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If you get a payment by check, you can cash it whether you have a bank account or not. The best long term solution is to get a checking account, either at a brick-and-mortar bank or with a bank that provides strong online checking accounts, but you can cash a check even without an account.
Here's what to know about the process.
» Skip ahead to see our top picks for free checking accounts
How to cash a check
Visit a location that likely will accept the check. If you have a bank or credit union account, visit your institution's branch or ATM. If you don't have an account, go to the bank that's listed on the check or to a major retailer.
Endorse the check. Just before cashing the check, sign the back with your name on the line with the X.
Have your ID or a debit card ready. If you're a bank customer, you generally deposit the check into your account and then withdraw cash after the check clears. You can deposit the check at an ATM or at a branch with your debit card. A teller might also ask for identification, such as a state-issued driver's license or other government ID. If you don't belong to a bank, you'll likely need to show a retail clerk or bank teller your ID. Then hand over the check and get cash.
» Does the check look suspicious? Here's a guide to spotting a fake check
How much it costs
Generally, banks let customers deposit or cash checks for free, but you might not get access to the full check amount immediately. If you don't have a bank account or need cash without delay, major retailers provide the service for a fee. Read more below on how the cost varies.
Where to cash a check
The bank or credit union that’s on the check: You should be able to cash a check at the financial institution of the person or company that wrote you the check. However, banks and credit unions are not required to cash checks from noncustomers. If they do, they often charge a fee, which can be a flat amount (such as $8) or a percentage of the check amount (such as 1%). Some banks might also require two forms of ID.
You should be able to cash a check at the bank that issued it, at major retailers, via a prepaid debit card or, at your own bank, if you have an account.”
Major retailers and grocery stores: Many large retail chains provide check-cashing services, generally for less than $10 per check. Walmart, for example, charges a $4 fee to cash checks up to $1,000 and $8 for anything larger. Kmart has an even cheaper service of cashing checks of up to a certain amount for $1 or less.
Retailer that can load cash onto prepaid debit cards: Prepaid debit cards let you deposit your check, add it to the card’s balance and withdraw cash. To do so, deposit the check either by using mobile check deposit through the card's mobile app, if available, or by visiting a major retailer such as 7-Eleven or Walmart that's part of a reload network. Then, withdraw cash either at that retailer location or an ATM.
There can be two fees total, one to load the check onto the card and another to get cash. Prepaid cards themselves often cost around $5, and there’s also usually a monthly service fee of about $5.
Where to avoid cashing a check
Payday lending store: For people who don't have a bank account, it can be hard to find a place that won’t charge a hefty fee for cashing a check. Payday lending stores, for example, charge up to 10% of the check value.
Payday lending stores charge a fee of up to 10% of the check value.”
For a $500 check, that’s a fee of $50.
Best long-term solution: Get a checking account
Your own bank or credit union is the best option for dealing with checks you receive. You generally deposit the check first and the full amount likely won't be immediately available to withdraw, but you’ll get access to it within one to two business days. This free and convenient service makes getting a checking account worthwhile.
Your own bank or credit union is your best option to deal with checks you receive since it likely won’t charge you a fee.”
If a financial institution has closed your checking account — for reasons such as unpaid overdrafts, for example — it may be hard to open a new account. That’s because you may have a record with ChexSystems, a company that tracks closed checking and savings accounts.
Some banks and credit unions will let you open a second chance checking account. These accounts may come with monthly fees, which can offset some of the money you save by avoiding the payday lender. But if you keep a second chance account in good standing for about a year, you may be able to upgrade to a free regular checking account, which will save more money in the long run.
Some of NerdWallet's favorite free checking accounts
Margarette Burnette is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @margarette.