A checking account is a service provided by financial institutions (banks, savings and loans, credit unions, etc.) which allows individuals and businesses to deposit money and withdraw funds from a federally-protected account. The terms of this type of account may vary from bank to bank, but in general, the holder of such an account can use personal checks in place of cash to pay debts. He or she can also use electronic debit cards or ATM cards to access individual accounts or make cash withdrawals.
Virtually every bank offers some form of checking account service for their customers. Some may require a minimal initial deposit before establishing a new account, along with proof of identification and address. A student or other low-income applicant may opt for a no-frills account which does not charge fees for the use of personal checks and other services. Others may benefit from interest payments by maintaining a high minimum balance each month. Some states are required by law to provide a lifeline option for senior citizens and low-income customers. This type of account waives many of the fees banks may charge, such as monthly service fees for low balances and surcharges for ATM usage.
A typical checking account is handled through careful posting of deposits and withdrawals. The account holder has a supply of official checks which contain all of the essential routing and mailing information. When a check is filled out correctly, the recipient treats it the same as cash and completes the transaction. After this check has been deposited into the recipient's own bank account, a bank worker files the check electronically and the check writer's bank receives the canceled check and amount to be debited (withdrawn) from the check writer's account. This process continues for every check written against an individual account.
Owners of a checking account are ultimately responsible for keeping track of their available funds, even though the bank will routinely issue its own accounting statements. Checks must represent an actual amount of money contained in the account itself. If a check is written for an amount higher than the available balance, the check writer faces numerous fees and possible legal action. The recipient of the bad check can demand immediate cash payment for the original debt as well as a substantial fee for the returned check. Some banks will protect account holders by making the proper payments and notifying the check writer that an overdraft has taken place. Most often the bank will recoup their losses through substantial service charges, so it pays to avoid writing checks when the balance is unknown.
Most banks have several different methods which allow checking account customers to check their balances and reconcile their records. Printed monthly statements of debits and credits (deposits) are mailed to individual account holders. ATM machines offer an option to check the current balance, while online or phone-in accounts can provide real time updates on which checks have been processed and which are still outstanding. This information can be compared with the entries recorded in a journal called a check register.