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Comparing checking accounts: 7 top features to look for

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Our relationships — especially with the banks housing our checking accounts — tend to be for the long haul. And as with any marriage or long-term partnership, it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into before making a serious commitment.

Keep this in mind when shopping around for a new checking account. Pay attention to detail and know what you’re looking for. Don’t settle for anything less that what’s best for you and your lifestyle.

Of course, all of the factors you’ll need to take into account can make the process of looking for a new account seem overwhelming. If you’re having a hard time deciding how to start your search and narrow down options, follow these steps.

Here’s what you’ll need to consider if you’re on a mission to choose the best checking account.

1. Look for an account with no monthly fee

A checking account isn’t like a gym membership — paying more doesn’t mean you’re getting any additional perks or special benefits. Rather, extra fees for monthly service and maintenance only take money out of your pocket that you could save or use to pay off debt.

Monthly maintenance and service fees quickly add up. For non-interest checking accounts, the monthly fee is $5.61, on average. Interest-bearing checking account holders pay more than twice as much, on average, and end up spending more than $180 per year on these charges.

Do yourself a favor and look for fee-free checking accounts offered by online banks and neo-banking alternatives. Check bank fee schedules to avoid other unnecessary charges, like overdraft and ATM fees and excessive transaction charges.

2. Compare accounts with low minimum balance requirements

Monthly fees often come into play when a bank has a minimum balance requirement. Failing to follow a rule, like keeping a certain amount of money in your account by the end of each day, could easily trigger a monthly service charge.

Among accounts with a balance requirement, $1,500 is the most common threshold. But among non-interest bearing checking accounts, there’s more likely to be no minimum balance requirement at all, says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst.

As you’re comparing checking accounts, look out for options with low or no-minimum balance requirements. Finding these kinds of accounts is easier than you think.

“Forty-two percent of the non-interest accounts offered by banks surveyed by Bankrate have no minimum balance requirement and no monthly fees, the highest in eight years,” McBride says. “So free checking is alive and well if you look for it.”

3. Find an account that refunds ATM fees

ATM charges are another pesky bank fee you could find yourself paying if you’re not careful. Visiting an out-of-network ATM could cost you nearly $5 apiece, on average.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid paying a fee when you need cash. One strategy is to be aware of the ATMs in a bank or credit union’s network. Some provide tools helping you to find the closest in-network ATM. You could also plan to get cash while you’re shopping and using your debit card.

Another option: Find a checking account at a bank or credit union that reimburses ATM fees. Customers with Ally Bank checking accounts, for example, will find that the bank reimburses up to $10 spent on ATM fees each statement cycle. A similar rebate program is also available at Alliant Credit Union.

4. Compare digital offerings

Just about all checking accounts today offer standard features like mobile check deposit and access to a person-to-person payment system. For some consumers, however, that may not be enough.

The checking account of your dreams may have additional bells and whistles, like early direct deposit, an app that says you’re spending too much money on Uber rides or a virtual assistant that reminds you when a bill is overdue.

Features offered by certain banks could potentially help you keep your spending in check. You’ll just have to do some additional research and read app and bank reviews to find out which institutions stand apart from the rest in terms of technology and innovation.

[READ: 3 key benefits of mobile banking in 2019]

5. Consider a high-yield checking account

Anyone hoping to squeeze out extra interest may want to look into opening a high-yield checking account. Many accounts don’t pay any interest at all and among those that do, the annual percentage yield is low (on average, 0.06 percent APY).

But some high-yield accounts (also known as reward checking accounts) pay as much as 3 or 4 percent APY. The catch: you won’t earn much interest without jumping through some hoops.

“Whether or not these accounts make sense for you depends on if you can hit the requirements to earn the higher yield – typically a certain number of debit card transactions, have direct deposit or online bill pay, and receive online statements – consistently month-in and month-out,” McBride says. “Even then, some of the higher-yielding checking accounts will cap the balance on which they’ll pay that higher interest rate so you might be better off with an account that doesn’t have the highest APY but will pay it on a much larger amount.”

6. Consider an account with a sign-up bonus

You’ll typically find high-yield checking accounts at smaller banks and credit unions. Bigger banks usually offer a different benefit: a bonus you can earn when opening a new savings or checking account.

The best bank account bonuses can range anywhere from $200 to $500 or more, depending on the bank. But earning this bonus isn’t always easy and often requires customers to put in some extra leg work.

A sign-up bonus in the end may not be worth the anxiety you experience trying to earn it. Some of the banks that offer bonuses also charge higher monthly fees. And since bank account bonuses are taxable, you could essentially earn nothing if you’re in a higher tax bracket, McBride says.

“The sign up bonus is in big, bold lettering, but the most important details are in the fine print,” McBride says. “Be sure to check the details to see what is required to earn the bonus and decide if it still makes sense for you.”

[READ: Best student checking accounts]

7. Consider FDIC-insurance limits

Whether you’re opening a new checking or savings account, insurance matters. Banks don’t fail as often as they did around the time of the Great Recession. But it doesn’t hurt to have a safety net in case a bank has to shut down.

This is why having insurance offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (or the National Credit Union Administration) is key. The problem for higher-income households, however, is that accounts are only insured up to a set limit of $250,000 per depositor, per ownership category at each institution.

That’s something to keep in mind if you’re a high roller planning to open a checking account at the same bank holding your savings account and CDs. Unless there’s access to additional insurance through a private fund, you could run into trouble if you exceed the insurance limit and there’s potential for your bank to go under.

Do your homework

Choosing the right checking account will take some time. There’s a lot to think about and many options to weigh as you reflect on what’s most important. Depending on what you value, you may prefer an account offered by a community bank over an online bank or vice versa.

As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you’re bound to come across an account that’s a good fit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get into the nitty gritty so you’re fully aware of what’s to come when you finally choose an account.

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