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Routing Number vs. Account Number: What’s the Difference?

Every bank-related financial transaction requires two critical pieces of information to identify customers: the routing number and the account number, both of which are assigned when you open an account.

You can find both of these on the bottom of paper checks, and these numbers are also needed when you do electronic bank transfers or wires online. Read on to see how these numbers differ from one another and how to use them.

Key Takeaways

  • Account and routing numbers work together to identify your account and ensure that your money ends up in the right place.
  • Financial institution routing numbers are known as RTNs (Routing Transit Numbers) or ABA (American Bankers Association) routing numbers.
  • Both numbers are required to complete many basic banking transactions.
  • The routing number indicates what bank your account is held in.
  • The account number is your unique identifier at that bank.

Routing Number vs. Account Number: An Overview

Whether you need to set up a direct deposit, such as your paycheck, or order checks online, you will need both your bank’s routing number and your account number for those transactions.

Account numbers are a lot like a customer ID or fingerprint specific to each account holder. Routing and account numbers are assigned to indicate precisely where funds in a transaction are coming from and going to.

Similarly, routing numbers identify each banking institution with a unique numerical ID. Any time you make an electronic funds transfer, for instance, the routing and account numbers must be provided to the relevant financial institutions.

Routing numbers are always nine digits long, and account numbers are usually between nine to 12 digits, although some may be longer.

Routing Number

The routing number (sometimes referred to as an ABA routing number, regarding the American Bankers Association) is a sequence of nine digits used by banks to identify specific financial institutions within the United States. This number proves that the bank is a federal- or state-chartered institution and maintains an account with the Federal Reserve. 

Once, ABA routing numbers were used with paper checks, and ACH routing numbers were associated with electronic transfers and withdrawals on accounts. However, most banks in the 21st century use one routing number for all transactions, electronic or paper.

Small banks generally possess just one routing number, while large multinational banks can have several different ones, usually based on the state in which you hold the account. Routing numbers are most commonly required when reordering checks, for payment of consumer bills, to establish a direct deposit (such as a paycheck), or for tax payments.

The routing numbers used for domestic and international wire transfers are not the same as those listed on your checks. However, they can easily be obtained online or by contacting your bank. 

Account Number

The account number works in conjunction with the routing number. While the routing number identifies the financial institution’s name, the account number—usually between eight and 12 digits—identifies your account. If you hold two accounts at the same bank, the routing numbers will, in most cases, be the same, but your account numbers will be different.

Anyone can locate a bank’s routing number, but your account number is unique to you, so it is important to guard it, just as you would your Social Security number or PIN code. 

When do I need my routing number? Your account and routing numbers are required for every conceivable banking transaction, whether within the bank where the account is held or between banking institutions.

Routing Number vs. Account Number Example

You should be able to find both your routing number and account number by logging into your online banking account. You can also find them on your checks. At the bottom of each check, you will see three groups of numbers: routing numbers (again, typically nine digits) appear as the first group, the account number generally comes second, and the third is the actual check number. Sometimes, however, such as on official bank checks, those numbers can appear in a different sequence.

This series of numbers is embedded with magnetic ink, known as your check’s MICR (Magnetic Ink Character Recognition) line. Pronounced “micker,” the magnetic ink enables each bank’s processing equipment to read and process the account information.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020 

If you don’t have a check handy and need to know your routing and account numbers, you can find them by logging into your bank’s website or app. When you get to your account, click on see the full account number, and it should show you the routing number as well. You can also call your bank and ask for the bank’s routing number over the phone. If you need your account number, you will most likely have to give them additional information to access it.

How Do I Find My Routing Number and Account Number?

You can find both sets of numbers in a few places, including on your checks, bank statement, on your mobile banking app, or the bank’s website. All routing numbers are printed at the left-hand bottom of your check and your checking account number will follow it.

Which Comes First, Account Number or Routing Number?

The routing number always appears first, followed by the account number. This is because a routing number is how a financial institution identifies itself and coupled with your banking account number it can be used to find your account.

Which Routing Number Do You Use for a Direct Deposit?

In order for you to receive money from a direct deposit, the person or institution making the deposit will need your bank’s routing number, along with your account number, in order for you to receive the funds.

Why Do I Have 2 Routing Numbers?

While no two banks will have the same routing number, it isn’t uncommon for large financial institutions to have many routing numbers, which are specific to the state or location where your account is held.

What Is an IBAN Number?

An IBAN is an international bank account number, a global standard for sending bank payments. It consists of 34 alphanumeric characters that identify the country, bank, branch, and account. North American, Australian, and Asian countries do not use the IBAN for domestic money transfers, and will only do so when sending a payment to a country that has adopted the IBAN.

The Bottom Line

If you are ever unsure which number is which, you can contact your banking institution and always remember to double-check both numbers whenever you provide them to another party. This will ensure a seamless transaction that avoids delays or associated bank charges stemming from the funds ending up in an incorrect account.

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