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A PIN is a string of digits that protects your bank account. Bankrate explains.

What is a personal identification number (PIN)?

A personal identification number, or PIN, is a string of at least four digits used to unlock a bank account or card to which it has been assigned. A PIN is necessary to access the funds in a bank account with a debit card and to receive a cash advance with a credit card. Increasingly, PINs are used to protect all kinds of secure information, such as personal smartphones or utility bills.

Deeper definition

The primary purpose of a PIN is protection from identity theft and monetary thievery. Without a PIN, it’s nearly impossible to access the funds in an account. That not only makes it convenient for the account holder to get cash from an ATM or her bank but also easy to rest assured that nobody else will be able to withdraw cash from her account. PINs may also be required when paying with debit or chip-and-pin cards at a retailer. They are entered using a numerical keypad or a touchscreen.

Account holders create a PIN when they open the account. The PIN must be at least four digits but some banks allow up to six digits or more. Many banks place restrictions on digits used, such as making them consecutive, so that the account holder doesn’t make it too easy for a thief to guess. Additionally, PIN-locked accounts often limit the number of times an attempt can be made.

Outside of ATMs and checkout terminals, PINs have other uses. They are often used to secure cellphones, wireless networks and telephone calling cards. PINs also are used as alternative methods of authentication for online accounts that you can create documentation on websites for student aid applications, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Use Bankrate’s comparison tool to get rewarded for your everyday credit card purchases and lock your new card down with a strong PIN.

PIN example

Josie needs some cash to repay a friend. She sticks her debit card into an ATM machine and it asks her for a PIN to unlock her account. Josie’s PIN is four digits long and has no relation to any other identification number in her life, such as a Social Security number or her home address. She mistypes it at first and her account blocks her from accessing it. However, she gets it right on the second attempt and can now withdraw funds.

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