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Here's a radical idea: What if you could join an organization that pools people's money, uses it to make loans and extend credit affordably, offers a range of banking services and never takes a profit? If you like this idea, you might like a credit union.
Credit unions have provided an alternative to traditional banking for more than a century, and more than 120 million Americans belong to one today. Still, many people find credit unions a little mysterious. What is a credit union? How do you join one? Let's break it down.
What Is a Credit Union?
A credit union is a not-for-profit financial institution that functions like a bank. A typical credit union offers checking accounts, savings accounts, car and home loans and credit cards. But, unlike a bank, a credit union isn't in business to turn a profit. Instead of offering products and services with the goal of making money, credit unions can save you money with low- or no-fee accounts and low-interest loans and credit. They also often offer comparatively higher interest rates on savings.
Promoting financial wellness is part of the credit union mission, so many offer counseling, workshops and other types of financial education to help members manage money wisely, work toward homeownership or build credit. If a not-for-profit financial institution that puts your financial wellness first sounds interesting, here are nine things you might want to know about joining a credit union.
9 Things to Know About Joining a Credit Union
Here are answers to nine questions you may have about joining a credit union.
Can Anyone Join a Credit Union?
The Credit Union National Association estimates that 99% of people are eligible to join at least one credit union. The catch here is that not every credit union will work for every person. Each credit union has a limited "field of membership," the legal term for who is eligible for a given credit union. Here are a few examples of field of membership and credit unions that illustrate how they work:
|Field of Membership||Credit Unions Examples|
|Employees of an organization or group of organizations||U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union serves members and staff of the U.S. Senate as well as more than 100 employee groups|
|People who work in an industry or field||SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union serves school employees and their families in California|
|People with a special common background||Navy Federal Credit Union allows all active and retired U.S. military and Defense Department employees and their families to join|
|People who live, work or worship in a community||GreenState Credit Union allows people who live or work in Iowa or a county in Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska or South Dakota that borders Iowa to join|
How Do I Find a Credit Union to Join?
Fields of membership can be confusing. Many credit unions serve both employee groups and community members, for example, so you may have more choices than you think. If there's a credit union in your area you're curious about, visit their website or pop into a branch. They can tell you whether or not you're eligible to become a member. Want to cast a wide net? The Credit Union National Association has a locator site that can connect you with credit unions in your area.
Is a Federal Credit Union Safer?
Federal credit unions are chartered and regulated by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), an independent federal agency. Credit unions that aren't designated as federal credit unions are generally chartered and regulated by a state agency. Federal credit unions may sound more substantial, but in fact this designation alone isn't a reliable indicator of size or safety. At both federal- and state-chartered credit unions, your funds may be insured by the NCUA for up to $250,000.
Does Joining a Credit Union Cost Money?
Typical credit union membership fees range from $5 to $25.
Do I Have to Join a Credit Union to Get a Loan There?
Credit union accounts and services are for members only. So, yes, you have to join the credit union to take out a loan.
Should I Switch All My Accounts to a Credit Union?
You can do all of your banking at a credit union, but you don't have to. You can also try joining and taking out an auto loan or putting your long-term savings into a certificate account (the credit union equivalent of a CD). If you like banking with the credit union, you can switch your other accounts over when you're ready.
Will a Credit Union Have the Technology I Want?
Credit unions can be a bit of a mixed bag on technology. However, many are improving their digital infrastructure and polishing up digital tools like mobile banking apps, contactless card payments, card controls and alerts, online loan applications and access to payment apps like Zelle.
Am I Limited to a Few Branches and ATMs?
Many credit unions belong to shared branching and ATM networks that expand their footprints. As an example, CO-OP ATM Network offers more than 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide for credit union members; CO-OP Shared Branch provides access to more than 5,700 credit union branch locations.
What Do I Need to Join a Credit Union?
If you're in the field of membership, joining a credit union typically requires the same documents you need to open a bank account: a government-issued ID and a second form of identification, such as a Social Security card, a bill with your name and address on it or your birth certificate. You also need a Social Security number so the credit union can report any interest you earn.
Banking Where You Belong
When you join a credit union, you become a stakeholder in the organization—an organization that exists solely for the financial benefit of its members. If you've never thought of your bank as a place you "belong," maybe that's one more reason to consider a credit union. Credit unions may not be for everyone, but they're an alternative for anyone who wants to join.