“All safe deposit boxes in banks or financial institutions have been sealed… and may only be opened in the presence of an agent of the I.R.S.”

This quote by Frankelin D. Roosevelt highlights the trust businesses and consumers have placed in safety deposit boxes for decades.

Today, you probably won’t need an agent of the I.R.S to open your safety deposit box with you. But they remain a trusted means of securing valuable possessions, family keepsakes and other important documents.

Understanding how safe deposit boxes work, including their robust security features like time locks and dual key systems and the process for accessing them, can provide peace of mind when storing items of significant value or personal importance.

What is a safety deposit box?

A safety deposit box (also known as a safe deposit box) is an individually secured container such as a metal box with a locking mechanism. Safe deposit boxes are stored at a financial institution such as a federally insured bank (in the vault) or a credit union.

What items are commonly stored in a safe deposit box?

Typically, items that do not require immediate access are deposited.

Some examples are important legal documents (e.g. birth certificates, real estate or car deeds), family heirlooms, savings bonds and estate planning documents. However, it’s crucial to caution against keeping estate planning documents, such as wills, in a safe deposit box due to the potential difficulty in accessing them when needed for unexpected situations or during the probate process.

What about cost?

Usually, safe deposit boxes are rented with an annual fee paid to a financial institution.

The cost for a safe deposit box can vary and will depend on its size. For example a small safe deposit box from Halifax equates to £200, as compared to a large safe deposit box which amounts to £475 per annum.

Their size tends to be relatively small and not suitable for large items.

How are safe deposit boxes secured?

Safe deposit boxes use dual key systems. For an example, a bank will hold power to open their vault for you as the renter with the key to open your safe deposit box.

Multiple people can be assigned to safe deposit boxes, known as co-renters. Typically, not all the co-renters have to be present, but authorised signatures are put on file.

What is the difference between a safe and a safety deposit box?

Both keep valuable items protected but they have key differences.

Safety deposit boxes are located within a secure location like a bank vault or credit union. A safe can be installed in various locations including homes, offices, hotels and stores.

Safes come in a range of sizes to suit different needs. While some are small, similar to safe deposit boxes, others are substantially larger. In contrast, safe deposit boxes maintain much smaller sizes.

In terms of cost, safes have higher initial costs, but for safe deposit boxes you pay as you go (yearly fee). Therefore, safe deposit boxes may lead to higher expense if annual fees are paid long term.

Safes are less restrictive with immediate access granted to whoever has the key or combination. Safety deposit boxes can only be accessed in operating hours of financial institutions and require an authorised signature.

Can you store cash in a safe deposit box?

The short answer is yes. However, it is advised against for a few reasons.

  1. FDIC insurance in the U.S. does not cover the contents within safe deposit boxes. This means you could lose the money. It is worse if you have a large cash volume stored.
  2. You cannot earn interest with cash just sitting in safety deposit boxes. Instead, placing your money in a savings account could be a more advantageous option, as it allows your cash to earn interest over time, making it a smarter choice for those looking to grow their savings.
  3. You could actually be losing money through the annual rental fees.
  4. If the cash is for an emergency and you require immediate access, a safe deposit box is not suitable because you can only access it during bank hours.

Advantages of safety deposit boxes

1. High security and protection

Safe deposit boxes are typically located within bank vaults. This means these boxes are protected by enhanced security with secure location, advanced surveillance and alarm systems.

This offers protection against theft but also bank vaults are designed to withstand natural disasters and are fire resistant.

Your important valuables are definitely safer in a secure vault than your own home.

2. Provides privacy and confidentiality

Safe deposit boxes allow your personal possessions, particularly sensitive documents, to stay private.

Under certain circumstances, for example in an unstable household situation, a safe deposit box is a great choice that provides sanctuary for your valuables as only you can access them.

Banks are also expected to abide by confidentiality regulations.

3. Straightforward and peace of mind

Valuable items and sensitive documents are kept in a central location and can be accessed in reasonable time when needed. This provides peace of mind knowing items are secure and can be accessed at an appropriate time.

Disadvantages of safe deposit boxes

1. Banks reduce their own liability

Whilst banks are taking precautions to make their vaults highly secure there is no guarantee against damage or theft. Deposited contents are not covered by FDIC insurance.

Separate cover can be acquired for safe deposit box insurance cover.

Additionally, if rental fees are not paid in a certain time period the contents becomes unclaimed property.

2. They can be restrictive

Safe deposit boxes are not ideal for all items. Items that should not be stored include:

  1. Items needed in emergencies e.g. passports, cash or medical directives
  2. Uninsured items
  3. The only copy of a document e.g. original living will

Never store the only copy of an important document in a safe deposit box.

A bank safe deposit box can only be accessed during operating hours and requires authorised signatories. These restraints negate immediate access.


Safety deposit boxes are secure containers typically used to store important documents and valuables like family heirlooms.

They provide high security, privacy and peace of mind, but come with disadvantages such as restricted access during bank hours, potential fees and lack of insurance cover for contents like cash.

It is advised not to store essential items that could be needed urgently, or singular copies of critical documents in these boxes due to access limitations and potential risks associated with loss of non-payments of fees.

Safety Deposit Boxes