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What is a Safety Deposit Box?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 16, 2024
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A safety deposit box is a secure receptacle for storing valuables that is typically safeguarded in a safe or vault. Safety deposit boxes are commonly found in banks, post offices, hotels, and cruise ships. They are made of metal and are typically tamper-resistant and fireproof.

An institution offering safety deposit services charges a standard fee for the rental of the box. The renter is issued a key, which generally will only work in the box when it is used in conjunction with the institution's master key, thereby adding another level of security. Additional protective measures are common when trying to access a safety deposit box. These may include a signature from the box renter or authorized user or the utilization of a secret code.

There are two chief uses of a safety deposit box. First and foremost, they offer safe, trusted protection for personal items and important documents. Materials placed in safe deposit boxes are usually incredibly hard to replace, if not downright impossible. Secondly, safety deposit boxes provide a virtually impenetrable level of privacy. If someone wants to secret away a highly personal item, there is likely no better protection than a safety deposit box.

Although there is no standard list of things that must be kept in a safety deposit box, there are many items that could benefit from deposit protection. These include birth, death, and marriage certificates, last wills and testaments, Social Security cards, professional licenses, property and vehicle deeds, health records, and insurance paperwork. Safety deposit boxes also afford reliable security for valuable jewelry, rare coins, and other precious material articles. Items that could be necessary in an emergency situation — such as a power of attorney authorization or a passport — should not be kept in a safe deposit box as they may be needed after the hosting bank or institution has closed for the day.

When choosing a safety deposit box, a potential renter should make sure they are leasing the container from a reputable institution. These establishments include banks, credit unions, savings and loan organizations, and post offices. Safe deposit boxes housed in locations other than these require extra caution and more research on the part of the potential renter. Safety deposit boxes are nearly always stored in large vaults, so a possible renter should check out the security and setup of these vaults to ensure they meet his or her requirements. The best safety deposit box will be made of a sturdy metal that is fireproof, flood-proof, and resistant to tampering.

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Dec 12, 2014

@MrsPramm - Well, in the digital age you can store most things without worrying about never seeing the image. Fine art would still be better off displayed (and that's also because it needs to be properly cared for, not just put into a cheap deposit box and forgotten) but old photos and certificates and other things of that nature can be copied and the originals stored away for safe keeping.

I would look into getting a lock box, though, rather than a safety deposit box necessarily, as you can get very fancy lock boxes these days that are fire and flood proof and unlikely to be opened by the average criminal. It might be cheaper to just spend a lump sum on one of those, particularly if you have large items you want to store, or if you want to be able to get at them in a hurry.

By MrsPramm — On Dec 11, 2014

@pastanaga - As long as you aren't storing away things you could be enjoying. I don't particularly like the idea of people putting valuable art into a lock box indefinitely, for example, because I think it's a real shame to hide something that could be used to make the world more beautiful. That goes double for any photos that people might store. It might be a slight risk to keep them in a house, but there's no point in keeping them at all if no one ever sees them.

By pastanaga — On Dec 11, 2014

The thing is that there are a lot of things that simply cannot be replaced by insurance if they get stolen or lost in a fire or some other kind of disaster. It's always better to make sure you know exactly where they are and how to get to them and make sure that other people know it as well.

Certificates and photos and anything small that you are keeping as an investment are good examples of items to put in a safe deposit box, but you might also consider things like vaccination records or important receipts. It's not always a matter of making sure they aren't stolen, but just a matter of keeping them outside the house so that nothing can happen to them by accident.

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