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How Serial Numbers on US Money Work

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:

Here’s an old one:

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.

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 [3], here are the letters and the corresponding district:

The various districts don’t print the currency, that’s handled by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing [4], 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.