Differences Between a Checking Account Number & a Routing Number

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All checking accounts have two important numbers assigned to them, a bank account number and a routing number. Both are important for certain types of money transfers, such as direct deposits or wire transfers. You'll need to know these numbers and provide them to the government or your employer if you want to get paid via direct deposit, receive a tax refund or transfer money.

What Is a Routing Number?

A routing number is a unique nine-digit identifying number assigned to a particular bank. You can think of a routing number as being something like a bank's "address," but instead of being a street address, it's an "address" for electronic transfers of money.

Larger banks, such as U.S. Bank, may have multiple routing numbers, with each number assigned to a particular region. For example, U.S. Bank has one routing number for its Northern California locations and a different one for its locations in Southern California, in addition to unique routing numbers in other states.

What Is an Account Number?

Each account opened at a particular bank has its own account number. This is a record-keeping measure to keep all accounts distinct from one another. If you open multiple accounts, even at the same bank, each one will have its own account number.

Knowing Your Bank Account Number

When you open your account, your bank will assign you a specific account number. You'll receive it either in person, via the mail or both. If you ever forget it, you don't have to undergo a bank account number search – simply look at your checkbook, where you'll always find it on your checks.

Finding Account and Routing Numbers

The easiest place to find account and routing numbers is in your checkbook. At the bottom of your check, there's a list of numbers that may seem incomprehensible at first glance. Actually, they are your routing and account numbers. The first nine numbers at the bottom left of your check are your bank's routing number. After the break, the next numbers are your specific account number.

Routing numbers are always nine digits, while account numbers can be any length, determined by the issuing bank. Oftentimes, they are 10 or 12 digits long.

If you run out of checks, you can also find your account and routing numbers on your deposit slips.

Use for Direct Deposit

For the average American, the most important reason to know routing and account numbers is to make getting paid easier. To sign up for direct deposit, you'll have to provide your employer with both your bank's routing number and your account number.

The routing number is the first step in the transfer process. It takes your incoming payment and routes it to the proper bank. Once it arrives at your bank, it's further distributed to the proper account number.

If you provide the wrong routing number, your payment may head to the right bank but in the wrong region, or it might get sent to the wrong bank altogether. A wrong account number will cause similar problems, with your payment potentially being deposited into someone else's account.

There are security measures to help prevent this from happening, of course. If the provided routing number doesn't match the name of the bank, it should raise a red flag. Similarly, if the provided account number doesn't match your name, the bank's security measures should block it from being deposited.

Use for Tax Refunds

Another important reason to know your routing and account numbers is so you can have your federal and state tax refunds directly deposited into your bank account, if applicable. You'll need to enter these numbers directly on your tax returns to receive an electronic deposit of your refund(s).

Use for Bank Transfers

Another time you'll need your routing and account numbers is if you want to make an electronic transfer of funds. For example, if you want to transfer funds between Chase Bank and an external bank, you'll need your bank's routing and account numbers to verify the account during setup.

What's an ABA Number?

A routing number can also be referred to as an ABA number. In this instance, ABA simply stands for the American Bankers Association, which is the institution that issues routing numbers.

Finding a Wells Fargo Routing Number

To help understand how routing numbers can vary, here's a look at the process to find a Wells Fargo routing number via the bank's website.

Step 1: Visit the Customer Service Section of the Wells Fargo Website

This will lead you to the routing number questionnaire.

Step 2: Choose Whether You're Looking for the Routing Number or the Account Number

Your selection here will bring up different results, depending on which you choose.

Step 3: Choose Whether You're Using This Information to Receive a Wire Transfer

A wire transfer routing number may be different from a direct deposit routing number.

Step 4: Select the Account Type

You can choose from varying account types, such as checking, savings or a line of credit, each of which may have a different routing number.

Step 5: Select the State You're In

Each state may have a different routing number.

Once you've made your way through the questionnaire, your Wells Fargo routing number will appear at the bottom. For example, if you're looking for the routing number of a California-based checking account for a direct deposit, your routing number is 121042882. If you're receiving a U.S.-based wire transfer into an account in any state, your routing number is 121000248.

Routing vs. Account Number

At the end of the day, bank routing and checking account numbers both serve to direct money to where it is supposed to go. A routing number is a bank identification number, while a checking account number is a specific address within a particular bank. Both of these numbers will appear at the bottom of your check, because both provide critical information for directing money.

Although it may seem like magic when your paycheck automatically goes from your employer to your specific bank account, it's actually a well-defined process. Think of it like driving a car. Your money can't leave your employer's garage until it knows what road to get on, which is your bank's routing number. Then, once it begins its drive, it won't know which garage to park in until it has a street address, which is your specific checking account number.

Thus, both your routing number and your checking account number are key pieces in the puzzle when it comes to getting paid electronically. Just remember that if you change banks, change states or open new accounts, you'll likely be assigned new routing and account numbers.

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