Like traditional banks, credit unions offer full suites of financial products, ranging all the way from deposit accounts like certificates of deposit (CDs) and money market accounts to loan products like credit cards and auto loans.

But in contrast to traditional banks, credit unions are nonprofit organizations that are owned collectively by their members. As such, membership typically isn’t available to everyone; you usually must meet an eligibility requirement to open an account.

Here’s what you need to know about joining a credit union.

Determining membership requirements at a credit union

The requirements to join a credit union can vary widely depending on the organization. Your eligibility may depend upon your location (where you live, study or work), occupation and association with certain organizations. Families of credit union members are typically also eligible to join.

For example, membership at State Employees’ Credit Union, the second largest credit union in the U.S., is open primarily to employees of the state of North Carolina and their families.

Credit unions often prominently display a “membership” tab on their website where you can check out the requirements. Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the U.S., has a link to its membership requirement page at the top of its website. Typing the credit union you’re researching plus the words “membership requirements” into a search engine will also point you in the right direction.

All of this noted, some credit unions don’t restrict membership, meaning anyone can join. This includes the third-largest credit union in the country, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which allows anyone to become a member.

Finding a credit union near you

Since credit unions often restrict membership based where you live, work, study or worship, finding a credit union nearby can help narrow your options.

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) provides a Credit Union Locator that lets you search for credit unions near you based on your ZIP code. You can also get more detailed information by using the NCUA’s research tool, including credit union profiles and financial performance reports.

Keep in mind that the nearest credit union to you may not be your best option, depending on your financial needs. For example, Alliant Credit Union offers stellar yields on its CDs and High-Rate Savings account, but it doesn’t offer a money market account. If that’s primarily what you’re looking for, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Opening an account

Required documentation

As with a traditional bank, you’ll need to verify your name, date of birth and current address to open an account at a credit union. Some forms of identification you may provide to verify that information include your passport, government ID or driver’s license. Moreover, you’ll likely need to provide your Social Security number or tax identification number.

From there, required documentation will vary depending on membership requirements. For example, to join Navy Federal Credit Union, you’ll need documentation verifying your (or a family member’s) status as an active duty or retired service member in the armed forces.

Membership fee

You may need to pay a membership fee, and the amount varies among credit unions. Many simply require that you open a savings account. Here’s a list of such credit unions and the minimum deposit required:

  1. Navy Federal Credit Union: $5
  2. State Employees’ Credit Union: $25
  3. PenFed: $5
  4. SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union: $5
  5. Golden 1 Credit Union: $1

Funding your account

If you’re opening your account in person at a credit union branch, your options for funding the account include handing cash or a check to the teller. If you’re opening an account with an online-only credit union — or any credit union that offers online banking capabilities — you’ll likely be able to transfer funds from a bank account you hold elsewhere.

Bottom line

Credit unions are an alternative to banks, and they often provide a full list of personal banking products, from savings and checking accounts to loans. Many credit unions have eligibility requirements based on where you live or work, although others are open for anyone to join.

Like banks, credit unions that are federally insured are a safe place to deposit money, save money and make payments.