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Is it a Vault or a Safe? Don't be fooled by the hype and confusing jargon.

By Jeremiah Colt November 09, 2020

When I read about safes and vaults I find the two terms are used interchangeably which is confusing. One would think that a "vault" is just another term for big and stronger "safe". Boy, was I wrong! After an afternoon of research, here's what I found. A safe and vault are meant to secure valuables but differ in their purpose, their design, and their costs. 

The key difference between a vault and a safe is that a vault is immovable storage and built into a structure like a bank building while a safe is smaller and usually made of metal. Vaults are big, and often the size of rooms; and made of steel-reinforced concrete. They hold a lot more, and bigger items (e.g. Fort Knox). Safes, on the other hand, are usually metal (steel), are much smaller, have a digital or combination lock, and can be portable. They are therefore affordable and more practical and the kind of security most consumers buy.

But there's more. I found enough other terms that can confuse you further. After some time researching these, here are the five categories of the best storage for your home or business:

  1. Cash Boxes: These are cheap, small metal boxes, lockable, and best for petty cash. They range from $20 to $100 but best used as an alternative for sticking valuables in a drawer.
  2. Strongbox: A sturdy metal box, with a lock and usually better than a cashbox. These range from $50 to $200 or higher.
  3. Safes: Usually made of metal, lockable, often rated for fireproofing and theft protection. These can be small pistol safes for handguns to larger fireproof document and storage safes. Prices range from $200 to $15,000.
  4. Safe rooms: These are rooms often with a vault door. Depending on the type of protection these protective enclosures can range from tornado shelters to bulletproof enclosures, to panic rooms and bunkers. These are hard to price. Vault doors can range from $1,500 to $7,000 but also require a room. Bulletproof enclosures are over $10,000. Storm shelters can range from $5,000 and up, and panic rooms and bunkers will cost you at least $50,000.
  5. Vaults: These are larger rooms and facilities that are almost always for commercial use, like a bank. These are usually for larger items and with additional building security. Expect costs here to range from $10,000 for a walk-in safe room to millions.

(See our related article on cash boxes and strongboxes.)

5 Types of Secure Storage


Is a vault, a safe?

No. A vault has distinct features that make it different from a safe. Unlike a safe, it comes with an extra level of security that prevents unauthorized access and damage from environmental disasters like fires, floods, etc. A vault is built into the wall of a room and cannot be transported from one place to another. Safes can be bolted to a wall or floor making them immovable too. For all its similarities, a vault cannot be considered a big safe.

Who uses safes and vaults?

Vaults are generally suited to commercial users: banks, jewelers, anyone holding large amounts of cash like casinos, credit unions, etc. A business that deals with cash, jewelry, expensive artworks, weapons, and other important items might also want to consider a vault. A key difference is that vaults have additional layers of protection such as security guards, security monitoring systems with alarms, and hidden doors, and ways to keep the location of the vault itself hidden. For most non-commercial applications, a safe is the most suitable option. It is compact, can be easily moved, installed, and customized, and way less expensive.

How to choose a safe

I like to use my 6P process for choosing a safe, that you should find helpful when selecting any safe and vault:

  • Peril - what are you planning to protect against? This might be flooding, theft, extreme weather, intruders?
  • Precious - what is precious to you? Guns, digital data, gold, loved ones?
  • Position - where would you like to store your valuables? Under your bed, offsite in a bank vault, at home?
  • Purpose - why do you need protection? Business asset protection, restrict kids from access, privacy?
  • Price - how much can you spend? Rule of thumb: use about 10% of the cost of your valuables as a starting budget.
  • Product features - what features are important to you? Type of safe, type of combination lock, specialty locking bolts, quick access, the highest level of security?

(Read more about my 6-P process on how to select a safe or vault.)

What is the most secure safe?

Actually, there isn't one. It depends on what you are trying to protect and for how long. My advice: pick one of the top safe manufacturers in the USA, for example, and pick one of their top of the line safes. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with this two-step process.

What is the most secure vault in the world?

If there was one that comes to mind, it would be Fort Knox: 4 fences, 4-ft thick granite walls with 750 tons of rebar steel, armed guards, a maze of locked doors, plus a 22-ton vault door with a secret combination. If you still make it in and out, there'll be 30,000 troops happy to greet you. For more, I loved reading the trivia here that will entertain, and blow your mind.

Conclusion | TL;DR

There is a difference between safes and vaults. Safes are probably more relevant for the security you need. A vault is more likely to be what you see in a bank or a large business. Our 6-P framework will save you time and help you pick the right safe and vault for your home or business. To get the best product for your needs, pick the right features such as locks, bolting mechanisms, wall thickness, etc. and you will be well on your way. For all kinds of safes (gun, home, fire, digital for example ), vault doors, and even bulletproof safes check out our selection!

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