The Best Online Stock Trading Sites
How We Found the Best Online Stock Trading Sites
25 trading sites analyzed
3 financial experts consulted
8 top picks
The Best Online Stock Trading Sites
With cutting-edge research tools and mobile apps, online stock trading is perfect for investors who want to strike out on their own with “self-directed trading” instead of paying fees for a managed portfolio. Whether you’re a first-time investor or an expert trader, you need a trading platform that’s user-friendly, trustworthy, and packed with data visualizations. To find the best online stock trading sites of 2019, we analyzed 25 of the most popular platforms and tapped into the expertise of a former day trader, a stock analyst, and a financial commentator with more than two decades of trading experience. In short, there is no single best online stock broker, but each of our top picks has its own strengths for different types of investors. We’ll help you determine the best fit for your investment goals and experience.
The 8 Best Online Stock Trading Sites of 2019
- Ally Invest -
Best for Cheap Trades
- Robinhood -
Best for Beginners
- E*TRADE -
Best for Active Traders
- TD Ameritrade -
Best Platform Design
- Fidelity -
Best Research and Tools
- Charles Schwab -
Best for Expert Traders
- Vanguard -
Best for Retirement Investors
- Interactive Brokers -
Best for Low Commission Rates
How We Found the Best Online Stock Trading Sites
The 2010s have been a boom era for online stock brokers. According to Statista, between 10% and 15% of all U.S. adults used an online broker at least once in 2018. While some major brokerages have remained the same (Charles Schwab), others have gone through mergers and acquisitions (E*TRADE acquired OptionsHouse; TD Ameritrade and Scottrade merged; TradeKing is now Ally Invest), and a new generation of millennial-focused brokers (like Robinhood and Acorns) has kept the old guard on its toes by lowering commission rates and minimum deposits. After digging into 25 trading platforms, here are the factors that set our top picks apart from the crowd.
Different investors are going to prioritize different things. A day trader, for example, requires speed and flexibility. A first-time trader may value educational resources and reliable customer support. But one thing every trader should care about is cost. Not paying attention to investment expenses is like revving your car engine while filling it with gas. That's why we spent a lot of time balancing price with what each site offered.
Affordable pricing structures
Commissions are typically an investor’s largest expense. In 2016, an unassisted transaction fee averaged about $8. Since 2017, competitive brokers including Fidelity, E*TRADE, and TD Ameritrade trade for as low as $4.95. The number of commission-free ETFs a broker offers also comes into play.
Overall commission costs can also be affected by new customer promotions. Brokers may give you a chunk of free trades based on your deposit amount. If your deposit gets you a substantial number of free trades, that can write off otherwise higher per-commission costs. Ally Invest offers small incentives for deposits as low as $500. Fidelity Investments, meanwhile, has a higher barrier for entry — it takes a $50,000 deposit, but then you'll get 300 free trades.
Low fees, as few as possible
We looked for brokers that go light on extra account fees, don’t charge extra to access data, research, and tools, and provide advice for a reasonable rate. Lots of brokers boast amenities like 24/7 financial experts, but most of those services come at a price.
Depending on your strategy, increased fees might just be the cost of doing business, but we aimed to mitigate these costs in our top picks. Seeing your nest egg shrink due to a tough market or bad strategy isn’t fun. It’s worse if you’re also getting dinged by unexpected fees, such as a minimum account balance fee.
We tested each brokerage’s platform and weighed in on its standout features, ease of navigation, intuitive controls, and learning resources. Whether you’re looking to make a series of complex trades or to carefully execute your first, intuitive organization and just-in-time pointers are key to a satisfying platform experience.
Strong ratings from investment publications
Like any financial institution, an investment brokerage worth its weight has a strong reputation. We took ratings from noted publications like Barron’s and Kiplinger into account when separating the best from the rest. Our five favorites consistently rank top in both sites' yearly report, which marks brokerages on technology, usability, and cost.
The Best Online Stock Trading Platforms
Ally Invest - Best for Cheap Trades
Why we chose it
At $4.95 per trade, with no inactivity charge and a $50 full outgoing transfer fee, Ally Invest’s fee structure is about as low as you'll find. Even though a rash of brokers dropped their commissions in 2017 to be competitive with Ally Invest’s $4.95 flat rate, Ally keeps its edge with a zero account minimum and enticing discount for active investors — equity trades drop to $3.95 for users with 30-plus trades each quarter or a balance of $100,000.
While some mobile platforms like Robinhood boast totally commission-free stocks and ETFs, Ally Invest’s platform and resources stand out with quality research and tools, including access to its online trader network.
Easy entry point
In addition to attractive pricing, Ally offers a quality platform that gives you access to the entire universe of stocks and ETFs. Where some discount brokers focus on only one kind of trader (for example, options traders or high-net-worth investors), Ally Invest provides an excellent experience for investors of all kinds. A focus on discounted costs can sometimes be a red flag for quality, but Ally truly delivers with sophisticated calculators, profit-loss estimators, and more. Ally also offers a robust research library that incorporates visual slides and interactive media into its market data.
We’re not the only ones who think Ally Invest is a remarkable service. Barron’s has given Ally Invest’s past self, TradeKing, at least four out of five stars for the past 10 years, and Ally continues to rack up kudos for its offerings and low commissions from both Barron’s and other rating sites like StockBrokers.com.
Points to consider
No futures trading
If you want to trade “futures” (agreements to buy or sell assets in the future), Ally Invest isn’t an option. That’s not unusual for an online stock broker — neither Robinhood, Vanguard, nor Fidelity offer futures trading — but you can do it with some of our other top picks, including E*TRADE, Charles Schwab, Interactive Brokers, and TD Ameritrade.
Robinhood - Best for Beginners
Why we chose it
User-friendly trading platform
The Silicon Valley startup Robinhood has been the most disruptive force in online stock trading since it was founded in 2013 by two Stanford alums. Their mission, reportedly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests and alluded to in the company’s name, is to make investing more affordable and more accessible to millennials.
We found Robinhood’s trading interface — both via its mobile app and its website — the most user-friendly of all candidates, making it a perfect option for the first-time trader. The design is minimalist, interactive, and easy to navigate. “Robinhood is a good fit for new investors because it offers a slick, modern app that allows you to trade efficiently,” says James Royal, a stock analyst and investing and wealth management reporter at Bankrate. “And of course, it's free, allowing you to invest money that would have otherwise gone into a broker's pocket.”
No commission fees
Unlike most online stock trading platforms, Robinhood doesn’t charge a commission fee every time you buy or sell stocks, ETFs, or options. If you’re a high-volume trader, or a beginner without much cash to spare, that makes Robinhood an attractive alternative to the $5 to $7 fees per trade offered by competitors. However, Robinhood does rake in “payment for order flow” by rounding regulatory fees up to the nearest penny and pocketing the difference. “That means if you buy a stock for $100.00, Robinhood earns 2.6 cents from the market maker,” says co-founder and co-CEO Vlad Tenev, whereas “other brokerages earn rebates and charge you a per-trade commission fee.”
Points to consider
No bonds, mutual funds, futures, or short-selling
One drawback of Robinhood’s simplicity is that as of 2019, you can only trade stocks, ETFs, and options on the platform — not bonds, mutual funds, or futures, and you can’t short-sell. But Robinhood is our “Best for Beginners” pick, and most first-time investors will probably want to stick to the basics. If you’re interested in bonds and mutual funds, Ally Invest has the best rates of our top picks. If you want to try futures trading, E*TRADE and Charles Schwab are your best bets.
E*TRADE - Best for Active Traders
Why we chose it
Volume discounts for frequent trades
While E*TRADE’s baseline fees are a little high ($6.95 for stocks/ETFs, $6.95 plus 75 cents per contract for options) compared to Ally Invest, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity, E*TRADE does offer volume discounts. If you make more than 30 stock/ETFs trades per quarter, the fee drops to a very competitive $4.95, and if you trade more than 30 options per quarter, the contract fee goes down to 50 cents. That makes E*TRADE a good fit for active traders who keep a close eye on the market.
New investors need two things from their online stock trading platform: an easy learning curve and lots of room to grow. E*TRADE has both. Its platform boasts a library of educational videos, articles, and webinars for each type of investor. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, read up on market news, reports, and commentary from E*TRADE analysts. You can also take advantage of one-on-one assistance: Branch appointments are free to book, and online chat tools and 24-hour hotline are there to guide you from anywhere in the world.
Low minimum account balance
E*TRADE does require an investment minimum for new brokerage accounts ($500), which may seem like more than a novice would like to throw in. But you’ll need at least that much to see real growth, and compared to the minimums of traditional brokerages, $500 is an incredibly welcoming threshold. Additionally, if you can commit to a $10,000 deposit, you can get 60 days of commission-free trades.
Points to consider
Slightly higher commissions
The only real drawback to E*TRADE: Commission fees start at $6.95. It’s not until investors make more than 30 trades per quarter that the fees drop down to $4.95, which Ally Invest, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity offer upfront. But while E*TRADE levies a steeper charge here, there are no surcharges for low-priced stocks or inactivity.
TD Ameritrade - Best Platform Design
Why we chose it
Helpful platform for beginners
TD Ameritrade offers two best-in-class platforms, designed for two different types of investors. Both platforms are free to use for any investor with a TD Ameritrade account. The web-based Trade Architect, though often in the shadow of thinkorswim, is streamlined and easy to use. It will appeal to beginning investors or anyone who prefers a simplified educational interface. Its tab-based navigation lets users flip between trading tools and account overview, plus charts, stock screeners, heat maps, and more.
Powerful platform for pros
Thinkorswim, on the other hand, is a powerhouse designed for the advanced. This desktop application regularly racks up awards for its superior tools and features, things any other broker would charge a premium for — research reports, real-time data, charts, technical studies. Also included: customizable workspaces, extensive third-party research, a thriving trader chat room, and a fully functional mobile app.
Thinkorswim is a particular standout in options trading, with options-trading tabs (just click “spread” if you want a spread and “single order” if you want one leg), plus links that explain the strategies on the order page. Its Strategy Roller feature lets investors create custom covered calls and then roll those positions from expiration to expiration.
Points to consider
More expensive than discount brokerages
TD Ameritrade has been a powerful player in the online stock trading ecosystem for years. The flipside to such robust platforms? Cost. Even though TD Ameritrade lowered its fees in 2017 from $9.99 to $6.95, pretty much every other major discount broker slashed its prices, too. TD Ameritrade remains one of the more expensive options out there, even with more than 100 commission-free ETFs. Though its pricing structure is more expensive than those of some of the other discount brokers, there are many traders who think it's a best-in-class trading platform.
Fidelity - Best Research and Tools
Why we chose it
Sleek and high-functioning platform
Fidelity’s platform wins for user-friendly design, with tools to help take the guesswork out of finding funds and nosing out strategies. Fidelity’s platform lets you explore your options with a slick and intuitive design, complete with color-coded rankings and charts that call out what’s important. You can sort stocks by size, performance, and even criteria like sales growth or profit growth. Want to sort ETFs by the sectors they focus on or their expenses? Done. There’s even a box to check if you want to explore only Fidelity’s commission-free offerings. A few other discount brokers do offer screeners, but none match Fidelity’s depth and usability.
When it comes to research, Fidelity is in a league of its own. The intellectually curious can dive into research from more than 20 providers, including Recognia, Ned Davis, and McLean Capital Management. Fidelity’s Learning Center featured videos are organized by topic, but they don’t stop after explaining the concept; they also cover how to apply principles to your own Fidelity investments.
Points to consider
Not all tools are accessible to all users
Unfortunately, some of Fidelity’s advanced tools are only available to high-volume traders: Charting with Recognia requires a significant 120 trades per year to use, and its Active Trader Pro requires 36 trades per year.
Other Online Stock Trading Sites to Consider
Charles Schwab - Best for Expert Traders
Like Fidelity and Vanguard, Charles Schwab is one of the older brick-and-mortar investment brokers that successfully modernized its trading platform for the Internet Age. Of all our picks, Charles Schwab is the best option for advanced traders who want a full buffet of options (stocks, ETFs, options, bonds, mutual funds, futures) and an impressive suite of research tools. Best of all, even with all the perks Charles Schwab offers, it’s still one of the lowest-cost trading platforms, with cheaper fees than E*TRADE or TD Ameritrade on most trades.
Vanguard - Best for Retirement Investors
Since Vanguard is the largest mutual fund provider in the world, it doesn’t charge a fee for most mutual fund trades. However, other kinds of trading are more expensive, with $7 per option and up to $20 per stock/ETF. For that reason, we don’t recommend Vanguard for beginning or low-volume traders. However, Vanguard is an excellent choice for retirement investors interested in long-term, high-volume earnings, or those looking for a place to take their IRA. In fact, Vanguard is one of our picks for the best IRA accounts.
Interactive Brokers - Best for Low Commission Rates
In terms of volume, Interactive Brokers is technically the largest online stock trading platform in the U.S. It also advertises itself as the “lowest cost broker,” and for good reason: It only charges a startlingly low $0.005 per trade on stocks, ETFs, options, bonds, mutual funds, and futures (plus a 7 cent per contract fee for options). Technically, that’s still higher than Robinhood, but Robinhood only offers stocks, ETFs, and options (and as we noted above, Robinhood does skim some money off the top of trades via “payment for order flow”).
If you’re an active, high-volume trader who dabbles in all kinds of assets, Interactive Brokers is a great option, since you can trade just about anything without losing $5 to $7 on every transaction. The platform interface isn’t nearly as user-friendly as Robinhood’s, nor as intuitive as TD Ameritrade’s; however, if you’re the kind of investor who’d benefit the most from Interactive Brokers (i.e., an experienced one), you’ll know your way around a candlestick chart already.
Guide to Online Stock Trading Sites
Warren Buffett is the best example to hit this point home. In 2008, he bet some hedge fund managers $1 million that they wouldn’t be able to make more money in a decade than a cheap, boring index fund. An index fund uses simple investing algorithms to track an index and doesn’t require active human management. Conversely, hedge funds stack management fees on top of trading fees to pay for the time and knowledge actual strategists are putting into your investments.
So what happened to the bet? Buffett won and donated the winnings to charity. He managed to beat his high-priced peers not because he scored bigger gains, but because he minimized costs.
Be aware of broker fees, but your strategy can also cost you
The capital gains tax rate favors long-term investments. An investor who buys and sells their stocks within a few months will face a higher capital gains tax rate (25%) on their profits than an investor who buys and holds their stocks for a full year (15%). The larger your investment, the bigger the difference. Granted, there’s a risk to holding an investment for longer, but if you’re close to that one-year cutoff, it might be worth it to sit tight for a few more weeks.
Avoid funds with a high expense ratio
Mutual funds and ETFs come with their own set of fees, too. As with broker fees, pay attention to the expense ratio — usually a percentage of any mutual funds or ETFs you purchase in your account — even if you’re buying them commission-free.
These extra fees are another big cost to investors, but they aren’t deducted from your account balance. Instead, these fees show up in the price on the ticker tape. That’s why the value per share of many high-priced mutual funds and ETFs doesn’t seem to change over time — any growth is offset by fees.
In addition, watch out for mutual funds that charge a front- or back-end load for each purchase or sale. These usually range from 0.5% to 1% and can add up quickly.
Play with your own fake money
Give yourself a few thousand in fake money and play investor for a bit while you get the hang of it. “Just start. Even with just a virtual portfolio. Start and then commit to building over time,” says Jane Barratt, CEO of investment education and advisory company GoldBean. “Don’t expect anything major to happen in a short time — build your money muscles by taking risks in a virtual portfolio.” To experiment with trading before getting your feet wet with real money, try TD Ameritrade's paperMoney, a virtual trading platform.
Buy what you know
Our experts suggest you begin by looking at your own life. “Buy what you know, where you are. If you can, identify good companies locally,” says Randy Cameron, a portfolio manager and investment advisor with 35 years of experience. “Look for companies you and your friends are talking about, ones with plans to go national.” As for how much time and money you need, “start with what you have,” he says. There is literally no minimum to get started, and starting with just one share is better than putting things off.
Don’t check your account too often
The best investors are in it for the long haul. Checking your account too often might make you react to the fluctuations in the market too quickly. Personal finance expert Ramit Sethi has written that you should check your investments “probably every few months, with a major review every year.” On many sites, you can also set an alert if a stock dives. Other than that, just set up a quarterly recurring appointment to check in.
Stock Trading Glossary
*Offers commission-free or transaction-free trading
- Stocks: A portion of a company ownership. The more valuable the company, the more valuable its stock. Level: beginner
- Bonds: A loan you make to a company or government in exchange for interest and the return of principle at some future date. If your city wants a new stadium, for example, it might issue a bond to pay for it. These investments are rated for safety by third-party companies, with AAA being the least risky. Level: beginner
- ETFs: Short for exchange-traded fund. These are investment funds that trade like a stock on a stock exchange, but their performance tracks an underlying basket of stocks. They provide diversification within one investment product, so they present lower risk than individual stocks. Level: beginner
- Options: A contract between a buyer and a seller to buy or sell something at a specified price at a specified time, often as a way to bet on the future price of an investment. Level: advanced
- Futures: Short for futures contract. This is an agreement to buy or sell assets, such as commodities or shares, at a fixed price to be delivered and paid for at a later date. If you think you can predict next year’s gold price, this is for you. Level: advanced
- Forex: Short for foreign exchange. This market is for trading currencies and speculating on what today’s yen, euro, etc. will cost tomorrow. Level: advanced
Online Stock Trading FAQ
Is online trading safe?
While it can feel a little nerve-wracking to transfer your money over the internet, you can rest easy knowing that it’s just as secure as when it’s in the bank. Each of our top trading sites puts up a digital vault around your money with 128-bit, two-way data encryption, multi-factor authentication, and up-to-date firewalls.
How much money do I need to start investing?
Most experts recommend starting with around $1,000. Any less, and it’ll be tough to see how your strategies are performing. That said, the sooner you can invest, the better, as you give your money more time to grow. And with no minimum investment requirements on most brokerage accounts, there’s no reason not to get started right away.
How do robo-advisors work?
Robo-advisors like Wealthsimple, Wealthfront, and Betterment use algorithms to determine your investment strategy. You just plug in your time frame and risk tolerance and their computers do the rest. And because they’re targeted for a younger crowd, fees are rock bottom. Wealthsimple and Betterment both have no account minimum, while Wealthfront requires $500. Wealthsimple charges an annual 0.5% advising fee; Wealthfront and Betterment charge just 0.25%.
The Best Online Stock Trading Sites: Summed Up
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