Credit unions are not-for-profit financial institutions that basically do what banks do, but often with lower rates on loans and credit, higher rates on savings and lower fees overall. If you're thinking about switching banks, you can join a credit union online and even do most of your banking online or on an app.
Although the digital experience at credit unions can be a bit of a mixed bag, it's possible to find a credit union that offers online account opening, an excellent mobile banking app, faster access to your direct deposit paycheck, nationwide access to fee-free ATMs and even a coast-to-coast network of shared branches. You can generally open a credit union account online with two forms of ID, a Social Security number and a debit card.
How Are Credit Unions Different From Banks?
First, it helps to know what separates credit unions from banks. Here are a few key differentiators:
Member-Owned and Not-for-Profit
Banks are owned by their shareholders; credit unions are owned by their members—for the benefit of their members. Credit unions embrace a "people helping people" philosophy that makes their members' financial wellness their focus. When credit unions take in more revenue than they need to operate, they return the "profits" to members in the form of lower rates and fees on loans and credit, or higher returns on savings.
Free Checking and Other Hard-to-Find Products
Because credit unions aren't trying to earn a profit from their members, their product mix may include accounts that aren't widely available from banks—or, sometimes, are more in line with what you'd find at an online bank. Here's a quick list of standouts you could find at a credit union:
- Free checking with no maintenance fees and no or low minimum average daily balance requirements
- High-yield savings accounts with rates that rival those at online banks
- High-yield interest-earning checking accounts
- Low-interest home and auto loans with some programs geared to first-time buyers and members who are still building credit
How to Join a Credit Union Online
Ready to sign up—or at least learn more? Here are four easy steps to finding and joining a credit union online.
Step 1: Find a Credit Union
If a credit union nearby catches your eye, it's not a bad idea to start your search there. Visit their website and check out what they have to offer.
If you don't have any credit unions nearby, the National Credit Union Association (NCUA) can help you search for credit unions that meet your criteria. Use their online credit union locator to find a credit union in your city or state. The locator's research tool can help narrow your search by field of membership, low-income designation or whether or not it's a minority depository institution.
Step 2: Do Some Research
Ask these basic questions to determine whether a credit union is a possible fit for you:
- Am I eligible to join? Credit unions may limit their fields of membership to employees of specific companies or people who live in certain geographical areas. If you don't qualify that way, you may be eligible for membership if you donate to a specific charity or join a designated nonprofit group. Look for membership details on the credit union's site and be prepared to shop a few sites before you find one that works for you.
- Can I open my account and operate my account online? If you'd rather not visit a branch, make sure the credit union is equipped to open and service your account online.
- Do they offer the products and features I want? Check out the rates on savings, loans and credit cards, and compare them with other credit unions and banks. Also check your ability to use Apple Pay, Google Pay or Zelle; mobile banking features like mobile check deposit; and extras like card controls with text alerts, if these are important to you.
- How can I access my money? While you may not expect to see the inside of a branch anytime soon, you might like to know that you can visit a branch (or an ATM) if necessary. Check out the credit union's branch and ATM locations, as well as whether they participate in ATM and shared branching through a network.
Step 3: Get Your Information Together
When you're ready to get started, you'll need four things to open an account online:
- Government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport
- A second form of ID, such as a birth certificate or vehicle registration
- Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number
- Debit card or bank routing and account information to fund your account
You'll also need to provide basic personal information like your name, address and phone number.
Step 4: Sign Up and Fund Your Account
Your credit union may charge a membership fee of $5 to $25, which typically buys you a share of the credit union. If you need to donate to or join a nonprofit to qualify for membership, the credit union's site usually provides links.
Once you've completed membership and account opening, use your debit card or checking account information to fund your account. Depending on the credit union, you may be required to maintain a basic savings account in addition to any checking or high-yield savings you'd like to open. Typically, it's wise to start with only the minimum required balance for each account. Once your accounts are up and running—and the initial money transfer is complete—you can move more money in and begin routing direct deposits to your new account(s).
Pricing Benefits and a Not-for-Profit Mentality
If you're in the market for a banking alternative, credit unions have pricing benefits and a not-for-profit mentality that are unique and appealing. Although it may take a bit of online digging, it's possible to find a credit union you can join online with the digital tools you want and money-saving rates to boot.