How to choose an online broker

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Choosing an online broker may seem like an overwhelming decision at times, but once you focus on a few key issues it can help you narrow down your choices. We’ll take you through the important areas to consider when selecting a broker and you may also find it helpful to check out Bankrate’s in-depth broker reviews for even more information.

Benefits of working with an online broker

One of the biggest advantages of working with an online broker is that you’ll likely avoid paying any commissions on transactions involving stocks or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Some brokers even offer commission-free options trading.

Online brokers also typically offer low or no account minimums, so you can open an account with just a few dollars. This is an advantage over full-service brokers, who typically only work with well-off clients and charge commissions for basic trades. While you might get investment recommendations or additional services from a full-service broker, online brokers come with a significant cost advantage.

Types of online brokerages

When you decide to invest online, you’ll have a few different ways of getting the job done. Here are a few types of online brokers.

Discount broker

This is probably what you think of when you imagine an online broker. Discount brokers are great for do-it-yourself investors looking for low-cost ways to trade and invest. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to discount brokers, but Charles Schwab, Robinhood and E-Trade are some of the most popular. These brokers allow you to purchase securities, such as stocks and ETFs, with no commissions and typically have low or no account minimums.

Robo-advisors

Robo-advisors have become popular in recent years as a simple way to develop an investment portfolio at a lower cost than traditional financial advisors. Robo-advisors like Wealthfront and Betterment build an investment portfolio for you based on your answers to a handful of questions about your goals, time horizon and risk tolerance. They typically offer features such as automatic daily rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting, which can help reduce your taxes in individual and joint accounts. Check out Bankrate’s reviews of robo-advisors to help determine the best one for you.

Micro-investing

If you’re just starting out with investing and don’t have much in the way of savings, then micro-investing could be for you. You only need a few dollars to get started and you can consistently contribute your savings over time to help build a portfolio. Personal finance apps like Acorns and Stash allow you to round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invest the additional amount in ETFs and fractional shares of stock. While you’ll likely need to increase your savings beyond a few dollars each month to reach your retirement goals, micro-investing can be a great way to get started early.

Considerations when deciding on an online broker

  • Commissions. These are fees that you could pay on any securities transaction. Fortunately, most online brokers offer commission-free trading on stocks and ETFs, but you could pay commissions if you are interested in buying or selling options. Think about which securities you’re most likely to invest in and make sure you select a broker with low commissions in that area.
  • Account types. You’ll also want to pay attention to the types of accounts each broker offers. Some newer brokers like Robinhood don’t yet offer retirement accounts such as traditional or Roth IRAs, which is a popular investment vehicle for many people. You can open an individual account at most online brokers but remember that you’ll pay taxes on capital gains and dividends earned in that account.
  • Account minimums. Most online brokers have very low account minimums, but if you opt to go with a robo-advisor, you could see account minimums of $5,000 or higher for premium services. Make sure you can meet the account requirements before opening an account with a broker.
  • Reliability. During times of extreme volatility, some brokers have had problems with their platforms going down. This is never good, but it can be especially frustrating during times of market stress. Check to see if brokers you’re considering have a history of outages during times of heightened activity. If you expect to be an active trader, this could be a red flag.
  • Tools and other features. Brokers can offer a lot more than simply trading services. Some provide educational resources, which can be particularly useful for those new to investing, while others offer research for those searching for their next great investment idea. Many brokers have started offering fractional shares, which allows investors to purchase amounts less than a share, in the event they choose not to buy an entire one.
  • Customer support. No one likes having to reach out to customer support for help with a problem, but when you need to it’s nice to be able to get a hold of someone quickly. Some online brokers offer support through the phone or online chat for a majority of the day, while others are harder to get in touch with. Some of the newer online brokers have received complaints related to customer service, so be sure to understand how you can get help with your account when choosing a broker.

Bottom line

Choosing an online broker is a key first step toward investing. Be sure to do your research and understand what you’re looking for in a broker before making a decision. By choosing an online broker, you’re likely to pay significantly less in fees than you would through a traditional full-service broker.

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Written by
Brian Baker
Investing reporter
Bankrate reporter Brian Baker covers investing and retirement. He has previous experience as an industry analyst at an investment firm. Baker is passionate about helping people make sense of complicated financial topics so that they can plan for their financial futures.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor