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What is a PIN?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Personal Identification Number (PIN) is a unique numeric personal code or password that is often linked with financial accounts. Banks and credit card companies use these numbers to secure financial information, but they can also be found linked with student loans, utility accounts, and other secured systems. A PIN usually has four digits that are known only to the account holder. When the account holder wishes to access information, he or she can enter the number along with another form of identifying information such as a password, account card, or name.

Most consumers are familiar with PINs because they are used to access Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). A client inserts a bank card into an ATM, enters the number when prompted, and then makes any account changes, deposits, or withdrawals necessary. By linking the bank card with a PIN, the bank secures the information it contains if the bank card is lost or stolen. Most banks automatically assign numbers to their customers, although they can also be manually set.

A PIN number is highly useful for gaining quick access to secure information. Assuming a consumer keeps it private, the number can be used to pay bills, check account balances, transfer funds, or perform a variety of other account transactions. Having one also means that the client does not have to use his or her Social Security Number as an means of identification. Since identity theft is a concern for many people, this alleviates a number of fears.

If a pin is randomly assigned, a customer should memorize it and shred the slip with the number on it. If someone is are concerned about forgetting your PIN or wants other people to have access to it in an emergency, he or she could store it in a secure area like a safe or deposit box along with other vital information. Under no circumstances should anyone carry the number with other account information, in case the person's wallet is ever lost or stolen.

People who are given the option of selecting their own PIN should try to pick a random number. A phone number, part of a government assigned identification number, or any other familiar number should be avoided. People should avoid patterns, such as 5445 or 1234, because they are easier to guess than random number sequences. People who have difficulty choosing may want to use a random number generator and remember to keep the number in a secure place if it is written down.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By wander — On Jun 09, 2011

If you are having a lot of trouble coming up with a random PIN number for your banking, I would suggest using a random number generator online.

These programs are quick and easy, and create a truly sporadic set of numbers to choose from.

A way I remember my PIN is to circle dates on my calendar in a special color. This doesn't mean anything to anyone else, but if I forget my PIN I can just look at my reminder on my desktop.

This is also easy to do on a smartphone. Just mark the dates with something unrecognizable as important to others, like spa day (which is something I never personally do).

By manykitties2 — On Jun 07, 2011

PIN security is really important, and keeping your number secret should be a top priority. A good rule of thumb is that when entering your PIN make sure that you keep the keypad covered from prying eyes.

Also, there have been numerous cases of people having there PINs ripped off because smaller card reading machines in retail locations had been rigged to record them. This method is called skimming for numbers and can be a big problem.

One of the number one places security officials say to never use your PIN is at a gas pump. These machines often have low security so it is easy for criminals to install skimming machines.

By mutsy — On Jun 06, 2011

@Charred - I usually try to use different birthdays or numbers that I like. I know that they say that you should not use a birthday, but to me that is the only way I am going to remember because just about everything needs a PIN number or password.

It is also a good idea if you could do a more secure PIN by using punctuation marks with a mixture of numbers and letters. I think if you make a strong PIN like this is would be very hard for someone to hack into. I do this whether I am setting up a password or PIN.

By Charred — On Jun 06, 2011

@allenJo - Yes, I completed the FAFSA too. For the PIN, I have a rather creative method to retrieve the numbers. I do in fact email them to myself, but I don’t use the numeric form of the numbers. I spell them out in Spanish and compose an email with the numbers included, but in a context that has nothing to do with a PIN number.

I may, for example, compose a recipe in Spanish on how to make artichoke salad, using the individual PIN numbers in succession as measurement numbers for ingredients.

I then have to remember that this Spanish artichoke salad recipe is code for financial aid; so I leave clues in the text, with phrases like “this will aid you in making your salad” to help remind me. Yes, it’s weird but I think it’s secure. Now that you know, I’ll have to change my email to something else.

By allenJo — On Jun 06, 2011

@ElizaBennett -I recently submitted an online FAFSA (a financial aid form) for my daughter’s college education. We needed FAFSA PINS and tried to choose numbers that were random.

However, in the few cases we forgot our PIN we clicked on a link and the website asked us some security questions, and then displayed a popup box that showed the PIN (assuming we answered the questions correctly).

I thought it was unusual to display the PIN in a popup box instead of an email, but I guess emailing a PIN is not considered secure.

By ElizaBennett — On Jun 06, 2011

@rugbygirl - That might be fine for PINs that don't need to be all that secure, like the PIN for your library card. For a bank PIN, I really think it should be totally random numbers.

But here's how I remember my bank PIN when it's just random numbers. I very rarely use my card, so I don't get practice that way. Instead, I make the PIN part of my online banking password, which I use often. Then I get practice entering it so it sticks in my head, and the bank password is obviously kept secure by their system.

By rugbygirl — On Jun 06, 2011

If you have trouble remembering your PIN (please, not PIN number; the N already stands for number!), you might try setting it as a number that you know, but that isn't a matter of public record. Anyone can look up your birthday, but they can't look up the date of your first kiss or the last four digits of your first boyfriend or girlfriend's telephone number.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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