Safes and vaults have long stored civilisations’ most valuable physical treasures.

They can be both physically impressive and technologically sophisticated – a true symbol of security.

They have even inspired philosophical musings. For example, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

“Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open.”

And the journalist Peter De Vries once wrote:

“The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.”

Nowadays, there is more than one kind of safe and vault. Let’s look at what these are and how they work.

What is a safe?

A safe is a physical stronghold for protecting valuables from theft and damage.

They have a long history and have appeared in many forms over the centuries. But today they usually come in some form of a metal cabinet with a complex locking mechanism.

The specific content stored in a safe (cash, physical documents, jewellery, USB sticks, etc.) often influences the type of safe used.

This is because different safes provide different security levels, varying fire protection, or certification requirements. For example, guns should be stored in gun safes which meet specific regulations related security, location, accessibility, etc.

Safes can be customised to fit specific security needs. In some cases, this means meeting instalment specifications. This not only makes safes more secure, but can also reduce insurance premiums.

The paradox of inaccessible safes

Safes should be inaccessible to people without authorised access to them. However, they also need to be accessible in the event of a lost key, broken lock mechanism, forgotten passcode, etc.

So, the important point about most safes is not just how strong they are, but what mechanical and electrical tools or systems are used to access and lock them.

The combination lock, perhaps the most common type of key lock, is found in commercial safes used by private safe owners. Large business safes and bank vaults often rely on a more complex electronic locking mechanism.

What’s the difference between a safe and a vault?

Safe and vaults share a similar purpose: providing security for assets against theft and damage.

However, there are some significant differences between safes and vaults.

Firstly, vaults are generally much larger than safes (they can essentially be rooms). This means vaults are not mobile or moveable, which adds specific security requirement.

Safes, on the other hand, can be typically moved and concealed. Although they can be installed into rooms or floors, they can also be uninstalled if needed.

What is a safety deposit box?

A safety deposit box is an individual locked container (usually metal) used for storing valuable papers and objects. They are typically stored in bank vaults, private deposit safes, or post offices.

Like safes, safety deposit boxes are accessed and locked with keys, codes, or even biometric data (i.e., iris or fingerprint identification).

Unlike safes, safety deposit boxes’ contents are not frequently accessed. And there is often a much higher degree of security because they are also within a vault.

Types of safes

1. Fire resistant safes

Fire safes (or fire-resistant safes) are different types of safes designed to withstand different levels of high temperatures, including flame exposure.

Fire safes are ideal for protecting important legal documents or digital storage devices (USB sticks, hard drives, etc.) which are less likely to be threatened by burglary.

According to UK government statistics, emergency services responded to 185,437 fire-related incidents from September 2021 to 2022.

There are different levels of fire resistance available for fire safes, ranging from a protection duration of 30 minutes to 120 minutes. Fire ratings, such underwriters laboratories (UL) ratings used in Europe, are a gauge of this resistance.

Generally, the higher the resistance, the more expensive the safe will be.

2. Burglary safes

Burglary safes (or burglary-resistant safes) are safes primarily used for residential security containers protecting against theft and forced entry. They are one of the most common types of safes and vaults.

These safes are used in a wide range of areas, such as is in private homes, businesses, on transport, etc.

Thieves can use a range of techniques to break into (or ‘crack’) safes. These include using power tools, lock-picking tools, cutting torches, and even forms of explosives. Burglary safes should be able to withstand a range of these methods.

3. Media safes

A media safe (also known as data safe) is used specifically for storing items that hold data, such as USB sticks, hard drives, CDs, etc.

Many also include protection against electrostatic interference, which can damage data.

These safes are especially useful for organisations with sensitive data records. For example, payments companies with customers’ financial data.

Data safes have a range of locking mechanisms. If frequent access by multiple individuals is needed, electronic keys are often used with digital locks. If only a few members need access, a biometric lock may be suitable.

4. Wall safes

Wall safes are – as their name suggests – safes installed within walls.

They are usually relatively small and so are easy to conceal behind objects like paintings or mirrors. And they are make it harder for thieves to steal the safe itself (and open it later). These factors provide an extra level of security.

Being in the wall can also have other benefits related to the use of space in the room. And it can provide added protection against fire, flooding, or other potential damage to buildings.

5. Floor safes

Floor safes are typically installed below floor level and are encased in concrete.

Like wall safes, they can be concealed, too (beneath floor coverings like rugs and furniture). And they can protect against fire.

6. Gun safes

Gun safes are designed specifically for storing firearms and ammunition. They are a good example of a specialist category of safe.

Depending on the location of the safe, gun safes often need to comply with specific legal regulations. This might include points about being child and weather-proof. And in some situations, they might also need to be accessibly quickly, too.

They come in a range of shapes and sizes according to the different types of firearms and ammunition being stored.

7. Smart safes

Smart safes are relatively new products that are primarily used by businesses for cash management.

Through the combination of traditional safe features and modern cash management software, they provide security and cash monitoring.

The software in smart safes records the amount of money inside at any given moment. This informs business on how much is deposited, who has accessed it, etc. They can be directly linked to online bank accounts or businesses’ software systems.

They can also help protect against counterfeit fraud with their built-in bill validators to stop this. And they help reduce time spent – and human error – in counting cash.

Types of vaults

1. Bank vaults

Banks are famously – or, rather, infamously! – the target of theft. In recent years, this happens a lot in the online world, too. But the physical banks branches are still targeted.

Back in 2021 alone (currently the latest year for statistics), the FBI recorded 1,724 bank robberies and 234 bank burglaries in the US.

Banks use a variety of security measures and deterrents, including:

  • Guards
  • Alarm systems
  • Surveillance cameras
  • Electronic tracking devices
  • Employee security protocol
  • Access-controlled entry points
  • Currency dye

And more. However, ultimately vaults are the stronghold for cash.

The walls and doors of bank vaults are often heavily reinforced. In the past, these used key locking mechanisms. Today, a sophisticated electronic lock is more likely to be used.

Dual combination locks (which require two people to operate) are also popular. These can also be combined with timed locks so that even if the codes are used, vaults will not open for a certain number of hours.

2. Art vaults

Art vaults store paintings, sculptures, and other similar objects.

Besides sophisticated access and security mechanisms, they often also provide protection against environmental conditions. This includes internal temperature, light exposure, and humidity controls.

3. Seed vaults

Seed vaults (also known as seed banks) are designed for the long-term storage of seeds. The purpose of this is to preserve the availability of seeds and plants for the future.

Seed vaults have the usual security measures against theft, etc. They have various other features that control the environmental conditions.

The location of seed vaults is very important. The most famous seed vault is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is located on an island archipelago in the artic ocean.

4. Nuclear vaults

Nuclear vaults are highly specialised vaults for storing and managing nuclear materials and weapons.

These are the largest and most secure vaults on earth. Their location, workers’ identities, and other details are often highly classified.

The Weapons Storage and Security System (WS3) is one example. It is a series of vaults placed within NATO airfields across the globe. They are used for safe special weapons storage, including nuclear weapons.


Safes and vaults protect societies’ wealth against theft, damage, and environmental threats.

The choice of a safe used typically depends on what items are being stored.

  • Fire safes protect against high temperatures
  • Burglary safes against theft
  • Media safes secure data storage devices
  • Smart safes help with cash monitoring

Their effectiveness lies not only in their strength but also in their access control systems. A balance must be struck between authorised access and re-accessing them if keys, codes, etc., are lost.

Vaults are larger, immobile structures with specific security requirements. And safety deposit boxes, often housed within vaults, provide an additional layer of security for infrequently accessed valuables.

There are many specialised categories of safe, including gun safes and smart safes. Each addresses unique storage needs. Meanwhile, vault categories cover banking, art, seeds, and even nuclear materials.

Today, the role of safes and vaults remains integral to preserving the integrity and confidentiality of valuable assets.

Types of Safes and Vaults