Just about every adult needs a checking account, and for most people a free checking account will do just fine.
Many people think they have a free checking account, but they don't. They're doing something for it to be free, such as maintaining a certain balance or paying a fee for going over their monthly allotment of checks.
The federal Truth in Savings Act requires that a free account has no minimum balance requirement and no maintenance or activity fees. A maintenance fee might be a monthly service charge that you incur if your balance slips below a certain level. An activity fee could be a charge for writing more than a specified number of checks in a month.
Free checking isn't for everyone. Most free checking accounts don't pay interest, and some accounts have limitations or stipulations. Get a free checking account at some banks and you might be limited to withdrawing $300 per day at an ATM. Other banks may require that a regular payment such as a paycheck or government check be direct-deposited.
Fees with 'free'Consumers also need to realize that free doesn't mean there can't be other fees. There are plenty of "legitimate" fees that can still be charged in conjunction with a free checking account. Fees for nonsufficient funds, or NSF, stopping payment, check printing, dormancy and closing an account early are a few examples.
Some fees surprise customers. Many banks include a debit card with free checking accounts. Unfortunately, more and more people are finding that their bank charges a fee every time they swipe their cards at a cash register. Also be aware that debit cards don't always carry the same protections as credit cards. For more on that, Bankrate's "Debit cards lack protections of credit cards" article explains some of the differences.
Free checking has proven to be very popular. The number of banks that offer them is growing, but far less than a quarter of all checking accounts are free.
Requirements that might disqualify an account from strictly fitting the definition of free checking aren't necessarily bad. For example, many banks waive fees if you maintain a certain balance. If maintaining that balance is OK with you, then you have essentially created a free account for yourself.
Check the fee scheduleWhen applying for free checking, or any checking account for that matter, you should receive a copy of the bank's fee schedule. If you don't, ask. Also, look for conditions such as direct deposit. Then, shop, shop, shop.
The best place to shop for a checking account is at Bankrate.com. We continually update fees, balance requirements and other data on hundreds of checking accounts across the country.
If you've never used our database, be sure to read the next section where we'll show you how to use our checking account survey data to your advantage.