Buying shares of stock no longer guarantees you get a paper stock certificate. It's more likely your ownership is registered electronically, either on the company's books or at your broker's. As of 2013, more than 400 companies no longer issue paper certificates. For the rest of the publicly traded companies, it often takes money and effort to get a hard-copy certificate.
If you want your stocks in hard-copy form, you have to ask the company or your broker to send you certificates. Some companies require you make a minimum stock purchase before they'll issue paper. Brokers may charge as much as $500 to provide certificates. To avoid fees, ask the broker to identify you as the stock owner to her transfer agent, the pro who handles the nuts-and-bolts of stock transfers. Next, ask the agent for a certificate. Larger agents often don't charge for the service.
Keeping Them Safe
Your physical stock certificate is proof you own a piece of the company. If you lose it, your proof is gone. Getting possession of a replacement certificate takes paperwork, including an affidavit explaining what happened and an indemnity bond protecting the issuer against fraud. It also costs you money to pay for printing another certificate. Reduce your chances of losing it by keeping your certificate in a safe or a safety deposit box.
Sometimes paper stock certificates get misplaced or lost. They might disappear in a move or turn up missing due to some other event or circumstance. Regardless of why a stock certificate gets lost, contact the original broker or broker's transfer agent to confirm ownership. Just remember that brokerage firms are required to keep these records for only six years, according to the website of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. If you bought the securities straight from the issuing company, the company should have a record of the purchase on file to confirm your ownership.
Transfering the Certificate
If you want to sell a physical stock certificate, you can't just tap a few keys on your computer or call your broker. You have to physically transfer the certificate to the buyer, usually by mailing it to a broker or transfer agent. It is recommended that you mail it by certified mail. According to the Stocktransfer.com website, certificates "must be appropriately signed by all registered holders, exactly as the name(s) appear on the face of the certificate(s) or must be accompanied by a Stock Power bearing the appropriate signature(s)." In either case, the site says, "the signature(s) must be guaranteed by a financial institution participating in an officially recognized Medallion Signature Guarantee Program. Additionally, you should provide instructions indicating how you wish the shares transferred; the name, address and Social Security number for each transferee; and the number of shares to be transferred."
- USA Today: Electronic Records Are Replacing Paper Stock Certificates
- Kalia Law: The DemSecurities and Exchange Commission: Holding Your Securities -- Get the Factsise of the Paper Stock Certificate and What it Means for Companies
- SEC: Stock Certificates, Lost, Stolen
- SEC: Stock Certificates, Proving Ownership
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images