The Best Online Stock Trading Sites
How We Found the Best Online Stock Trading Sites
13 Trading Sites Analyzed
2 Financial Experts Consulted
5 Top Picks
The Best Online Stock Trading Sites
We tapped into the expertise of a former day trader and a financial commentator (with 20 years of trading experience) to grade 13 of the best online stock trading sites. To find our top picks, we analyzed pricing structures, dug into research and tools, and took every platform for a spin. Upfront: There is no one best online stock broker. Each has its own strengths and suits different types of investors and different investment strategies. We’ll help you find the best for your style and experience.
How We Found The Best Online Stock Trading Sites
It’s a tumultuous time for online stock brokers. The players have largely remained the same, but between significant cuts in commissions and a few major acquisitions (Etrade acquired OptionsHouse; TD Ameritrade and Scottrade merged; Ally Invest now lives under Ally Bank), the competition is on its toes. We leveraged seasoned expertise to dig into 13 of the most popular online stock trading sites; here's what we found important.
Low overhead is key
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 early 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 come into play.
Overall commision 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 can get 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 minimum account balance.
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 5 best online stock trading platforms
- Ally Invest -
Best for Cheap Trading
- E*TRADE -
Best for Beginners
- TD Ameritrade -
- OptionsHouse -
Best for Active Traders
- Fidelity -
Best Research & Tools
Why we chose it
At $4.95 a trade, with no inactivity charge, and only 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+ 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 Invest truly delivers with sophisticated calculators, profit-loss estimators, and more. Ally Invest 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 4 out of 5 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
Acquisition and rebranding confusion
Previously acquired by Ally Bank, TradeKing has been rebranded into Ally Bank’s own online trading platform, Ally Invest. Much of the interface, low prices, and offerings have remained the same, though some discounts and promotions are no longer available.
Why we chose it
New investors need two things from their online stock trading platform: an easy learning curve and lots of room to grow. Etrade 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 Etrade 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
Etrade 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. And 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 Etrade: Commission fees start at $6.95. It’s not until investors make more than 30 trades a quarter that the fees drop down to $4.95, which OptionsHouse and Ally Invest offer up front. But while Etrade levies a steeper charge here, there are no surcharges for low-priced stocks or inactivity.
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. Since the company acquired Scottrade, our favorite platform for beginners, in 2016, we predict it will continue getting better at serving junior traders.
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 — research reports, real-time data, charts, technical studies. Things any other broker would charge a premium for. Also included: customizable workspaces, extensive third-party research, and a thriving trader chat room. There’s also 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 some of the other discount brokers, there are many traders who think its best-in-class trading platforms.
Why we chose it
No account minimum
If you already have a firm handle on your investment strategy and want to maximize your profits, OptionsHouse is excellent. What it lacks in some of the investor education features that competitors like Etrade and TD Ameritrade can claim, it makes up with its low-cost, streamlined trading platform. Like Ally Invest, it’s been a longtime leader in rock-bottom pricing, with a $4.95 trade commission, and, unlike many brokerages catering to active investors, no account minimums or inactivity fees. Fees for a single-leg options contract are $5.45 all-in. Plus, if you have $5,000 to invest, you’ll receive $1,000 worth of commission-free trades.
Along with competitive pricing, OptionsHouse has one of the most accessible platforms. Clean design and user-friendly tools help make heaps of information easier to digest. And automize: Trigger Alerts lets users set up their accounts to automatically purchase an order based on a particular scenario. For example, you can set an alert to buy any number of shares of one stock if its direct competitor falls by a certain percentage. When that’s triggered, you get an alert on any device that lets you confirm the purchase or ignore in one simple reply.
Tools like tradeLAB help dissect options spreads, with green smiley faces for the statistical probability of making a profit, and red frowns for a loss. OptionsHouse also offers a “dime buyback program” that makes it easy to close any short options without paying commission fees.
Great for options traders
While beginners may prefer the in-depth guidance of other platforms, Barron’s named OptionsHouse “Best for Options Traders” and gave it a 4.5 out of 5 stars overall, and a perfect 5 for its mobile performance. Whether you prefer to trade via desktop, tablet, or mobile, its customizable interface seamlessly transitions between all three — though, admittedly, customers seem to either love or hate the app.
Points to Consider
Some fees are higher than normal
OptionsHouse doesn’t offer currency trading, and has limited commission-free and transaction-free offerings, but its 2016 acquisition by Etrade should help fill in those gaps as the two brokers continue to merge. OptionsHouse also falls short in mutual funds — it charges $20 per trade, as opposed to Ally Invest’s $9.95 — as well as currency trading, and commission-free ETFs, but for the active trader who know what they’re doing, it’s one of the best platforms available.
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 only explore 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 don’t stop after explaining the concept. They cover how to apply principles to your own Fidelity investments.
Points to Consider
Higher entry point
You’ll need to plunk down at least $2,500 to open an account with Fidelity, and unlocking its promotional offers requires a cool $50,000.
Not all tools are accessible to all users
Additionally, 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).
Guide to Online Stock Trading Sites
Smart investors pinch pennies
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.
Fees can have a big impact on your net returns — that is, your total investment profits after fees. Let’s say you put $1,000 in a hedge fund and the investment gains 20% to reach $1,200. Based on the standard “two and twenty” fee structure, the fund managers will take $40 of those earnings, meaning you only end up with a 16% gain. The lower the fee, the higher the net earnings.
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 percent) on their profits than an investor who buys and holds their stocks for a full year (15 percent). 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.
Mutual funds and ETFs come with their own set of fees, too. Like 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 many high-priced mutual funds’ and ETFs’ value per share doesn’t seem to change over time — any growth is offset by fees. Also 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.” TD Ameritrade offers paperMoney, its virtual trading platform. If you open an account, OptionsHouse offers its paperTRADE account to test your strategies. Outside of actual trading sites, MarketWatch and Investopedia offer simulators to get you started.
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 a quarterly recurring appointment so you know you’ll handle it at the right time.
Stock Trading Glossary
- 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
The best Online Stock Trading Sites: Summed up
*Offers commission-free or transaction-free trading