What is a money order and how does it work?

Money order: What it is & how it works

11.27.2023

When you make payments to another person, you have several options:

  • You can pay in cash, which works if you’re paying in person and, if needed, can get a receipt to prove you made the payment.
  • You can pay by check, which may be a good option if you have a checking account in good standing and trust the person or company you’re paying.
  • You can use digital payment options.
  • Finally, you can use money orders.

While money orders are similar to checks, there are circumstances when a money order may be safer to use than a check. Below we’ll cover more about what a money order is and how it works.

Key takeaways

  • Money orders can be safer and more secure than checks.
  • There are multiple locations to purchase and cash money orders.
  • You generally can purchase a money order for a nominal fee.

What is a money order?

A money order is a paper document, similar to personal checks in that the person paying identifies who the money order is payable to and sets the dollar amount. Unlike checks, you must purchase money orders with cash upfront, rather than have the funds come out of your checking account.

Typically, money orders are issued by a government or financial institution, including banks and credit unions. You can also purchase them at various participating locations:

  • Banks
  • Credit unions
  • United States postal offices
  • Grocery stores
  • Drug stores
  • Convenience stores

Often there is a limit to the dollar amount of a money order. For instance, the post office only issues money orders up to $1,000. If you need a higher amount than $1,000, you may need to purchase multiple money orders. Keep in mind, if you spend more than $3,000 in money orders in a single day, you may need to show ID and complete a form to prevent money laundering.

How do money orders work?

The first step to using a money order is to purchase one at a local location, such as a bank, post office or grocery store. You must purchase the money order in person and use cash or a debit card. The cost of the money order will be its face value, plus any applicable fees.

Some locations may require you to fill out a form that details who the money order is for and its dollar value, while others will simply ask you the dollar value of the money order. It’s critical that you request the exact dollar amount you want the money order for because it can't be changed once it's printed.

Once you receive the money, fill out all necessary parts and deliver it by hand or mail to the designated party. Be sure to keep the receipt for your money order in a safe place. You’ll need the information in this receipt, including the tracking number, to track, replace or cancel the money order. If you use a money order to pay a lender, the receipt serves as your proof of payment.

The payee has two options for cashing the money order. First, they can take it to the original issuer and request immediate cash back. Depending on the government or financial institution, the payee may incur a fee for instant cash. The payee also needs to show proof of identification, such as an official driver’s license or ID card. Secondly, the payee can deposit the money order into their account, just as with a check, and wait for the funds to clear.

How to fill out a money order

Filling out a money order is also similar to filling out a check, except the amount is already listed on the money order. Start by writing the recipient’s name in the “Pay to the order of” section. Next, you must sign your full legal name at the bottom of the money order. Some money orders also require you to include your complete address.

Many money orders also include a memo line, where you can put your account number if paying a bill or other relevant information. Don’t forget to also complete all sections on the receipt. This step can help you remember who the money order was for, which is particularly important if you’re obtaining multiple money orders.

What are the pros and cons of money orders?

There are several advantages and disadvantages of using money orders:

Pros:

  • They don’t reveal personal information. Money orders only include minimal personal data, such as your name and address. They can be beneficial if you need to pay someone but don’t want to expose your personal information, such as phone number, bank routing number or bank account number.
  • They can be cashed at local banks. The payee can cash a money order at a bank, just like they would a check. If you purchase the money order from the post office, the payee can cash it for free at any post office location. The payee only needs to provide proof of identification.  
  • They can be deposited into a bank account. The payee can also deposit money orders directly into their personal bank account with no additional fees.

Cons:

  • They're difficult to track. One of the main disadvantages of money orders is that they’re hard to track. Even with the money order’s receipt and tracking number, it can take weeks to determine if a money order has cleared yet. You may also incur a small fee for this service.
  • There may be fees for cashing money orders. The payee may incur transaction fees if they want to cash a money order for immediate cash versus depositing it into their bank account.
  • Fraudulent money orders. While money orders are legitimate forms of payment, it is possible to receive a fraudulent money order.1 Just as with a bad check, banks will take the money back out of your account if it’s found fraudulent. When accepting money orders, it’s important to do your due diligence to ensure it’s not fake.

Where can I cash a money order?

You can cash any money order at your personal bank or credit union. Some banks may require you to deposit the money order and wait until it clears for the funds to be available, while other banks may allow you to cash it immediately.

You can also cash a money order at the same government or financial institution it was issued. For example, if the money order was issued by ABC Bank, you can take it to your local ABC Bank branch and cash it. You may need to show your ID. Additionally, you may incur a transition fee if you don’t have an account with the bank.

If you purchase the money order through the United States Post Office, you can take it to any post office branch and cash it for free. If you purchase a Western Union money order, you may be able to cash a money order at another Western Union location. It’s important to note that not all Western Union locations offer this service.

Additionally, some retailers, grocery stores and convenience stores that sell money orders also cash them for a small fee. However, note that not all locations provide money order cashing services. It’s recommended to contact the store directly for more information.

How much does a money order cost?

The United States Post Office issues post office money orders. You can purchase and cash these money orders at any post office location. The U.S. Post Office charges $1.75 for money orders up to $500 and $2.40 for money orders between $500 and $1,000. For example, if you purchase a $200 money order, your total costs are $201.75, and if you purchase a $700 money order, your total costs are $702.40.2

What is a money order check and how much does it cost? You can purchase money order checks at participating banks, credit unions, grocery stores and convenience stores. Banks and credit unions tend to charge anywhere from $5 to $10 per money order or a 10% fee. If you have a premium account with the bank, it may waive this fee. Grocery and convenience stores can charge anywhere from $2 to $10 for each money order.

Do money orders expire?

Another advantage of money orders is that they never expire. No matter how long you hold the money order, you can still cash it. However, some government and financial institutions charge service fees for money orders older than 1 year.

Is a cashier’s check the same as a money order?

While money orders and cashier’s checks are similar, they are not the same. Financial institutions issue cashier’s checks in exchange for an upfront cash payment. Because the bank issues the cashier’s check against its own assets, this form of payment is considered safer and more secure than personal checks. Some lenders or sellers may require payment by cashier’s check versus a personal check to ensure it doesn’t bounce.  

Another difference between cashier’s checks and money orders is that cashier’s checks don’t have a $500 or $1,000 limit. For this reason, many people use cashier’s checks for bigger purchases and money orders are for smaller ones.

Money order FAQs

Why would you use a money order?

There are several reasons why you might want to use a money order, such as:

  • To send and receive money securely
  • To send money without having a checking account
  • To send money to a payee without revealing your personal information

Is a money order safer than a check?

Money orders can be safer than checks because they don’t include your personal banking information, such as the bank’s routing number and your bank account information.

Money orders can also be safer to receive. Because money orders are purchased upfront with cash, there is no risk of having it bounce after depositing. However, sometimes the payor can stop payment on a money order or report it as lost or stolen. Typically, this process takes up to 30 days, so if you cash a money order right away, you shouldn’t have any problems.  

The bottom line

While checks or online payments are still the most convenient option for making payments, there are certain circumstances where using a money order may be the right option. For instance, if you don’t have a checking account or want to share your personal banking information with the payee, using money orders may be the ideal option.

Before you purchase a money order, check rates in your local area to make sure you’re not paying too much. Most importantly, make sure you label each money order you purchase and keep the receipts in a secure location because these may be the only proof you have that you made the purchase.

 

 

1 Public Safety Canada, "Public Advisory: Special Report on COUNTERFEIT CHECKS AND MONEY ORDERS."

2 United States Postal Service, "Sending Money Orders."

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Glossary Label
Money order
Glossary Definition
A money order is a paper document, similar to personal checks in that the person paying identifies who the money order is payable to and sets the dollar amount. Unlike checks, you must purchase money orders with cash upfront, rather than have the funds come out of your checking account.

The Currency editors

Staff contributors

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