What Is a Personal Identification Number?

Definition

A personal identification number (PIN) is a short numerical code used as a method of authentication, often for electronic financial transactions. It serves as an extra security method that helps keep unauthorized people from accessing your account or using your card.

A person pays with a debit card.
Photo:

Letizia Le Fur / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A personal identification number (PIN) is a numerical code used for electronic financial transactions such as debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals.
  • Using a PIN provides extra security for authentication.
  • PINs should be unique and not shared with others.
  • Institutions may provide the PIN or require you to make one.

How a Personal Identification Number Works

Banks and electronic payment systems can require a PIN to complete certain transactions such as using ATMs, using debit cards in person, or accessing phone banking services. In such cases, you’d provide the PIN alongside inserting or swiping a payment card, logging in with a username and password, or otherwise providing identifying account information.

Note

A PIN can be used to verify your identity for non-financial applications. You may need to enter a PIN when accessing various online services, using home security systems, or verifying your identity on devices.

Financial institutions providing ATM and payment cards will usually mail you a letter containing your PIN once you open your account. However, you might get a PIN issued in person. Any PIN letter usually arrives separately from the card itself for security purposes. Online payment services such as Venmo or Cash App may also require you to come up with a PIN as an extra security measure.

To be effective for security, the PIN needs to be unique and safeguarded to reduce the chance of it being compromised. Financial institutions usually set rules regarding the length of the PIN and suggest avoiding obvious, repeating, or otherwise simple sequences. For your account security, you should not use the same PIN for different payment cards or accounts.

Note

Don’t  share your PIN with others, memorize it instead of having it written down, and make sure others don’t see you entering your PIN.

Example of a Personal Identification Number

Let’s say you open a checking account and your bank provides you with a debit card. You might set up your PIN in person so that you can access the funds in your account, your bank might send you a letter with your four-digit PIN, or you might be able to call in to set up your PIN.

Once your PIN is set up, you can make debit card transactions, access ATMs, and access telephone banking services. A PIN works as an extra level of authentication. When you decide you want to withdraw money from an ATM, you insert your debit card and the machine will ask you for your four-digit PIN.

If you enter the correct PIN, you’ll gain access to your bank account and can withdraw funds. If you enter the wrong PIN, you won’t be able to access your money. If you think you’ve just mistyped your PIN, carefully try the PIN again. You can also contact your bank if you’ve forgotten the PIN.

Note

After too many incorrect PIN attempts, you can get locked out of your account and need to contact the bank for a PIN reset.

If you go to a local store to buy groceries or another item, you can use your debit card to pay. But in order to pay, you’ll typically need to enter your PIN to confirm the purchase. The transaction should go through as long as your PIN and card information are valid, you have sufficient funds, and you haven’t exceeded any daily spending limits.

Note

You may not need to enter your PIN to pay with a debit card if your purchase is below $25 or $50.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I find my PIN?

If your bank sent a PIN letter, you can refer to it to locate your PIN. Otherwise, since it’s not recommended to write down PIN numbers, you might need to contact the issuer to request a PIN letter if you never received one or get a PIN reset if you’ve forgotten yours. Depending on the financial institution, you may be able to get help with your PIN online, by phone, or at a branch.

How many numbers is a PIN?

Four digits is the most common PIN length used for payment cards. However, a financial institution might allow or require PINs of eight or 12 digits. While a longer PIN can improve account security, it also increases the risk you’ll forget the number when you need to use it. When choosing your PIN, don’t pick something that can be easily guessed, but is still memorable for you.

How do I create a PIN?

If the institution didn’t send you a PIN, you should be able to set one up online, in person, or over the phone. If you already have a payment card PIN but just want to change it, you might do this at an ATM, on a banking app or website, or by calling your provider. You’ll likely have to provide the original PIN to do so.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Venmo. “PIN & Touch ID.”

  2. Cash App. “Enable Security Lock.”

  3. Federal Trade Commission. “When a Company Declines Your Credit or Debit Card.”

  4. Visa. “Visa Debit Cards.”

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