The Best Checking Account
The best checking account boils down to one core concept — letting you spend money on bills and transactions rather than extra costs like monthly maintenance or ATM surcharges. We analyzed more than 27,000 US-based financial institutions, surveyed more than 1,000 customers, and spoke with 33 financial experts to find the checking accounts that promised the lowest fees and best banking experience. After 120 hours of research and a few new checking accounts of our own, we found 5 providers that outperform the rest.
Credit unions and local banks can offer great deals, but they’re too regionally based to work as recommendations for most people. So we focused on accounts offered by national brick-and-mortar as well as online only banks that are widely available, financially stable, and have a proven record of consumer satisfaction. No matter where you’re located, our 5 picks will be able to meet your personal financial needs.
- January 24, 2018 - We’ve updated our review to take into account the most recent consumer studies and checking account fees. We also reworked our methodology to more accurately reflect our process and make it easier to read. Our top picks are mostly the same, but we removed Wells Fargo and Ally due to reports of low customer satisfaction. We’ll be taking a deeper look at checking accounts in the coming month, so keep an eye out for a larger update soon.
The Best Checking Account
From local to national banks or credit unions to online-only banks, there are a lot of financial institutions vying for your business when it comes to opening a checking account. With so many options, finding the best checking account can seem like a daunting task. But we charged in and after 120 hours of research, interviews with 33 financial experts, and a number of debates, we settled on a list of providers that offer the best in terms of financial stability and industry leading service.
How We Found the Best Checking Accounts
We started by collecting a list of more than 27,000 brick-and-mortar banks, online-only banks, and other financial institutions that offer checking accounts. Then we took a deep dive into our list of providers to find the checking accounts that would offer the best banking experience for most people. That meant looking for widely available and financially stable institutions that offered low fees and exceptional customer service.
First, we made the hard call to cut credit unions and local banks
Unlike traditional banks, credit unions are nonprofit financial institutions owned by their members. In other words, a credit union doesn’t have to worry about making a profit to please stockholders. Instead, it can focus on improving member benefits and services such as lowering checking fees. Case in point, a whopping 84 percent of credit unions offered free checking in 2017 — a sharp contrast to the 38 percent of banks that do the same.
But potential savings aside, opening a checking account with a credit union comes with a few key obstacles. The majority of credit unions restrict membership to people who live, work, or worship within specific regions. Since we can’t promise you’ll be eligible for the credit unions on our list, we decided to cut them from the running. There are a few credit unions that offer their services nationwide — we’re keeping a close eye on them — but for now opening a checking account with a traditional national bank is still the most accessible and best option for most people.
As for local banks, the same logic applies. Rather than recommend a bank that only serves a select few at the local or regional level, we decided to cut local banks from the running too.
Next, we verified the financial strength of the remaining contenders
With credit unions and local banks out of the picture, online-only and national traditional banks (we’ll just call them traditional from here on) remained. All of the remaining banks on our list were also FDIC insured. This protects the money you have deposited in your bank (the limit is $250,000) in the event that the bank fails.
Even with FDIC insurance, we looked for banks that had substantial assets and a stable or positive financial strength outlook. We wanted to find the banks that would be the least likely to fail, so we compared financial strength ratings from research firms like Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s. If a bank didn’t have a stable long-term outlook, we eliminated it from our list.
Then we separated our banks into two categories and held them to a strict set of criteria
While traditional and online-only banks have a lot of similarities, they take different approaches to banking. As the name suggests, online-only banks do not have brick-and-mortar locations like their traditional counterparts. At first glance, the difference is small, but choosing one over the other will have large implications for your experience with your checking account. In that sense, we knew that we needed different criteria for the two types of banks, and after hours of research, we developed strict and specific sets of criteria that the best traditional and online-only banks should meet.
As we mentioned before availability is a key factor for traditional banks. Since our goal was to find the best recommendation for the most people possible, we focused on banks that were available in at least 20 states. This was a significant cut, brining our list of traditional banks down to just six.
That said, just because you can open a checking account at an available bank doesn’t mean you should. The best checking account should come from a bank that offers valuable customer benefits and services. For the six traditional banks left on our list, we spoke with customer service reps, visited a handful of their local branches, and even opened checking accounts to test the banking experience. A traditional bank won’t have as many digital tools as an online-only bank, but it should still have a strong online presence. So, we also compared online dashboards and mobile services to see which of our traditional brick-and-mortar banks lived up to their claim of thorough customer resources. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that all of our testers reported the excellent customer service you would expect from industry leaders.
But we also wanted a more quantitative benchmark for customer satisfaction that went beyond the shopping or new customer experience. We turned to the 2017 JD Powers and Associates Retail Banking Satisfaction Study and the 2017 JD Powers and Associates National Banking Satisfaction Study. The former measures customer satisfaction with leading banks on a regional basis while the latter provides a comprehensive view of customer experience nationwide. If a bank did not beat (or match) the industry average score in at least half of the regions where the bank is available, we cut it from the list. That left us with the three best options for traditional banks.
J.D. Power National and Retail Bank Satisfaction Study: Rating Comparison
*An upward pointing arrow indicates a ranking above the industry average and a downward pointing arrow indicates a ranking below. A dash indicates no rating information was available.
When it comes to online-only banks, availability is not an issue. As online banking providers, you’ll be able to manage your account from anywhere — as long as you have Internet access. Without brick-and-mortar locations, online-only banks also 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 or known for dependable customer service, so we removed them from our list.
Speaking of customer service, most of the online-only banks have easy to access contact information. To separate the best from the rest, we used the 2017 JD Powers and Associates Direct Banking Satisfaction Study. Like the studies for traditional banking, the direct banking study measures customer satisfaction with online-only providers. If a bank did not exceed the industry average, we cut it 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 a much larger network of proprietary ATMs that are free to their customers. Online-only banks don’t focus on a heavy physical presence, so they don’t have their own ATMs. However, many of the top online-only banks partner with ATM networks to give customers access to thousands of ATMS free of charge. Cash still has a place in the world, so if an online-only bank did not provide access to at least 35,000 free ATMs, a number that ensures you can grab cash almost anywhere, they got the boot. When the dust settled, we were left with the two top options for online-only banks.
J.D. Power Direct Banking Satisfaction Ratings: The Two Finalists
*An upward pointing arrow indicates a ranking above the industry average
Our Top Picks for The Best Checking Account
Chase Total Checking is a standard option that offers a few key benefits. For one, Chase has a huge national presence which means easy access to your cash almost anywhere. Their handy app is also one of the more intuitive options available and makes banking on the go quick and painless. As one of the first banks to adopt snapshot check deposits, you can also deposit checks from the comfort of your home. More importantly, these options make it easy to manage your account which can help you avoid monthly fees — a direct deposit of $500 a month, a maintained balance of at least $1,500, or a combined balance of $5,000 across your Chase accounts makes your checking account free.
In addition, Chase was the only banking option that managed to score above the industry average for customer satisfaction in every region from the JD Power Retail Banking Study. The bank offers 24/7 customer service checking account, so you’ll be able to have any questions about your checking account answered, day or night. If you want more personalized help, you can also stop by one of their 5,100 branches. In short, the bank delivers on its promise of secure banking and exceptional service.
Chase isn’t perfect. It has a high monthly fee and a strict overdraft fee ($34 for every item that results in an overdraft rather than a single charge for the entire day). But with excellent customer service and easy account management, it is a strong choice.
- Monthly Fee: $12
- NSF Fee: $34 per item
- Non-Network ATM Fee: $2.50 (US) or 3% and $5 (International)
- Minimum Balance to Open: $25
If you want regular rewards for spending, PNC Bank’s Standard Checking will help you get cash back on your purchase. PNC also has a low monthly fee of just $7 which is easy to waive — you only need to keep $500 in your checking account. It also waives the fee for ages 62 and older, which makes them an excellent option for seniors.
The bank isn’t available in every region of the United States, but it often scores above the industry average for customer satisfaction for the regions it serves. JD Power and Associates also ranked PNC as the best option for national customer satisfaction. Add to that online account management and easy mobile banking, and you can expect a great banking experience.
That said, the website isn’t as intuitive compared to other options. We’re nitpicking a little, but the easier it is to navigate online banking tools the better. It also has a relatively high overdraft fee of $36 per item and a high non-network ATM fee — a cause for some concern considering PNC only has 9000 ATMs nationwide. That said, exceptional customer service and an easily waivable monthly fee make opening a checking account with PNC a smart choice.
- Monthly Fee: $7
- NSF Fee: $36
- Non-Network ATM Fee: $3 (US) or 3% and $5 (International)
- Minimum balance to open: $25
There are no games or gimmicks with US Bank — just a checking account with a large network of ATMs and local branches, low overdraft fees, and a streamlined online presence that is simple but easy to use. The threshold for the fee waiver on checking accounts is higher compared to its competitors, but US Bank offers one of the most straightforward and transparent banking experiences available.
Like PNC, US Bank isn’t available in every region of the United States. However, it scored above average for customer satisfaction in the JD Power and Associates national study and at least half of the regions it serves in the JD Power and Associates retail study. You won’t get all the bells and whistles of other providers, but our testers reported simple and straight to the point customer service that takes the complication out of banking.
As for fees, US Bank is a mixed bag. You can expect a low non-network ATM fee of $2.50 and a monthly fee of only $6.95. However, if you have a negative balance, US Bank will charge you $25 for every 8 days that your account stays in the negative — for us, this is counterintuitive. But if you want a simple but effective banking experience, US Bank is the way to go.
- Monthly Fee: $6.95
- NSF Fee: $36
- Non-Network ATM: $2.50
- Minimum Balance to open: $25
Most know Capital One for their credit cards, but their 360 Checking account is a hidden gem. The account is great if you’re looking to accrue money — you earn an impressive 0.20% interest on your balance. Plus, Capital One has a convenient online bill pay and check cutting service, so you won’t miss out on the benefits of an actual bank (aside from brick-and-mortar location of course).
In terms of customer satisfaction, Capital One leads the pack. It had the highest score in the JD Power Direct Banking Satisfaction Study and the single online-only option that managed to earn a 5 out of 5 Power Circle Rating (JD Power and Associates’ mark of excellence). If you’re a customer of Capital One you can expect industry leading customer service to help with any and all of your banking needs.
However, as an online-only option you’ll miss out on in-person service. This won’t be an issue if you don’t need personalized help, but for those who prefer having in-person assistance, a traditional bank will be the better option. However, with impressively low fees and easy online account management, Capital One 360 is an excellent online-only choice.
- Online Only
- Monthly Fee: None
- NSF Fee: $30
- Non-Network ATM Fee: No fees
- Minimum balance to open: None
There are no monthly maintenance or ATM fees with this online-only account. In fact, the bank pays you $50 when you sign up and offers additional rewards on your purchases. Additionally, you’ll always be able to access your cash even without brick-and-mortar locations — Discover offers access to an incredible 60,000 no-fee ATMs in the United States. All this meant more money in our checking accounts, which you won’t find us complaining about.
Discover was a close second to Capital One 360 in the JD Power Satisfaction study. You’ll be able to expect helpful phone representatives and a rich online help center to guide you through any questions that you may have. You can even download forms and guides to help you manage your account and finances. We like that Discover not only save us money, but trains us to balance our budgets more effectively.
Like other online-only banks, Discover does not offer access to in-person assistance. As strong its online resources are, nothing beats having a real life human being in the same room when you have questions about your finances. However, as one of our top picks, Discover is a solid online-only option that outperforms many other competitors on the market.
- 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
Did you Know?
Banks aren’t always clear about their fees, so we made a list of the ones to watch out for
When shopping for a new checking account, it is important to read the fine print to look for not only the possible benefits a bank offers but also the possible fees you might get hit with. The only problem is that it can be hard to know what fees you should look out for.
The formal disclosure documents outlining account fees, terms, and conditions are often long, unintelligible, and opaque.
We recognize that fees aren’t always avoidable, it’s important to know what fees you can expect from a bank. We made a list to help you identify the most common types:
- 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 and easily add up to a few hundred dollars per year. Before you open an account, it’s a good idea to identify the minimum monthly balance banks acquire. Finding a minimum balance that suits your needs and preference can prevent any extra costs.
- 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 certain balance is maintained, you have regular direct deposit, or you use your debit card frequently. In that sense, it’s always worth checking what the conditions for a waived fee are.
- Overdraft Fees
Overdraft fees are the most inconvenient and costly ways that banks penalize customers. As recently as 2015, banks were 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.
Fees aren't the only thing to look for — a few key features can improve your banking experience
When it comes to the best banking experience, avoiding fees is a given. However, keeping an eye out for a few helpful features can be all the difference between finding a good and a great bank.
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.
Some of the most helpful features include:
- 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.
- Student Deals
If you're a student you may be eligible for lower fees or automatic exemption from monthly fees. Before signing up for an account, we suggest asking if your bank has any student centered deals.We have a guide to student checking accounts