No-fee checking accounts: How to find one that’s right for you

Man with glasses in a cafe, looking up no-fee checking on his laptopImage: Man with glasses in a cafe, looking up no-fee checking on his laptop

In a Nutshell

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a no-fee checking account — or if there is, we’re not aware of it. Some financial institutions don’t charge maintenance, overdraft, ATM or per-check fees. But they still might charge other, less common fees.
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Plenty of financial institutions tout fee-free checking accounts. But the truth is there’s no guarantee you’ll never pay any kind of fee for using your checking account.

A financial institution might waive monthly maintenance or overdraft fees, but there are a lot of other fees it can charge. And it’s possible your account could be hit with fees from a third party if, for example, you use an ATM that’s outside of your bank’s network.

Instead of trying to find the best free checking accounts, it may make more sense to look for a checking account that waives the fees that are most relevant to your saving and spending habits. We’ll show you what types of fees to be aware of and how to choose a checking account with a fee structure that’s right for you.

What is no-fee checking and can I find it?

For a lot of people, the words “no-fee checking account” might mean an account that doesn’t charge the monthly maintenance fee that a number of banks and credit unions charge just to hold onto your money.

It’s true that some financial institutions either charge no monthly maintenance fee or are willing to waive the maintenance fee if you meet certain requirements — like having a minimum balance or making a certain number of transactions.

But even banks that waive the monthly maintenance fee might charge other, less common fees. And even if you have an account with a financial institution that says it’ll never charge you a fee, it’s possible your transactions could be subject to fees from a third party. That can happen if you use an ATM that’s outside of your bank’s network or if you use your debit card internationally.

Before you apply for a new checking account, check the bank’s fee schedule or fee disclosure. You can usually find this on the bank’s website. You can also call or visit a local branch and ask for the information.

The Truth in Savings Act requires banks to be transparent about the fees they charge — so they must provide this information upon request.

You might not be able to find a completely fee-free checking account. But knowing a bank’s fees could help you pick a checking account that waives the fees you’re most concerned about.

What are some common checking account fees?

There are many different checking account fees. Some, like a maintenance fee, might apply regardless of your banking habits. Others, such as overdraft fees, kick in based on your transaction activity. Here are some fees you may find when you’re comparing checking accounts.

Monthly maintenance fees

A maintenance fee, also known as a service fee, is what the bank charges to hold onto your money. Banks that charge a maintenance fee usually assess it each month.

You might be able to avoid this monthly fee by meeting certain minimum balance, spending or direct deposit requirements. But these can be a hassle to keep up with. So it might be easier to find a checking account that never charges maintenance fees.

Overdraft and nonsufficient funds fees

When you make a purchase with a credit card, you’re essentially borrowing money to pay back later.

But with a checking account, you’re supposed to only withdraw the money that’s already in the account. When you make a payment without enough money in your account to cover it, one of two things will generally happen.

  • If you’ve opted into overdraft protection, your financial institution will cover the payment and charge you an overdraft fee.
  • If you opt out of overdraft protection, your bank won’t cover the payment and may instead charge you a nonsufficient funds fee.

In some cases, the overdraft and nonsufficient funds fees may be the same amount. But the nonsufficient funds fee could be worse if your bank doesn’t make the payment, and you’re also hit with a bounced check fee from the company you’re paying.

The best way to avoid both these fees is to keep track of how much money you have in your checking account, so you don’t spend more than you can cover. And if you run into a situation where you need to make a payment and don’t have enough money in your bank account, consider putting it on your credit card instead.

You can also look for a checking account that waives some overdraft fees.

ATM fees

While banks don’t usually charge you to use their own ATMs, they might charge you for out-of-network ATM transactions. For example, if you’re at a restaurant or store that only accepts cash, you might be directed to an on-site ATM. In this scenario, you could actually end up paying two ATM fees: one to your bank and one to the ATM operator.

One way to avoid ATM charges is by taking out cash the next time you visit your bank. That way you’ll have cash on hand to use when you need it.

You might also be able to find a checking account that waives ATM fees. But check whether that only applies to the bank’s own ATM fee or if it’ll also reimburse you for the fees ATM operators might charge you.

Check fees

Some “no fee” checking accounts will still charge you for checks. This means you’ll have to pay a small fee to purchase a checkbook.

On the other hand, some banks charge a fee when you write too many checks. For example, a bank might charge 25 cents per check if you write more than 75 checks in a month. The best way to avoid this is to look for other ways to pay instead of using checks. But if you must use a check, we recommend you find a bank that offers free standard check books.

Other fees

Here are some less common checking account fees that you should also consider when choosing an account.

  • Wire transfer fees
  • Card replacement fees
  • Returned deposit fees
  • Stop payment fees
  • Phone inquiry fees
  • Excessive transactions fees
  • Foreign transaction fees
  • Inactivity fees
  • Account closing fees

In many cases, these fees might not apply to you. But it’s good to be aware of them, just in case.

How much can no-fee checking save me?

Checking account fees vary from bank to bank. But they can add up.

For example, if just one transaction overdraws your account, you could face an overdraft fee and a monthly maintenance fee since the overdraft would push your balance below any minimum daily balance requirement.

This is what makes no-fee checking and savings accounts so valuable. Even if you can’t find an entirely fee-free account, you’ll benefit from finding one that waives the fees that would most likely affect you.

Here are a few examples of how different account holders could save money from fee waivers.

No monthly maintenance fee: If you don’t have funds to spare

Are you struggling to make ends meet? You might want to consider a checking account that never charges a monthly maintenance fee or service fee.

A lot of banks will waive service fees if you meet their minimum balance requirements. For example, Bank of America Advantage Plus Banking and Chase Total Checking® both charge a $12 monthly service fee, which adds up to $144 per year. One way to get this fee waived is by having a minimum daily balance of $1,500.

But what if you can’t come up with that sort of money? You might be better off with an account that charges no monthly maintenance fee, even when your balance is $0.

No check fees: If you pay a lot of bills with a check

Consider looking for a checking account that offers free checkbooks and no per-check fee. Like we pointed out earlier, some checking accounts that claim to have “no fees” still charge you to offset their costs for printing paper checks.

Some financial institutions may charge a fee if you write more than a set number of checks in a month. And some have a fee for each check you write, no matter how few.

ATM fee reimbursement: If you prefer to pay with cash

If cash is king for you, then you might want a checking account that reimburses you for ATM fees. Generally, many banks will let you use their own ATMs for free.

But you have to be careful when a bank says it doesn’t charge ATM fees — it might still charge you a few bucks for using out-of-network ATMs. And even if it waives its own ATM fees, you could still be hit with fees from the ATM operator. In fact, checking account customers can pay nearly $5 on average to withdraw money from out-of-network ATMs, according to a 2019 Bankrate study.

But some financial institutions reimburse account holders for all or some of the fees the ATM operator charges.

Open a Credit Karma Money™ Spend account for free

Credit Karma Money™ Spend is an online checking account that’s free to open — with no penalties, overdraft fees or minimum balance requirements. And if you’re hoping to get access to your paycheck early, you can set up direct deposit to get your paycheck up to two days early and federal benefits up to five days early.

Next steps: Comparison shop for fee-free checking

If you’re not happy with the fees your bank is charging, you might want to find a new checking account.

We realize switching banks can be a hassle — many people put up with fees they don’t like paying because they don’t want to deal with finding a new checking account. But banks know this, and some count on it to retain business.

Bottom line: Do you want a bank that works hard to keep your business, or a bank that only does the bare minimum? As difficult as it can be, switching can be worth it if it’s going to save you money.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.