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Earn a higher yield in minutes: Opening an online bank account is getting much easier

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You like the sound of opening a new savings account to earn a higher interest rate. But you imagine it’s a time-consuming chore. So rather than move your money, you keep it parked in an account paying nearly nothing.

Opening a savings account is not as time-consuming as you may think, at least, not at every financial institution — not anymore. Nowadays, you can open an online-only savings account within half the time of watching a TV show.

“It should be four minutes or less,” David Eads, vice president of sales for Q2 Gro, a bank technology vendor. “It should be easy.”

It won’t be easy at all banks, of course. As an industry, financial institutions — which are legally required to verify your identity — continue to struggle to make the online account signup process intuitive. But as competition intensifies, more institutions are pouring money into reducing the steps required of you to open an account online.

Here’s what you need to know if you’ve never opened a bank account online only because you thought it would take a while.

The sign-up process is getting faster

It’s still common for people to visit a bank branch and fill out some paperwork to become a bank customer. Yet, we’ve had options to open a high-yield account online for years. Now, your options are multiplying, and the time it takes to open them is getting faster and faster.

Ally Bank and neobank Varo Money say you can open accounts in five minutes or fewer, for example. Marcus by Goldman Sachs says you can open a high-yield account within just a few minutes. The list goes on.

Signing up for an account online, including on your phone, has never been easier thanks to advances in technology that save you the trouble of filling out long forms on a smartphone keyboard.

These days, some banks let you use your smartphone’s camera to snap a photo of a government-issued identity document (like a driver’s license) to prove you are who you say you are online.

If you’re an existing bank customer, the experience ought to be extra easy. That is because banks pre-fill information to questions they already know the answers to, says Stessa Cohen, a senior director analyst at Gartner, a research and consultancy firm. For example, U.S. Bank recently relaunched a mobile app that speeds up the process for existing customers to get another product.

Funding your bank account is getting easier, too. Instead of mailing in a check to make a deposit, you can link your existing bank account to move money into the new account just as you do on Venmo. Or, you could use PayPal or snap a picture of a check to fund your new account.

If you have questions along the way, some banks make available a chatbot or a feature that lets you click to call someone from the bank. There’s also a chance the bank lets you save your work to revisit the application later.

There are still obstacles to overcome

Being able to open an account within minutes marks considerable progress for an industry bound by legacy technology and regulation that requires them to prove they know their customers.

Consider it wasn’t until May 2018 that financial institutions could legally scan a customer’s driver’s license or other government-issued ID to verify someone is who they say they are when opening an account online. Previously, some states had laws that prevented banks from doing so.

Consumers are also increasingly more comfortable signing up for accounts online.

In 2006, only 7 percent of households said they were using an internet-based savings account, according to deposit research from Raddon, a Fiserv company. Now, about 13 percent of households say they use an internet-based savings account. Moreover, 36 percent in the latest study said they would consider switching to an online account — marking a change in consumer attitudes.

“That’s a very big shift in terms of mindset,” says Bill Handel, vice president of research at Raddon, a research data firm for financial institutions.

While banks have made massive improvements, make no mistake: Opening a bank account is not free of pain points.

There are thorny challenges that the industry still must overcome, including the ways they vet our identities online. For example, a bank may ask you a challenge question, like “What street did you live on when you took out an auto loan?” to help prove you are who you say you are. However, these questions are problematic — not only because you may not know the answer but because fraudsters could.

If you flunk, a bank may end up reviewing your application manually, lengthening the signup process.

Curveballs can also bubble up because of a change in your life. Maybe you’ve recently moved, for instance. The bank, which asks for proof of address, may not feel comfortable signing you up for an account. Or, it might approve you but with added controls, such as requiring you to carry a minimum balance for several months.

Expect opening a bank account to get even easier

The easier it is to open the account, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. Consider the recent evidence from JPMorgan Chase. In February 2018, Chase started letting customers open a new deposit account digitally in three to five minutes. The functionality has led the bank adding about 1.5 million new accounts, according to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s annual letter to shareholders in April.

Translation: Banks are hungry again for more deposits, and therefore, they are motivated to pour more money into making the account signup process simpler. In the months and years ahead, you ought to be able to open bank accounts even more quickly from ever-more institutions.

But remember: Banking is a different ballgame than signing up for a dating app or streaming service. Institutions are heavily regulated.

“You have to understand it is always going to be somewhat difficult, and it ought to be,” says Michael Diamond, a senior vice president and general manager of payments at Mitek Systems, a mobile capture technology provider based in San Diego. “That’s the point. There’s a vetting process.”

Some things you can do to make the process smoother

While banks continue to improve the ways they court you online, there are several things you can do to make signing up for a bank account online as smooth as possible.

Before you start signing up for an account via an app or the web, visit the bank’s website to find out what information you’ll need. Also, check the website URL to make sure you are signing up with an actual bank, not an impostor. If the bank asks for additional documents, only communicate through secure channels.

Before taking any of these steps, shop around. Gartner’s Cohen suggests not only searching for a savings account with a competitive rate but also for an account that works with a highly rated mobile app. If the bank’s app has a bad score, look elsewhere.

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Written by
Mary Wisniewski
Banking editor
Mary Wisniewski is a banking editor for Bankrate. She oversees editorial coverage of savings and mobile banking articles as well as personal finance courses.