What Is the Difference Between a Debit Card & Writing a Check?

Before you swipe, make sure you know how debit cards and checks work.
Before you swipe, make sure you know how debit cards and checks work. (Image: Derek E. Rothchild/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

The difference between using a debit card and writing a check often comes down to the ease of use and the risks involved. Both are convenient for making purchases, but they are very different in terms of how secure they are and how you can use them. Many checking account holders keep both, deciding which to use based on the type of transaction.

Checks Require More Time

Purchases made on a debit card are deducted from your checking account almost immediately, usually the same day. Just as with a credit card, the transaction is processed in real time. A check, on the other hand, may take two to three days to clear your account. Checks also take longer at the point of sale than debit cards, which require only swiping the card just as you would a credit card, and entering your personal identification number, or PIN. A check, however, must often be approved electronically or by a store manager, which takes more time.

Debit Cards are More Portable

One advantage many consumers see with a debit card is the ease of use. Checks are larger and take up more room in a wallet or purse, while a debit card can even be tucked into a pocket for convenience. Also, a debit card is reusable and does away with the worry about running out of checks.

Debit Cards Have More Restrictions

Banks often place tighter restrictions on how debit cards can be used to reduce the chance of unauthorized or fraudulent use. They may set a limit on the amount you can charge per transaction or on the number of times you can use the card in a day. With checks, however, you usually have no cap on the amount per check or the number of checks per day.

Debit Cards Have Extra Security Features

Debit cards offer some security advantages checks don't. A paper check includes more of a person's private information than a debit card does. Anyone with access to one of your checks, for example, can find out your bank account number, the bank's routing number and your address, phone number and sometimes Social Security or driver's license number. They can potentially use this information to make unauthorized purchases or even steal your identity. A debit card has its own account number, though, and usually doesn't have the bank account number on it. Anyone who steals it could still use it but wouldn't have access to the cardholder's other personal information.

Debit Cards Give Cardholders Less Control Over Charges

With checks, you always know exactly what you've been charged for each transaction, and only you, not the merchant, can access your account. With a debit card, though, the merchant may be able to make additional charges to your card. The Federal Trade Commission calls this "blocking" and uses hotel stays and car rentals as an example. For instance, if you check in to a hotel or rent a car for five days, the merchant may estimate that total cost of your stay or usage, and contact the bank to place a hold on that amount -- even before you've completed your hotel stay or rental car usage. Often, cardholders don't realize this has happened, which could lead to overdrawing their bank account.

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