Bankrate surveyed the top 50 credit unions in the nation from Jan. 15-28.
"Once again, free checking is the rule rather than the exception among the largest credit unions," says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate's senior financial analyst. "That's in stark contrast to the sharp year-over-year declines that we continue to see in the banking sector."
That contrast is something credit unions want you to notice, says Ted Thames, senior director at Cornerstone Advisors, a financial industry consulting firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. What they don't have in marketing muscle or branch network, they try and make up for by offering some of the lowest-priced checking around.
Lower fees than banks
"Free checking is something that credit unions pioneered way back, and I believe that the motivation for them to continue to keep that is a competitive one," Thames says. "Credit unions continue to think free checking is a draw."
For credit union checking accounts that do have a monthly fee, it's very likely you can get around it, McBride says.
"Even in the absence of a checking account that's free on a stand-alone basis is the nearly universal ability to get that fee waived through something like direct deposit, e-statements, transaction activity or some combination thereof," McBride says.
Overall, 96 percent of credit union checking accounts are free or can become free if you meet certain conditions.
But it wasn't just monthly maintenance fees where credit unions had a distinct advantage in Bankrate's survey. While credit unions aren't immune to charging penalties, their overdraft fees, known in the industry as NSF fees for nonsufficient funds, average $26.74 at credit unions compared to $31.26 at banks. That's not chump change, but it will demolish your checking account slightly less quickly should you run up multiple overdrafts.
Credit union checking accounts are also more lenient when it comes to using other financial institutions' ATMs. Nearly a third of credit unions do not charge a fee for using another institution's ATM or waive at least one such fee per week. Those that do charge a fee typically ding customers $1 or $1.50; banks usually charge $2.