A few years ago, a bigger bank took over the bank where my husband and I had kept our checking accounts for more than a decade. Suddenly our free checking had a fee. Not surprisingly we took this change — of ownership and fees — as a reason to find ourselves a new bank.
At first, I thought it would be impossible to find a bank that still offered free checking. Some financial institutions say their checking is free, but it is free only after you’ve met certain requirements, such as maintaining a minimum balance of thousands of dollars or taking on one of its credit cards.
What I learned in my search is this: You can still find banks offering free checking. You just have to know where to look.
I found that free checking is usually limited to three kinds of banks: local and regional banks, online banks and credit unions. Because these banks and credit unions often don’t have a nationwide presence, they offer ATM fee refunds when you use another bank’s ATM. So, if that third-party bank charges a $3 non-customer ATM fee, your “home” bank will credit that $3 back to you. I’ve found this to be true with my Pennsylvania-based bank when using ATMs in Florida, Colorado and New York City. Because my bank doesn’t have ATMs in those locations, all of my ATM fees were refunded.
Here’s are some of the places I found that still offer free checking — truly free checking.
Local and regional banks
The Philadelphia area where I live is home to plenty of local banks with free checking. The names of these banks reflect local towns — Bryn Mawr Trust, Bank of Princeton — or the counties nearby. While looking in your own backyard for banks with free checking, start with those with those local, familiar names.
One example for those living near the Plains states is the First National Bank of Omaha, a regional bank headquartered in Omaha, Neb., that is part of First National of Nebraska. In late 2012, the bank introduced First National Checking, a free checking account with no hidden fees that is available to bank customers living in Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Illinois.
Many people are giving up traditional banks altogether and going with online banks —that is, banks that don’t have a bricks-and-mortar presence. Some of the virtual banks offering free checking are:
Mobile apps and smartphones have really helped many of these online banks take off. So if you don’t mind snapping a picture of a check as a way of depositing it, an online bank offering free checking may be right for you.
Credit unions offer a great banking option if you’re looking for free checking and other free services that a big bank might not offer, such as free coin counting when you’ve been collecting change. According to Bankrate, 72 percent of America’s 50 largest credit unions offer free checking accounts with no strings attached. Bankrate found that this number jumps to 96 percent when you add in credit union checking accounts that can easily become free when you add in one required service, such as direct deposit or choosing to receive e-statements over traditional paper statements.
I always thought that the only way to join a credit union — and benefit from that membership — was through a workers’ union. But it turns out nearly anyone can join a credit union.
Take the McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union. While McGraw-Hill employees can join (naturally), if you have a religious affiliation, are a member of a civic organization, or belong to a school group, you can join this credit union. With Bethpage Federal Credit Union, New York’s largest credit union, anyone who lives and works on Long Island can join. Each credit union’s rules are different, so be sure to check ahead of time.
If you discover additional ways to get free checking, post a comment to let us know.
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