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What is a Bank Identification Code?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bank code is an identification code made up of alpha or numeric characters which serves as an electronic address for a financial institution. The names and formulation of the codes can vary between countries. These codes make it possible to electronically transfer money from one institution to another.

In the United States, a bank code is a nine-digit number known as a routing transit number (RTN). The RTN is placed between colon (:) marks on the bottom left hand side of a check blank. The number which follows the RTN is the individual account number.

These designations were originally called ABA codes because they were assigned by the American Bankers Association (ABA). The ABA began assigning codes to all US banks in 1910, but that responsibility was later taken over by the

Federal Reserve

Banks. The first four numbers represent the Federal Reserve Bank branch for the area, the next four identifies the specific bank, and the last number tells what type of account is being used, such as a checking or savings account.

In Canada, banks use an eight-digit bank code called a Bank Transit Number (BTN). Other countries refer to a bank code as a sort code. The number of characters used by different countries varies, ranging from only four digits in Denmark to ten digits in Spain. In all cases, however, the code serves to identify the country and location of the institution where the funds are being held.

International bank code systems have been established to allow money transfers between banks from different countries. One of these is called the Bank Identifier Code (BIC). The BIC is an eight-letter designation identifying the bank, country and city, and are assigned by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT). Although the US has its own coding system, banks located there also have a SWIFT code which enables them to complete international money transfers.

The European Union’s committee for banking standards passed regulations requiring that, beginning in 2004, all financial institutions in member countries be assigned an additional bank code, called an International Bank Account Number (IBAN). The IBAN is an alphanumeric designation and can contain up to a maximum of 34 characters. These are governed by ISO 13616, a regulation issued by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The first two letters of the IBAN are the BIC country code, which are followed by a two-digit control key, the bank sort code and an account number.

In the United States, Canada and many other countries the bank code and account numbers must be printed on checks using magnetic ink and a Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) font. This type of print allows checks to be read electronically. In some regions, banks can face fines and other penalties for failure to use the proper ink and font on checks.

How To Identify a BIC or SWIFT Code

Technically speaking, SWIFT is the global communication system banks use to talk to each other. The alpha-numeric code used within that system is the BIC code. Bankers use the terms BIC and SWIFT interchangeably when talking about this code. These codes are either 8 or 11 digits in length. BIC or SWIFT codes adhere to the following format.

  • The first four digits represent an abbreviated version of the bank’s name. For example, the first four digits in Wells Fargo Bank’s BIC code are “WFBI.”
  • The next two digits are letters that designate the bank’s country. Since Wells Fargo Bank is in the United States, these digits are “US.” If the bank were in France, these digits would be “FR.” Chinese banks have a country code of “CN,” and so on.
  • The following two numbers are the bank’s location code. These numbers signify the location of the banking institution’s head office. They may be two numbers or a mix of numbers and letters. In the case of Wells Fargo Bank, these digits are “6S”.

An eight-digit code would end here, and the complete code would be WFBIUS6S. However, Wells Fargo uses an 11 digit code, which adds in the branch code. This part of the code may vary. These last three digits often refer to a bank’s main branch. In which case, the final three digits would be XXX. Thus, the entire 11 digit code for Wells Fargo WFBIUS6SXXX.

How To Find Bank Identification Code

There are multiple ways to find your bank’s BIC code. Perhaps the easiest is a simple internet search. Type your bank's name and “BIC code” or “SWIFT code” into a search engine. The code should be the first result you see. If you’re not confident that you’ve found the correct number, you can double-check it on a BIC or SWIFT code check website. These sites can confirm the codes for any bank worldwide.

You can also take a look at your bank records. You likely won’t find BIC or SWIFT codes listed at the top of your monthly statement. Instead, it may be hiding in the fine print of an official document related to your bank account. If you need assurance that you have the correct number, call your bank directly. They’ll be able to confirm the number for you quickly.

What Is a Bank Transit Code?

A bank transit code is different from the BIC or SWIFT number. It’s more widely known as the “bank routing number.” It is also known as the “ABA” number, which stands for “American Bankers Association.” This code is nine digits long and is traditionally used to cash checks. When you cash a check, your bank needs to know the origin of the funds. The code allows the bank to identify the originating banking institution. It also verifies the bank’s validity and provides a roadmap to the funds.

Why Do You Need To Know Your Routing Number?

You’ve likely had to search for your routing number before. It’s a commonly requested banking identification number, but it often confuses people. A routing number is required to make a payment directly from your checking account without a debit card. You can also use it to receive payments into your account. Think of it as the address to your checking account. You supply this number to anyone who needs to look up directions to your account. This number may be required to set up any of the following items.

  • You are setting up direct deposit with your employer.
  • You are creating an account with an online payment website.
  • You are linking money-saving apps directly to your bank account.
  • You open new savings accounts outside your banking institution, such as an HSA or college savings account.
  • You are transferring money electronically to friends and family.

How To Find a Bank Transit Code

The bank transit code is easy to find. If you have paper checks, this number is on the bottom left-hand corner of the check. You’ll also see other numbers noted on the check; read these from left to right. The bank transit code will be the first number listed. Your account number will be in the center. The check number will be on the right-hand side of the check.

If you’ve forgone paper checks and rely on electronic banking, don’t fret. You can still locate your routing number. Log in to your online bank account and find your account details. You’ll likely find the number listed on bank statements or the account details page. When in doubt, call the bank. They have all of this information at their fingertips.

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