Check routing numbers and account numbers have important banking roles but serve vastly different functions. These numbers together have made banking easier, allowing consumers to easily care for funds, and merchants to ensure payment for goods and services. These two numbers identify your account from others and direct funds to and from your banking institution.
Read More: How to Verify a Bank Routing Number
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They're Identification Numbers
Your account number lets your bank know which customer owns the account tied to a checking account transaction (it identifies you). The routing number lets banks know where the account was opened (it identified the bank).
Industry standards have made quick identification of the routing number and account number possible by examining the bottom of a normal bank check. In the United States, a routing number is nine digits long and is on the bottom left of the draft.
Although standards differ between regions of the world, banking systems have become uniform so that routing and bank account numbers are easily identifiable in a similar manner, regardless of country. Account numbers vary in length between institutions, but in the United States is the second number on the bottom of the check.
A routing number directs the flow of funds to or from a bank. In the United States this uniform code helps the Federal Reserve and Automated Clearing House, often called ACH, determine where to request or send funds. Inside the bank, an account number directs the institution to the appropriate account to deposit or withdraw funds. In automatic billing or deposit arrangements, the account number allows third parties to request or deposit funds from a specific account and the routing number to easily find the correct institution.
Read More: How to Find a Routing Number Without a Check
The History of These Numbers
Routing numbers were developed by the American Bankers Association in 1910 and have evolved over time to accommodate many advances in banking, such as automated clearinghouses and online banking. Checking accounts have been around since ancient times. The modern "cheque" comes from the Arabic "saqq," which was a written vow to pay for goods, to avoid carrying cash in dangerous areas.
Accuity Solutions creates and assigns routing transit numbers to new institutions, ensuring each separate banking entity is easily identifiable against others. In 1911 Accuity became the official Registrar of ABA Routing numbers, ensuring that any ABA routing number would remain unique for each institution. Individual banks assign account numbers to individuals, businesses or groups through new account opening operations which vary between institutions.
Read More: What Is a Wire Routing Number?
Things to Look For
If you look at your account number (the second string of numbers on your paper check), you might notice that this string looks like it has 16 digits. You'll notice that there are separation marks (non-digits) between the first 12 numbers and the last four. The last four digits are the number of the check you're looking at.
If you flip over to the next check, you'll notice the last four digits are one higher. If you look at the top, right-hand side of your check, you'll see your check number, which will match those last four digits on the bottom right.
Do not give this number to a bank rep or enter it into an online check form unless you see a separate box asking for the check number.
Routing numbers feature a check digit at the end of the string of numbers to verify the integrity of the routing so funds aren't directed elsewhere. However, bank account numbers have been easily manipulated over the years to allow criminals to fool merchants into phony transactions.
Many merchants now use bank account verification services or electronic check conversion to verify the status of accounts before entering into customer agreements. With the rise of credit and debit cards, some merchants have stopped accepting checks altogether to avoid relying on written bank account information.