Banking » Guides » What Is A Checking Account? Full Guide
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What Is A Checking Account? Full Guide

Checking accounts now offer a variety of online features and benefits for customers. Here are the main features and how do they work
Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Writer, Contributor

Experience

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
Interest Rates Last Update: June 3, 2024
The banking product interest rates, including savings, CDs, and money market, are accurate as of this date.
Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Writer, Contributor

Experience

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
Interest Rates Last Update: June 3, 2024

The banking product interest rates, including savings, CDs, and money market, are accurate as of this date.

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Table Of Content

Savings are a crucial part of financial stability. Whether you have an emergency fund or investment funds, savings can provide security against unforeseen events or situations. As you can see in this chart using FED Survey of Consumer Finances data, Americans are saving more. 

 

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, and debit cards, transacting 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.

How Does Checking Account Work?

A checking account's primary purpose is to keep your money in a safe place for the short term, so it's available when you need it to pay bills and other expenses.

You can have your paycheck deposited directly into your checking account and then transfer a portion of your earnings to a savings or investment account where it can grow over time. 

BofA checking cash flow chart
BofA checking cash flow chart (Screenshot from Bank Of America app)

When You May Need A Checking Account?

If you have regular money coming in and don’t have a safe place to put it, you may consider opening a checking account.

You might also have to have a checking account in order for your job to send you paychecks. Checking accounts provide proof of payment from jobs and a source of income.

If you want to put bills on autopay, you will also need a checking account. Checking accounts let you pay bills easier and use online banking.

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.
Types of Checking Accounts
(Photo by NicoElNino/Shutterstock)

Benefits And Features Of Checking Account?

A checking account provides a great way to manage your money. Here are the main features and benefits of checking accounts.

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.
Withdraw money from checking via ATM
(Photo by Sundry Photography/Shutterstock)
  • 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.
BofA Manage debit Card
Example: manage Bofa debit card (Screenshot taken by our team from Bank Of America app)
  • 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.
Pay bills and schedule payment on Huntington app
Pay bills and schedule payment on Huntington app (Screenshot from Huntington Bank)
  • 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.

A survey conducted by IPSOS in February 2021 on the most valuable mobile banking features in the United States shows that 35% of the participants considered check deposit the most valuable mobile banking feature. At close range and above 30%, viewing statements and account balances, transferring funds between accounts, received 33% and 31% of the responses. 3% of the respondent did not have a bank account.

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.

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.

Capital One Transfer funds options
Transfer funds options on Capital One app (Screenshot from Capital One)

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

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.

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.

understanding FDIC insurance
FDIC insurance covers deposits in savings, checking, money market accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs).

What's The Difference Between Checking to 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.

How To Choose A Checking Account?

Choosing a checking account requires careful consideration of your financial needs and preferences. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a checking account:

  • Fees: Look for an account with no or low monthly fees. Some banks waive these fees if you maintain a minimum balance or set up direct deposits. Consider the ATM network of the bank and whether they charge fees for using ATMs outside their network.
  • Minimum Balance Requirements: Some banks may require a minimum balance to avoid monthly fees. Choose an account with a minimum balance requirement that aligns with your financial situation.
  • Interest Rates: While checking accounts generally don't offer high-interest rates, it's still worth checking for any interest they might provide. Some accounts offer better rates than others.
  • Online and Mobile Banking: Consider the quality of online and mobile banking services. This includes the ease of use of their website and mobile app, as well as features like mobile check deposit.
Truist Mobile Check Deposit
(Screenshot from Truist Bank app)
  • Overdraft Fees: Check the bank's policy on overdraft fees. Some banks offer overdraft protection or link your checking account to a savings account to avoid hefty fees.
  • Branch and ATM Access: Consider the availability of branches and ATMs. If you prefer in-person banking, choose a bank with convenient branch locations. If you often use ATMs, make sure there are plenty in your area.
  • Customer Service: Assess the quality of customer service. Read reviews or ask for recommendations from friends and family regarding their experiences with the bank's customer service. Check out how to reach customer service – many bank have a chatbot that can streamline the process:
SoFi Chat Options
Example: SoFi Chat Options (Screenshot from SoFi)
  • Account Features: Consider additional features such as bill pay services, mobile wallets, and the ability to set up automatic transfers or direct deposits.
  • Account Access and Restrictions: Understand any restrictions on the number of transactions, daily limits, or other account access limitations.
  • Special Offers and Bonuses: Some banks offer sign-up bonuses or other promotional offers. Consider these incentives, but make sure they don't outweigh the long-term benefits of the account.
  • Reviews and Reputation: Look for reviews and testimonials about the bank. A good reputation is a positive indicator of the bank's reliability and customer satisfaction.

Take your time to compare different checking account options, and don't hesitate to ask questions before making a decision.

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.

Chase compare checking accounts on app
Chase compare checking accounts on app (Screenshot from Chase app)

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.

documents to prepare when open a bank account
Passport, driver license or government ID is required (Photo by goodluz/Shutterstock)

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.

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Do I Need A Good Credit to Open Account?

Most banks don’t check your credit to open a checking account. However, they might check your banking history to see if you are a responsible checking account holder. This will show them if you have overdraft balances often, frequent overdraft fees, bounced checks, or suspected fraud.

You can get a free copy of your banking history through ChexSystems. You will get a free copy every 12 months.

Can The Bank Deny My Application?

Being denied a checking account is much rarer than being denied a credit card or loan. However, you can be denied a checking account if you have had negative banking actions in the past. If you have been suspected of bank fraud, a bank might deny you opening a checking account.

You might also be denied a checking account if you had overdraft fees in the past or if you breached the terms and regulations of another bank somehow. All of these things will be checked by ChexSystems by a bank before they will agree to let you open a bank account.

Checking Account Alternatives

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. Online Only Banks

Online only banks have bypassed the need to have brick-and-mortar offices and large manpower costs, 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. For example, Chime provides online savings and checking account services to savers.

Chime app menu
Chime savings and checking (Screenshot taken by our team from Chime)

2. Digital Wallet Apps

Digital Wallet apps provide an alternative to checking accounts.  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.

For example,  Apple offers a cash wallet where you can send or request money.

Apple cash wallet
Apple cash wallet (Screenshot from Apple app)

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.

FAQs

Most banks do not automatically offer overdraft protection, but you can opt-in when you sign up for a checking account. You can usually sign up for it later as well if you don’t initially do it.

Overdraft protection will allow you over withdraw your bank account for a small fee. Having these protections keeps your card from being declined. It can also give you extra funds if you need them in a pinch. If you don’t opt in to overdraft protection, your card will be declined if you don’t have the proper funds.

Most checking accounts charge some fees, even if they are minimal. A monthly service fee is usually charged unless you met additional requirements. Overdraft fees and non-sufficient fees are also common if you try to over withdraw your balance, but banks do offer overdraft protection.

ATM fees will be charged if you use an ATM that is not your bank. Foreign transaction fees and account closure fees are also normal.

Most banks will require you to have a deposit to open a checking account, but some don’t require it. Credit unions might be more willing to let you open a bank account with a deposit.

Even though most banks do require a deposit, some are not very high and affordable for most people. Some checking accounts also don’t have a minimum monthly balance, so you can withdraw the deposit a few days after putting it in if you need to.

Many banks allow you to open a bank account online as long as you have all the correct paperwork. You will need to have all your contact information and proof of identity. The bank might take a few days to approve your identity before you are allowed to start using the checking account.

Most checking accounts let you send everything online through a secure portal, but you need to email or fax things in some cases.

Many banks offer free checking accounts including Ally Interest Checking Account, Capital One 360 Checking account, Heritage eCentive Account, Simple High-Interest Online Checking Account, and NBKC Everything Account.

Keep in mind that even if a checking account charges fees, there are usually some ways around it. For example, you can keep a certain minimum monthly balance or get a direct deposit from your job, and they will waive the monthly fee. Student checking accounts are also usually free until you turn a certain age.

Checking Accounts Reviews

Picture of Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
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APY on Daily Balances
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Set up direct deposits and get your paycheck up to 2 days early

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Savings Rate: 5.21% APY
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