The Difference Between a Routing Number and an Account Number

When you open an account with a bank, you are given a routing number and an account number, both of which are required for any financial transaction.

You'll need both of these when making an online bank transfer or wire payment, and you can find them on the back of paper checks. Continue reading to learn the meaning of these numbers and how they differ from one another.

  • To properly identify your account and direct funds to the correct location, financial institutions require both an account number and a routing number.
  • Routing transit numbers (RTNs) and American Bankers Association (ABA) routing numbers are used to send and receive money between banks.
  • Numerous routine banking operations cannot be completed without both numbers.
  • Your account's routing number will let the world know which bank is holding your money.
  • There is no other way for the bank to identify you other than by your account number.

Both the bank's routing number and your account number are required whenever you make a direct deposit (such as your paycheck) or order checks online.

Similar to a customer's ID or fingerprint, an account number is a unique identifier for each account holder. A transaction's origin and destination can be tracked with pinpoint accuracy thanks to the use of routing and account numbers.

Similarly, routing numbers serve as a numeric identifier for each individual financial institution. The routing and account numbers are required whenever an electronic funds transfer is made.

Account numbers are typically nine to twelve digits long, though they can be longer in some cases, while routing numbers always consist of nine digits.

Banks in the United States use a unique nine-digit identifier known as a routing number (or an ABA routing number, in reference to the American Bankers Association) to send and receive funds. A valid routing number from the Federal Reserve confirms that a bank is either federally or state-chartered and has an account there.  

When writing a check, an ABA routing number was used, while an ACH routing number was used for electronic transfers and withdrawals. These days, however, most banks only require one routing number for any kind of payment, be it digital or analog.

Most locally-based financial institutions have a single routing number, but large, internationally-focused banks may have several, typically delineated by the state where your account is located. For the most part, you'll need a routing number when you need to reorder checks, pay bills or set up direct deposit (for example, a paycheck or tax payments).

The numbers on the bottom of your checks and the ones used for domestic and international wire transfers are different. But you can get them without much trouble if you just go online or ask your bank.  

Both the account number and the routing number are required for transactions. A financial institution's routing number will identify the financial institution's name, while your account number will identify your specific account. The routing numbers for two accounts you have at the same bank will typically be the same, but the account numbers will be different.

Your account number is as personal and confidential as your Social Security number or ATM PIN, and you should treat it as such. Anyone can find the bank's routing number.  

When is my bank's routing number required? Both your account number and your bank's unique routing number are required for any and all financial dealings you may have, both within and outside of the institution holding your account.

Signing into your online banking account should yield both your routing number and account number. They're even on your paychecks! Every check has three sets of numbers printed on the bottom: the routing number (nine digits, as before), the account number, and the check number. The numbers can, however, appear in a different order on official bank checks.

Your check's MICR (Magnetic Ink Character Recognition) line consists of the following series of numbers printed in magnetic ink. Magnetic ink, also known as "micker," allows the respective banks' processing equipment to read and process the account information.

Photographed by Sabrina Jiang for Investopedia 2020

Your bank's website or mobile app will show you your routing and account numbers if you don't have a check on hand. If you go to your account and select "see the full account number," the routing number will be displayed alongside it. The routing number can also be obtained by calling the bank and requesting it. To obtain your account number, you may be asked for additional information.

Checks, bank statements, mobile banking apps, and the bank's website are all good places to look for both sets of numbers. Routing numbers are found at the bottom left of every check, and your account number is found directly below it.

When writing out a bank account number, the routing number comes first. Since a financial institution's routing number is uniquely associated with that institution, it can be used in conjunction with your banking account number to locate your account.

The person or organization making the direct deposit into your bank account will need both your bank's routing number and your account number in order for the money to be deposited into your account.

There is no such thing as two banks having the same routing number, but it is not uncommon for large financial institutions to have many routing numbers, each of which is unique to the state or region where your account is located.

International Bank Account Numbers (IBANs) are the de facto standard for making international wire transfers between banks. It is made up of 34 different characters that specify the country, bank, branch, and account. Most countries in North America, Australia, and Asia do not use the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) for domestic money transfers and will only use it when making an international payment to a country that has adopted the IBAN.

Always verify both numbers before providing them to another party, and if you're ever unsure which is which, your bank can help you out. Because of this, the transaction will go through without any hitches, and the money won't have to be moved around to the right account, which could incur additional fees from the bank.

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