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How to choose a bank: 8 steps to take

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Which bank should I choose?

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A bank should fit your individual needs, whether you’re looking to earn some money on your savings, find helpful budgeting tools or get access to a large ATM network.

8 steps to choose a new bank

Before committing to opening a bank, take these steps to ensure you’re making a smart choice.

1. Identify your ideal type of account

Banks offer many different types of products and services. Trying to compare all of them at once could seem overwhelming. A good place to start is deciding which type of accounts you want to open based on your financial goals and priorities.

Some common accounts include:

If you’re looking to replace your checking account, you might want to go with a bigger, traditional bank that has multiple types of checking accounts to choose from. Or, you may want a high-yield checking account like the ones often offered at some credit unions and online banks.

If you’re interested in saving more money, you could open a high-yield savings account. Online banks typically pay higher rates than brick-and-mortar banks. The average savings account APY is 0.06 percent, but the top banks pay up to 0.6 percent. Online banks are just as safe as other banks as long as they’re FDIC-insured and have some basic security protections. Money market accounts — which are similar to savings accounts but may have check-writing privileges but allow for a limited number of monthly transactions — are another option.

CDs offer another way to earn interest. You’ll lock up your money for a set amount of time (for example, one year), and you’ll earn a guaranteed rate of return. You can access your money before the CD matures, but you’ll likely have to pay fees or a penalty. Rates and terms offered will vary from one bank to the next, so consider your financial goals and whether the CDs offered fit your needs.

You may also want a bank that offers debit card and credit card options, as well as lending products such as mortgages and personal loans.

As you’re doing your research, knowing what you want out of a bank can help you narrow down your list.

2. Look for banks that charge low or no fees

There’s no need to stick with a bank that charges a ton of fees when a number of banks charge low or no fees.

Online banks are known for their low fees. Because they have few (if any) branches, they have lower operating costs, so they typically don’t charge as many fees as brick-and-mortar banks. There are even ATMs that provide no-fee withdrawals for certain online bank cardholders.

Fees you should watch out for include monthly maintenance fees, ATM fees and overdraft fees. The average overdraft fee is $33.47, according to a Bankrate study. Even opting for an overdraft protection program (where the bank covers a purchase that you can’t afford) can be expensive. The 2017 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study found that those who opt in to overdraft protection pay about seven times more in fees than those who don’t.

When you’re shopping for a new bank, find one that has more lenient overdraft policies.

And when you find your perfect account, do this:

  • Link your checking account to another account at your financial institution so that if you run out of money in your checking account, the bank will pull money from the other account to cover the transaction. You may be charged a fee for this, but it’s typically less than an overdraft fee.
  • Sign up for low balance alerts through your bank or credit union’s website. These alerts, which you may be able to receive on your phone, will alert you when you are at risk of overdrawing your account.

3. Consider the convenience of a bank branch

When it comes to banking, another key factor is accessibility.

Most consumers will want to take into account ATM location convenience, branch location convenience and the availability of online and mobile banking, says Paul McAdam, senior director of banking services at J.D. Power. The characteristic that’s most important, however, varies, particularly by generation. For younger consumers, mobile banking capabilities trump branch location convenience. The opposite may be true for older bank customers.

Still, branches continue to play a role in the lives of most Americans, with 78 percent saying they’ve opened their most recent new account or product in person at a branch, according to J.D. Power. Their data also indicates that branch offices in convenient locations is the most common reason a consumer selected their primary financial institution.

The takeaway? Even if you plan to do almost everything online, you might want a bank with some physical branches.

4. Take a look at credit unions

Many consumers are familiar with the biggest banks. But you’ll want to shop around and consider credit unions, too.

Finding out what local credit unions offer may take time. However, doing some research could pay off.

Credit unions are member-owned, not-for-profit organizations. Profits are typically returned back to members in the form of lower fees, higher savings rates and lower borrowing rates.

Joining a credit union is not as difficult as it used to be. Quite a few are available nationwide and many allow you to qualify for membership simply by joining an organization or making a donation to a charitable organization.

Start your search with Bankrate’s Best Credit Unions of 2021.

5. Find a bank that fits your lifestyle

The bank you choose should meet your needs. If you’re entrepreneurial, you’ll want a bank that can provide support as you build a business.

If you’re trying to save more money, look for a bank that offers features to help you reach your goals.

Some banks, for example, let you open and name separate savings accounts. You may have a savings account for your emergency fund, one for a travel fund and another for a gift fund.

Considering your spending habits is also a good idea when deciding where to bank. Many banks have budgeting tools built into their websites or apps that make it easy to track your expenses and see where your money is going.

6. Examine digital features

Most banks offer basic services through their app and website, like the ability to transfer funds, pay bills, check balances and make mobile check deposits. But not all banks offer advanced digital capabilities.

Some banks are missing features that are increasingly being demanded by consumers, like the ability to lock a debit card (and prevent a stranger from using it) or manage mobile banking alerts. In a small number of cases, there are online banks that don’t offer a smartphone app and require you to log in through a mobile browser.

If you value a high-tech online or mobile experience, read our bank reviews and check with the banks you’re interested in to see if they can provide what you’re looking for.

7. Understand the terms and conditions

You shouldn’t open a bank account without knowing what’s in the fine print.

If there are monthly service fees, ask whether you can get them waived. If there are out-of-network ATM charges, find out whether the bank offers refunds.

Make sure your savings will be federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (just in case your bank closes).

Finally, as you’re comparing products, watch out for promotional deals that expire. Some banks may offer compelling teaser rates that eventually fall to a much lower rate.

8. Read reviews for banks you’re considering

You don’t want to become a member of a credit union or a customer of a bank without knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Once you’ve reached the point where you’re comparing a handful of banks, consider reviewing what experts have to say about them.

Find out where your bank of choice might stand in terms of customer service and whether you’re the type of person who would benefit most from what they have to offer. Additionally, search for customer reviews online.

Consumers tend to remain customers of their banks for a long time. Carefully weighing your options is best before agreeing to begin a relationship with a particular bank. If you’re having a hard time settling on one bank, consider whether you can handle managing accounts at several different ones that can collectively help you stay on top of your finances.

Written by
Amanda Push
Contributing writer
Amanda Push is a contributing writer at Bankrate. She writes about topics such as banking, savings and budgeting.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor
Reviewed by
Senior wealth manager, LourdMurray