Digital payments are all the rave today, but physical payable instruments (i.e., checks and money orders) are still trusted payment methods for many Americans. However, there’s some confusion over how long it takes the funds to clear for the recipient (aka the payee). I tested deposit speeds of each one to find out the fastest way for you to send — or collect — payments in physical form.
This week, I deposited three different types of paper payments to see the actual time that it would take for them to clear (as in when the money actually transferred).
Quick answer: Cashier’s checks and money order cleared the fastest — within the next business day.
For this “experiment,” I used my personal check from Ally Bank, a money order from the United States Postal Service and a cashier’s check from Chase. Each one was for $100 and they were deposited into my editor’s account, who has a checking account with Chase.
Did you know? A cashier’s check guarantees the payable amount because the money is taken by the bank from the payer when the payer asks for a cashier’s check. Money orders also carry prepaid funds. Both are safer than personal checks, which can be considered as paper promises that someone has enough money in his or her account. You don’t really know until your bank verifies the personal check with the payer’s bank.
Before I get to the deposit times, I want to touch on the process of getting cashier’s checks, which turned out to be quite difficult if you’re not a customer of the bank.
When I tried to get a cashier’s check
The personal check was obviously the easiest payment method to obtain, while the USPS money order just required cash, plus a fee of $1.25 (they also accept debit card payments for money orders, but no credit cards).
For the sake of this experiment, I wanted to purchase the cashier’s check from a bank that wasn’t Chase, since my editor also had a Chase account. We figured that if the cashier’s check came from a non-Chase bank, we could find out how quickly or slowly the check would clear. Therefore, I went to the Santander Bank, close to the MyBankTracker office in DUMBO, but the teller told me she could only provide a cashier’s check to customers with accounts.
Then, I made a short trip to Popular Community Bank, where the teller repeated a similar policy of not giving cashier’s checks to non-customers.
I took one final try at a Bank of America® branch in Manhattan. I asked for the same thing to the associate that greeted me. With an apologetic smirk, he told me that I had to have a Bank of America® account to get a cashier’s check because the bank needed to be able to track the funds. I left after he gave me the pitch to open an account.
Having come to terms that I could only get a cashier’s check at my own bank, I went to Chase to buy it. I just swiped my debit card at the teller window and gave her the payee’s name (required). After charging me an $8 cashier’s check fee, I finally had the check in my hand.
Lesson: Stick with your own bank if you ever need a cashier’s check.
Here’s what was deposited into editors’s account at 4:30 p.m. ET on a Tuesday afternoon (the deposit cut-off time is the branch closing time):
How quickly deposits were available
Almost immediately after depositing the funds, editor logged into her online account to find that $200 from the USPS money order and Chase cashier’s check was already available for withdrawal. Meanwhile, the $100 from the Ally personal check was unavailable.
Tip: When there are transactions that haven’t been processed completely, you’ll often see a “pending balance,” which is different from your “available balance” (the actual amount of cash that you can withdraw).
At around 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, editor found that the entire $300 was available for withdrawal. However, my Ally account activity did not even indicate that a $100 check was deposited.
editor had access to that $100 because of Chase’s fund availability policy, which stipulates that up to $200 of a check may be available on the next business day. Essentially, Chase is fronting that portion of the check deposit while it waits for the funds to clear with Ally. Since the check was less than $200, Chase made the full amount available to her.
The funds from the Ally personal check cleared my account Thursday night, so I would say that it took two business days for the check deposit to clear.
Faster and safer deposits cost more
The cashier’s check and money order cleared the fastest — the money was immediately available since both of them are considered guaranteed funds.
But, as you can see, I had to pay fees to offer these fast and secure forms of payment. Given that the cashier’s check and money order cleared equally as fast, you might wonder why anyone would use cashier’s checks — remember I paid $8, while the fee for the money order was $1.25. The reason is because there limits for money orders. The USPS only sells money orders for a maximum amount of $1,000, while cashier’s checks have no maximum (your account balance is your limit).
Regardless of the limits, the speed of the deposit is often a secondary thought when it comes to why people prefer cashier’s checks and money orders. It’s more about getting paid.
If I was ever skeptical about a payer’s financial credibility, I would ask for a cashier’s check or money order every time. As for which one makes me feel safer — cashier’s check by just a little bit because it is guaranteed by the bank, but a money order is still cheaper. It’s also safer than a personal check.
Why check deposits might take longer to clear
While my experience with cashier’s checks came without flaws, the comments from our check clearing story at the top 10 banks in the U.S. serve as proof that there are times when these check deposits do not go as smoothly as anticipated. Unhappy commenters complained about long hold times of five to seven days or longer, but they also deposited very large amounts ($50,000), which can complicate the process.
So to get to the bottom of it, I asked a Chase banker whether the check deposit amount has an effect on how long it takes to clear.
The Chase rep informed me that the speed of the check deposit (applies to any type of check and includes money orders) can vary based on the relationship a customer has with Chase. A customer’s account balance is also factored in. For example, if I had a $10,000 balance and made a $1,000 check deposit, the funds would likely clear the next business day. If I had a $1 balance and made a $10,000 check deposit, Chase is probably going to put a hold on it (for up to 10 business days).
As I walked by another bank, First American International Bank, I grabbed a deposit slip with a “Notice of Hold” explanation that pretty much echoes the policy at Chase:
If you ever have a check that is taking longer to clear, ask your bank why it is being held for so long. It might be due to any of those reasons mentioned above, or it might be because the check is fake.
Counterfeit cashier’s checks and scams
As a regular eBay user, I’ve heard many stories about people receiving counterfeit cashier’s check and money orders. They ship out their goods with the feeling that the payment is good, only to discover later that the bank found the check or money order to be fake. So, if you are collecting a payment with either method, here are some ways to protect yourself:
Never accept more money than requested
It is common for a scammer to put a larger amount than necessary on a check or money order. The thief might use this to manipulate you into shipping the item out quickly or may ask you to refund the difference immediately. So, you ship the item out or refund the money, but later discover the check or money order was fake.
Bring a cashier’s check to a bank branch
Go to the payer’s bank and ask the teller to verify that legitimacy of a cashier’s check. Once you get a confirmation that the check is authentic, you can proceed to deposit it.
Wait longer for the funds to clear
Having to wait longer (up to two weeks) seems like it will defeat the purpose a cashier’s check, but if the check is for a large amount, it’s better to play it safe and wait it out to be sure that your bank knows the cashier’s check or money order is real.