Checking Accounts Full Guide: Should You Consider It?

Last Updated: September 28, 2019
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 In this article, we explain how does checking account work, what are its main features, review their pros & cons, learn how to compare them and suggest some alternatives.

What is a Checking Account?

Bankers introduced the checking account to help their customers with their everyday transactions.  If you have a checking account, you can access and manage your funds by using checks, debit cards, transact over-the-counter at your branch or do it online.   A checking account gives the experience and safety in paying bills, making deposits or payments, and transferring funds.

You can say that your first checking account is your entry point to financial stability.  Your checking account can open the door to other financial products such as savings account and investment instruments.

Features of Checking Accounts

Convenience

In a checking account, you can deposit funds, or transfer them in a breeze.  Withdrawing them and spending them are even so much easier because there are several ways you can do it.  Here are the most common ones:

  • Via ATMs: You can get money from your account anywhere, anytime by using automated teller machines or ATMs.  Some banks will charge you a fee if you use an out-of-network ATM although sometimes the bank or credit union can waive those fees.
  • Via Debit Cards: These are convenient payment cards that usually come free with your checking account and which you can use to withdraw up to how much you have in your account.  This is in contrast to a credit card, which advances the money when you use it to make a purchase and which you eventually have to pay back with interest.
  • Via checks: Although they are not as popular as before, these paper instruments remain to be a standard feature of the checking account.  When you open a checking account, you can get the first booklet for free, but you have to pay for refills.
  • Via bill pay: Many financial institutions will allow you to set up bill pay so you can pay your regular bills electronically – the system will deduct the payment directly from your checking account.
  • Via online banking: A majority of us now spend some time using our PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.  All these devices are capable of online banking where you can monitor an account and perform some financial transactions.  Some of these are:  online bills payment, check depositing, fund transfer, balance inquiry, and even check re-ordering.

Safety and Protection

If you keep your money in a shoebox inside the closet, there’s really no guarantee that it will be safe.  Keeping them in a financial institution would definitely be much better.

Although you will have to share some personal and financial information with the bank when you open a checking account, financial institutions keep your information highly confidential.

Spending and Withdrawal Limits

Every checking account sets a daily limit on the amount that you can charge to your debit card and it’s usually around $1,000.  There is also a limit on how much you can withdraw from an ATM and that’s around $500 every 24 hours.  There’s hardly a limit on the amount you can write on your check but check with your bank just to be sure.

Interest

You may find an interest-earning checking account where the bank will pay interest on the funds that you keep with them.

FDIC Insurance

Are you worried about the economy and/or the stability of your bank?  Are you concerned that a computer virus or a wayward CEO may cause your bank to collapse?  Well, there’s no need to lose sleep over these things.

There is an insurance that covers your money in the checking account by up to $250,000 per account holder through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  This coverage is free of charge to banking customers because the bank pays the premiums.

Monthly Fees

A truly free checking account is becoming extinct, so you would probably have to pay a monthly fee to maintain your account.  Fortunately, a lot of banks waive this fee if you meet a daily minimum or a monthly average balance, or if there are direct deposits to the account.

Checking Vs Savings Account

Checking accounts don’t usually have restrictions about the number of transactions that you can do each month, while a savings account would have a limit to the number of withdrawals you can make in person or from an ATM.  There could also be a limit on the number of transfers you can make from savings to checking accounts.

Generally, you can’t make direct payments from your savings account because of a federal law that limits some withdrawals.  Experts call this provision of the law Regulation D.

It’s definitely easy to use the money in your checking account via an ATM withdrawal, writing a check, using your debit card, or paying electronically.  So, if what you need is an account to disburse funds, a checking account is most appropriate.

Types of Checking Accounts

Before you choose a particular checking account, you should compare fees, ATM networks, opening balance restrictions and any other features that are relevant to your needs such as if it pays interest on your deposit.  Here are the most common types of checking accounts you will find in the market:

Traditional Checking Account.  You would find this traditional account at most brick-and-mortar financial institutions. This is most suitable if you’re old school and would love to deal face-to-face with bank employees for your transactions.  The features and fees would depend on the bank you’re opening your account with.

Online Checking Account.  If you’re okay to do your banking without the need for a physical branch, this is one good option.  They usually offer higher interest rates on your deposit, lower fees and more extensive ATM networks.

High-interest Checking Account.  With this type of checking account, you can earn extra money while helping your account grow.  The catch is, you should comply with the bank’s balance and transaction requirements to qualify for the interest.

Student Checking Account. There are financial institutions that offer student checking accounts that often carry no maintenance fees until the student reaches a certain age, usually 24.  Just remember that if the student is below 18 years old, the bank may require it to be a joint account with a parent or guardian.

Choosing a Checking Account

A good checking account is one with low or no fees, has access to an extensive ATM network, with a low opening balance requirement, and other features that work for you.  Throw in an interest-earning feature, if you can find one.

Will you benefit more with a major bank whose ATM and branch locations are all over the United States?  Would you be needing more of an online bank that allows you to deposit and transfer funds electronically?  If you’re after a good experience, you may want to check the bank’s customer service ratings and client reviews.  These are important factors that can dictate the quality of your interaction with a bank.

Shop Around

Look into the minimum balance requirements so you can check whether you can comply with them.  You don’t want to have an account which you can’t keep up with the minimum balance and then end up paying charges to the bank every month.

Some accounts will have a transaction limit such that you can only have a certain number of checks or debit transactions each month.  Other accounts restrict the number of bill payment transactions you can do.  You should know these limits and make sure that they will not clash with your spending patterns.  If the numbers appear to be too restrictive, you can look for other banks or another account.

While you are searching, watch out for sign-up bonuses.  Some banks will give you money for choosing them to open an account with – check out these bonuses for the month.  It’s not a good practice to pick an account just because there’s a promotion but the promo offer could be the tie-breaker between two equal options.  You’ll find that many credit unions and online-only banks offer their checking accounts without monthly fees or minimum balance requirements. The downside is they don’t usually have many branch locations.

Where Can You Open a Checking Account?

You will find that checking accounts are still a staple product of banks.  If you need wide accessibility, you should go to the big banks like Chase, Citi, and Bank of America.  These banks have the necessary facilities such that you can open your checking account in person or online.  On the other hand, there are banks like Ally and Charles Schwab that have few or zero physical branches – you’ll have to access their website to open an account.

If you’re planning to open an account in a credit union, it may not be as easy as signing on with a bank.  Although some of the larger credit unions will let you join them if you donate to a designated association, the majority of credit unions limit their membership by region or trade.  You need to investigate the options available for you depending on where you live or what you do professionally.

How to Open a Checking Account

The first step in opening an account – whether in a traditional branch or an online bank – is to fill out an application form.  When opening in person, just tell the bank representative that you want to open a checking account.  For an online account, simply click the “Apply Now” or “Open an Account” button on the bank’s website.  The application form will help the bank evaluate whether it can allow you to open an account or not.

When you apply for a checking account, the bank will ask you to provide a government-issued ID such as your driver’s license or passport, plus your Social Security Number.  You should be ready to show proof of residence, like a bill from the utility company or your lease contract.

Expect the bank to run a credit check on you because they would want to get an idea of your banking history.  For example, if they see that you’ve failed to pay maintenance fees on former bank accounts, they may decline your application for an account.

If they approve your application, they would likely ask you to make an initial deposit although that would depend on the bank.  Not all banks will do this and if they do, you will notice that the initial amount will differ from bank to bank.  The point is to know how much the bank will ask so you can be ready with the amount before you open your account.  You can bring the corresponding cash or at least be prepared to transfer funds from your other account.

In most cases, when you personally open an account, the bank will give you a temporary debit card and ask you to nominate a secure PIN.  They will send your permanent debit card and account paperwork through the mail to your reported address within a few days after opening. If you open an account online, you won’t have your debit card immediately – the bank will send it through the mail to your address.

Alternative Checking Accounts

More and more banks are finding ways to reach the unbanked or underbanked Americans such that they are coming out with attractive checking account alternatives.  These alternatives come loaded with features and low fees, but you should at least do some research to know exactly what they’re all about.

1. Virtual Accounts

One excellent alternative product you can find is Bluebird by American Express and Walmart.  It is a virtual account that works very similarly to a checking account.  You can use it to make a direct deposit, pay your bills online, get money from ATMs, and even issue checks.

Bluebird won’t charge monthly fees or overdraft fees and lets you deposit directly for free as well as pay your bills without service charges.  Account holders can access more than 24,000 ATMs through MoneyPass.  You can use the card almost everywhere that accepts American Express, and you can piggy-back on Amex benefits like fraud protection and Amex offers.

A similar option is Chime, which focuses on providing online savings and checking account services to savers.

2. Online Bank

Online banks have bypassed the need to have brick-and-mortar offices and large manpower cost, so they can pass on the savings to customers by giving them better interest rates.

Their biggest advantage as an internet only financial institution is the very low overhead cost.  Online banks don’t have to maintain hundreds or thousands of branches all over the United States to compete with traditional banks.  Internet-only banks also do not maintain a large staff.  This lack of overhead expenses gives these online banks better profitability and this gives them the capacity to pass along better benefits to their customers.

3. Prepaid Cards

Prepaid cards used to be notoriously expensive due to their exorbitant fees, but they are now becoming more and more reasonable for the common consumer.  You can find a lot of prepaid cards that function like a checking account and some of them even allow automatic paycheck deposits.

Just make sure you’ve shopped around for several card options, so you can pick the best one for you, and pay good attention to the fees that the banks charge.  Of course, you should select the one whose features and functions will best meet your needs, like paying bills online or being able to use it to pay for groceries at the corner convenience store.