What Is a Reference Number?

A reference number is a unique identifier assigned to any financial transaction including those made using a credit or debit card.

The reference number is created technologically and designated for a single transaction. A reference number helps an institution identify transactions in records and electronic databases used to monitor transactions associated with a card.

Reference numbers from each transaction on a customer’s account are usually included in a cardholder’s monthly statement.

[Important: Some companies may use the term file number when referring to a reference number.]

Understanding Reference Numbers

Reference numbers are used by financial institutions to make compiling and queries of millions of transactions easier to manage. They are generated once a transaction is completed and are made up of a combination of random letters and numbers. Reference numbers are generally assigned to transactions such as certain deposits and withdrawals, bank transfers, wire transfers, and bill payments.

These numbers are used both in printed statements, as well as online banking statements that a cardholder can access at any time. Credit card statements provide a summary of all of the transactions a cardholder makes during a given time period. Regulations require card companies to provide cardholders with instructions concerning the contents of the statement, as well as how to read and understand the different sections.

In some cases, customer service inquiries and calls may also generate a reference number. For example, if a customer calls to inquire about a product or service, the customer service representative may give that consumer a reference number to quote if they call back at a future date in order to complete the transaction.

Reference numbers also provide operational transaction details for merchants. Merchants can use reference numbers to identify and track every transaction made from their business.

Investigating Through Reference Numbers

Reference numbers make it easier for customers to interact with customer service representatives. Consumers can communicate questionable transactions to the representative, who can then investigate it through the database to obtain more details about the transaction. For example, a customer may simply reference “transaction 123456” instead of using the store and date of the transaction. The descriptive elements of the transaction are maintained in the transaction metadata in the card company’s database.

Each transaction’s reference number provides a valuable identifier to help make the resolution process much faster for all transaction queries and any fraudulent charges. Card companies can track comprehensive information about a transaction by its reference number. With the reference number, the company can identify the merchant or seller, as well as the card terminal or terminal owner that was used to execute the transaction.

If a card has been compromised or used for fraudulent purposes, card companies can void the charges by using the reference number in the pending phase.