Wondering if a check might bounce is nerve-wracking, especially if you’re uncertain about the timing around bad checks and at what point they’ll likely impact your account balance.
It can take some time for a check to bounce. Financial institutions and merchants may not discover a check is bad right away — instead, they could learn during the check-clearing process that the check can’t be paid.
Whether you wrote a check that you’re afraid might bounce, or you’re depositing a check from someone else that could end up being bad, what should you expect? And how long does it take to find out if a check is returned for insufficient funds?
Here’s what you need to know.
- What happens when a check bounces?
- How long until a check bounces?
- How will I know if a check has bounced?
- What are the costs and consequences of a bounced check?
- What should I do about a bounced check?
- Next steps: How to avoid bouncing a check
What happens when a check bounces?
If a check bounces, the recipient doesn’t receive the amount of the check — and both parties (the payer and the recipient) might be charged a fee. We’ll talk more about fees in a second.
An accidental bounce might occur if you overestimate your account balance. It could also happen if you write a check against funds in your account that haven’t yet cleared. Sometimes, people wait a long time to deposit a check, and by the time it hits the bank the payer doesn’t have enough money to cover it.
Mistakes can happen and bouncing a check by accident isn’t uncommon. But writing bad checks intentionally is a crime.
How long until a check bounces?
There’s no definite answer to how long it takes for a bad check to bounce. But you can get an idea of the time frame by understanding how long it takes for your bank to process, or clear, the check.
Checks can be processed within just a few business days, so you could know whether a check bounces or not within a week or less.
Often banks make a portion of the check amount available as soon as the next business day, while the rest is put on hold until the check clears. This deposit hold time can vary by bank and account holder, and by the amount and type of check. For example, a bank may have a longer hold time for large deposits.
And your bank could decide to hold funds longer if you have a history of depositing bad checks, you’re redepositing a check that was already returned, or the bank believes your check might bounce. Your bank should disclose its hold policies and conditions in its funds availability policy.
Keep in mind that once a check clears, it isn’t necessarily “in the clear” forever, particularly in the case of check fraud. If a paying institution discovers a check is forged or fake, the payment could be reversed weeks later. If that happens, you can be liable to repay the bank for the full amount of the check as well as any fees it might charge for returned checks.
How will I know if a check has bounced?
Banks aren’t required to notify you when you bounce a check because of insufficient funds. That’s why it’s important to keep tabs on your account transaction history and balance.
If you made a rent payment or attempted to pay a service provider and received a notice from them that you still owe them money, that could be a sign your check has bounced. If you deposit a check, not seeing the check amount added to your checking account balance after several business days could alert you to a potential deposit return. And if you suspect a check you deposited bounced because of fraud, it’s important to contact your bank right away.
What are the costs and consequences of a bounced check?
If a check bounces, both the check writer and the check recipient might get charged a fee. Check fees that come into play should be outlined in your account agreement.
For example, Wells Fargo charges a $35 nonsufficient funds fee and a $12 fee for a deposit return. Navy Federal charges $29 for its NSF fee and $15 for a returned deposit.
There may also be additional costs from service providers, vendors and retailers who might charge their own fee if your payment bounces. Landlords and utility companies who receive bad checks from tenants or customers could even decide to accept only certified funds, money orders or cash for future payment. And, of course, you’ll still owe the amount of the payment you were trying to make.
Along with these fees and payment-related consequences, bouncing checks can have a long-term impact. If you repeatedly write bad checks, the bank could close your account.
Having a history of overdrafts and returned checks could also come back to haunt you. Just as blemishes on your credit history can affect your ability to get more credit, negative banking history could affect your ability to qualify for another bank account in the future.
If it’s determined you’re writing bad checks on purpose, you could face criminal charges.
What should I do about a bounced check?
If you made a mistake and think you might have bounced a check, or deposited a check you have reason to believe might be returned, you can take some steps to try to minimize the damage.
If you bounce a check
- Top off your checking account. Deposit enough funds in your account to cover the bounced check amount plus any fees, such as an insufficient funds fee. The check recipient could try to deposit the check again, so you want to make sure funds are there.
- Contact the check recipient. Give the person or company a heads up that you’re aware of the bounced check and let them know how you plan to fix the situation, whether it’s by writing another check or using a different payment method.
- Set up account alerts to help reduce the risk of the problem recurring. Some banks let you set up balance notification alerts, which could help you avoid bouncing another check because of a low account balance.
If you receive a bad check
- Contact the check writer. This might be an awkward conversation, but it’s necessary if they owe you money.
- Double-check your account balance. If your bank charges a returned deposit fee, ensure you have funds in your account to cover it.
- Take legal action. You might be able to sue the check writer for the amount of the bounced check and more — laws and requirements vary by state. Scheduling a consultation with an attorney to discuss what legal options you have might be worth considering if the amount of funds at stake is significant.
Next steps: How to avoid bouncing a check
It’s never fun to find out a check you wrote or a check you deposited has bounced. Here are tips to avoid writing and receiving bad checks.
- Write checks from your available balance only. Don’t confuse your available balance with your current balance. Your current balance might include funds that haven’t cleared yet. Writing a check against funds on hold could result in a bounced check. And keep track of your balance — including debit card payments and direct deposits — as closely as possible. Your bank may have an app or online tools to help you do this.
- Link your accounts. With your checking and savings accounts connected, you can make quick money transfers to cover payments when your account balance runs low. And some banks offer overdraft protection that links accounts to help reduce the risk that you’ll overdraw your account or write a check you can’t cover.
- Never write a check you can’t cover. If you’re in a financial bind, contact your creditor, landlord or service provider to explain the situation and request a payment arrangement.