Routing number vs. account number: How are they different?

Routing number vs account number: person using a phone

Do you need to send money to loved ones who live in the United States? Or maybe you just need to transfer money between your U.S. bank accounts?

In the United States, every bank account comes with two codes needed to make banking transactions. To move money between banks in the U.S., you need a routing number and an account number.

These two numbers serve different purposes, so it’s important to understand your routing number vs. account number. Learn how the two differ from each other, as well as how you can use them to make money transfers.

What is an account number?

Routing number vs account number: person pressing 0 on an ATM

An account number is a unique identifier for each bank account. A bank account number is similar to a phone number, and it isn’t shared by anyone else at your bank.

Every bank has its system for assigning account numbers. Some banks assign a seemingly random number to each customer account. Other banks might use a customer number with a hyphen for each account.

For example, a customer might have account 12345-1 for checking and 12345-2 for savings.

Account numbers are necessary for banking transactions because they identify the account involved in the transaction. Since each bank has potentially millions of customers and account numbers, you must specify an account number to successfully complete a transaction.

What is a routing number?

A routing number is a nine-digit number that identifies the bank involved in the transaction. Routing numbers are officially called ABA routing numbers. The American Bankers Association created routing numbers in 1910 to make check processing more secure.

Today, the ABA still manages routing number information for all banks in the United States.

Every bank has its own unique routing number. In a financial transaction, the bank will receive the funds through the routing number, look up the customer’s account number, and deposit money into the right account.

However, some banks have more than one routing number. This happens with big banks or when banks merge with another bank. Some banks might have different routing numbers for wire transfers and ACH transfers, too.

If you know your recipient’s routing number, you can determine which bank the transaction will go through. But without the account number, it’s impossible to specify which account the transaction is for, so you need both numbers to send or receive money.

Where can you find your account number and routing number?

Understanding How to Read a Personal Check

You can find both your account number and routing number in your checkbook at the bottom of your checks. Be sure not to confuse them with the check number.

The numbers at the bottom of a check from, left to right, are:

  • Routing number
  • Account number
  • Check number

The check number is usually also at the top of the check, so if you aren’t sure where the account number ends, you can:

  • Look to the top of the check to determine the check number.
  • See which numbers change. Each check has an individual check number, so you can look at two checks to see which number changes (the check number) and which ones stay the same (the routing and account number).

You can also find your account and routing numbers in your online banking portal. Each bank puts them in different places in your mobile banking app or online account. If you’re unsure where to find these numbers, simply search online or contact your bank’s customer service to find out.

How are these numbers used?

Originally, the ABA created routing and checking account numbers to process paper checks more easily. Thanks to routing and account numbers, banks can quickly determine which bank each check goes to and which customer account it applies to.

But aside from paper checks,  you can also use routing and account numbers for:

Even when you use your routing number and account number digitally, the transactions still go through because the numbers effectively replace a paper check.

In fact, many banks save time by converting checks into electronic payments instead of processing them by hand.

How many digits are in a routing number vs. account number?

Since the ABA governs routing numbers, they’re always nine digits long. This is helpful because it standardizes routing numbers across the U.S. banking industry.

As for account numbers, there is no standard format. Each bank or credit union chooses its own format, but the account number needs to be long enough for each account to have a unique number. Generally, most U.S. bank account numbers are eight to 17 digits long.

Do debit and credit cards have routing numbers?

A credit or debit card does not have a routing number like a checking account or savings account. They do have an account number, but it’s in a different format than a bank account number.

However, the credit card account number works similarly to the numbers on the bottom of your checks. The first part of a credit card number identifies the bank, and the second part identifies the customer.

Is it safe to give out your routing transit number or account number?

Person writing at home

Always guard your account information and keep it secure. If the wrong person has your routing or account number, they may be able to withdraw money from your account without your knowledge.

However, it’s generally safe to provide your full account number and routing number to pay bills online because the same information is on your paper checks.

If someone fraudulently withdraws money from your account, your financial institution has a legal obligation to reimburse you for unauthorized transactions. The reimbursement process depends on if it is a member FDIC bank or a credit union that falls under other agencies.

Some people prefer to use their bank’s online bill pay instead of giving out their account information. This can also make it easier to change your bill payments if you change banks. Sometimes it’s cheaper than mailing personal checks, too.

Do you need a routing or account number to use an ATM?

ATMs identify you by your debit card number. You don’t need to use a routing or account number at an ATM.

If an ATM asks for this information, call your bank to confirm before sharing your account number or routing number.

Can you transfer money using an account number and routing number?

You can’t do all types of money transfers just with your account number and routing number. The ACH network that allows these transfers is a system for American banks only. International transfers usually require another transfer method.

In addition, consumer bank accounts often limit you to only adding transfer accounts that are in your own name. You usually need to use another service to transfer money to other people.

The reason you can give businesses your account number and routing number is because they use commercial payment processors that don’t handle transactions between consumers.

If you need to send money internationally, Remitly is a good alternative to ACH transfers. Remitly is a digital money transfer service that enables customers to make person-to-person international money transfers with unparalleled peace of mind.

Routing number vs. account number: Both are essential for U.S. transfers

When it comes to routing numbers vs. account numbers, routing numbers identify the recipient’s bank, and account numbers specify an individual’s U.S. bank account. If you’re transferring money in the United States, you’ll likely need both of these numbers for the transaction to go through.

However, transferring money with routing and account numbers isn’t an option if you want to send money to your loved ones in another country.

Simplify how you send money to family with a convenient money transfer app like Remitly. Remitly makes international money transfers faster, easier, more transparent, and more affordable. Download the Remitly app to get started.

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