Best free checking accounts in September 2021

When it comes to everyday banking, you shouldn’t settle for less than a free checking account.

The best free checking accounts also offer perks, such as a high annual percentage yield (APY) that pays interest on your balance, out-of-network ATM reimbursement and/or free bank checks.

Checking fees to be aware of

Many free accounts can end up costing you fees if you don’t meet the bank’s requirements. Make sure you know what these rules are before opening an account.

Some fees to watch for:

  • Maintenance fee: You’ll usually get charged this fee if you go below a certain balance in a monthly statement period.
  • Overdraft fee: Transactions that cause a negative balance (i.e., withdrawing more than is deposited in the account) can trigger this fee.
  • Sustained overdraft fee: A fee charged after a certain period of time if your account remains negative.
  • ATM fees: Know what it will cost you to withdraw your money from an out-of-network ATM (and confirm what counts as in and out of network). Some banks will reimburse some or all of these fees. According to Bankrate’s 2020 checking account and ATM fee study, using an out-of-network ATM costs an average of $4.64. A customer’s bank charges an average of $1.56 and surcharges from the ATM cost customers an (additional) average of $3.08.
  • Paper statement fees: Many banks charge a fee to receive a paper statement in the mail.

Free checking (no monthly fees)

Free checking accounts offer the promise of avoiding the monthly maintenance fees that many banks charge on checking accounts, though some fees — even on free accounts — are unavoidable. Be sure to understand the rules governing your account. Some banks will waive (or reimburse) ATM fees, so it’s important to know which networks your bank participates in. In compiling our list of best free checking we used total ATM figures directly from each bank’s website.

Compare: Best free checking accounts in September 2021

Ally Bank: Interest Checking Account – Best for 24/7 service

Ally Bank offers a checking account that doesn’t have a monthly maintenance fee or a minimum opening deposit. It also pays (a little) interest, 0.1 percent APY on balances less than $15,000 and 0.25 percent APY with a minimum daily balance of $15,000.

This interest checking account also offers freebies, such as free standard checks and access to free Allpoint ATMs.

  • Minimum deposit and balance requirements: $0
  • Yield: up to 0.25 percent APY ($15,000 minimum daily balance required for this APY)
  • Physical branches: No
  • Mobile app offered: Yes
  • ATM access: more than 43,000 Allpoint ATMs
  • Offers and incentives: Free standard checks and cashier’s checks, incoming wire transfers without a fee and free access to Allpoint ATMs.

Capital One: 360 Checking Account – Best for branches and online combination

This checking account earns a little bit of interest on all balances and doesn’t require money to open or maintain the account. It also gives you fee-free access to more than 70,000 Capital One, MoneyPass and Allpoint ATMs.

You can open a 360 checking account either online or at a Capital One location.

  • Minimum deposit and balance requirements: $0
  • Yield: 0.1 percent APY
  • Physical branches: Yes
  • Mobile app offered: Yes
  • ATM access: More than 70,000 Capital One, MoneyPass and Allpoint ATMs.
  • Offers and incentives: Your first checkbook order is free.

Discover Bank: Cashback Debit Account – Best for earning cash back

This checking account doesn’t charge you a monthly maintenance fee and gives you a cash-back option. You earn 1 percent cash back on up to $3,000 in monthly debit card purchases with this checking account.

This account also provides free standard and official bank checks.

  • Minimum deposit and balance requirements: $0
  • Yield: None
  • Physical branches: One branch
  • Mobile app offered: Yes
  • ATM access: More than 60,000 ATMs in the U.S.
  • Offers and incentives: 1 percent cash back on up to $3,000 debit card transactions per month, free standard checks, official bank checks and no stop payment fees.

FNBO Direct: Online Checking Account – Best for annual overdraft refund

The FNBO Direct Online Checking Account only requires $1 to open the account and helps you earn some interest. The account has free incoming wires and no monthly maintenance fees. With this account, you’ll be able to access surcharge-free ATMs via Allpoint’s network.

  • Minimum deposit and balance requirements: $1 minimum deposit and no minimum balance.
  • Yield: up to 0.15 percent APY (minimum balance for APY is $0.01)
  • Physical branches: No
  • Mobile app offered: Yes
  • ATM access: 55,000 Allpoint ATMs
  • Offers and incentives: FNBO Direct automatically refunds one overdraft fee or returned item fee every 12 months from the date you last received a refund. (A returned item fee occurs when a transaction is returned unpaid because there’s insufficient money in the account.)

Nbkc bank: Everything Account – Best for high yield

Nbkc bank is an online bank headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas. It also has four locations in Kansas and Missouri. The nbkc personal account offers you a competitive APY for a free checking account. It only takes $5 to open this account.

The personal account also reimburses up to $12 worth of ATM fees incurred by using ATMs that aren’t in the nbkc or MoneyPass network.

  • Minimum deposit and balance requirements: $0 to open and no minimum balance.
  • Yield: 0.15 percent APY
  • Physical branches: Yes
  • Mobile app offered: Yes
  • ATM access: More than 37,000 MoneyPass ATMs in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
  • Offers and incentives: Free starter checkbook and reimbursement of up to $12 for out-of-network ATM fees.

Getting a competitive yield

There are free checking accounts that will offer you a competitive APY without charging you fees. But you’ll likely need to set up a direct deposit or make a certain number of debit card purchases to qualify for this higher APY. At some banks, both direct deposit and a minimum number of debit card purchases may be required.

Unlike most savings accounts and money market accounts at online banks, this high APY might be capped if your balance goes beyond a certain amount. Any balance amount that surpasses a certain threshold earns less than the top-yielding savings accounts and money market accounts. Therefore, transferring any excess balances to higher-earning accounts (like savings accounts or money market accounts) is a good way to optimize your earning power.

Minimum deposit and balance requirements

Accounts usually have a minimum amount required for opening and a minimum balance that you need to stay above to avoid a maintenance fee.

Approximately 47 percent of checking accounts that don’t earn interest are considered free, according to Bankrate’s 2020 checking account and ATM fee study. A checking account is considered free if it doesn’t charge monthly maintenance fees or require a minimum balance.

Some banks may offer a checking account that will waive the maintenance fee if you have your direct deposit going into this account.

The average minimum balance needed to open a non-interest-bearing checking account is $156, according to that same Bankrate study. If you want an interest-bearing checking account, you may need to deposit even more. The average minimum balance requirement on interest-bearing checking accounts is $7,550, according to Bankrate’s 2020 study.

Look for a checking account that doesn’t have a maintenance fee and/or requires a minimum balance that you can always stay above.

Rewards and incentives

Some free checking accounts will give you a higher APY if you have a direct deposit or make a certain number of purchases with a debit card. These checking accounts should be considered if you can meet their requirements.

Banks also may offer reimbursement on out-of-network ATM fees, free official checks or a free order of standard checks on an account that is free, as long as you meet its direct deposit or balance conditions.

If you’ve had your checking account for years, that’s normal. The average U.S. adult has had the same primary checking account for around 14 years, according to a Bankrate survey.

But banking has changed a lot in the past 14 years. For instance, some checking accounts offer mobile apps that caution you before you overdraw your account. Others let you overdraw your account without the bank charging you a fee. It’s always good to compare checking accounts to see if there’s a better one for you, especially if your checking account is charging you maintenance fees.

Overdraft options

See if your bank has an option to enroll in debit card overdraft protection. If you’re going to enroll in this feature, ask how much the bank charges if you make a transaction that takes your account negative.

Bankrate’s 2020 checking account and ATM fee study found the average overdraft fee is $33.47.

Here are the overdraft options at Capital One, for example:

  • Auto-decline: Transactions that take your account balance negative will generally be declined by the bank.
  • Savings overdraft protection: A linked savings account or money market account can fund a transaction that would otherwise take your checking balance negative. So you’ll need to have at least two bank accounts, a savings deposit account and a checking account, for the checking to pull from savings to cover an overdraft. This type of overdraft may be less costly than standard overdraft charges.
  • Opportunity to make your account positive: You may have some time to fund your account with the amount you’re overdrawn to avoid an overdraft fee. At Capital One, it’s a full business day.

Pros and cons of free checking

Before opening a free checking account, weigh the pros and cons to see if it’s the right product for you.

The pros of a free checking account include:

  • There are many options that have low minimum balance requirements. Some accounts might not require any minimum balance to open or maintain the account.
  • With some accounts, you may be able to use any ATM convenient to you for free.
  • Paying maintenance fees on a checking account should be avoidable. Save this money, and instead of paying these fees to a bank, use it to pay bills or build an emergency fund.
  • Some free checking accounts may offer you more perks and benefits, such as free checks, cash back on debit card purchases or a high APY.

The cons of a free checking account include:

  • If you need to make a certain number of debit card purchases to meet the account requirements to get a higher APY, you might be better off with a cash back or rewards credit card. Compare these options to see which is better for you.
  • Many checking accounts are free, as long as you maintain a certain balance. But some accounts might have high minimum balances. Having a lot of money in a checking account that isn’t earning a high APY, just to avoid a maintenance fee and earn some perks, might not be worth as much as having your money in a high-yield account.

Potential fees to avoid

If you’re incurring fees, you need to re-evaluate your accounts to avoid as many fees as you can. Here are a few of the most common – yet avoidable – fees.

Maintenance fees

A bank generally charges this fee if you go below a certain balance in your account. Some banks may waive this fee if you have a direct deposit into your account, though it might have to exceed a certain dollar amount.

How to avoid this fee: Find a bank that doesn’t charge a maintenance fee or one that has a low minimum balance. Also, find a bank where your direct deposit will automatically waive the monthly maintenance fee.

Overdraft fees

Banks charge this fee when you spend more than what’s in your account and the bank covers the transaction.

How to avoid this fee: Sometimes having too many bank accounts can result in an overdraft. Consolidating accounts could prevent this from happening. Planning and budgeting can also help you prepare for expenses. Keep an eye on your account using an app, online banking or a checkbook register.

ATM fees

A charge for using an out-of-network ATM is another common fee.

How to avoid this fee: Find banks that either waive a certain amount of out-of-network ATM fees or banks that have a large network or a network convenient to you. Also, you’re usually able to get cash back on a debit card purchase at a grocery store, pharmacy or convenience store. Keep in mind that there are usually limits, just like on ATM withdrawals, to how much cash back you can receive.

What to expect when opening a checking account

Generally, it should take under half an hour to open an account. There are some circumstances where it might take longer.

The account opening process may take longer if you have a credit freeze on your credit file and the bank’s policy is to contact at least one credit bureau during the account-opening process. If there is a freeze on your credit in place, check with the bank before applying to see whether you need to lift the credit freeze at only one credit bureau or whether you need to do this at multiple bureaus.

What do I need to provide when opening a new checking account?

This will vary from bank to bank. Here is a list of items you might need to provide or be aware of when opening a new checking account:

  • Your legal name
  • Social Security number or tax identification number
  • Date of birth
  • Occupation
  • Email address
  • Phone number
  • Address
  • Scan of your government-issued photo ID
  • Initial deposit (If you’re making it electronically from an existing account, you may need the routing number and account number for this account.)

Can I open an account online?

At an online bank, you’re almost always able to open an account online. Many brick-and-mortar banks also let you open up accounts online.

An online bank may also allow you to apply for an account over the phone.

Summary of our top free checking accounts

Account name Minimum opening deposit Monthly service fee APY
Ally Bank $0 None 0.10-0.25%
Capital One $0 None 0.10%
Discover Bank $0 None N/A
FNBO Direct $1 None 0.15%
Nbkc bank $0 None 0.15%

Note: The APYs (Annual Percentage Yields) shown are as of Sept. 1, 2021. The rates for some products may vary by region.

Learn more: