Although credit and debit cards are a popular way for many people to pay for services and goods, knowing how to draw funds from your bank account the old-fashioned way is still an essential skill. Knowing the parts of a check and how to fill them out is relatively straightforward once you know the anatomy of a check. In essence, paper checks are a written promise from a customer to a vendor that assures payment from a designated bank account; writing checks for money that isn’t in your account is a blunder that can seriously damage your credit rating and financial credibility for years to come.

Personal Information, Date and Check Number

Located in the top left corner of the check is your personal information, usually consisting of your full name and mailing address. Opposing the personal information on the right side is the date line for the date the check is written — be warned, though, that so-called “post dating” of checks, or forward dating the check, is no promise that the recipient will wait to cash the check. In the far upper right-hand corner is the check number, which helps you keep track of where in your check sequence you are. Next to the check number or just below it is the bank’s identifier number, usually a hyphenated fraction in small print.

Payee Line, Amount Box and Amount Line

Below the address field is the payee line, preceded by small print that reads “Pay to the Order Of” followed by a long, blank line. This is where you’ll need to write the name of the business or person to be paid. At the end of the payee line is the amount box to fill in the dollars and cents for the amount to be paid. Below the payee line is the amount line, where you will write out the dollar amount of the check in words, followed by the cents represented as a fraction of 100. For example, a check written for $261.56 would be written out on the amount line as “Two hundred sixty-one dollars and 56/100.” At the end of the amount line or nearby is usually a tiny padlock, which indicates that the check’s security features are described in detail on the reverse of the check.

Memo and Signature Lines

Below the amount line is usually a logo with the bank’s name, and below that, the memo line. It can be left blank. Common items to include on the memo line are the account or invoice number for the bill being paid, or a personal note to the check’s recipient; this information is not processed or used by the bank. To the right of the memo is the signature line, where you should sign your name as you would any other official document.

Transit Routing and Account Numbers

The antiquated block numbers at the bottom are the check's most important feature, as they identify the check writer’s bank and account number. These numbers are printed with special magnetic ink used for automated financial document processing. The first sequence of numbers is the transit routing number, or bank's identifying number, and should match the fraction on the top right of the check. To the right of the transit routing number is the check number, followed by the checking account number from which funds will be drawn. The order of these numbers may vary depending on the issuing bank, but all three are always present at the bottom of the check.

Reverse Side of Check

On the back of the check is the area for the check’s recipient to endorse, or sign, the check to be cashed. Personal signatures go at the top, and financial institutions generally stamp the area just below that when the check is cashed. At the bottom is a box with the details of security features built into the check to reduce fraud and forgery. One such feature is microprint of the signature line. Instead of a solid line, it is actually a string of tiny print that is difficult to read without help. Squint closely with a magnifying glass and you might be able to guess that the line consists of “Authorized Signature” printed closely together over and over. Photocopying causes this line to become blurred. Fraudulent photocopying also usually reveals “void” messages elsewhere on the check that is not evident on the original document.