Are all checking accounts free? Here’s what to know.

Young woman holding her cellphone and wondering if checking accounts are freeImage: Young woman holding her cellphone and wondering if checking accounts are free

In a Nutshell

So many checking accounts are advertised as having no fees that you might wonder if all checking accounts are free. But fees are still a reality of most checking accounts, and you may face them even if you have a “free” account.
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The basic function of a checking account is simple — it’s essentially a place to store your money for the short term until you spend it.

So it may seem crazy that banks often charge you just for having a checking account each month. It’s not like you get extra stuff — like a free pizza — in exchange for paying a monthly maintenance fee.

If you want to avoid bank fees, you might be searching for a free checking account. But unless you know what you’re looking for, you could still end up paying fees even with a “free” checking account. Let’s look at how to determine just how free a checking account might be.



Are all checking accounts free?

In a word: No.

Free checking account” is a term that’s thrown around enough to make it difficult to know what it really means. To understand what a free checking account is versus an account that charges fees, we need to back up a bit and explain how some banks define the word “free.”

In general, most banks use the term “free checking account” to mean a checking account that doesn’t charge a monthly maintenance fee or transaction fees. But even accounts that do come with a monthly fee usually have some way of waiving that fee. You may need to meet certain requirements, which can include some or all of the following:

  • Keeping a minimum balance in your checking account
  • Making a certain amount of transactions with your debit card
  • Making a certain number of deposits into your checking account
  • Keeping a minimum balance across all of your accounts at that bank

If a checking account doesn’t charge any monthly fees at all — with no strings attached — you’re not out of the woods yet. Other types of fees may still apply to your account.

Learn about checking vs. savings accounts

Do ‘free checking accounts’ charge fees?

Banks can charge many different fees. If you’re not prepared for these other fees, you might very well open an account thinking you won’t have to pay to use the account and yet still rack up hundreds of dollars in costs.

What are some common fees that free checking accounts might charge?

Keep an eye out for these other fees that may come with a “free” checking account.

  • Wire fees
  • Check order fees
  • Returned check fees
  • Dormant account fees
  • Overdraft/nonsufficient funds fees
  • Rush delivery fees for bill pay or debit card replacements

A free account might not charge all of these fees all the time. For example, you probably don’t make wire transfers very often. And you may be able to avoid a monthly maintenance fee by meeting minimum balance requirements or setting up direct deposits into the account. But it’s still important to be aware of fees so that you aren’t caught by surprise.

Other fees — like overdraft fees — can easily catch you off guard, especially if you think that by opening a free checking account you won’t be charged any fees at all. In fact, overdraft and nonsufficient funds fees make up most of the total checking account fees that people pay, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Pay extra attention to ATM fees

If you plan on using an ATM to get cash, it’s especially important to understand how these fees work since the process isn’t always consumer-friendly.

There are two types of ATM fees you could encounter when getting cash.

  • Out-of-network ATM fees — These are fees that your bank charges for withdrawing cash, usually from an out-of-network ATM. Some banks also charge an additional fee for using foreign ATMs.
  • Third-party ATM fees These fees are charged by the ATM owner itself. For example, your account is with Bank A but you use Bank B’s ATM. Even if your bank has fee-free ATMs and doesn’t charge a fee for using an ATM that’s outside its network, Bank B might. Your bank has no control over third-party fees.

Many banks belong to a network of ATMs, such as the Allpoint ATMs network or the CO-OP network (for credit unions). Your bank generally won’t charge you a fee for using an ATM in its network, and you typically won’t be charged a third-party ATM fee either since the ATM machine itself is in the network.

Where can I get a free checking account?

Many banks, credit unions, online banks and neobanks offer free checking accounts — or at least the kind that don’t charge monthly fees. But to know whether an account is truly free or not (in the sense that it doesn’t charge any fees), you’ll need to dig a little deeper.

We always recommend looking at the fine print before you open an account — especially a free checking account. Specifically, look for a fee schedule, account disclosure or truth-in-savings disclosure on the bank’s website. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find these important documents, so you may need to contact the bank first. Here are some checking accounts that don’t charge monthly fees — the table notes other fees you can expect.

Bank Account name Other fees Min. deposit

Ally Bank

Interest Checking

  • Stop payment order ($15)
  • Returned deposit ($7.50)
  • Overdraft fee ($25)
  • Wire fee ($20)
  • Debit card rush delivery ($15)
  • Overnight bill pay by mail ($14.95)
  • Same-day bill pay by electronic delivery ($9.95)
  • Account research fee ($25 per hour)
  • Currency conversion (up to 1% of transaction)

None to open, but if you don’t put money into the account within 30 days of opening it, the account will be closed

Chime Bank (via The Bancorp Bank)

Spending Account

  • ATM fee for out-of-network ATMs ($2.50)
  • Third-party ATM fees

None

Credit Karma Money™ (via MVB Bank Inc.)

Credit Karma Spend

Third-party ATM fees

None

Navy Federal Credit Union

Free Easy Checking

  • Nonsufficient funds ($29)
  • Overdraft protection transaction ($20)
  • Stop payment order ($20)
  • Rush bill pay ($5)
  • Returned check ($15)
  • Cashier’s checks ($5)
  • Dormant account ($3 per quarter)
  • Account number reassignment ($25)

None


Next steps

Bank fees can add up, so it makes sense to look for a checking account that’s as close to free as possible. As with any financial product, it’s important to understand all the terms, conditions and potential costs that may be associated with a checking account. Be sure to read the fine print before opening a checking account so that you can determine what fees you might face when using the account to make payments or purchases and to withdraw cash. Finding an account that waives most, if not all, of the fees that might apply to you could help you save money in the long run.


About the author: Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance writer living in Kirkland, Washington. She has been a professional dogsled racer, a wildlife researcher, and a participant in the National Spelling Bee.… Read more.