The Best Checking Account

Free checking is possible — if you can avoid the fees

Fewer than 40% of all checking accounts are truly free — but if you know how to avoid fees, almost any account can be free.

You have national banks, regional banks, credit unions, and online-only institutions all vying for your business when it comes to opening a checking account. In order to find the best checking account, our research team spent 65 hours analyzing data from more than 27,000 US-based financial institutions. We surveyed more than 1,000 consumers, sought input from 33 financial experts, and read hundreds of articles, all to determine which checking account features matter most.

We spent an additional 65 hours collecting data from checking accounts associated with the best banks, reading the fine print of dozens of accounts, analyzing fees, and opening new accounts with our own money.

We focused on the accounts offered by traditional brick-and-mortar banks and online-only banks that have are widely available, financially stable, have minimal account requirements, and above average consumer satisfaction.

The seven best checking accounts are:

Chase Total Checking®
Capital One 360
US Bank
Ally
Wells Fargo
PNC Bank
Discover

How We Found The Best Checking Accounts

We started our review by spending hours collecting a massive list of more than 27K traditional brick-and-mortar banks, credit unions, online-only banks, and other financial institutions that offer checking accounts. All of the banks on this list were US-based and FDIC insured.

One tough decision we had to make early on was how to handle local banks and credit unions. After exhaustive research and a lot of conversations, we decided to exclude these institutions because they tend to serve specific populations at the local or regional level.

Criteria for traditional banks

In order to be included among the best checking accounts, traditional banks had to meet the following criteria:

  • Must have substantial assets
  • Must have a stable or positive financial strength outlook
  • Must be widely available
  • Must be available online
  • Must have above average customer satisfaction

As a consumer, you want to build a relationship with a stable institution that will be there in the long run. Not surprisingly, financial security came up repeatedly in our research. We compared the total assets from all banks, and focused on the 100 largest by total assets. We also gathered financial strength ratings from research firms like Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch, and eliminated banks that did not have a stable or positive long-term outlook.

We knew from the beginning that availability is a key factor, but we wanted to get a sense of the industry before making any drastic cuts. As alluded to earlier, there are a lot of local or regional banks with great services, but our goal is to make recommendations for the largest number of people possible. For that reason, we focused on banks that were available in at least 20 states.

This was a significant cut, bringing our list of traditional brick-and-mortar banks down to just six. But it posed a problem for online-only banks that are inherently available to everyone. It was here that we realized we would probably need different criteria for comparing brick-and-mortar and online-only banks (more on online-only banks later).

Regardless of whether a bank is brick-and-mortar or online-only, if they don’t have a strong online presence, they simply can’t claim that their service is the best. We spent hours researching and experimenting with online and mobile services, we even opened up checking accounts with some of the top banks to test the experience. All of the top banks (those that met all of the criteria so far) had capable online services, so no cuts were made at this point.

The final factor we considered was customer satisfaction. We were able to get a good feel for what it’s like to interact with many of the top banks through their digital services. We also visited a handful of local branches and spoke with customer service reps on the phone. But we wanted a more quantitative benchmark that went beyond our own relatively limited testing.

We used the 2015 JD Powers and Associate’s Retail Banking Satisfaction Study℠ as this benchmark for customer satisfaction. If a bank did not beat (or match) the regional average score in at least half of the regions where the bank is available, we cut it from the list. (Note: Online-only banks were not included in this survey.) After this final cut, we were left with the four best options for traditional banks.

Criteria for online-only banks

In order to be included among the best checking accounts, online-only banks had to meet the following criteria:

  • Must have substantial assets
  • Must have stable or positive financial strength ratings
  • No monthly maintenance fee
  • No minimum balance requirement to open the account
  • Must have a network of at least 35,000 free ATMs

Similar to traditional banks, online-line only banks were required to have substantial assets and stable or positive financial strength ratings. Because online-only banks are available to anyone with Internet access, we did not make cuts based on availability.

But as we researched online-only banks, other differentiating factors began to emerge. For example, many only-only banks do not charge monthly maintenance fees and have no minimum balance requirements when opening accounts (these are both standard features of traditional banks). The online-only banks that do charge monthly fees and have minimum balance requirements are simply not competitive, so we removed them from our list.

Lastly, we compared ATM availability. If you use an out-of-network ATM chances are you’re going to get hit with a fee. Traditional banks tend to have their own network of proprietary ATMs that are free to their customers. Online-only banks obviously don’t have physical locations, and they also don’t have their own ATMs. Alternatively, many of the top online-only banks belong to ATM networks (like STAR®), which give customers access to thousands ATMs free of charge. If an online-only bank did not provide access to at least 35,000 free ATMs, they were cut from our list.

After this cut, we were left with the three best options for online-only banks.

Top Picks

®
The Best Checking Account

Chase Total Checking®

Chase Total Checking® is a mostly-basic option with a few desirable added features. Chase was one of the first banks to get snapshot check deposit, meaning you can deposit checks right in your home. Plus, with a huge national presence, you know you can get access to your cash almost anywhere. Their handy app also makes banking on the go extremely easy.

Keep it free

Direct deposits totaling $500 or more OR $1,500 minimum daily balance OR Average daily balance of $5,000 or more in qualifying linked deposits or investments

Features
  • Monthly Fee $12
  • NSF Fee $34 per item
  • Non-Network ATM Fee $2.50 (in U.S.), $5 (international)
  • Minimum Balance to Open $25
®
The Best Checking Account

Capital One 360 Checking

Consumers know Capital One for their credit cards, but their 360 Checking account is definitely notable. This is a great account if you’re looking to accrue money; you’ll earn 0.20% interest on your balance — and even more if you’ve got more than $50,000 in the bank. Plus, Capital One has convenient online bill pay and check cutting services, so you never miss out on the benefits of an actual bank.

Features
  • Online Only
  • Monthly Fee None
  • NSF Fee $30 (1 fee/day max)
  • Non-Network ATM Fee No proprietary fees
  • Minimum Balance to Open None
®
The Best Checking Account

US Bank Easy Checking

There are no games or gimmicks with US Bank — just a checking account that has lots of ATMs and branches, low overdraft fees, and an online presence that is simple, yet effective. The threshold for fee waiver on this account is higher than some of the others — you have to have direct deposit or a minimum balance of $1,500 — but if that’s not a concern, this is just a solid, straightforward account.

Keep it free

Combined monthly deposits totaling $1,000 or more OR Maintain an average account balance of $1,500

Features
  • Monthly Fee $6.95 (online) / $8.95 (paper)
  • NSF Fee <$5 - None / >$5 - $36
  • Non-Network ATM Fee $2.50
  • Minimum Balance to Open $25
®
The Best Checking Account

Ally Interest Checking Account

Ally is an online-only bank, which means that if you want branches, this is not the bank for you. That said, if you had minimum balance requirements, ATM fees, and other extra costs, you’ll love Ally’s fee structure. The only fee you can expect from Ally is an overdraft fee, but the rate is low and you can only incur one per day.

Features
  • Online Only
  • Monthly Fee None
  • NSF Fee $36 per item
  • Non-Network ATM Fee $3 (in U.S.) / $5 (International)
  • Minimum Balance to Open $25
®
The Best Checking Account

Wells Fargo Everyday Checking

This is the most simple, basic checking account you could ever want. Though it doesn’t offer a lot in the way of features, it does provide the convenience of easily accessible money, lots of ATMs, and provisions that make it simple to avoid fees. Users have to meet just one of several pretty easy requirements — 10 swipes of your debit card each month and you get the monthly maintenance fee waived — and they get the benefit of linked accounts, making combining checking and savings a breeze.

Keep it free

10 debit card purchases/payments OR Direct deposits of $500 OR $1,500 minimum balance OR Linked Wells Fargo Campus ATM or Campus Debit Card

Features
  • Monthly Fee $10
  • NSF Fee $35
  • Non-Network ATM Fee $2.50 (in U.S.) / $5 (International)
  • Minimum Balance to Open $50
®
The Best Checking Account

PNC Bank Standard Checking

If you want to be regularly rewarded for spending, PNC Bank’s Standard Checking can help get you hooked up with cash back on your purchases. PNC also offers a low monthly fee — just $7 — which is easily waived by keeping $500 in your checking account. And when you link your PNC checking with a saving account, you can expect higher yields, which means more money for you.

Keep it free

$500 or more in qualifying direct deposits per statement period OR $500 average monthly balance OR Account owner is 62 or older

Features
  • Monthly Fee $7
  • NSF Fee $36 per item
  • Non-Network ATM Fee $3 (in U.S.) / $5 (International)
  • Minimum Balance to Open $25
®
The Best Checking Account

Discover Cashback Checking

There’s no ATM fees or monthly maintenance fees with this online-only account — plus, you get rewards on your purchases and $50 when you sign up. There are no branches or brick-and-mortar locations with this checking account, but if you’re not concerned about real-life banks as part of your financial planning, this is a great option for both features and a lack of fees.

Features
  • Online Only
  • Monthly Fee None
  • NSF Fee $30 (1 fee per day max)
  • Non-Network ATM Fee No proprietary fees
  • Minimum Balance to Open None

Why We Didn’t Include Credit Unions In Our Final Recommendations

Credit unions are becoming increasingly popular in the United States — about 100 million individuals use a credit union for their banking, and about $1 trillion is currently in credit union savings accounts. Their popularity makes sense, as a whopping 72% of all credit unions still offer completely free checking, no minimum balance requirement, and low overdraft fees.

However, after extensive research and much debate, we didn’t include credit unions in our final reviews because they are almost always regionally-based, which makes it difficult to recommend one on a national level. However, credit unions are a great option, and we encourage you to find a local credit union and inquire about checking accounts and other financial services.

What We Learned

Early Assumptions

We approached this review with two main assumptions:

  • Truly free checking accounts do exist — but so do really great accounts that can be free if you know which fees to avoid.
  • The best checking accounts are those which also come with additional features, though which features you want are up to you.

There are a lot of ways to get penalized — and you have to know where to look

The last thing you want is to be kept from your money, or to be penalized for trying to access it. When shopping for a new checking account, read the fine print, and look for not only the possible features a bank offers, but also the possible fees or fines you might get hit with.

The formal disclosure documents outlining account fees, terms, and conditions are often long, unintelligible, and opaque.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s annual report on consumer-friendly banking

Some Common Fees To Watch Out For:

Minimum Balance Requirement
Many checking accounts will charge a fee each month if your balance dips below a certain threshold — often between $500 and $1,500. The fee can be substantial (adding up to easily a few hundred dollars per year), and if you really don’t have a reliable income, it can become a financial hardship. Before you open an account, be sure that you’ll be able to maintain the monthly balance to avoid this extra charge.

Monthly Fees
Monthly maintenance fees are extremely common — almost every checking account we reviewed had some form of monthly fee. However, many of the fees are waived if a minimum balance is maintained, if the user has regular direct deposit, or if they use their debit card frequently. If your employer uses direct deposit and you know that you always keep a least a few hundred dollars in your checking account, these fees can easily be avoided. You just have to know what the requirements are.

Overdraft Fees
Overdraft fees are the most inconvenient and costly ways that banks penalize customers. In 2015, banks are expected to rake in over $4.5 billion in overdraft fees alone — or about $20 from each adult in the country. The best way to avoid this is to keep an eye on your finances; these days, mobile and online banking make it easier than ever to avoid an overdraft fee. If you’re still worried about potentially overdrafting, look for an account that offers overdraft forgiveness, which can help when those emergencies or unforeseen circumstances come up.

Transaction Limits (or Requirements)
Some checking accounts require a certain threshold of debit transactions to avoid an extra fee, while others cap the number of transactions or transfers. If the card you swipe most often is your credit card — and you only use your checking account a few times per month — keep a keen eye out for these kinds of penalties or caps.

ATM Fees
If you’re a regular user of ATMs, you’ll want to make sure you have access to them wherever you go. Many banks charge a fee of $2 or more for using an out-of-network ATM, which can add up quickly. Before you sign up for a checking account, make sure it’s with a bank that either has a big presence where you live, or offers forgiveness or reimbursement on these fees.

When opening a new checking account be sure to look for features aligned with your lifestyle and at an appropriate cost. Look at the fees vs the benefits. You’ll most likely need checks as there are times when only a check will meet a payment need (ie: babysitter, taxes and school fundraisers). Consider the delivery method security when ordering checks.

Trevor Rasmussen Deluxe Corp

Features To Look For:

Online and Mobile Access
Most of us gave up on paper statements long ago, which is rewarded by some banks with a fee waiver. Additionally, many banks now offer online checking, including check deposit by phone (simply snap a photo of your check and in it goes), easy fund transfer, online bill paying, and other mobile and digital services.

ATM Access
ATM fees are avoidable if you join a bank that has a lot of ATMs available (and you make note of where they are). Look for a checking account that is connected to a bank with a large network, or consider joining a credit union, which offers a network of cooperative ATMs nationwide that don’t charge users for crossing branches.

ATM Fee Reimbursement
Sometimes, you’ve just got to hit an ATM — and you know you’re going to pay for it. In those instances, it really pays to have a bank who reimburses those fees, which some (Ally, for example) do.

Low Overdraft Fees and/or Overdraft Forgiveness
A few banks (and most credit unions) offer some kind of relief from overdraft fees. Forgiveness of fees, or very low overdraft fees (under $25) can make a checking account more feasible for those who have unpredictable funds.

High Yields
For individuals who keep a high balance in their checking accounts, it is possible to find one that provides returns similar to a savings account. If you’re particularly affluent and looking for ways to maximize your money, look for a checking account that offers interest payments.

The best free checking account is the one that works for you

Do you prefer branches and paper checks, or would you rather go paperless across the board? Are you trying to build wealth, or is convenience key for your finances? Whatever you’re looking for, there’s a checking account out there that will meet your needs. It may or may not be truly free of fees and other costs, but if you’re smart about your spending and you read the fine print, just about any checking account can come without costing extra cash each month.

If your checking account is missing from our list, it is most likely because it didn’t meet the requirements set forth within our review methodology — which doesn’t mean it isn’t great, but does mean that it might not be widely available, or offer the features we believe checking accounts should have.

If you think that there has been a mistake, please let us know by tweeting @reviews and we will fix the mistake and update our review!