A sort code is an integral part of the information used to route and settle payments made through the cheque and electronic payments systems in the UK. These payment systems comprise Bacs, Faster Payments, CHAPS and the Cheque & Credit Clearing Company (including the Belfast Bankers’ Clearing Company).
A sort code is made up of six numbers, which together identify the 'bank and branch' where an account is held. It is used to recognise where a payment originates, confirm it is being sent to a valid financial institution and verify that institution can accept the payment type. The sort code is also used to route the payment to the correct organisation and identify who will settle the payment. It is therefore essential to the functioning of the payment systems.
Sort codes are allocated to payment service provider's (PSP's) offering accounts in the UK, subject to certain criteria. They may also be assigned to PSP's who need to issue GB International Bank Account Numbers (IBANs) for international payments but have no need to offer payments to their customers through the UK’s payment systems. Whilst an IBAN uses a sort code in its structure the sort code does not necessarily belong to a PSP who participates in the UK payments systems.
The first two numbers of the six digit sort code are known as the lead pair. This lead pair is currently used by the Cheque & Credit Clearing Company system for routing and settling of cheque and credit transactions. The remaining payment systems route and settle with reference to all six digits of the sort code which means that indirect participants within these payment systems can move or change their settlement arrangements or join as direct participants using their existing sort codes.
An indirect participant in the Cheque & Credit Clearing Company wishing to change its sponsoring settlement organisation is required to replace its sort code with one from the new sponsor’s lead pair range. However, following the implementation of the cheque Image Clearing System, routing and settling within the Cheque & Credit Clearing Company system will also be based on all six digits. A similar service for moving or changing settlement arrangements or joining as a direct participant will be available.
A sort code must be registered with at least one of the UK cheque and electronic payment systems in order for it to be used in that payment system. Registration is via a secure central database containing details of all sort codes and the PSP's to which they belong.
An extract of this database is known as the Extended Industry Sort Code Directory (EISCD). It is the central source of information used by all the payment systems and it is available to any users of the payments systems, either as the EISCD or through commercially available reference products from providers who are accredited under the Sort Code Validation Accreditation Scheme. View a list of accredited products that are currently available.
Who needs a Sort Code?
Sort codes are used to identify PSP's in order that they can allocate accounts that can make or receive payments.
PSP's that have a sort code will usually be:
Sort codes for use outside of UK payment systems - there may also be a requirement for PSPs (Credit Institutions, Payment Institutions or Electronic Money Institutions) to be allocated a 'non-standard' UK sort code if they wish to issue a GB International Bank Account Number (IBAN) but have no requirement to use the UK payment systems.
This is necessary because of the international IBAN standards where a sort code forms part of the IBAN structure. An example of this could be where an institution wishes to send or receive SEPA payments, so require an IBAN but do not need access to UK payment systems.
PSPs who require an International Bank Account Number (IBAN) but have no need to offer accounts in the UK that are accessible through the payment systems should refer to the 'Getting a non-standard sort code' section.
Management of sort codes
Bacs is responsible for managing the rules and processes relating to sort codes on behalf of the payments industry. A copy of the sort code rules can be accessed here.
Bacs is a not-for-profit organisation regulated by the Bank of England and the Payment Systems Regulator and is responsible for the operation of the Bacs service.
Bacs' role in managing sort codes is independent of its responsibility to manage the Bacs service.
The central database containing all sort code information is held within the Bacs processing infrastructure, and it therefore receives benefits from the security and resilience of that system.
For further information on Bacs or any of the other payment systems behind sort codes click on the logos at the bottom of the page.