Free checking accounts used to be commonplace, but as banking has grown more sophisticated, it’s also gotten more expensive. What’s more, 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. While free checking is a relative rarity at brick-and-mortar institutions, the rise of online banks has made it easier to find a free checking account once more.
Featured Checking Accounts:
The Top 6 Free Checking Accounts of 2020
- Capital One 360
- USAA Classic Checking
- Ally Interest Checking
- TIAA Bank
- Bank5 Connect High Interest Checking
- 39,000+ free ATMs
- Mobile app
- No foreign transaction fees
- Only fee is $25 for stop payment on a check
- Fee-free savings with no hidden fees
- A competitive daily rate
- Free online and mobile banking
- 24/7 live customer service
- No hidden fees or minimums as you earn interest on your everyday money
- 39,000 fee-free Allpoint® ATMs and Capital One® ATMs
- Free MasterCard® Debit Card for all purchases
- Mobile check deposits with CheckMateSM & one checkbook’s free
- No monthly service fees
- No minimum balance requirements
- Free ATMs nationwide
- Over 60,000 USAA-preferred ATMs nationwide
- 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®
- No monthly fees
- Mobile app available
- Innovative mobile budgeting tools
- Free bill pay
- $0 minimum balance to earn interest
- No debit-card fee
- No TIAA ATM fee
- Unlimited ATM reimbursements with minimum balance
- Free online & mobile banking
- Free deposits from home
- No monthly maintenance fee
- Free online banking/bill pay/eStatements
- Free mobile banking
- UChoose Debit Rewards program
- Free first order of basic checks
- No ATM fees, and third-party fees are reimbursed up to $15/month
So what does “free” checking actually entail?
The term “free” is debatable, since most checking accounts reserve the right to charge fees for certain activities, like if you overdraw your account. What isn’t debatable, however, is the fact that a free checking account can be highly valuable if you know how to avoid these fees.
The best free checking accounts give you free cash for signing up, have plenty of access to no-fee ATMs, and do not charge additional fees for all of the “extras.”
If you’re looking to open a free checking account online that won’t cost you anything, go with Capital One 360.
Here’s what makes Capital One 360 the top choice:
You Can Open a Capital One 360 Savings Account, Too
If you’re looking for both a checking account and a savings account, Capital One 360 has you covered. With the Capital One 360 Savings Account, you can enjoy fee-free savings every day with a great daily rate.
The Best Checking Accounts in Detail
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. Capital One boasts access to about 40,000 no-fee ATMs. By contrast, Chase has about 16,000. Their superb mobile platform means your money won’t miss a beat. That’s a ton of value for no monthly account fee.
USAA Classic Checking
USAA Free Checking offers a free checking account designed around your needs. This account makes it easy and convenient to make deposits and offers plenty of free tools that can help you budget and monitor your spending. For your convenience, they also offers USAA Pay Bills, an online bill pay feature that makes it easy to manage all of your household bills online.
Disclaimer: USAA Bank does not charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals. Subsequent withdrawals will be charged $2 each except when made at any USAA Bank-owned ATM. USAA Bank also refunds up to $15 in other banks’ ATM usage fees for transactions at ATMs in the United States. The ATM fee refund does not apply for the month in which the account is closed. The ATM fee refund does not apply to USAA Cashback Rewards Checking. A 1% foreign transaction fee applies to withdrawals outside the United States. Pay-a-Day early is subject to when USAA FSB receives pay information from DFAS. Product provided by USAA Federal Savings Bank. Member FDIC.
Ally Interest Checking
The best feature of this account is Popmoney®, which you can use 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 anywhere via email or text.
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 we had to include it as a best free checking account option.
As with Chase, there is a ‘membership fee’ that is waived in any month where you have a direct deposit of $500 or more – so make sure you hook up direct deposit if you choose this account. Mobile check deposits, online bill pay, and a massive free ATM network all come standard. The big feature is that there are absolutely NO overdraft fees or NSF charges.
GoBank does charge a foreign transaction fee of 3% — so if you’re planning to access your money while traveling internationally, this isn’t the checking account for you.
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. 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.
TIAA is the place to go for high-interest checking. They have a first-year bonus APY of 1.01%. You can use this checking account like a savings account and set up transfers or a partial direct deposit into it. 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, TIAA will reimburse all of your ATM fees. If $5,000 is a bit steep, you could go with a Capital One 360® account or Bank5 Connect to avoid ATM fees.
Bank5 Connect High-Interest Checking
Like TIAA, the most attractive features of Bank5 Connect’s High-Interest Checking are the high interest rates 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 TIAA reimburses unlimited ATM fees, remember you need to keep 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.
Do banks still offer free checking?
Free checking hasn’t disappeared entirely from brick-and-mortar financial institutions. In fact, Bankrate has found that 38% of banks and 84% of large credit unions still offer free checking accounts with no monthly service fee. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to contact your bank or credit union to see if it’s among them. If it isn’t, you still have some options to choose from, including online-only services.
The Four Functions of a Checking Account
Any good checking account should serve four main functions:
- Put money in.
- Pay money out.
- Store money.
- Access cash.
Here’s how you would use a Capital One 360® checking account to accomplish the four functions mentioned above.
Get Money In
Take advantage of the free direct deposit this account offers for convenience. Using direct deposit saves at least one trip to the bank each month, yet your money is available for use right away.
Then, you could use their CheckMateSM system to upload images of your checks and deposit them straight from your mobile phone or computer.
Pay Money Out
A checking account doesn’t mean you have to pay for stuff with a check. Use a rewards credit card for every purchase you make, and then pay off the bill each month. You earn credit card rewards on the card for everyday purchases and don’t pay a dime to the credit card company.
This is a better return on your money than low savings account rates now. The Capital One 360 account also has free online bill pay service to pay any bill.
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. You can even send money for free through Gmail and Google Wallet.
In this low-interest-rate environment, many interest-bearing checking accounts pay better interest than savings accounts or money market 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. You would actually get automatic transfers set up into your online brokerage sweep account every month to make sure you’re saving enough.
One of the biggest complaints about any 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 — nearly 40,000 of them to be exact.
If you go to a non-network ATM, you could get hit with a third-party fee, however. So if you use ATMs a lot, try TIAA’s checking account, which actually reimburses you for all third-party ATM fees.
These four situations will cover 95% of your checking account needs and they can all be handled online. The biggest exceptions you might experience include depositing larger checks or getting a cashier’s check to buy a car or a house, for instance. In those rare cases, you have more than enough time to deposit the check by mail or make arrangements with a local bank to obtain a cashier’s check.
You can use those four factors, among other things, to compare the top free checking accounts. The best free checking accounts, like Capital One 360, will have all of these features.
Choosing the Best Free Checking Accounts
You might expect to limit your search to traditional banks, but many other types of financial institutions also offer savings and checking accounts online, including:
- 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
Look for a checking account that has these six 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
You wouldn’t think interest rates would be a major factor in comparing free checking accounts, but many online checking accounts are actually paying better interest than savings accounts.
In our research, free direct deposit, online bill pay, and bank-to-bank transfers were common characteristics — but 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 seven best checking accounts you see here all combine at least one of these last two perks. The exception is GoBank, which made the list purely because of its mobile-first strategy and its forward-thinking approach to the future of banking.
Our overall assessment is that Capital One 360 is the best online checking account. If you’ve been thinking about starting a new checking or savings account lately, Capital One 360 is probably your best bet.
Additional Banking Guides
If you’re looking for other banking services to go with your checking account, here are some other useful guides on important banking accounts and services:
- The Best High-Interest Savings Accounts Online
- Savings Accounts vs. CDs vs. Money Market Mutual Funds
- What Is a CD, or Certificate of Deposit?
- How to Find Second-Chance Checking Accounts
Editorial Note: Compensation does not influence our recommendations. However, we may earn a commission on sales from the companies featured in this post. To view a list of partners, click here. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by our advertisers. Reasonable efforts are made to present accurate info, however all information is presented without warranty. Consult our advertiser's page for terms & conditions.