Free checking accounts: 3 options to consider

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In a Nutshell

Some checking accounts that appear to be free can come with unexpected fees or conditions that are hard to live with, like maintaining a high minimum balance. But comparison shopping and carefully reading the fine print can help you find a checking account that’s as close to truly free as possible.
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A free checking account could save you big bucks when it comes to fees. But it’s important to know what rules you may need to follow to keep an account free of costs like monthly maintenance and overdraft fees.

Let’s look at some things to keep in mind as you’re looking for a free checking account. And we’ll share three options that come about as close to being truly free as it’s possible to get.

‘Free checking’ vs. regular checking: What’s the difference?

While there are multiple types of checking accounts, they all have the same basic purpose — to give you a way to receive and deposit money, and to allow you to make payments and withdrawals.

But the costs associated with checking accounts can vary widely because checking accounts can have a range of different fees. Those fees can differ based on factors including what type of account you have, how much money you keep in it, how you use the account and more.

A free checking account either has no fees or gives you ways to avoid paying applicable fees.

What are some common checking account fees?

You’re probably unlikely to encounter certain bank fees, like a fee for making international wire transfers. But here are a few fees that you may be more likely to encounter.

  • Monthly maintenance feesSome financial institutions may charge a monthly fee just for having a checking account with them, while others don’t. And monthly fees may only apply to some of the checking accounts a bank or credit union offers.
  • Overdraft feesWhen a financial institution covers a payment or a withdrawal even though the amount exceeds the funds available in your account, it can charge an overdraft fee.
  • Nonsufficient funds feesWhen a payment or withdrawal exceeds the amount of funds in your account and the bank doesn’t cover the payment, the bank may charge an nonsufficient funds, or NSF, fee.
  • ATM feesWhen you use an ATM, it’s possible you could face fees from the ATM owner or your own bank or credit union. Usually, you can avoid ATM fees by using an ATM operated by your bank or by a network your bank partners with.

4 free checking accounts to consider

Many financial institutions offer checking accounts that are mostly free. But it’s important to note that even if a financial institution doesn’t charge you fees, that doesn’t mean your account will be 100% free. Certain types of transactions may mean your account is subject to third-party fees. For example, if you use the debit card associated with your free account to withdraw money from an ATM outside your financial institution’s network, the ATM owner could charge you fees.

Here are four accounts that are free of some of the most common types of fees — and that have some extras that set them apart.

Account nameFree in-network ATMsMinimum depositMonthly feeMinimum balanceOverdraft feesExtras
Alliant Credit Union High-Rate CheckingYesNoNoNoNoPays interest — 0.25% annual percentage yield
Capital One 360 CheckingYesNoNoNoNo3 overdraft protection options
Discover Cashback DebitYesNoNoNoNo1% cash back on up to $3,000 in debit card purchases per month

How can I find a free checking account?

An online search for free checking accounts will yield numerous options. As you’re evaluating checking accounts, here are some considerations to keep in mind.

  • Can you apply online? Many financial institutions now allow new account holders to apply for and open an account online, without ever having to step into a bank branch.
  • Is there a minimum balance requirement? The four accounts we’ve mentioned in this article don’t require you to maintain a minimum daily balance. But some bank accounts require you to keep a certain amount in the account in order to waive a monthly fee.
  • Does it charge an overdraft fee? Some accounts waive fees for overdrafts, others don’t. It’s important to know if and when you might face an overdraft fee. And keep in mind that even if a bank doesn’t charge an overdraft fee, you may still face a nonsufficient funds fee if a payment bounces.
  • Is it easy to make deposits? Does the account have mobile deposit? Can you deposit money through an ATM? Or is deposit capability limited to direct deposit?
  • What are the ways you can make payments? Check to see if the account comes with a debit card (most do) and checks (some don’t). Can you set up online bill pay? Does the account offer a payment option like Zelle or Venmo?
  • Can the account help you manage your money? Does the account offer online tools or a mobile banking app that can make it easier to keep track of your spending? For example, can you set low-balance alerts? Will the bank alert you if you overdraw the account?

Bottom line

Free checking accounts can help you avoid common checking account fees. But don’t completely discount the potential value of an account that isn’t free. There may be situations in which a traditional checking account is worth having. For example, an account may be worth considering if it pays a high interest rate or comes with cash back rewards, and you can successfully meet any conditions for avoiding fees.

As with any banking product, be sure you read and understand all the terms and conditions before opening a checking account.