corporate credit promissory note. For this type of promissory note, a company will be typically seeking a short-term loan. In the case of a growing startup that is low on cash as it expands its operations, terms of the agreement could state that the company pays back the loan once its accounts receivable are collected.

There are a number of other different types of promissory notes, including investment promissory notes, take-back mortgages, and student loan promissory notes. 

What Are the Pros and Cons of a Promissory Note?

A promissory note can be advantageous when an entity is unable to find a loan from a traditional lender, such as a bank. However, promissory notes can be much riskier because the lender does not have the means and scale of resources found within financial institutions. At the same time, legal issues could arise for both the issuer and payee in the event of default. Because of this, getting a promissory note notarized can be important.

The Bottom Line

A promissory note is a written promise by one party to make a payment of money at a date in the future. Although potentially issued by financial institutions, other organizations or individuals can use promissory notes to confirm the agreed terms of a loan. In short, a promissory note allows anyone to act as a lender. However, the average investor should be wary of and heavily research any sales pitches for promissory notes as an investment.

Article Sources
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