What is a safety deposit box?

May 6, 2022

A safe deposit box often referred to as a safety deposit box is a secure metal container inside a secure locker, located in a vaulted room that you can rent and use to store small and medium-sized valuables and keepsakes. 

If legally obtained, you can store anything inside them, from jewellery and cash to irreplaceable heirlooms and documents. The distinction from other safes is that customers rely on the security of a company’s vault and security guards to safeguard their items.

What you should remember:

  • Vaults are built with the strength in materials to withstand natural disasters such as fire, flood, hurricanes and tornadoes
  • You can store anything of value including original documents in a safe deposit box
  • Safety deposit boxes are useful for everyone. If you want to physically preserve important assets, there’s no better option
  • It’s sensible, although not necessary, to have multiple users registered for access to a box

Types of safety deposit boxes

picture of two types of safety deposit box

Image from Stonewall Vaults Blog

Safety deposit boxes are broadly differentiated based on their use, and where they’re sited. Bank safes, for example, are safes located in banks, while wall safes are bolted to the wall and can be located both at homes and/or offices. 

Here are common types of safety deposit boxes/safes.

Freestanding Safes

In the BBC series Line of Duty, the safe Stephen Graham used to keep the computer linked to the senior ranking corrupt police officer, ‘H’, is a vivid example of a freestanding safe. 

Their size varies from very small to very large and they can weigh from 10kg to as much as 2 tonnes. 

You will find this kind of safe in data centres, medical research centres and places with highly sensitive data. 

Freestanding safes are built from steel and a mix of high-performance concrete with a range of armouring on the side for better protection. 

They have access features from the pin, biometrics and drill-resistant locks. Depending on the size, they can be moved around or bolted to a wall or sunk into the floor.

Wall Safes

For homeowners, a freestanding safe may be too conspicuous or over the top. A wall safe, which is typically small in size, and easily hidden, (for example, in a wardrobe) is a great option.

Mounted in an unexpected place or perhaps sunk into a wall and covered, the compact size of wall safes provides reasonable security because they are not easy to find.

Wall safes come with some cool access features and various compartments to store various items.

Data Safes

Storage discs can be corrupted environmentally and damaged physically if not stored correctly.  Data safes are perfect for such storage.

CDs, flash drives, cryptocurrency hard wallets, and other essential backup drives when stored for a long period are vulnerable to magnetic fields and deposits from electrostatic charges. 

Data safes are purposefully built to reduce the influence of residues from radiation and magnetic charges.

Fire-resistant Safes

When it comes to safekeeping, our immediate thought is to deter burglars and criminals. It’s easy to forget about fire-caused disasters. 

Thankfully the rate of fire outbreaks is increasingly declining in the UK. 

However, 334 fire-related fatalities between 2021 and 2022 are a great pointer to how much can go down the drain in a major fire. 

To prevent documents and valuables from getting damaged by fire, a fire-resistant safe can increase the chance (for up to 90 minutes) of recovering important data and documents from an inferno.

Bespoke Safes

A wall-mounted or freestanding safe can have fire-resistant features and different compartments for data storage.

Such safes are known as bespoke safes. 

Safe storage specialists will take your specifications, and design and make you something bespoke. 

Purpose-built safes are not exhaustive and can be in many shapes and forms. Some can be identified according to their use and where they’re often found.

Bank Safe

Since the mid-17th century when Goldsmiths became the original Bankers in the UK, banks have been the front runners of ‘safe custody’ storage. In short, a lineup of boxes is arranged in compartments and kept in a vaulted building, built with security in mind. Depending on how old they are, bank safes may not be as strong as the earlier mentioned modern safes, even though they’re fireproofed and key operated. 

The term bank safe is used to mean a safety deposit box service run by a bank. On the flip side, independent providers, who are now prevalently running this service, use the same method. That is, they have a lineup of lockable, cabinet-like lockers each containing lockable ‘cassettes’ in a purpose-built vault, with bespoke security measures.

picture of stacks of safety deposit boxes

Image source

What is the purpose of a safety deposit box?

Safety deposit boxes can be used to store anything of value, be that value financial or sentimental. Historically they have been used to pass down inheritable and sentimental items from one generation to another. The purpose of a safety deposit box cuts across the need to protect important and lightweight items in a secure solitary place so they don’t get damaged or degraded by environmental cues.

The provision of safety deposit boxes, as a service, has changed from the time it was dominated by the banks. Private centres now make it possible to get extended opening hours and insurance coverage for most eventualities.

picture of a wealthy woman with jewellery

Image from HD Wallpaper

Picture this, a wealth manager, let’s call her Olivia, who needs to project success, wears expensive jewellery to business meetings every day.  How many people have seen her beautiful watch and diamond ring in a week? The customers stood behind her in the coffee shop queue? The commuters on the tube? 

It only takes one criminal to spot the potential wealth and she and her home become a target. Olivia understands this and is uncomfortable going home each day with her jewellery on her.   

Olivia could store her jewellery in a bank safe.  Here’s the thing, she likes to wear her jewellery daily and the hours that the bank keeps (9-5) and the notice she needs to give for access (24hrs) do not suit her purpose of wearing it daily but not returning home with it.

Right now, dedicated, safety deposit centres make it possible to walk in at extended hours, every day without advanced notice. She gets insurance cover including when she wears the jewellery to meetings. That’s how much safety deposit box services have changed over time.

Millennials and Gen Z now have a place outside their homes to safeguard their cryptocurrency hard wallets, keyphrases, and private keys.

Pros and cons of safety deposit boxes

A safety deposit box, no doubt, contributes to an individual’s peace of mind. Still, as the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer once said, there’s no rose without a thorn – safety deposit boxes have their challenges. 

Here are some of the good and bad sides of having a safety deposit box:

Advantages of safety deposit boxes

  • Protection from natural disasters such as fire, flood, storm, and ex-hurricane: Natural disasters don’t occur every day yet each one of them can leave a lifetime of pain and regret. Fire, for example, occurs when we least expect it, and if documents are stored at home, there’s no telling what can be recovered. A safety deposit box can preserve items from fire for up to 90 minutes.  Enough time for meaningful intervention.
    A safety deposit box won’t prevent a natural disaster from occurring but safe deposit centres have the resources to keep up-to-date with happenings and thus let customers know when things could go wrong.
    Most centres have complimentary insurance cover of £10,000 with the possibility of each customer getting up to £500,000 additional insurance, protection and peace of mind – far better than keeping items at home.
  • Cost-effective means of keeping valuables private and safe: A safety deposit box offers value for money. For example, a £160 box is leased for one year whilst a fire-resistant safe from Amazon costs around £3,000, a saving of 95% or 19 years of rental.
  • Protection from theft: Most centres are 24/7 CCTV surveilled and some are stationed 24/7 also. Are you able to monitor your home surveillance 24/7?  Can you afford someone to do this for you? A safety deposit centre is built specifically for the ‘safe custody’ of its contents with security at the core of the build. How much is total peace of mind worth to you?
  • Protection from displacement/misplacement: You always know where your possessions are when you need them, and that they are safe from the elements and naturally occurring disasters.

Drawbacks of safe deposit boxes

  • Limited box sizes: The biggest size is around 10” by 10” and 2 ft high and/or 34 litres in volume. Boxes are relatively small and not suitable for larger valuables such as artwork
  • Limited help when a customer loses their key: Users are responsible for their keys because there are no backup keys. When lost, a user would need to use their spare and if both are lost, the lessor pays the locksmith fee to get it sorted.
  • Limited opening hours: Although, longer access hours than the banks, centres will have closing times Vs access at all times in your own home.
  • Access only at leased location: Unlike banks, safety deposit centres do not have an inter-safe settlement system. This means a customer is only able to access their box items from the branch or centre with which it was deposited.

Safety deposit box myth

Popular movies have given a negative perception of safety deposit boxes over the years, thus opening the service up to several myths.  We have debunked these in our safety deposit box myths blog. 

Below are a few others worth debunking.

  • A safety deposit box is essentially a bank vault: Safety deposit boxes can be found in homes, offices, banks and dedicated safe deposit centres. 
  • You cannot store original documents: Safety deposit boxes have been in the media for the wrong reasons. For example, this Lloyds bank customer deposited an envelope containing his professional documents and 19 years later they were nowhere to be found. Much has changed. Independent providers run their service differently and there’s no better place to store such documents than a safety deposit box.
  • Only useful for document storage: You can store other valuables like jewellery and keepsakes.
  • Are useful for those who are uncomfortable storing things digitally: Safety deposit boxes are not an alternative to cloud storage. There are just some items that cannot be stored digitally. See the best things to keep in a safety deposit box. It’s also a great location for those who want a varied storage location for increased protection. 
  • Safety deposit box has a master key or ‘guard key’ held by an employee: This narrative originated from bank safes. Independent providers don’t hold a copy of customers’ keys.

Other Safety deposit box questions

What is a safety deposit box used for? 

In short, a safe deposit box is an incredibly safe place to keep your valuables. Usually, the largest boxes will hold large watch boxes stacked three high and six deep. The smallest boxes are ideal for valuable paperwork, such as wills, LPAs, and house deeds. Some centres may have safes large enough for jewellers to store their stock.

How safety deposit boxes work

Picture having a secure place where valuables are kept. You rent a box from the lockers of boxes available at the centre.  Once passed security, you can access your box and possessions in the private viewing rooms, check them or take them out as you wish. Access is limited only to those who have registered – this is the same where multiple users are registered to a box. However, only the principal renter can make changes to the account. 

Users are responsible for their boxes and items once a lease is granted. Meaning that,  if someone on your account takes items out, the centre won’t know because there is no way to know what you have in your box.  If you’re opening a box as a group, experts advised access level be granted to one with a power of attorney or that multiple users be present for access.

What items should not be stored in a safety deposit box?

You have possibly heard – ‘Do not keep original documents in a bank safe’, ‘You can’t keep money in a bank safe’, and a lot of don’ts about safety deposit boxes. Notice the buzzword? It’s ‘bank safe’ – even the banks themselves no longer operate like this.

Currently, the few banks that still offer this service, do so independently. They’re now purpose-built and offer more protection, thus a suitable location to store valuables including important documents such as wills and even money. 

Still, not all items are great candidates for safety deposit boxes. To understand the broad category of these items, we have covered these in our blog on what items should not be stored in a safe deposit box

Who knows what’s in your safety deposit box?

There is no way anyone would know what’s in a customer’s safety deposit box unless they have told someone. Government agencies with reasonable suspicion, evidence and suitable warrant can access an individual’s box to check its contents are not ‘proceeds of crime’.

This need only arises when there’s reasonable suspicion and evidence, which rarely happens assuming the box is used for legitimate reasons. As part of operating a centre, safe custody providers are obligated to conduct anti-money laundering, PEP and identity checks and would not lease a box to someone who poses a high risk to the centre or who was ‘sanctioned’ under money laundering regulations.

Your jewellery valuer may have an idea of what’s in your box when getting a valuation for getting box insurance. In this case (which is between you and your valuer), they may have an idea of what’s in your box. 

In practice, only those you have informed or those you have given access, to know what’s in your safety deposit box. 

How much is a safety deposit box in the UK?

Safety deposit box costs can vary across providers. For detailed information, read what makes up a safety deposit box price. A bank safe for example was cheaper or even free because everyone’s item was logged in one vaulted building without individual boxes. More like a file cabinet containing files for several customers – so it’s not difficult to see why there were lots of complications and reported loss of documents.  Thus the negative perception of safety deposit boxes.

On the other end, an independently run safety deposit centre would charge anywhere from £200 to £1200 for a year safety deposit box lease. To know which centre and pricing are right for you, see this post on what makes up a safety deposit box price (linked above).

How do I find a safety deposit box near me?

The most common is to do a quick Google search and if there’s any close to you, Google will tell you. If a centre is listed on Google Maps, it will show up on the right side of your computer screen. We have also put together a list of safety deposit box centres across the UK.

Which banks offer safety deposit boxes?

Many banks have now stopped providing safety deposit services to their customers. However, Halifax, Lloyds, and the Bank of India, still have a few, and Metro Bank has one in every branch.

How to get a safety deposit box?

  • You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I want to put in the box?’ This will give you an idea of the size of the box you’re looking to rent. You should also look at the centre’s prohibited safety deposit box items to have a clue about what you cannot put in your box. As a general rule, contraband items, very large and perishable items, and firearms are profiles of items that would not be a great candidate for your box. 
  • After you’re sure of your item and the box size you want, it’s time to make an appointment where the centre will take your photo and biometrics and do the necessary checks on the sanctions list and identity verification – note that you cannot use one ID to prove your address and your identity – they must be different.
  • If accepted, you will be able to access your box immediately
  • You can add someone else to your box when you want and can even retitle your account in your trusts. 

A safety deposit box is a brilliant component of your estate planning process. If you’ve got something valuable; you have a will and have some jewellery, keepsakes and heirlooms, then think of a safety deposit box.

Stonewall Vaults safety deposit centre in Rugby’s brilliant customer service is happy to help you with your needs. Give us a call now at 01788 561244 or contact us here to reserve a box!

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