How Counter Checks Work: Checks From Your Branch

Need a Few Checks to Hold You Over Until Your Order Arrives?

Blank Check
Counter checks are plain-looking checks with your account number (but your name and personal information might not appear). George Manga/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The biggest problem with writing checks is that you always need to have a check handy. That’s a tall order when you’re accustomed to paying with plastic or cash—or making electronic payments online. Checks don’t fit in well with today’s instant-access world: Typically, you need to order checks several weeks before you plan to use one. But if you’re in a pinch, your bank might provide several instant “counter” checks for immediate needs.

What is a Counter Check?

Counter checks are checks that you get at a bank branch, usually from a teller or a personal banker. They can be printed and used instantly, so they’re available immediately after you open a new account. They’re also handy if you run out of checks and you need a check quickly.

Banks print your account information on counter checks, so they work just like regular checks. Your ABA routing number and account number appear on the bottom of each check in that familiar computerized MICR font. Some banks include your name and address as well, but for the most part, these checks are very basic—merchants can usually tell when you’re using a counter check.

Counter checks are not the same as cashier’s checks, which are also checks that your bank prints on-demand. Cashier’s checks are for “cleared” or guaranteed funds, and they have payee information printed on them. Counter checks are not for guaranteed payments, and they are blank except for the account holder’s bank information.

How to Get Counter Checks

Visit your bank or credit union’s branch to request a counter check. Before you make a trip to the branch, call and ask if counter checks are available. Find out what the process is, and if you need to use any particular branch. Of course, if you use an online-only bank, you can’t get counter checks because there is no branch to visit.

Once at the branch, ask the teller or personal banker to print the checks, show your ID, and complete any other steps required by the bank. You should have your checks in-hand in just a few minutes.

How to Fill Out Counter Checks

Writing a check with a counter check is the same as using any other check (see a visual tutorial):

  1. Write the date in the upper-right corner.
  2. Write the name of your payee on the line next to “Pay to the order of.”
  3. Write the amount of the check in numeric form in the box on the right.
  4. Write the amount using words on the line under the Payee line.
  5. Include a “memo” or any reference information if you like.
  6. Sign the check near the bottom-right corner.

You might also need to write your personal information on the check, usually in the upper-left hand corner. Again, some banks print those details for you. If not, whoever you’re writing the check to will probably want to know how to contact you if any problems arise. For example, they may require you to provide your name and phone number at a minimum. Retailers often want your address and driver’s license number as well.

Pros and Cons of Using Counter Checks

Instant access: The main benefit of a counter check is that you have what you need—a check—with a trip to the branch.

Instead of waiting for a shipment of checks, you can start writing checks right away.

Cost and limits: Banks usually charge a small fee to print checks at the branch, so expect to pay roughly two dollars per check. Also, you can only get a few checks at a time—you’re not going to walk out with 50 checks.

Suspicious checks? If you’re planning to make a payment with one of these checks, be aware that merchants don’t always want to accept counter checks as payment. Even if the bank prints your personal information on the check, counter checks usually look different from most checks. They don’t have a check number, which is a signal that the check is a counter check. Merchants might fear that you’ve opened a brand new account (which signals greater risk for them), or that you’re using a poorly-made counterfeit check.

Running out of Checks?

If you’re out of checks, and you find yourself in this situation often, try to use fewer checks. Although counter checks are helpful, it takes time to go to the branch, and it’s less expensive to order checks from a printer.

To use fewer checks, take advantage of technology: