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I am new to US banking. I want to make an online payment to a business with minimal fees, and my recipient gave me their routing number and account number. However, the "pay bills" functionality of my online bank portal only asks for the recipient's account number and address.

Why does it not ask for any bank information or routing number? Is it still safe to proceed without routing number, or will the payment end up at the wrong person then? And how can I fulfill my original task while preferably avoiding the expensive "wire transfer" option, given the information that I have?

To be more specific, I am with Chase Bank and the aforementioned feature is called "pay bills". (I cannot use the QuickPay with Zelle option since that one takes an email address or phone number only, which I don't have.)

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    One possible solution. Is there ANOTHER similar sounding option on your banks interface? More like "make online payment". "Bill Pay" is definitely a weird thing in US banks .. as indeed everything in US banks if you're from say Europe!!
    – Fattie
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:11
  • @Fattie The only possibly relevant options are (1) Pay bills (2) QuickPay with Zelle (3) Wire money.
    – aviator
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:39
  • OK, then Axiomatic's answer gives you ever detail of information! I would honestly recommend you simply send a cheque to the person. Welcome to USA banking :)
    – Fattie
    Nov 16 '20 at 20:45
  • When paying bills online, "account number" is your account number with that business i.e. the account number that appears at the top of your statement every month. Nov 17 '20 at 12:41
  • @LaconicDroid Shouldn't they know that number? At least, I am logged in at that point of time...
    – glglgl
    Nov 17 '20 at 13:38
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Normally, your bank's online bill pay will send a check to the physical address you enter (some high-volume recipients may be set up with the bank to get an electronic transfer). The account number in the online bill pay interface will end up on the Memo line of the check so that the recipient business knows which account to apply the payment to.

The only real downside of using online bill pay to send money to another person is that it takes a few days for the check to arrive and then the recipient has to deposit the check. Most banks have mobile apps that let you deposit a check electronically but some people would need to visit an ATM or a bank branch to deposit the check.

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    Why is letting the bank send a check free, while buying physical checks yourself costs money?
    – aviator
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:37
  • @aviator - Depends. I don't think my bank charges for basic checks (though I'm still using the ones I got ~20 years ago when I opened the account). Some banks make money on the float by debiting your account when they write the check. Having people set up automatic recurring payments also makes the banking relationship "stickier"-- people are less likely to change banks if they have to set up all their payments again. Nov 16 '20 at 15:49
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    "Normally, your bank's online bill pay will send a check to the physical address" Wow. Banking used to work like that in the 18th century. Anything that primitive would be unheard of in Europe. When I make online payments in the UK, the guaranteed transaction time is 2 hours. The usual transaction time is more like 2 minutes.
    – alephzero
    Nov 17 '20 at 1:51
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    @alephzero: The US ACH system is hilariously antiquated.
    – Kevin
    Nov 17 '20 at 2:54
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    @aviator: Because the scale at which it's done makes it ridiculously efficient. Nov 17 '20 at 18:09
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The bill pay feature at many banks is used to pay either a business or an individual.

If you are paying a business, the bank will usually ask for your account number with that business. For example, if you are paying an electric bill, the account number you're supposed to put there, is your account number with the power company. The bank will then include this information when they send the payment so that the power company can know what account to credit the payment to.

If you're paying an individual, then your bank will only ask for their name and address (and maybe their phone number). Then the bank will simply write a check made out to that person and mail it to the address you specified.

I think you're mistakenly working under the "pay a business" feature, when you should be working under the "pay an individual" feature of your bank's bill pay service; thus, the account number confusion.

If you want to pay your friend directly, then all you need is his name and address.

If you want to pay a bill for him, then you need the company the bill belongs to and your friend's account number on the bill. You will never need your friend's bank account nor routing number.

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  • To clarify, it is about paying a small business rather than a friend. Also, my bank does not give the option to distinguish between "pay a business" and "pay an individual".
    – aviator
    Nov 17 '20 at 3:47
  • @aviator If it is a small business, then it is not likely in the bank's database, so you'll have to treat it as an individual and use the business name and address for the bank to send them a check. If you can't find a way to do this with your bank, then you can still use PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, or any of the dozen peer-to-peer payment apps out there, all of which are free of charge. Nov 17 '20 at 14:13
  • "so you'll have to treat it as an individual". Maybe Chase's bill pay feature sucks (I'm a customer, and regularly use Chase Zelle, but use a 3rd party for bill pay), but that's what I've been doing for decades. Yes, decades. (My uncle was doing it in the 1980s through a Osborne luggable and 300 baud modem.) It's how I paid my private mortgage, for alarm service and now rent: the check gets mailed directly to my landlady each month.
    – RonJohn
    Nov 18 '20 at 3:09
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my recipient gave me their routing number and account number.

This is typical for ACH transfers between accounts that you own, or wire transfers to other people. (Note that wire transfers are usually pretty expensive.)

However, the "pay bills" functionality of my online bank portal only asks for the recipient's account number and address.

Look for a QuickPay or Zelle feature from your bank, or maybe PayPal or the Cash app. However, they only require an email address or mobile phone number. (If the recipient is also new to the US banking system, he may also have made that mistake.)

Why does it not ask for any bank information or routing number?

Probably because it has a database of major (and mid-sized) companies that use EDI (Electronic Data Interchange).

There should be a method for paying a person or company which does not have EDI. In that case, though, they'd just ask for the person's name and address to mail them a check.

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  • I am using Zelle which is where my problems arise in the first place. I updated my answer to clarify.
    – aviator
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:36
  • @aviator then get that person's phone number... :) Giving out routing and account numbers but not phone number seems very odd, and to be honest very suspicious.
    – RonJohn
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:39
  • I trust my recipient, so perhaps using the word "Zelle" is a mistake on their end. I suspect the other answer is correct because "Pay bill" does indeed mention a paper check.
    – aviator
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:44
  • @aviator but you don't need the other person's routing and account numbers to send them a check. The whole purpose of writing someone a check is that all you need is their name (and address if you want to mail it to them).
    – RonJohn
    Nov 16 '20 at 15:47
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    @RonJohn At one time, maybe still true, you could write a check to "Cash" or "Bearer" so you didn't even have to have a name, just a means by which to get them the paper check.
    – shoover
    Nov 17 '20 at 15:26
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As mentioned above, they do indeed have databases, though it might take a brave (careeless) payor to be willing to assume the payee just from name similarity. There ARE more similarities available to raise the confidence of success though: the first coming to mind being the account number structure of different businesses being different, often, so even though there might be six electric companies with names similar enough, the account number structure you give (say, 182-996-736-2-3 or ###-###-###-#-#) could make it pretty certain a particular one is right. Your location might be a good second "similarity" and your checkwriting history with the payor (if a bank) might well be a solid third. Lots of others one wagers too. And they might even immediately send a query to all concerned and base their payment on the replies. Though none of that might be helpful for a payment to a florist.

More importantly, it is a cheap way for them to seek business and this likely plays a role. As a business, we receive payments like this perhaps 10 times a month (manufacturer, so not doing 12,000 transactions a month like a video store might (have)). And EVERY single one of them contains a "Come, COME TO ME little one, come to me and gain all the (non-)benefits of using this same service!" And EVERY last one of them contains a "Come to our website and sign up to receive these payments via ACH which will certainly not arrive sooner like we want to imply as we simply won't send them until later... but will be hideously cheaper for us than these paper... things... you are getting now!"

EVERY single one, even after receiving a dozen already.

So yeah, might be a paper check the first time or two, but they work hard on shifting you to sending the required information so they can ACH it. Why do they not just ask the originator? Well, getting that kind of information presents a barrier to entry, eh? Even a mild one is still a barrier. And there's no interacting via ACH so there is no obtaining the payee as a (probably bigger) user of the service.

And the other big reason for desiring the payee as a customer is that many of these services, and ALL of them that work through a credit card in some way or another, try to sell you on a credit line to float the checks. For many the lack of actual benefit and high costs vs. their own paper checks or ACH's is not a problem if credit they cannot otherwise obtain, or only obtain after climbing significant barriers to entry with, say, banks, is offered along with it.

Those markets are why these services make it as easy as possible, and then even easier, even dangerous, for the low-level payee to engage them. Costs are still minimal compared to possible gains.

And not one of them would EVER have the least problem holding your money a week or two trying to resolve a payment difficulty, then simply "returning" it (i.e.: NOT returning it, but netting it from their draw for some upcoming batch... of course), leaving you holding the bag and having to explain your mortgage payment not arriving, with late fees now tacked on and so on.

Like someone said though, the ACH system is hilariously antiquated. Not that it is the active reason for anything here, but it certainly limits the supply of these service providers to predators.

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