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Counter Checks: What Are They & How Do They Work?

By Alene Laney · July 15, 2022 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Counter Checks: What Are They & How Do They Work?

If you’ve ever sat down to pay bills only to realize you’ve run out of checks, you may be relieved to know you can use counter checks. Counter checks are temporary checks printed at your bank that can help you make payments in a pinch.

Even in our era of autopay and P2P apps, checks are still a popular way for many to transfer funds. Here, you’ll learn more about how counter checks can be a valuable financial tool, including:

•   What are counter checks, and how does a counter check work?

•   When would you use a counter check?

•   How do counter checks differ from cashier’s checks?

•   How to get and write a counter check?

•   What are the pros and cons of counter checks?

•   What are alternatives to counter checks?

What Is a Counter Check?

Counter checks, also called temporary or starter checks, are a set of plain, printed checks from your bank that include your account information and the bank’s routing number. They can be used like personal checks. (In terms of how long a check is good for, these are typically valid for six months, like standard checks.)

Counter checks may not have the personalization that a set of pre-printed checks would have. You may need to fill out your personal information normally found at the top left of a check (such as your address) on a set of lines instead.

Typically, you can get counter checks while waiting for your pre-printed checkbook to arrive in the mail. This might occur when you open a new bank account or simply run out of your usual checks. Counter checks can be useful for paying merchants who don’t accept electronic payments, mobile app payments, or debit cards.

How Do Counter Checks Work?

You may get some counter checks when you first open your account; otherwise, you must request them from your bank. Here’s what you’ll do:

1.    Request counter checks from your bank (typically).

2.    Bring and show your ID.

3.    Wait a short time as the bank prints them.

4.    Pay a small fee, usually around $3 for a sheet of three checks.

5.    Use them just as you would a personal check. Just be sure to ask the recipient if they’re willing to accept a counter check before you fill it out. Some merchants are not comfortable accepting these non-standard checks.

When Would Someone Use a Counter Check?

Counter checks are useful in a few situations. If you need to pay someone with a check ASAP and you’re out of personal checks, then a bank counter check may be your best option. Or, if you recently opened a new checking account but haven’t yet received your printed checks in the mail, a counter check can enable you to pay a bill that’s due. Compared with a cashier’s check or a money order (learn more about these options below), they’re usually less expensive, too.

However, there’s an issue to note: Not all merchants, individuals, and organizations will accept a counter check in place of a standard check. Because a counter check does not have as much information printed on it as a typical check, some may reject it, skeptical that it is valid. It’s important to note this when planning to write a counter check. You may want to check first with the intended recipient to make sure it won’t be returned.

How Does a Counter Check Differ From a Cashier’s Check?

A counter check shouldn’t be confused with a cashier’s check. They’re both issued by your bank, but they work very differently. A cashier’s check is a special check that is actually drawn on the bank’s funds vs. your account’s funds.

Here’s a quick comparison of a certified check vs. cashier’s check.

Counter Check

Cashier’s Check

Funds come from your personal account Funds come from the bank. They are guaranteed by the bank because you pay upfront for the amount on the check (plus a fee)
Not widely accepted Widely accepted as a very secure form of payment
Printed without the amount of funds specified Printed with the recipient and amount of funds specified
Written by the consumer Written by the bank cashier
Fees are around $1 per counter check Fees are around $10 to $20 per cashier’s check

Tips for Getting a Counter Check

If you know how to order checks, you are probably aware that the process can take a couple of weeks to get personal checks. Getting some temporary counter checks can be faster, but you’ll need to get them from your bank. If you feel you need them urgently, it may be wise to visit a branch in person. Be sure to bring your ID with you. They may be printed on the spot for you.

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Writing a Counter Check

Writing a counter check is nearly the same as writing a personal check. The only difference is you may need to fill out some personal information if your bank hasn’t printed it on the check. This generally includes your name and address, though a merchant may also request your driver’s license number when you pay with a counter check.

To write the check, you’ll want to:

1.    Write the date in the upper right hand corner.

2.    In the “Pay to the order of” line, write the name of the recipient of the check.

3.    Write the amount of the transaction in numerical form in the box to the right.

4.    Write out the amount in words (say, “two hundred dollars”) on the line below it.

5.    Include a memo in the bottom left corner, if you like, noting what the check is paying for.

6.    Sign the check in the bottom right corner.

All of these elements are necessary in order for a check to be valid.

Recommended: Signing over checks to someone else

Pros and Cons of Counter Checks

While counter checks can serve as a temporary solution while you wait for your checks to arrive, it’s not a perfect solution. There are some advantages, as well as drawbacks to consider.

Pros of Counter Checks

Cons of Counter Checks

Immediately available Not universally accepted
Act like a personal check Fees can be high, as much as $3 per page of checks
Not numbered
Often may not have personal information pre-printed on the checks

Recommended: How to determine if a check is real

Alternatives to Counter Checks

You have other options for paying bills if you’re out of checks. Here are a few of the methods available to transfer funds.

•   Online bill pay. A quick and easy way to send payment is to set up online bill pay through your bank. It’s usually free and incredibly convenient. You can add vendors to pay and then automate monthly payments for things like car payments, mortgages, student loans, and more.

   Typically, your bank can pay merchants and organizations electronically, but if there’s a company that doesn’t accept electronic payments, you may have to do online payments manually or mail a check. In some situations, an online bill pay service may be able to write and mail the check for you.

•   Money order. A money order is like a pre-paid check. You’ll pay the amount that you’re sending, plus a fee (typically just a couple or a few dollars), and you get a check issued by a third-party provider. You can often get money orders at a variety of locations, such as the post office, your bank, your grocery store and your favorite retail stores.

•   Cashier’s check. A cashier’s check is a check you can buy from the bank where they guarantee the funds. The bank writes a check to any third party; you, in turn, pay the financial institution the amount of the payment, plus the fee for the cashier’s check (which may be in the range of $20). It’s considered a safe way to make a large payment.

•   Certified check. A certified check is a check you get from your bank that guarantees the funds from your personal account. This kind of check signals to the recipient that the cash has been earmarked from the payer’s personal account. It can add a level of security and comfort for the payee.

•   Mobile app payment services. There are a host of peer-to-peer or P2P payment options that make paying someone very convenient. Some of the most popular apps include Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, Google Pay, Zelle, and others.

•   Pay over the phone. Some merchants will take a payment over the phone. You can provide your bank’s routing number and your account number, and they may be able to process a payment over the phone. You may also be able to use a debit card for payment.

Recommended: How can I cash a check without a bank account?

Banking With SoFi

Counter checks are a useful tool if you run out of your standard checks or have recently opened a new checking account. These checks are quickly available, but they are usually not printed with all of the standard information, and not all merchants and organizations will accept them. Still, they may allow you to pay some pressing bills when other means are not available.

If you are in the market for a convenient and adaptable banking partner, consider SoFi. We’ll help you bank better. When opened with direct deposit, a SoFi bank account offers no account fees, and you’ll earn a competitive APY.

Better banking is here with up to 3.25% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.

FAQ

Is a counter check the same as a personal check?

A counter check can be equivalent to a personal check, and it may be presented as legal tender like a personal check. The main difference is that a counter check is likely to lack the more detailed identifying information that’s pre-printed on a personal check.

Can I pay someone with a counter check?

Not all merchants take counter checks. Because they look temporary and are typically not numbered, businesses may not accept payment via counter check. If you need to pay bills with a counter check, make sure the recipient is willing to accept it before you fill it out and send it.

How long is a counter check good for?

Like a personal check, a counter check is typically good for around six months.


Photo credit: iStock/RyanJLane

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