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by Chelsea Hoffer

An Inside Look at Photo Check Deposit

If you’ve ever deposited a check by snapping a photo with your phone, you may have wondered: “What happens next?” We love knowing what goes on behind the scenes; we thought you might, too.
Photo Check Hero

Photo Check Deposit is convenient, easy, and just a little bit mysterious. The power to move money from one bank account to another by simply taking a picture can seem like magic. Take a peek at the technical sleight-of-hand behind this process.

First, a little background

Well into the twenty-first century, banks were still processing check deposits by collecting the paper checks and shipping them to the paying bank. Of course, this was laborious, expensive, and slow.

When a federal regulation called Check 21 went into effect in 2004, banks gained the ability to process check images instead of the paper checks themselves. They could scan the check and create a legal copy (called a substitute check), which could be electronically sent to the paying bank.

Banks quickly realized that the first step (scanning the deposit) was something customers could do themselves. As smartphones became more sophisticated and ubiquitous, banks realized they were the perfect tool for scanning checks—making it possible to deposit a check without visiting the bank.

Deposits via smartphone first became available in 2009, and over the next few years, more and more banks started offering this feature. We released Photo Check Deposit in 2012 shortly after we welcomed our first customers.

What happens behind the scenes?

When you take a photo of a check with the Simple app, we use a specialized, patented scanning service to get the crucial information (like the check number, plus the account and routing number for the paying bank). This information is scanned automatically and we’re not able to manually edit it. Fun fact: because the scanning technology is patented, nearly every bank that offers photo deposits uses this service or something very similar.

Next, the information provided on the check is reviewed—everything from the payee name and date to image quality—to ensure we’re able to accept the deposit. If the check is accepted, the images are converted into a legal copy or “substitute check.” From here on out, the legal copy is processed just like any other check.

Successful scanning

Smartphones make excellent scanners, but they’re not quite as good at capturing checks as the specialized scanners that banks use. (We think it’s a fair trade off, though, given their versatility and portability.)

This means the photo of the check needs to be as clear and sharp as possible. If it’s just a little bit dark, fuzzy, or hard to read, we might not be able to correctly scan the information on the check and make an adequate legal copy. Pro tip: when you’re depositing a check, take the photo in clear, strong light on a contrasting, low-glare background.

Sometimes the check itself makes it hard to get an adequate image. This is rare, but if a check is formatted unusually or the routing or account numbers are obscured, it might not be a candidate for photo check deposit and we’ll ask you to mail it in.

Processing questions

Our customers sometimes ask, “If it’s processed just like a normal check, why are there some checks that can’t be deposited this way?”

This is a bit of a quandary. We’re not able to scan some checks (such as international checks) via photo due to the way they’re formatted. Another factor is that although checks are processed exactly like a normal check, there’s more risk if the checks are returned later.

That’s why most banks, including Simple, aren’t able to accept certain types of checks via Photo Check Deposit. If you ever find yourself with one of these checks, you can deposit it by mail. Or better yet—see if the person who gave it to you wants to test one of the specialized payment services that are seeking to replace checks outright.

Ready to give it a shot?

Hopefully, all this inside knowledge will give you a little extra appreciation and insight the next time you deposit a check. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a whirl! You can find step-by-step directions (and lots and lots of other details) in our support article.

Disclaimer: Hey! Welcome to our disclaimer. Here’s what you need to know to safely consume this blog post: Any outbound links in this post will take you away from Simple.com, to external sites in the wilds of the internet; neither Simple nor our partner banks, The Bancorp Bank and BBVA Compass, endorse any linked-to websites; and we didn’t pay/barter with/bribe anyone to appear in this post. And as much as we wish we could control the cost of things, any prices in this article are just estimates. Actual prices are up to retailers, manufacturers, and other people who’ve been granted magical powers over digits and dollar signs.