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Banks vs. credit unions: How to decide where to keep your money

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Your priorities and what you value in a bank will help you determine where to keep your money. Comparing banks with credit unions in your search might make sense.

Banks and credit unions both offer a number of financial products, including savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs). The main difference between the two is that banks are typically for-profit institutions while credit unions are not-for-profit and distribute their profits among its members. Credit unions tend to serve a specific region or a specific group of people.

There are pros and cons to opening a savings account with either a bank or credit union, but it’s important to know which more closely aligns with your needs. When you find the right savings account, you’ll get the most of its features, it’ll be easier to save and you’ll be able to manage the account without any hassle.

Banks vs. credit unions

Banks Credit unions
Who they serve Mostly customers in an area where the bank has a branch, unless it’s an online-only bank. It could be a certain region, employer or common group.
Savings and CD rates Typically lower than the national average. Generally above the bank national average.
Do they have branches? Yes, though some online banks have few or none. Yes, though some credit unions are online only.
Technology Generally, larger brick-and-mortar banks have advanced technology. Smaller banks might not. Some larger credit unions have advanced technology, but smaller credit unions might not.

Key statistics:

  • There were 4,796 federally insured banks in the first quarter of 2022, a slight decline from the year before.
  • There were 4,942 federally insured credit unions at the end of 2021.
  • While the number of credit unions declined from the previous year, the total assets held at all credit unions increased by 11.7 percent.
  • Americans stick with the same bank or credit union for 14 years on average.
  • Just under half of Americans (44 percent) reported having less than $1,000 in savings.
  • Recent polling shows that 23 percent of households have no savings at all.

Sources: FDIC, NCUA and Bankrate

Credit unions

Advantages of credit unions

  1. Higher rates: Credit unions are not-for-profit organizations owned by their members. “That’s the main difference between (banks and credit unions),” says Rutger van Faassen, director of new markets and innovation at analytics provider Curinos. Credit unions typically provide better savings and lending rates, van Faassen says.
  2. NCUA insurance: Federally insured credit unions are backed by the U.S. government. Your money is safe if a credit union fails. Check the NCUA’s Share Insurance Estimator to see how insurance rules apply to member share accounts, which can help you determine what’s insured and if any amount exceeds the coverage limits.
  3. Personal connection: Credit unions tend to be local or regional and often service a specific community. As such, the service a credit union provides may be more personalized, and you may also be supporting an institution that upholds your values.

Disadvantages of credit unions

  1. Limited access: Credit unions typically are local or regional and may not serve your area. It may not make sense to bank at a credit union that has no branches near you.
  2. Higher rates may be available at online banks: Online-only banks, also known as direct banks, tend to have more competitive savings and CD yields.
  3. Membership requirements: You might have to live or work in a certain region to become a member of a credit union. Or the field of membership, which is the common bond shared by the credit union members, might have other requirements.

Banks

Advantages of banks

  1. More locations: Brick-and-mortar banks may have branches and ATMs down the street from where you work or live. And larger ones may also have locations wherever you travel across the country.
  2. Variety of options: Some of the largest banks in the country, such as Chase or Bank of America, are brick-and-mortar banks, but banks can also be small local or regional and may provide more personalized service. There are also plenty of online banks for the digitally minded.
  3. Advanced technology: Banks are a little ahead when it comes to technology, van Faassen says. They may offer more comprehensive mobile banking apps and special savings features, such as automated saving.

Disadvantages of banks

  1. Lower savings rates: Many of the large, traditional banks in the U.S. do not offer competitive annual percentage yields (APYs) on their savings products.
  2. High balance requirements or maintenance fees: Some banks are known for charging fees, though there are usually ways to waive them.

Brick-and-mortar banks vs. online banks

Depending on their size, brick-and-mortar banks may operate thousands of branches, just one or some number in between. Online banks, on the other hand, usually don’t operate any branches, and opt instead to offer their products and services solely over the internet. Similarly to brick-and-mortar banks, some online banks offer accounts to customers anywhere in the U.S., while others only allow consumers in certain states or areas to open accounts.

Without the expense of branches to maintain, online banks are able to attract customers by offering higher yields on savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs, though not all online banks offer competitive rates. Direct banks are also known for not charging maintenance fees.

Brick-and-mortar banks sometimes offer signature guarantee services in the form of a notary or medallion signature stamp for transferring securities. Services such as these, along with safe deposit boxes, are why some consumers prefer to have accounts at brick-and-mortar banks.

Bank/credit union trends

  • More reliance on digital banking: Banking technology has been evolving greatly over the years. While most consumers still use traditional banks, 62 percent of consumers say they are somewhat or highly likely to switch to a digital-only bank, a poll by Galileo Financial Technologies found. Consumers also reported higher levels of satisfaction with digital banks.
  • Branches are closing rapidly: Alongside the rise of digital banking is the decline of branch-banking. Between 2017 and 2021, 9 percent of all bank branches in the U.S. closed, according to a report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit organization.
  • The decline of overdraft fees: Various banks and credit unions have either cut or plan to cut or reduce their overdraft fees. Alien Credit Union, Ally Bank and Capital One are just a few of the financial institutions that have been at the forefront of this trend.
  • More households are gaining access to bank or credit union accounts: In 2020, 5 percent of households were “unbanked,” meaning they had no bank account, according to the Federal Reserve. While it’s still important to account for that 5 percent, the number of unbanked households has decreased by 3.2 percentage points since 2011.
  • Environmentally friendly banking: Some financial institutions are becoming more conscious of their impact on the environment, including where they invest their money. The Global Alliance for Banking on Values is a network of banks that are committed to prioritizing the environment and local communities. Many banks have also shifted from paper statements to paperless statements to reduce the amount of paper waste they produce.

Are banks safer than credit unions?

FDIC banks and NCUA credit unions are both backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and offer similar protections. Both institutions protect up to $250,000 per depositor, per federally insured bank or credit union, per ownership category.

Other factors to consider

Here are some other things to consider when choosing between a bank and a credit union.

  • Are branch and ATM locations convenient?
  • Is the bank or credit union part of an ATM network?
  • Does it reimburse some or all out-of-network ATM fees?
  • Do customer-service hours work with your schedule?
  • Check Bankrate’s reviews to research and compare banks.

Most popular banks and credit unions by state

STATE MOST POPULAR BANK MOST POPULAR CREDIT UNION
Alabama Regions Bank Redstone Federal Credit Union
Alaska Wells Fargo Alaska USA Federal Credit Union
Arizona Chase Bank Desert Financial Credit Union
Arkansas Arvest Bank Arkansas Federal Credit Union
California Chase Bank SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union
Colorado Wells Fargo Ent Credit Union
Connecticut M&T Bank Connecticut State Employees Credit Union
Delaware M&T Bank Del-One Federal Credit Union
Florida Wells Fargo Suncoast Credit Union
Georgia Truist Bank Delta Community Credit Union
Hawaii Bank of Hawaii HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union
Idaho U.S. Bank Idaho Central Credit Union
Illinois Chase Bank Alliant Credit Union
Indiana Chase Bank Teachers Credit Union
Iowa U.S. Bank GreenState Credit Union
Kansas Capitol Federal Savings Bank CommunityAmerica Credit Union
Kentucky U.S. Bank Abound Credit Union
Louisiana Chase Bank Barksdale Federal Credit Union
Maine Bangor Savings Bank Atlantic Federal Credit Union
Maryland M&T Bank SECU MD
Massachusetts Citizens Bank DCU
Michigan Huntington Lake Michigan Credit Union
Minnesota Wells Fargo Wings Financial Credit Union
Mississippi Regions Bank Keesler Federal Credit Union
Missouri U.S. Bank First Community Credit Union
Montana Glacier Bank Whitefish Credit Union
Nebraska Pinnacle Bank Cobalt Credit Union
Nevada Wells Fargo Greater Nevada Credit Union
New Hampshire Citizens Bank Service Credit Union
New Jersey Wells Fargo Affinity Federal Credit Union
New Mexico Wells Fargo Nusenda Credit Union
New York Chase Bank Bethpage Federal Credit Union
North Carolina Truist Bank State Employees Credit Union
North Dakota Gate City Bank First Community Credit Union
Ohio Huntington Wright-Patt Credit Union
Oklahoma Bancfirst Tinker Federal Credit Union
Oregon U.S. Bank OnPoint Community Credit Union
Pennsylvania PNC Bank PSECU
Rhode Island Citizens Bank Navigant Credit Union
South Carolina First Citizens Bank Founders Federal Credit Union
South Dakota First Interstate Bank Black Hills Federal Credit Union
Tennessee Regions Bank Eastman Credit Union
Texas Wells Fargo Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union
Utah Zions Bank America First Credit Union
Vermont M&T Bank New England Federal Credit Union
Virginia Truist Bank Navy Federal Credit Union
Washington Chase Bank BECU
West Virginia City National Bank of West Virginia Bayer Heritage Federal Credit Union
Wisconsin BMO Harris Landmark Credit Union
Wyoming Bank of The West Blue Federal Credit Union

Sources: FDIC and Credit Unions Online

Bottom line

When shopping around for the right bank or credit union, always look out for fees, minimum balance requirements and what rates are offered on savings products. You might also want to consider accessibility — whether that be by branch location or by digital means.

Most consumers keep their bank account with the same institution for over a decade, so it pays to make a decision that you feel confident with. But don’t hesitate to switch to a new bank or credit union, especially when some institutions are offering yields that far outpace others.

Written by
Matthew Goldberg
Consumer banking reporter
Matthew Goldberg is a consumer banking reporter at Bankrate. Matthew has been in financial services for more than a decade, in banking and insurance.
Edited by
Managing editor