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Financial Literacy

What is an Account Number?

Any time you transfer money into or out of an account, you’ll need to provide the account number, among other information. What is an account number? It’s the unique identifying string of numbers and/or letters that make the account identifiable. From checking and savings accounts, to brokerage and retirement accounts, every account has a number. Do you know yours?

Thanks to digital technology, most people don’t need to know their account numbers by heart. But you will need to know it when it comes time to initiate a transaction. The reason? Whoever facilitates the transaction needs to know where the money is coming from or going to. Your account number provides that destination for them. That number stays attached to the transaction record, so there’s always a paper trail. 

What is an Account Number

Distinguishing Account Information

It can be a little confusing to open up your account and look for the account number. This is because there are likely several numbers attached to your account:

  • Account number, which is its unique identifier (8-12 digits)
  • Routing number, which delineates the payment rail (9 digits)
  • Card number, if there’s a credit or debit card (15-16 digits)

Many people get confused by the account number vs. the routing number. While the two work in tandem to move money, they serve distinct purposes. The account number recognizes the source or destination of the transfer, while the routing number identifies the banking institution facilitating the transfer.

Where to Find Your Account Number

There are several places where you’re likely to find your account number if you need it. Here’s where to look for it:

  • In your digital account dashboard, usually in the “Account Information” section
  • On your monthly or quarterly account statement, near the top of the statement
  • In the paperwork you filed to open the account with a bank or brokerage service
  • Via phone with your bank or broker, usually after providing identifying information

If your account number isn’t as accessible as you need it to be, don’t worry. Most digital banking, payment and investment platforms have secure ways of storing this information so you don’t need to enter it every time. Do not write it down and leave it somewhere! Banking information is highly sensitive information, and wrongdoers can cause significant damage with only your account number. 

Account Number Fraud and Identity Theft

Financial account information walks a fine line between accessibility and security. We need these numbers for any transaction. Yet, they need to stay safe and secret to avoid fraud or identity theft. 

If thieves get ahold of your financial numbers, they can execute transactions with relative ease. All they need to do is process a transfer request from your account into theirs, or go to any bank and fill out a withdrawal form using your information. And while there are safeguards in place to prevent these crimes, no system is perfect. It’s best not to let vital account numbers and other information fall into the wrong hands. 

A smart way to protect your accounts beyond concealing their identifying information is to enable two-factor authentication. Most banking and investing institutions offer this layered level of security. Not only will you need your account information to process transactions, you’ll also need to verify them through a second mode of communication, such as via email, text message or voice authorization. 

The Rise of Fintech Accounts

When talking about account numbers, it’s important to mention the rise of fintech services that offer unique escrow-type accounts. Companies like Digit, Qapital, Acorns and others make it easy to set up an account and save automatically. But what’s not easy is finding the identifying information associated with these accounts. That information isn’t readily available, since they’re not meant for use like a traditional cash or investment account. Instead, the idea is that you’ll let the app transfer money in and leave it there to grow. 

Despite the struggle to find them, these accounts do have unique identifying numbers. Some of these services use a standard 8-12-digit number; others use procedurally generated strings. For example, your number may be “#5558390392583” or it could be something like “#60e48c6489ea8a4bfaeec84kgb2.” 

Moving money out of these accounts without using their interface is also extremely difficult, since the account numbers don’t always conform to American Banking Association (ABA) standards. Transfers in and out need to happen from within the app. While it’s a security feature, it can also be an inconvenience. 

Can You Change Account Numbers?

Account numbers are permanent, so there’s no way to obscure or hide the paper trail associated with their transactions. That said, another feature of the digital age is the ability to encrypt, mask and proxy these numbers. 

For example, many credit card companies offer online shopping safeguards that allow you to use a procedurally generated credit card number that links up to the account. In the event of a data breach, your real credit card or account number remains safe. Encryption is another technology that can safeguard these numbers. An encrypted account number like #12345678 may appear as #ABCDEFGH or even something like #3YK83&D4, to completely obscure the information. These methods offer staunch protection, so there’s no need to change them or open new accounts.

Account Numbers Are Extremely Important

What is an account number? As the unique identifier for your financial account, it’s the single most important piece of information associated with the security and functionality of your funds. You’ll need it to transfer money into and out of the account, and to claim it as yours. Thankfully, there are ways to keep these numbers both accessible and safe. Just make sure to monitor your account regularly, to ensure you haven’t been the victim of account number theft.

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