Counter checks come into play when you have a checking account, you need to write a check (or checks), and you don’t have pre-printed checks available.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having and using these checks, as well as fees.
If you need to use them at any point, you’ll need to know all the details before you do.
What are Counter Checks (or Temporary Checks)?
Counter checks are temporary checks that will be provided by your bank branch in these common situations:
- when you first open a checking account
- when you're out of preprinted checks and need a personal check urgently
Essentially, these are generic checks that enable you to access your account to pay third parties.
If you’ve ever opened a new checking account, you probably know what counter checks are.
Since it normally takes a couple of weeks to get a supply of customized checks delivered to you, the bank will offer you a small supply of counter checks to make payments until they arrive.
Counter checks are legally negotiable instruments.
But while they look like ordinary checks to the untrained eye, they have certain characteristics that make them unique.
For example, they’ll have the basic format of any typical check. That will include blank spaces for the following:
- Check date
- Payee name
- Numeric amount of the check
- Written check amount
- Signature line
The bank will also typically have its routing number imprinted at the very bottom, left of the check, and will print your personal account number to the immediate right.
Both the routing number and personal account number will appear in a computerized form, easily recognizable and computer-readable by other banks.
You will fill in a counter check in the same the way that you will with a regular personal check, by completing each open line on the document.
Counter checks really have only one advantage, and that’s giving you use of checks before your regular supply arrives.
They’ll be needed in situations where a bill or a merchant requires being paid by check and must be paid before your regular checks arrive.
But the main disadvantage is much more significant. Many merchants and institutions don’t accept them.
Counter checks have a noticeably different look than regular checks. More to the point, they look temporary, because that’s what they are. And that’s what causes problems.
For example, the preprinted information presented on the check is minimal. They’re usually provided without your personal information – like your name and address – being printed on the check. You can ask your bank to print your name on the check, but it’ll still have a decidedly temporary look to it.
But perhaps most important, counter checks are not numbered. That can give the recipient the impression the account is either brand-new – and unproven – or even potentially fraudulent.
(This is also why you should never begin a new check sequence with the number 1. Instead, your first check should be numbered at 101, or some other number indicating the account has been in existence for a long time.)
Still another disadvantage is that some banks charge fees for counter checks.
As a warning:
Before writing or issuing a counter check, first verify with the payee to make sure it will be accepted.
If you mail a check to pay a bill, and it’s rejected by the recipient, you might be hit with late fees.
And if the payment is issued for a credit card or auto loan payment – or worse, a mortgage payment – the rejection and subsequent delay may result in a late payment appearing on your credit report.
Counter Check Fees at Top U.S. Banks
Most banks will charge you for a supply of regular, preprinted checks.
Some banks may provide the first (and limited) batch of checks free, then charge for subsequent orders.
And virtually all banks will charge extra for highly customized checks, such as those with specialized backgrounds, lettering, or information.
Pricing policies for counter checks vary by bank.
Some banks will give you a very small number of counter checks, maybe three to five, free of charge.
But many banks will charge a fee, especially if you need more than a very small supply. Fees typically run between $1 and $2 per check.
Counter Check Fees at Top U.S. Banks
|Bank||Counter check fee|
|Bank of America||Not available|
|Chase||$2 per page of 3 checks|
|Wells Fargo||$3 per page of 3 checks|
|Capital One||Not available|
|U.S. Bank||$2 per check|
|PNC Bank||$1.50 per check|
|TD Bank||Free (subject to availability)|
|SunTrust Bank||Not available|
|BB&T||$4 per 4 checks (minimum)|
|Fifth Third Bank||$1 per check|
Don't order too much
Be careful in estimating the number of counter checks you’ll need. If you order too many, you’ll pay for checks you’ll never use.
You’ll also need to factor in the possibility that certain payees won’t accept them.
If you order 20 counter checks for a $1.50 each, and you’re only able to use 10 of them – because payees won’t accept them – you’ll spend $30 paying for $15 worth of checks.
Alternatives to Counter Checks
We’ve already made the point that counter checks will not be accepted by all payees.
You’ll need to be prepared for that outcome, and ready to use alternative payment methods.
If a payee won’t accept your counter check, be ready to take advantage of any of the following alternatives:
A certified check is one in which the bank certifies the funds available to cover the amount the check is written for.
It provides an extra measure of assurance to the payee that the check won’t bounce. If the payee requires a check, but won’t accept counter checks, they’ll likely accept a certified check.
If the payee requires a check, but won’t accept counter checks, they’ll likely accept a certified check.
The major downside of certified checks is cost. For example, Bank of America charges $15 for a certified check.
You’ll definitely want to limit the number of these checks you need issue, particularly for small payments.
Also, be aware that you must go to the bank in person to have a certified check issued.
A cashier’s check is a check issued directly by the bank. Because it’s issued by the bank, the funds are guaranteed.
The check includes all information necessary, including the name of the payee, as well as all relevant financial information. It’s an official bank check, and highly likely to be accepted by any payee.
Much like certified checks, cashier’s checks also come with a fee.
For example, Citi charges a fee of $8 per cashier’s check. And once again, you will have to go to a bank branch to have a cashier’s check prepared.
Money orders are a common form of payment, most often used by people who don’t have bank relationships.
But if you’re in a situation where you only have counter checks, and a payee won’t accept them, money orders are an inexpensive alternative.
You can get them at banks, credit unions, pharmacies, Walmart, and certain grocery and convenience stores.
They’re typically available in denominations of up to $500 or $1,000. If the amount of your payment exceeds the threshold, you’ll need issue multiple money orders. In most cases, they’ll be accepted just like checks.
To pay for a money order, you’ll need to use either cash, or a credit or debit card.
A bank or credit union will accept funds directly from an account you have on deposit with them. But be aware that checks – especially counter checks – generally cannot be used to purchase money orders.
This is because money orders act like certified checks, in that the funds are guaranteed by the issuer.
Fortunately, money orders are one of the less expensive alternatives – often even cheaper than counter checks.
For example, the U.S. Post Office is one of the most common sources of money orders. They charge a fee of just $1.25 for money orders up to $500, and a $1.70 for those up to $1,000.
One limitation is that the post office does not accept credit cards in payment for money orders, because of the fee they will have to pay to the credit card issuer.
Apart from the U.S. Post Office, money orders can be purchased at other outlets for fees ranging from $1 to $5 each (banks and credit unions tend to be at the higher end).
Be aware that a large payment will require multiple money orders, raising the cost.
Online bill pay
If you open a checking account or have one already, it’ll almost certainly come with online banking. And most banks today offer online bill pay capability.
This is a unique payment method in which you enter the information relevant to a payment you need to make, very similar to completing a personal check.
Once you do, your bank will issue a check to the payee. It can be either an electronic check, or a paper check that the bank will mail out.
In addition to speed and convenience, the big advantage with online bill pay is that most banks offer it free of charge.
This can be a perfect way to pay recipients who require payment by check, but who won’t accept counter checks.
The reality is:
In this day and time of online banking and electronic payments, counter checks are not as important as they used to be.
But if you have recipients that require being paid by paper check, you’ll need to get at least a small supply, either when you first open a new account, or if you run out of preprinted checks.
But keep that number to an absolute minimum, and where recipients won’t accept counter checks, be ready to use any of the alternatives described in this report.