How Serial Numbers on US Money Work

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More than anything else, I love reading trivia and “how things work” because it gives me a little behind the scenes glimpse at stuff most people don’t see. When it comes to personal finance, there isn’t really much trivia floating around unless it has to do with our money. There’s just something mysterious about our money, the imagery, and little idiosyncrasies. While our money doesn’t have the color or creativity of other nation’s currency, there are still fun things to discover about it.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the serial numbers and how they work.

First, we need to separate “new” style bills from old ones. New bills are the ones introduced within the last few years. They feature enormous faces that aren’t on those familiar black backgrounds. Here’s an example of a new bill:
New $20 Bill
Here’s an old one:
Old $20 Bill

How Serial Numbers Work

On the new bills, the serial number starts with a letter that corresponds with the “series” of the bill. New series are issued when there is a change to something on the bill, like a new signature for the Secretary of the Treasury or the Treasurer of the United States. Old style bills do not have this letter corresponding to the series.

The next letter, or the first on older bills, corresponds to the Federal Reserve Bank that issued the bill. You might recall on old bills there used to be a large letter on a bill. In redesigns, that letter was removed. You can still see that on $1 bills, the large “L”, since they haven’t been redesigned. I include a list of the letters and corresponding Federal Reserve districts below.
$1 Bill

The number (and last letter) itself is just an increasing counter of bills issued by each bank and are unique to each bill issued a bank. The New York Fed and the San Francisco Fed will both issue a bill with the serial number 12345678X, but the NY Fed won’t issue two bills numbered 12345678X (with one exception, which I’ll explain shortly).

If instead of a letter at the end you see a star, it means it’s a replacement note. The original was never released because of a printing error. The serial number series for replacement notes is completely different so you can have a duplicate serial number, one with a star and one without.

Federal Reserve District Letters

As mentioned above, the letters correspond to the districts of the Federal Reserve Banking system, here are the letters and the corresponding district:

  • A: Boston, MA
  • B: New York, NY
  • C: Philadelphia, PA
  • D: Cleveland, OH
  • E: Richmond, VA
  • F: Atlanta, GA
  • G: Chicago, IL
  • H: St. Louis, MO
  • I: Minneapolis, MN
  • J: Kansas City, MO
  • K: Dallas, TX
  • L: San Francisco, CA

The various districts don’t print the currency, that’s handled by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is part of the United States Treasury. Logistically, the BEP prints the money and sells it to the Federal Reserve Banks at manufacturing cost (the Bureau of the Mint sells coins at face value) and then the FRBs distribute the money to various financial institutions using a variety of mechanisms.

I have yet to see, in person, a bill with a star.

{ 8 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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8 Responses to “How Serial Numbers on US Money Work”

  1. WALTER L says:


  2. eric says:

    Maybe they aren’t messing up enough bills for us to see stars! 🙂

  3. Manny says:


  4. Prof says:

    I see Walter L. isn’t reading your whole article: “If instead of a letter at the end you see a star, it means it’s a replacement note. The original was never released because of a printing error.” Printing must indeed be getting better, since star notes seem less common. (I like eric’s clever “seeing stars” comment.)

  5. govenar says:

    Your picture of an old $20 still has an enormous face on it

  6. Robert says:

    Some more trivia for you. The number below the serial number is directly related to the first letter in the serial number. On the dollar bill above, the number “12” indicates the first letter is an “L”.

    It used to be an old bar trick that worked on the older bills.

    If you have someone take out a bill, face up, and fold the left side over the left, so that the last couple of numbers in the serial number are visible. In the case of your dollar bill above, fold it so that “916 C” still show. You tell your mark that you can guess the letter at the beginning of the serial number. In all actuality, you just need to see the number “12”.

  7. Jo says:


    I am surprised that you have yet to see a bill with a star note on it. I have several bills that have been saved over the years with a star on them. Fro, ones to twenties.

  8. mary says:

    maybe you can help me. I told my little boy about great uncle who had an envelope of about $80 in $1s,$5s & $10s. some where burnt some where all taped together he always said they were bills that were exchanged at the bank for bills without damage. My son is driving me crazy now because we thought they destroy the damaged bills? I was young and never gave it a thought. It was his envelope of money no longer to be used? I can’t ask him he died about 35 years ago, but my son wants to know if it is possible that this is true?

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