How to Find a No-Fee Checking Account

Quick Answer

To find a no-fee checking account, start by researching offerings, reviewing fee structures and comparing features. Beyond looking for no-fee checking accounts, you can also avoid fees by tweaking the way you manage your banking, such as by setting up direct deposit or building a buffer of funds to avoid overdrafts.

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It isn't difficult to find a no-fee checking account. Many banks and credit unions offer them. But even no-fee accounts may not be completely free. You'll save on monthly maintenance and other charges, but you may still need to pay for some services. Here's what you need to know about finding a no-fee checking account, what banks and credit unions really mean when they say an account is "free" and ways to avoid common fees.

What Is a No-Fee Checking Account?

No-fee checking accounts—sometimes called free checking accounts—are a bit of a misnomer. To qualify as a no-fee account, they must have no monthly maintenance fee, regardless of your balance, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Plus, banks and credit unions can't charge fees for exceeding a certain number of transactions or depositing, withdrawing or transferring money on accounts they tout as free. However, accounts that qualify for no-fee status may have other fees, such as ATM, overdraft, stop payment and more, attached to them.

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How to Find a No-Fee Checking Account

A quick internet search can help you find a list of banks and credit unions offering free checking accounts. But finding one that meets your needs may take a little more legwork. The following steps can help you find a no-fee checking account that's right for you.

  1. Do your research. Check out offerings from traditional brick-and-mortar banks, credit unions and online-only banks. A traditional bank or credit union may be a good option if you like to bank in person. But online banks often have fewer fees overall because they have fewer overhead costs.
  2. Review fee structures. You'll avoid certain types of fees—but not all—with a free checking account. Find out what fees each account charges and determine whether they would apply to you based on how you plan to use the account. For example, foreign transaction fees may not affect you if you only travel domestically. However, wire transfer fees could add up if you use wire transfers to send or receive money to and from friends and family.
  3. Compare features and benefits. Fees aren't the only thing to consider when choosing an account. You may also want to consider the institution's branch network, ATM network, online and mobile banking options, mobile app, customer service availability and other important features.
  4. Verify their insurance. Before opening an account, make sure the bank or credit union is insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) or National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). The FDIC and NCUA insure checking, savings and money market accounts, as well as certificates of deposit (CDs), up to $250,000 per person, per account type, per bank. That means your money is safe, even if the institution has financial difficulty.
  5. Read reviews. Check out online reviews of different banks and credit unions and their products. This can help you gauge customer satisfaction. Just remember, you may have a different experience, so don't put too much weight into a few bad reviews.

More Ways to Avoid Checking Account Fees

Opening a no-fee checking account isn't the only way to prevent fees. How you use and manage your account can significantly affect the fees your bank or credit union charges. Here are some tips to avoid common fees.

  • Build a financial cushion or set up direct deposit. Banks and credit unions often waive monthly maintenance fees when you meet a minimum balance requirement or set up to have your paychecks direct deposited. If you can get the fee waived, you may not need a no-fee account.
  • Don't overdraw your account. You can avoid overdraft and nonsufficient funds fees when you keep enough money in your account to cover all your expenses. Carefully tracking each deposit to and payment from your account will help you avoid trying to make a payment when your balance is low. If overdrafts are a concern for you, look for an account that doesn't charge overdraft fees, or one that allows you to link a backup account.
  • Use in-network ATMs. Some financial institutions charge a fee when you get cash from an out-of-network machine. You can avoid these fees by using in-network ATMs or choosing a provider that reimburses you for out-of-network fees.
  • Use a debit card. Some banks and credit unions charge customers and members for paper checks. You can avoid paying for checks by making payments with your debit or credit card or setting up automated clearing house (ACH) payments. Some banks also waive the check fee if you maintain a minimum balance or set up direct deposit.
  • Use your account consistently. Banks and credit unions may charge an inactivity fee if you don't use your account for a certain number of months. Make sure you're using your account for at least a small transaction on a regular basis to avoid this fee.

Is a No-Fee Checking Account Right for You?

No-fee accounts are worth a look if you don't want to rack up monthly service charges and don't have direct deposit or can't maintain a balance that's high enough to get the fee waived. But free checking accounts aren't the only way to avoid fees, and an account's fee structure isn't the only factor to consider. It's important to evaluate your options holistically and choose an account that aligns with your saving and spending habits—whether it qualifies as fee-free or not.