The Internet has equipped banks with the ability to offer a free checking account online to almost anyone who qualifies. Fortunately, the government mandates that a checking account can’t be marketed as “free” if the consumer could potentially be charged a maintenance or activity fee.
So what does “free” actually entail?
The term “free” is debatable since any checking account will charge some fees for certain activities, like if you overdraft the account. What isn’t debatable, however, is the key to getting a truly free checking account is understanding when these fees are charged and how to avoid them.
The best checking account gives you free cash for signing up, has plenty of access to no-fee ATMs, and doesn’t charge additional fees for things like foreign transactions.
If you’re looking to open a free checking account online that won’t cost you anything, I recommend going with Capital One 360.
Here’s what makes Capital One 360 the top choice:
- $50 cash bonus for opening an account
- 38,000+ free ATMs
- Mobile app
- No foreign transaction fees
- Only fee is $25 for stop payment on a check
While Capital One 360 is a great free online checking account, there are several other options worth considering if you don’t want to go this route.
The 5 Best Free Checking Accounts
- Capital One 360
- EverBank Yield Pledge®
- Ally Interest Checking
- Bank5 Connect High Interest Checking
Now that you know where to find some good options for a free checking account online, let’s get into more detail on how you can use your checking account.
The 4 Functions of a Checking Account
I’ve been using online checking accounts ever since I was in college. I maintain a variety of accounts for different purposes: business, savings, paying my mortgage, long-term investments, and short-term bills.
I look at a checking account as a clearinghouse that has four main functions:
- Get Money In
- Pay Money Out
- Store Money
- Access Cash
Here’s how I would use a Capital One 360® checking account to accomplish the four functions I’ve mentioned above.
Get Money In
I would get my regular pay deposited straight into my bank account. Why? Convenience. I don’t need to go anywhere and my paycheck is available to use. Then, I would use their CheckMateSM system to upload images of my checks and deposit them straight from my mobile phone or computer.
Pay Money Out
I don’t use cash — ever. I use a credit card for every purchase I make and then pay off the bill each month. I earn rewards points on the card for everyday purchases and don’t pay a dime to the credit card company. The Capital One 360 account has free online bill pay service to pay any bill — even to friends!
Some big banks like Chase have their own systems to send money to other Chase customers using an email address. Since Capital One doesn’t have this feature, you can use their online bill pay feature or any one of the free micropayment services out there. I’ve used Dwolla, Venmo, and Square Cash. You can even send money for free through Gmail and Google Wallet.
In this extremely low interest-rate environment, many interest-bearing checking accounts pay better interest than savings accounts. Capital One 360 is generally one of them, but you should check the current rates prior to signing up.
Creating bank-to-bank transfers with the Capital One 360® checking account is a breeze. I would actually get automatic transfers set up into my online brokerage sweep account every month to make sure I’m saving enough.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about an online free checking account is the lack of access to ATMs that won’t ding you with a fee. The Capital One 360 account has a surprisingly large network of no-fee ATMs — 40,000 of them to be exact. If you go to a non-network ATM, you could receive a third-party fee, however.
If you use ATMs a lot, try the EverBank Yield Pledge® checking account, which actually reimburses you for all third-party ATM fees!
These four situations cover 95% of my checking account needs and they can all be handled online. The biggest exceptions I’ve experienced include depositing larger checks or getting a cashier’s check to buy a car or a house, for instance. In those rare cases, I have had more than enough time to deposit the check by mail or make arrangements with a local bank to obtain a cashier’s check.
I used the four factors, among other things, to select the top free checking accounts. The best free checking accounts, like Capital One 360, will have all of these features.
The 5 Best Free Checking Accounts
#1 — Capital One 360
The Capital One 360® account is a great all-around selection for a person looking for a “big bank” feel from their online account. Capital One is a trusted financial brand and has a large network of ATMs across the country. To top if off, Capital One boasts access to about 40,000 no-fee ATMs. By contrast, Chase has about 16,100. Their superb mobile solution means your money won’t miss a beat. That’s a ton of value for no monthly account fee.
- No hidden fees or minimums as you earn interest on your everyday money
- 38,000 fee-free Allpoint® ATMs and 2,000 Capital One® ATMs
- Free MasterCard® Debit Card for all purchases
- Mobile check deposits with CheckMateSM & one checkbook’s free
#2 — Everbank Yield Pledge® Checking
EverBank is the place to go for high interest. Their first-year bonus of 1.10% on all balances is 15 times the national average. Use this checking account like a savings account and set up transfers or a partial direct deposit into this account. With the mobile app, you can deposit checks, pay bills, or check your balance on the go. If you can maintain a $5,000 account balance, EverBank will reimburse all of your ATM fees. If $5,000 is a bit steep, I would recommend going with a Capital One 360® account or Bank5 Connect to avoid ATM fees.
- $1,500 minimum opening balance
- $0 minimum balance to earn interest
- $0 debit card fee
- $0 EverBank ATM fee
- Unlimited ATM reimbursements with minimum balance
- Free Online & mobile banking
- Free deposits from home
#3 — Ally Interest Checking
Ally’s Interest Checking packs a punch, especially when linked to the Ally savings account which topped my list of Best Savings Accounts. The best feature of this account is Popmoney®. Use this system to move money between Ally accounts or transfer to non-Ally accounts. Popmoney® also serves as a micropayment solution, enabling you to pay almost anyone via email or text.
- No monthly maintenance fees
- No minimum balance to open
- 24/7 live customer care – talk to a real person
- No ATM fees from Ally, nationwide.
- Deposit checks remotely with Ally eCheck Deposit℠
- Send someone money with Popmoney®
#4 — GoBank
If you like the idea of a mobile-first banking strategy, then GoBank™ is for you. GoBank is the only account on the list that does not pay interest, but its features are so innovative that I had to include it as a best free checking account option.
No monthly fee is required, although GoBank thinks you’ll like the service so much that you will voluntarily pay a “membership fee” of between $0 and $9. Mobile check deposit, online bill pay, and a massive free ATM network all come standard.
You can opt for a customized debit card for $9 or go with the free standard card. The mobile app has a really unique feature that, when authorized, enables you to check your balance from your phone without logging into the app. This is called the Balance Bar.
Additionally, the Fortune Teller feature enables you to set a very simple budget with payment due-date reminders. Then, the magic happens. You can check your budget before you spend by inputting the cost of what you want to buy. The program then gives you a “yay” or “nay” based on the budget you set for yourself. If only Mint.com would do this!
- No monthly fees
- Mobile app available
- Free bill pay
#5 — Bank5 Connect High Interest Checking
Like EverBank, the Bank5 Connect High Interest Checking’s most attractive features are their high interest and ATM fee reimbursement. Bank5 offers a 0.76% APY on all balances over $100 and reimburses third-party ATM fees, up to $15 per statement cycle. While EverBank reimburses unlimited ATM fees, remember you need a minimum balance of $5,000 to enable that feature. Bank5 has no minimum balance requirement for ATM reimbursement. Bank5 also employs dedicated mobile apps complete with mobile check deposit and online bill pay for free, all with no monthly fee.
- no monthly maintenance fee;
- free online banking/billpay/eStatements;
- free mobile banking;
- UChoose Debit Rewards program;
- free first order of basic checks;
- and free ATMs anywhere, anytime!
Choosing the Best Free Checking Accounts
Here is how I got started:
- I started my search by first looking at different offers from traditional banks.
- I realized that other types of financial institutions also offer savings accounts online, so I expanded my search beyond traditional banks.
These financial institutions offering checking accounts are from a variety of places like:
- Auto finance companies
- International banks
- Large commercial finance companies
- Credit card companies
- Insurance companies
- Online brokerages
- Smaller regional banks with Internet-banking arms
- Credit unions
Once I had a large list of online accounts built up, I started adding filters to my search.
I looked for checking accounts that had these 6 must-have features:
- Free direct deposit
- Free online bill pay
- No monthly fee or low minimum balance to avoid the fee
- No-charge ATM fees
- Mobile banking with mobile deposit feature
- Free bank-to-bank transfers
I originally didn’t include interest as a major factor of online checking, but the more I researched, I realized many checking accounts are actually paying more interest than savings accounts. With so many checking accounts paying high interest, I added it as a valuable feature.
My last steps were more qualitative. Once I compiled this list, several leaders emerged but I still needed to weigh the factors above to come out with a reliable list.
Free direct deposit, online bill pay, and bank-to-bank transfers were common characteristics that I could not separate.
However, I found the best checking accounts stood out in at least one of two areas:
- Superior mobile applications
- Free ATM transactions and third-party fee reimbursements
The five best checking accounts you see here all met my initial threshold and combined at least one of these final two requirements.
The exception to the rule is GoBank, which made the list despite not offering my initial interest-bearing requirement. However, this checking account deserves to be on the list because of its mobile-first strategy and its forward-thinking approach to the future of banking.
My overall assessment is that Capital One 360 is the best online checking account. If you’ve been thinking about starting a new account lately, there’s really nothing to lose by going with Capital One 360 (and you’ll instantly gain $50 cash).