From monthly maintenance fees and minimum balance requirements to overdraft penalties and limits on transactions, banks squeeze extra dollars out of their customers every month in many ways.
So what's the deal with no-fee checking accounts? Are they truly fee-free?
Keep reading to learn all about the most common hidden fees and how to avoid them.
Average cost of a checking account
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the average checking account holder incurs $9.87 in monthly fees — or $118 annually.
While monthly maintenance fees make up a significant part of that number, watch out for other fees.
Hidden fees to watch out for
- Out-of-network ATM fees: You incur fees whenever you use an ATM that isn’t supported by your bank’s network. Sometimes, you’ll even be charged twice — once by the bank and once by the machine operator.
- Overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees: Banks charge these fees when you accidentally spend more than you have in your account, either by using your debit card, writing a check, or withdrawing from an ATM.
- Inactivity fee: Many banks will charge an inactivity fee if you don't make a deposit or withdrawal for over six months.
- Paper statement fee: Most banks bill you for mailing out your monthly statements.
What to consider when opening a checking account
With the rise of online banking, you have more options than ever regarding fee-free bank accounts.
Let's look at what the best no-fee checking accounts have in common.
No or low monthly maintenance fees
When shopping for a new checking account, you should look for one with the lowest possible maintenance fee. Banks will waive maintenance fees if you meet specific requirements in many cases. But it’s your responsibility to make sure you can meet them, or else you might end up paying monthly service fees.
The best checking accounts have ATMs that are free to use across the country. If a bank doesn’t have a wide-ranging ATM network, it should reimburse out-of-network ATM charges up to a certain amount.
No limits on transactions
The point of having a checking account is to make transactions. Always look for an account that doesn't impose limits per statement cycle on withdrawals, deposits, ATM transactions, or money transfers.
Mobile app or online access
Look for a well-designed and user-friendly online interface to ensure your banking experience is as smooth and stress-free as possible. It's even better if the bank has a solid mobile banking app.
No minimum balance
Many banks claim to offer fee-free checking but require you to maintain a hefty minimum balance throughout the month, which limits the amount of money you can access for free. Try to find an account with no minimum daily balance or opening deposit requirement.
No direct deposit requirement
Some online checking accounts will waive your monthly maintenance fee if you receive a minimum number of monthly direct deposits. If possible, get an account with no direct deposit requirement.
Overdraft fees are among the most common costs for checking account holders. Ask your financial institution what your options are. Some will offer overdraft protection automatically, while others require you to opt in or out.
Tips for opening a checking account
When it comes to checking accounts, you have countless options to choose from. As with all financial products, shopping around will find the best checking account for your specific needs.
No single account will be ideal for everyone. Make a list of the most important features to you (and those that you’re willing to compromise) and compare several different banks and credit unions before committing.
In addition to avoiding the fees mentioned above, look for the best checking account interest rates.
Joint, second-chance, rewards, and high-yield checking accounts offer different advantages and disadvantages.
Pros and cons of different checkings accounts
Here are a few of the pros and cons associated with the most common types of checking accounts.
High-yield checking account
- Higher annual percentage yield (APY) than regular checking accounts.
- Low or no monthly fees if you meet specific requirements.
- Potential minimum account balance, direct deposit requirements, or transaction fees.
Rewards checking account
- Rewards/cash-back on debit card purchases.
- Higher-than-average monthly fees.
Second-chance checking account
- No credit check.
- Low minimum balance requirements.
- Low monthly fees.
- Limited services.
Joint checking account
- Easily allows two or more people to access the same account.
- Risk of overdraft.
FAQs about no-fee checking accounts
Do checking accounts pay interest?
Yes and no. While checking accounts traditionally offered no interest, the rise of online banking has resulted in more competitive products. Some interest-bearing checking accounts pay low interest on all balances, while others — like high-yield checking accounts — pay impressive APY on a limited balance. You should also check the minimum requirements to be eligible for the best rates.
Do you have to pay for ATM withdrawals?
Most no-fee checking accounts won’t charge you for withdrawals from ATMs in their network. If a bank or credit union has few or no ATMs, they will often offer ATM fee reimbursement for any fees you incur on out-of-network ATMs.
Are there limits to how much you can have in a checking account?
No. Technically, you can deposit as much money as you want in your account. But keep in mind that the deposit insurance offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) only covers $250,000, so any amount above that number isn't covered.
What's the difference between a fee and a service charge?
Fees cover the basic services included in the account, while service charges pay for services beyond the basics of the account, like a wire transfer.
Do any banks offer a bonus for opening a checking account?
Yes. Some banks offer sign-up perks, like a bonus when you open a new checking account, provided you meet their eligibility criteria.
The bottom line
No-fee checking accounts are excellent tools to help you spend your money without incurring unnecessary costs. But to get the most out of them, you need to avoid hidden fees. Knowing what to look for is the first step toward fee-free transactions.
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