What Is a Routing Number? Definition, Uses, and How to Find It

By Marcy Lovitch · May 05, 2023 · 11 minute read

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What Is a Routing Number? Definition, Uses, and How to Find It

If you’re wondering what those digits across the bottom of a check mean, the first one you see at the lower left is the routing number. Those three sets of numbers have different meanings and uses; they help financial transactions get processed swiftly and efficiently. They move funds from one place to another with precision.

Going from left to right, your checks are typically printed with the routing number, account number, and check number. It can be helpful to understand what a routing number represents in more detail. Those digits are useful when writing checks, signing up for direct deposit, and doing other banking activities.

Read on to learn about this important number and more, including:

•   What is a routing number?

•   Which number is the routing number on a check?

•   How is a routing number different from your bank account number?

•   When do you need to use a routing number?

What Is a Routing Number?

A routing number is a 9-digit identification number that’s been assigned to your bank or credit union by the American Bankers Association (ABA). It’s often referred to as an ABA number or a routing transit number (RTN). According to the ABA, a routing number can only be issued to a federal or state-chartered institution deemed to be eligible for a master account with the Federal Reserve.

The purpose of a routing number is to indicate which financial institution is responsible for processing a payment and to ensure the funds go to the correct place. Each bank has its own unique routing number to distinguish it from all of the other banks. This helps to avoid any confusion, mix-ups, or mistakes. For example, if your bank has a similar name to another one, it’s still distinguishable because of the financial institutions’ different routing numbers.

Routing numbers are only used in the U.S., but some large national and global banks may possess multiple routing numbers based on where the account is held or where you reside. A bank may also use more than one routing number for different transactions, such as one for wire transfers and another for processing checks.

Where to Find a Routing Number on a Check

Many of us, at one time or another, look at the digits on a check and wonder which one is the routing number. As previously mentioned, when you look at the bottom of a check, you’ll find three separate series of numbers. Typically, your routing number in the bottom left corner, your individual bank account number the second cluster of digits, and the check number can be found to the right of the account number. However, there are times when these numbers can appear in a different order, such as on an official bank check.

All of the numbers featured on the bottom of the check are printed with magnetic ink character recognition (MICR), an electric ink that makes the digits more machine-readable and helps banks process checks more quickly. The ink can’t be faked or copied, offering enhanced security for the account holder and the bank.

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Routing Number vs. Bank Account Number

Now that you know which is the routing number on a check, consider that the routing and bank account numbers are two distinct things.

•   As noted earlier, the routing number identifies the financial institution responsible for the transaction and makes sure the money deposited or debited goes to the right place.

•   Your bank account number on the other hand, is a series of numbers used to pinpoint a specific savings, checking, or business account. It’s created especially for you and pertains only to your individual funds. If you have a checking and savings account with the same bank, each account will have its own separate number but the routing number for both will remain identical.

While routing numbers contain 9 digits, bank account numbers can have anywhere between 5 and 17 numbers. Generally though, account numbers are within the 8 to 12 digit range.

A routing number is safe to share and is available to the public. Your own bank account number is best to keep private whenever possible and only supplied to trusted sources. The combination of your personal account number with a bank’s routing number, can in some cases give someone direct access to your money.

What Are Routing Numbers Used For?

Routing numbers are necessary because in a financial transaction, these digits help banks identify each other. This is key in the event where you need to transfer money from one account to another. For example, if you send a loved one a check for their birthday, the routing number on the bottom of the check indicates the funds come from your particular bank and account.

You will find some instances when accessing your routing number will be necessary. Here’s some of those situations:

Setting Up Direct Deposit

Getting your earnings directly deposited into your bank account has pretty much made paper paychecks obsolete. In fact, one survey by the American Payroll Association found 93% of people use direct deposit as their method of getting paid.

If your employer gives you the option of receiving your pay via direct deposit, signing up should be pretty seamless. You’ll most likely fill out a form giving your company’s HR or payroll department your bank’s routing number along with your personal account number so they know exactly where to deposit your paycheck. Once you set up a direct deposit, come pay day, your money will automatically show up in your account. (Of course, make sure to use the digits for a current account vs. sending direct deposit to a closed account.)

Direct deposit isn’t only for paychecks. It can also be implemented for receiving Social Security and other government payments, annuities, travel and expense reimbursements, and 401(k) disbursements, among others.

Making a Wire Transfer

A wire transfer is a fast way of sending money electronically from one bank account to another. Some details to note:

•   These accounts can be domestic (between two U.S accounts) or between an international and a U.S. account. Wire transfers can be sent through your bank branch or online bank account. You can also choose to go with a wire service entity such as Western Union.

•   In order to send money via a wire transfer, you’ll need to provide the account you’re using to complete the transfer, the recipient’s bank name and routing number, plus their bank account number. Additionally, you may also need to provide your bank’s routing number and your individual bank account number.

•   Many banks charge a wire transfer fee for sending or even receiving one. An incoming fee may be around $15 and an outgoing one can trigger a charge of $25 on domestic transactions.

•   If it’s not an urgent matter, it will cost less to send money electronically through an Automated Clearing House (ACH) transfer. An ACH transaction uses an electronic network system that represents more than 10,000 financial institutions in the U.S. You may wonder what ACH transaction fees are like? They are typically free for bank clients, which is a nice benefit. The downside of an ACH is it can take a couple of days to process, whereas a wire transfer can be processed the same day .

Recommended: ACH vs. Check: What Are the Differences?

Paying a Bill Online

Making a bill payment online and scheduling automatic payments for your recurring monthly bills can make life a lot easier. In order to make online bill payments, whether you arrange for it to be automatically deducted or log on to the biller, such as a utility or credit card company, those bill payees will need both your financial institution’s routing number along with your individual account digits.

You can also pay businesses or people electronically directly from your bank account through apps such as Venmo and PayPal. When you sign up for these apps, you can choose where you want your payments to come from, or go to, if someone is sending you money. One choice is to link to your bank account, in which case, those apps will need your routing and account numbers.

Recommended: Changing the Due Dates of Your Bills: Is it Possible?

Filing Your Taxes

Getting or expecting a refund this year? Direct deposit for your tax refund is the fastest and most reliable way to get your money. And, it’s also popular. According to the IRS, 80% of taxpayers choose direct deposit as the method in which they get their refund. If you choose this option, you’ll need to enter your bank name, routing number, and the bank account digits where you want to receive your refund.

Make sure you verify you’ve put in the correct routing and bank account numbers on your federal and, if applicable, state return before you sign and submit it. If not, the IRS will send you a paper check instead.

Looking Up a Bank

Nowadays with so many banks offering enticing reasons to open an account, such as a signup bonus , low-interest rates, and low-to-no monthly fees, it’s possible to have a checking account with one bank and a savings account with another. In this case, you’ll have a routing number for each bank. You’ll need to know both if you want to transfer money between accounts, for example.

Thanks to the internet, you may find the other bank’s routing number simply by going on their website. Some may list it on the home page or elsewhere, like the FAQ section. You can also use a search engine to type in the name of the bank and “What is their routing number?” to try to find out the information.

Finding a Routing Number Without a Check

Don’t have a check handy? No problem. There are definitely other ways you can easily get your routing number. Here’s how:

Monthly Bank Statement

Banks and credit unions make a monthly statement available to customers either online or on paper that’s sent through the mail. When you have your statement, you should find the bank’s routing number along with your account number on the top of the first page.

If you can’t locate it, try logging on to the bank’s website and do a search for your routing number or explore your account details to find those digits.

Checking your monthly bank statement frequently is a good way to keep on top of your transactions. Review your statement regularly to check for any bank errors or fraudulent activity such as incorrect debits from an altered check or a continued recurring charge from a long-ago canceled subscription. If you discover any type of errors, contact your bank right away.

Mobile Banking App

Having 24/7 online access to your bank account makes finding your routing number possible from your couch. Many banks have a mobile app these days. While these apps tend to differ in setup and layout depending on your bank, you should be able to find your routing number through the app by looking up your account details.

You can also access your bank statement through the app and as previously mentioned, generally find your routing number that way.

Your Local Bank Branch

If all else fails and you can’t easily find your bank’s routing number, visit your nearby branch in person to get the information. Sometimes the bank will have the routing number posted in the lobby area so you can simply jot it down or take a photo of it with your phone. Asking a teller or bank officer directly if it’s not displayed.

Can’t make it to the bank or have an account at an online vs. traditional bank? Call their customer service number. A representative can typically give you the bank’s routing number over the phone.

Look It up Through the ABA

The American Bankers Association has a routing number lookup tool called the ABA Routing Number Lookup. This mechanism allows you to locate the routing number for your bank or credit union. One thing to know when using the ABA Routing Number Lookup, users are limited to no more than two lookups a day and to 10 lookups a month. You’ll also have to agree to terms for access and use of the ABA’s tool.

The Takeaway

Your bank’s routing number can be found at the bottom of your personal checks on the far left-hand side. If you don’t have a check at your fingertips, you may need to find your bank’s routing number another way. You might call your bank, get it from your bank statement, or find it through the bank’s mobile app.

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FAQ

Is the routing number always first on a check?

Typically, yes, the routing number is the first set of digits at the bottom left-hand area of a check. But in some cases, it can be switched up and appear after the account number, such as on a bank check.

Are routing numbers 8 or 9 digits?

Routing numbers are always 9 digits. Your individual bank account number typically falls between 8 and 12 digits, but it can be anywhere between 5 and 17 numbers, depending on your financial institution.

Which is the account number on a check?

The account number on a personal check is the group of numbers that appears on the bottom, normally sandwiched between the routing number on the left and the check number on the right.


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