When I first started working, I had just moved from Pittsburgh to Baltimore and was without a local bank. I had a bank account, it was just for a local Pittsburgh bank (and a credit union back home in New York) and so when I learned that my first check was going to be paper, I needed a solution.
For me, the simplest solution presented itself in the cafeteria of my new workplace – my company, Northrop Grumman, had it’s own credit union and so I opened an account there. Nowadays, if you have an online savings account  with the likes of Ally Bank or ING Direct (now CapitalOne360), you can deposit the check with your phone (assuming it’s not over $3,000). Back then, you actually had to find an ATM or a teller!
So what if you don’t have a bank account or you can’t or don’t want to open a new bank account? We have some options.
The Issuing Bank
Banks will almost always cash their own checks so look for the issuer, usually identified somewhere on the check, and find a local branch where you can cash it. Some banks will charge you a fee to cash a check if you don’t have an account there, it’s in part to persuade you to open an account and also to cover the costs of doing so (time of the teller, use of the cash, etc.). TD Bank made news last year when they imposed a $5 check cashing fee for non-customers but they’re hardly alone, many banks charge anywhere from $5-$10 and some charge a percentage of the check itself.
Lots of people hate Wal-Mart but if you have a check and want to cash it, they offer a great low cost option  if your check is under $7500. For checks up to and including $1000, there is a maximum $3 fee and for those up to and including $7500, there’s a $6 fee. That’s it. You can get cash or a Walmart MoneyCard, though I can’t imagine why cash isn’t the best option here.
There are limits, you can’t cash personal checks at Wal-Mart. They accept payroll checks, government checks, tax checks, and any Walmart issued MoneyGram money orders.
Check Cashing Store
Check cashing places have a terrible reputation but they’re not always awful, especially in states with increased regulation. The types of checks they’ll accept will be broader though, as many will take checks from unions, lawyers, small businesses, insurance settlements, and the like. They’re more “official” than personal checks but just barely. What are the fees like? That depends on the state because many states limit those rates (in the same way that Wal-Mart fees are state dependent too). For example, in New York, the check cashing rate is 1.91%. It’s not a lot but if you have to do this more than once than paying an 1.91% “tax” can be brutal.
Some banks offer prepaid accounts, tied to prepaid cards, that let you deposit checks at their ATMs for free. The downside is that prepaid accounts, or secured credit cards  (they’re not the same, they’re similar but not the same), are often fee heavy with, at a minimum, monthly maintenance or account fees. You’re basically using a bank branded gift card.
Ask a Friend
If you want to avoid fees and you have a friend (that you trust) with a bank account, ask them to deposit it on your behalf. To be 100% safe, they’ll probably want to make sure the check clears so this is something that could take some time, even with Check21, but hopefully your friend won’t charge you any fees!
Lastly, there may be an even lower cost, faster local option available to you if you ask around.
(Photo Credit: gsz )