What Is a Certified Check and Where to Get One

An illustration shows a certified check.
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Have you ever bounced a check and paid the price? Fees can be steep and the embarrassment, too, when you don’t have enough in your account to cover the check … or checks.

Luckily, other options, like certified checks, can help you avoid this scenario. And there are times when a certified check is requested like when you are making a down payment on a home or buying a car from a private party.

This article will cover what a certified check is, where and how to obtain one, frequently asked questions regarding certified checks, and some disadvantages you need to be aware of.

What Is a Certified Check?

A certified check is a personal check verified by a user’s bank. The bank will confirm the account holder’s signature and that there are enough funds available. Additionally, the check writer’s bank will guarantee funds by placing a hold on that amount until the receiver deposits the certified check. This prevents a situation where you have the money today but might not tomorrow if more checks are cashed on your account.

Why Would You Want a Certified Check?

There are many reasons to get a certified check. They are particularly useful for a down payment on a house, appliance replacement, and other large transactions. Some sellers require these large payments to be made with a certified check because they are guaranteed funds. Additionally, the buyer is less likely to bounce a check due to insufficient funds. Not to mention, it is much easier to carry around a check rather than a large amount of cash.

How To Obtain a Certified Check

There are only a few steps involved with obtaining a certified check.

Confirm Your Bank Offers Certified Checks

Most banks and credit unions offer certified cashier’s checks, but it is always best to confirm first. Contact your bank or credit union in person or over the phone to obtain an official answer. If your bank is online only, it is unlikely that they can issue a certified check.

Visit Your Bank Branch

You will need to visit your bank or credit union in person and meet with a bank teller. Let them know you would like a certified check and confirm any additional instructions that may be required. Present your ID card and write your check in front of the teller. The teller will then verify your signature and whether or not you have sufficient funds in your account. If everything is satisfactory, they will mark or stamp your check to certify it.

Pay Any Fees

Afterward, you will need to pay fees for the certified check. You can confirm which payment method your bank prefers over the phone, but cash is a good option to cover your fees. You can now deliver your check to complete your purchase.

Fees for a Certified Check

Most banks and credit unions have fees associated with a certified check. You can expect to pay at least $15, although the fees depend on the bank. You can call ahead to confirm the amount you will be expected to pay.

Keep Your Receipt

Although the check is certified, it is important to keep your receipt. It is your physical confirmation in case something were to go wrong. For instance, the deposited funds take longer than normal to clear, and the receiver questions the check’s legitimacy. With your receipt, you will be able to prove your check was authentic.

The Downsides to a Certified Check

Everything has its pros and cons and certified or official checks are no exception. The following are a few downsides regarding certified checks you should keep in mind.

Service Fees

Certified and cashier’s checks often come with service fees. Bank service costs can range from a small fee of around $5 up to $25. If you have to use certified and cashier’s checks a lot, these costs can quickly add up. If this is the case, you may want to consider a bank with a lower service fee or one that waives the fee entirely.

When you search for a new bank, it can be lucrative to see if the bank has any bank promotions for new customers. These are usually cash rewards you earn when you create a new account. Changing banks can be a good way to earn some extra cash and lower your service fees at the same time.

Check Scams

Scammers have developed several methods to use certified checks to commit fraud. If you receive certified checks regularly, you will need to be vigilant about checking for fraudulent checks.

If you are unsure whether or not you are receiving legitimate certified checks, it does not hurt to look up the bank the checks came from and call them to verify their legitimacy. Do not use the phone number printed on the check because scammers will change this number to their own. Instead, you should look up the bank and its phone number online.

There are also inauthentic sellers to watch out for. These false sellers request certified or cashier’s checks but fail to deliver your goods.

Overdrawn Account

You can still overdraw your account even when using certified checks. If this occurs, you may be subject to fees from your bank, although some banks have removed overdraft fees. Even without fees, you may incur a penalty. It is best to talk to your bank to understand the consequences of overdrawing from your savings and checking accounts.

Certified checks protect you from bouncing a check, but they do not change money flow in and out of your account. You will need to remember any money attached to a certified check is not available for use. It is best to subtract this amount from your total checking amount to ensure you will not overspend on other purchases.

Make sure you have enough funds in your checking account to cover any checks you write. We’ve got the blueprint on how to avoid overdraft fees.

Banks Can Fail

It is uncommon but sometimes banks are unable to meet their financial obligations. Thankfully, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures over $200,000 worth of deposited funds at participating locations, so your money is protected. But sometimes, banks will have your funds transferred to them, interfering with any ongoing transactions. It is best to contact any receivers of your certified checks to let them know what is going on.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Certified Checks

There are several common questions regarding certified checks, and this section will cover their answers.

Is a Certified Check the Same as a Cashier’s Check?

Although certified checks are similar to cashier’s checks, they are different. The difference comes from where the funds are held. With a certified check, funds remain in the user’s account, but with a cashier’s check, funds are moved into the bank’s account. Both can be used for large purchases and are considered more secure than regular checks because funds are verified before the check can be deposited or cashed. Cashier’s checks may also require a service fee.  

Sometimes the terms “cashier’s check” and “money order” are used interchangeably but there is a difference. A cashier’s check is issued by a bank or credit union and a money order can be purchased at retail stores, post offices, check cashing businesses, banks and credit unions. Cashier’s checks may be made for large amounts of money and money orders are limited to $1,000 or less, depending on where they are purchased.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Certified Check?

Once at your financial institution, obtaining a certified check usually takes around 10 minutes. If you need your check fast, try going at times and days when the bank is not as busy.

How Do Certified Checks Work?

Certified checks work almost the same as regular paper checks. The only difference is that the funds are verified by the financial institution the certified check is drawn on and the signature of the check writer. The bank certifies that both of these conditions are met and valid. A mark or stamp is put onto the check and is used to denote the certification of the check.

Do Certified Checks Clear Immediately?

Certified checks do not clear immediately. After they are deposited, they take about as long as wire transfers. For the check to clear, the typical turnaround time is one business day.

What Do I Need To Obtain a Certified Check?

To obtain a certified check, you will need a checking account with checks, enough money to cover the check amount and the service fee, an ID card, and the ability to visit your bank or credit union branch in person.

What Are Official Checks?

Official checks can be certified or cashier’s checks. Banks will use different vocabulary depending on their offerings. If you are unsure, it is best to contact your bank. With a certified check, funds remain in the user’s account, but with a cashier’s check, funds are moved into the bank’s account. Both can be used for large purchases and are considered more secure than regular checks because funds are verified before the check can be deposited or cashed.

In Conclusion

When it comes to personal checks, banks and credit unions offer a variety of tools for you to use. Certified checks and cashier’s checks are especially useful for large transactions. They protect both the seller and buyer by confirming there are enough funds available to complete the transaction. Although there are some inconveniences, they are safe and easy to use.

New York contributor Kiara Taylor specializes in financial literacy and financial technology subjects. She is a corporate financial analyst who also leads a group affiliated with the University of Cincinnati that teaches financial literacy to Black students and helps them secure employment and internships.