Key takeaways

  • Various key features of a checking account can help you manage your money more conveniently and safely.
  • Components to look for a checking account include a large ATM network, as well as digital bill payment and the ability to transfer money between accounts.
  • Avoid unnecessary monthly maintenance fees by finding a free checking account.

A checking account enables you to pay bills, transfer money to savings, receive cash from ATMs and make purchases with your debit card. Your checking account is a key part of your personal money management. That’s why it’s important to find a checking account with useful features and without fees that eat into your balance.

The following five checking account offerings are key in helping you manage your personal finances effectively:

1. No (or low) fees

No one likes paying fees, especially to simply keep money in a bank account. That’s why finding a free checking account that doesn’t charge monthly maintenance fees is a must.

Plenty of traditional and online banks don’t charge monthly checking account fees. Examples include Ally Bank, Capital One and Quontic Bank. Other banks allow you to waive monthly fees by meeting specific criteria, like depositing your paycheck into the account each month or making a minimum number of debit card transactions.

Monthly maintenance fees are just the start, though. Look beyond monthly fees to determine what other common fees a bank may charge, which can include:

Many of these fees are avoidable. For example, many banks let you opt for free e-statements instead of charging you for paper statements.

“When you’re considering a new bank, it’s important to look at the fees you’ve been charged with in the past, and compare what those fees would be with your new bank,” says R.J. Weiss, a certified financial planner and founder of the blog The Ways to Wealth. “From there, look for a bank that would decrease the amount of fees you pay.”

2. Large ATM network

Whether you bank locally or online, having access to cash when you need it is important. However, some banks charge fees if you use ATMs that aren’t affiliated with the bank. You can expect to pay two fees if you use an out-of-network ATM: a fee from your bank and a surcharge from the ATM owner.

Out-of-network ATM fees can add up quickly if your bank doesn’t provide ATMs near your home or workplace. Bankrate’s 2023 checking and ATM fee study found the average cost of out-of-network ATM withdrawals was $4.73. That number includes banks’ $$1.58 average out-of-network ATM fee and the $3.15 average surcharge imposed by ATM owners. This combined number is at a record high, according to Bankrate data.

Finding a checking account with access to a large, no-fee ATM network can save you a bundle if you use ATMs often. Though online banks don’t have bank branches, many partner with large ATM networks, such Allpoint or MoneyPass, to provide fee-free ATM access nationwide.

3. Mobile banking apps

Many consumers prefer access to a local bank with in-person customer service, but digital banking offers convenience. Logging onto your bank’s website or mobile app allows you to view your account balance or perform transactions at any time, from anywhere.

“Every checking account needs mobile capabilities for every person,” says Walter Russell, financial planner and president of Russell and Company. “We are living in a faster-paced world. Who really has time to stop at the bank?”

Banking apps commonly offer mobile check deposits. Mobile deposits allow you to take a photo of a check using your phone’s camera and deposit it directly into your checking account.

Mobile check deposit isn’t the only feature that makes mobile banking attractive. Many mobile banking apps allow customers to:

  • Manage checking and other bank accounts
  • View transaction history
  • Transfer money electronically
  • Set up automated savings rules
  • Set travel alerts
  • Pay bills
  • Pay your friends back with Zelle

Some banks even offer mobile virtual assistants to help monitor account activity and perform banking functions. Examples include Capital One 360’s Eno and Ally Bank’s Ally Assist. Virtual assistants let you text or use your voice to perform transactions or answer banking questions.

4. Direct deposit

Direct deposit is an important feature in a checking account for anyone who wishes to have their paycheck deposited by their employer directly into their bank account. Most employees in the U.S. receive their paycheck through direct deposit, and it’s quicker and more convenient than depositing a paper check in the bank.

What’s more, some employers offer split direct deposit, which can help boost your savings. With split direct deposit, portions of each paycheck can be deposited into your checking and savings accounts. It can be a way to send some money straight to savings that you won’t need for bills.

5. Online bill pay and transfers

Checking accounts often allow for online bill pay and electronic transfers, which you can use to send money to friends and family.

Online bill pay lets you pay your bills directly from your checking account. You can skip visiting separate websites to pay your mortgage, utilities, credit cards and other bills. This feature also saves you from writing checks and paying postage.

Many banks allow you to set up recurring bill payments. This helps simplify your money management since you won’t need to track due dates for each bill. If you use this feature, check your bank account regularly and ensure you have sufficient funds to cover your bills.

Bottom line

If you’re in the market for a new checking account, do your homework on what features each includes. The best checking accounts typically offer no fees (or easily avoidable ones), a robust mobile banking app and access to plenty of fee-free ATMs.

Also, consider whether the account pays interest, offers a bank account bonus or provides relationship benefits for those with multiple accounts at the same bank.

— Kevin Payne wrote a previous version of this article.