Personal finances are a critical part of our everyday lives as adults, but many don’t give them the attention they deserve. A little research and care in choosing and managing your bank accounts can help you avoid unnecessary fees and get the most bang for your buck. In this article, we’ll be focusing on checking accounts – highlighting the best checking accounts from US banks in 2019, talking about checking vs. savings accounts, the considerations when choosing the best checking accounts to suit your needs, and much more.
Our goal is to provide useful information to help consumers better manage their personal finances, without needing an advanced degree in accounting or economics – because no one has time for that! With this information, you’ll be able to make an informed decision as to the best checking account offers available today, and know the best bank to use for your checking account needs.
It should be noted from the start, however, that this information is intended purely for background and education purposes. We are not certified financial planners or accountants, and therefore the information contained in this article should not take the place of professional financial advice. With that legal stuff out of the way, let’s dive right into the basics of checking accounts!
Checking Account Basics
Let’s start with a simple question and answer – what is a checking account? A checking account is a type of bank account that allows you to deposit funds at a bank, ATM, or electronically. Traditionally this has meant electronic transfers only, but in modern times, smartphones can be used to image and deposit paper checks as well. The funds can then be used to make withdrawals of cash from an ATM or bank branch, make purchases with a debit card, a paper check, or online (either through a debit card or linking the checking account to a merchant’s site, using the checking account number and routing number).
In the past, a checking account was considered a core part of banking for consumers – the ability to pay for purchases, especially large purchases, with a paper check was essential. No one would, for example, pay for their new home air conditioner installation (which can cost several thousand dollars) with cash, and until the rise of smartphones and wireless technology, there was no way for a technician in your home to process a credit card. Paying by paper check was the only real, practical option. Over time, the ability to pay via credit or debit card, by having the technician call in the details to his home base of operations for processing, became possible, though paper checks still remained the dominant payment method for these kinds of goods and service purchases.
These days, paper checks are used far more rarely – many people write only a handful of paper checks a year. As the world as turned digital, so too have the best checking accounts. While they still offer paper checks, of course, most are used as a means to pay bills – especially recurrent payments, move funds from employment (via direct deposit) to their credit card or other bank accounts, and for other purposes. Few people in developed areas deposit checks at the bank or ATM any longer – if they even get paper checks in the first place. Most paper checks can be deposited via smartphone. And few people carry substantial amounts of cash, meaning the utility of ATMs (and their associated checking accounts) has decreased as well in recent years. Nevertheless, checking accounts remain one of the three principal types of accounts that every consumer should have, as we’ll discuss more in the next section.
Different Types of Bank Accounts
To have a full range of options, most consumers are advised to have at least one of each of the following types of accounts with a bank or other financial institution: 1) checking account, 2) savings account and 3) credit card account. These accounts represent the basics of the modern consumer banking and credit system. While they are no means the sum total of what is available (far from it), these three types of accounts can work together to provide the majority of essential income and expense services for average consumers.
Checking vs. Savings Accounts
As we’ve discussed above, the first type, checking accounts, offer flexible means to get money in and move money out, whether that be in electronic, cash, or check form. In terms of checking vs. savings accounts, the key differences are that savings accounts are designed as repositories of money, more so than a clearinghouse with a lot of incoming and outgoing activity. Savings accounts are generally meant to “park” money with the aim toward saving it (hence the name) and can be considered the “long-term” banking option, whereas checking is the “short-term” or day-to-day banking solution.
To put it another way, if banks didn’t exist, and all we had was cash and coins that you kept in your home, then a checking account could be compared to a wallet. It’s where you carry your funds with you for purchases, and the place you secure your new incoming funds. At home, though, you might have a jar or a strong box or safe where you keep the majority of your funds. You might empty your wallet contents (or at least some of it) into this safe or jar, or remove money from it periodically to restock your wallet or make a major purchase. This safe or jar can be considered a savings account.
Unlike the scenario above, where no banks exist, in the real world, savings accounts through banks or financial institutions offer an additional advantage – interest. While this could be the topic of an entirely separate article in and of itself, basically, interest is a small fee that banks pay you, in return for saving your money in one of their accounts. This is because while it is “parked” in a savings account, the bank has access to use it for their investment and lending activities. It’s like you have lent the money to them, in a way, and they’re paying you for that privilege. This is the key benefit and distinction in terms of checking vs. savings accounts, as checking accounts don’t pay interest. Look for our companion article, coming soon, on the best savings accounts – we’ll add a link here once it’s available.
The exception to this is hybrid accounts, which some banks and financial institutions have started to offer more and more. These are combined checking and savings accounts, which offer the features and functions of both. There are very few downsides to these kinds of accounts, except for psychological – it’s much easier to spend money from a hybrid-type account that has checking account functions than it is if that money is socked away in a savings account. For this reason, those serious about saving and money management still recommend traditional savings account for parking larger sums of money long-term (or one of the various investment account options that are outside the scope of this article).
Credit Card Accounts
The other main type of bank account is a credit card account. While there are plenty of options for credit card accounts on the market today, and many that are not issued directly by consumer banks, most consumer banks still issue credit card accounts as it is a lucrative income stream for them. Credit cards are another topic that could fill their own article (in fact, we already have another article on them – Top Considerations for Choosing the Right Credit Card). However, essentially, they allow you to make purchases, in stores or online, using a card or card number and details, which is backed by a loan from the credit card operator. You must pay a certain minimum amount of this balance every month, and interest accrues on the outstanding balance. To make these minimum (or greater) payments, usually, a checking or savings account is used as the fund source.
Pros and Cons of Consolidating Checking, Savings, and Credit in One Place
Deciding where to open any of the aforementioned types of accounts can be tricky. Choosing the best bank or best financial credit union can be based on a number of factors, and we’ll talk about them a bit more in detail in the context of checking accounts a bit later in this article. However, most experts point out that regardless of which institution you choose, there are certain pros and cons to keeping all your banking needs in one place vs. diversifying.
- With all three types of accounts in one place, you can move money easily and in most cases instantly via online portals and phone apps. This lets you manage your balances in savings, checking, and credit card bills easily and effectively.
- Handling unexpected expenses is easy since you can quickly fund your checking account with money from savings.
- Saving money is easier, as it’s usually just a few clicks to move money from your direct deposited paycheck in your checking account to your associated savings account.
- Most lenders are more likely to increase credit card balances when you have a savings and checking account already open with them – they know you have assets to pay your debts and have much greater visibility to your income stream.
- You can often avoid checking account overdraft fees with a linked savings account, which transfers money automatically to cover the cashed check.
- You may not be getting the best interest rates on a savings account at a bank, where you have chosen to use their savings account option simply because your other accounts are already there.
- Changes in policies or management of the institution may result in changes, fees, or other impacts on more than one of your accounts at once if they are all in one place.
- While checking and savings accounts are FDIC/NCUA insured at all mainstream financial institutions in the US, if you have assets above the current insurance limit ($250,000), you should spread them around to multiple institutions to ensure your assets are protected in the event of a bank default.
Online vs. Traditional Checking Accounts
Another topic that often comes up when discussing the best checking accounts is whether or not a traditional bank or credit union is ideal for an online institution. Since most checking account and banking activities occur online and via smartphones today, there is no real good reason why the best checking accounts couldn’t be best online checking accounts.
However, since it’s relatively easy to scam and trick people online, we suggest always choosing a provider that is well-reviewed, with name recognition, professional certifications and accreditations, and ideally one that is affiliated with something real and physical in the world. And if you like the security of having an actual bank with real branches that you can visit to make deposits, withdrawals, get special services, deposit and withdraw from ATMs, etc., you might prefer a traditional bank or credit union in your area over a purely online option.
Things to Consider When Choosing the Best Checking Account
When it comes down to choosing the best checking account and associated financial institution, there are a number of factors you should consider. In addition to what we’ve already highlighted above, the below topics are worth understanding and evaluating prior to making a final commitment.
We’ve touched on this already, but things like how many branches there are in your area, how many ATMs in their network near your home and work, and related stats should be considered. Even if 99.9% of your banking activities are digital, there may be an occasion to need to deposit a check in person or speak to a customer service agent. And, whether that’s in person, online, nearby, or a significant drive out of your way, are all things that might make one institution the best bank to use for your checking account needs.
The quality, security, and ease-of-use of online interfaces and any associated apps should be taken into consideration. While most major banks all offer similar features in a mostly-similar manner, you should always ask questions or try a demo (if possible) to see how easy or hard it is for you to do the kinds of things you plan to do in managing your money. All things being mostly equal between major players in the industry, what’s going to make the biggest difference in finding your best checking account experience is going to be the customer service side of things, and that includes all of the self-service interface elements of managing your account.
Fees are one of the biggest areas of differentiation from one checking account to the next, or one bank to the next. These can include ATM fees for withdrawals of cash from their ATMs, or out-of-network ATMs, monthly fees if you incur more than a certain number of transactions, monthly service or convenience fees charged regardless, and fees charged if your account balance falls below a certain minimum threshold or direct deposit amount is below a certain level per month. This also includes things like checking account overdraft fees (if a check is cashed for more funds than you have in your account). All of this information is required to be disclosed by law prior to signing up, and any time it is changed, but can be confusing for consumers to navigate.
Fortunately, many online sites offer checking account fees comparisons, such as Bankrate and NerdWallet. Read and compare the details carefully for your chosen checking account, because a bunch of small, annoying fees can add up fast. The best checking accounts should be best free checking accounts, assuming you are an average person with an average balance and average direct deposit income. Alternatively, some banks may offer a waiver of fees if you also have a savings account or credit card account with them, so be sure to look for deals, too.
Most checking accounts offer similar services and features, but it is worth looking into details on things like paper checks (do they offer a certain number free with the account setup, or do you have to pay?), overdraft protection, transfer of funds from linked savings accounts to avoid overdrafts, etc. Added features or services might help sway your decision.
As we discussed previously, most checking accounts don’t offer interest, so searching for things like the “best checking account interest rates” will generally not yield useful results. However, a hybrid checking/savings account may offer interest payments on some or all of your funds. For reasons we’ve already discussed above, though, we still advise straight checking and savings accounts, rather than hybrid accounts, for the majority of consumers.
Last but certainly not least, part of choosing the best checking account comes back to choosing the best bank to use for you. The overall reputation and past customer experiences matter a lot, especially with regards to getting a sense of customer service and how friendly/helpful a bank is, or how intent on nickel-and-diming their customers they may be. Online review sites can greatly help in this regard, and it doesn’t hurt to do a little digging and discovery before choosing a checking account (or any kind of account, for that matter).
Top 10 Best Checking Accounts from US Banks 2019
With all of the above criteria in mind, we’ve selected 10 fine examples of the best checking accounts available from US banks and financial institutions in 2019. Note that some of these offers may not be available in all areas, and other restrictions may apply. Unless otherwise noted, the accounts support both online and traditional paper checks. These are listed in roughly the order of overall estimated monthly fees, though of course that may vary based on your particular circumstances.
Simple is an online-only bank that offers a fee-free checking account. There are no monthly fees and no minimum monthly balance requirements. There is no overdraft charge and over 50,000 fee-free ATMs in their network. This is one of the absolute best online checking account options, though do note that if you use paper checks, there are no paper checks provided with Simple (though they have some workarounds to get checks cut by third-party companies through your Simple account).
Chime is also an online-only banking company. Their Spending Account option is essentially a free online checking account, with no monthly fees, minimum balances, or overdraft fees. They provide over 30,000 in-network, fee-free ATMs, and charge $2.50 for out-of-network ATM access. No paper checks are provided with this account, but you can generate a check, and the company will mail it for you to the recipient anywhere in the US. For no-frills, no-hassle, no-fee accounts, this is one of the best online checking account options, from one of the best online banks.
Discover is a recognized name in the credit card space and now offer an online-only checking account. There are no monthly fees or minimums, and 60,000 in-network ATMs. You can also get up to 1% cashback on up to $3,000 in qualifying purchase each month. This account does include some fees, however, with a $15 stop payment fee and $30 overdraft fee. However, it is still an excellent choice for most consumers and is one of the only offers of a checking account bonus in 2019.
Ally Bank is another online-only bank, and one of the few hybrid account offerings in our list. The Ally Interest Checking Account offers no monthly maintenance fees, fee-free ATM access on the Allpoint network, up to $10 a month in ATM fee reimbursement for out-of-network ATMs, and provides interest on the account balance. There are still some fees, including a $15 stop payment fee and $25 overdraft fee. The generous ATM fee reimbursement and interest-earning nature of this account make it a top pick – though we caution, the rates are fairly low for small balances, and for significant funds you are likely better off stashing the majority of your money in a savings account, which they also offer. Still, it is essentially the only other type of checking account bonus in 2019, alongside the Discover account mentioned above.
Mutual of Omaha is a respectable company in finance, banking, and insurance. Their Online Advantage Checking account is an online-only checking option, with a low minimum monthly balance ($100) to avoid any kind of maintenance fees. They use the MoneyPass ATM network for fee-free ATM activities, with a $3 charge for out-of-network ATM use. There are some other fees, however, including $4 paper statement fees, $30 stop payment fees, $5 debit card replacement fees, and $30 overdraft fees. In terms of checking account fees comparison, this puts the Online Advantage Checking account on the higher end of our online-only checking options. However, the tradeoff here is you’re getting an account from a trusted, established company, which may make the extra fees worth it. The low monthly balance to avoid maintenance fees, though, plus fee checks and a host of other perks, make this one of the stand-out picks for best checking accounts 2019.
CitiBank is the first of the real-world, physical banks on our list, and their Access Account provides a basic, entry-level set of checking account options with relatively low fees and stipulations. They use the MoneyPass ATM network for fee-free ATM access, with out-of-network ATM fees levied at $2.50. There are a large number of CitiBank branches around the US for customer service and other service needs. The monthly balance requirement is a bit higher than the online-only accounts, at $1,500, otherwise there is a $10 monthly fee. This can also be waived with a monthly direct deposit or bill payment on the account. Stop payments incur a $30 fee, but there is no overdraft fee. There are no paper checks/checkbooks supported with this account. Despite higher minimums than the online accounts, the checking account fees comparison here show this to be one of the best checking accounts from a physical bank, so long as you don’t use paper checks.
The Everyday Checking account from Wells Fargo is another good entry-level option from a well-known, real-world bank. The monthly maintenance fee of $10 is waived if your balance is maintained at $1,500, or you receive $500 or more in direct deposit payments per month, or you make 10 debit card purchases and/or payments per month, or link your account to a Wells Fargo Campus ATM/Debit Card account, so there are many ways around the fee. There are numerous branches around the country, especially in western states. The ATM network is fee-free in 13,000 locations, but out-of-network ATMs will cost $2.50 in fees. In addition, stop payment fees of $31 and checking account overdraft fees of $35 are charged.
U.S. Bank offers the Gold Checking Package, which has a number of features but also a number of fees – though they are avoidable. They use the MoneyPass ATM network for fee-free ATM access, and charge $2.50 for out-of-network ATM use. They helpfully offer 2 free/fee reimbursed transactions at out-of-network ATMs per billing period, too. There are thousands of branches around the US. The minimum monthly balance is $25, though this does not waive the fee of $14.95 per month. However, with a loan, credit line, or credit card account from U.S. Bank, the fee is waived, so it is worth considering a credit card account here as well. Other fees include a $2 paper statement fee, $35 stop payment fee, $5 debit card replacement fee, and $36 overdraft fee – though this, too, can be avoided with a linked savings account. From the standpoint of customer service, though, this company has received positive recognition from customers and industry groups alike, making it one of the best banks to use.
Comerica is one of the smaller real-world banks on our list, but their Access Checking is very competitive with other offerings, making it one of the best checking accounts on our list today. There are no in-network ATM fees, though out-of-network ATMs incur a fee of $2. There is no minimum monthly balance, though maintaining a $1,000 balance or $250 monthly direct deposit will result in waiving the $13 monthly fee. There are a number of branches, though fewer than other national banks on our list. Other fees include a $2 paper statement fee, $34 stop payment fee, $5 debit card replacement fee, $10 early closure fee, and $37 overdraft fee. Despite these fees, the lack of a minimum balance requirement, and low requirements for a monthly fee waiver, make this one of the best checking accounts at an entry-level or for low-income individuals especially.
Bank of America is one of the largest and most well-known real-world banks represented on our top 10 list. Their Core Checking account offers no-fee in-network ATM access, with a $2.50 fee for out-of-network ATMs. There is a $1 minimum balance requirement, and a $1,500 balance requirement (or $250 direct deposit requirement) to waive the $12 monthly maintenance fee. With thousands of branches around the country, finding a B of A location should not be a problem for most people. Other fees include $30 stop payment, $5 card replacement, and $35 checking account overdraft fee. This is a well-rounded account from a well-known institution.
Whichever checking account or bank you may choose, we hope you’re now a more informed consumer and know what to look for, and what questions to ask. With a little research and the information from this guide, you’ll be an expert at choosing the best checking account to suit your needs.
And for Your New Checking Account…
A fancy and fashionable checkbook holder with room for a debit card, credit card, and more is the perfect complement to your new checkbook. Available in more than 10 different colors, with RFID-blocking technology to keep your card’s chips safe.
For students or younger teens just starting out with checking accounts and banking, this 125-page book by Victoria Reitz is approachable and easy to understand, teaching the basic lessons of checking accounts. It makes a great companion to a new checking account for your tween or teen.