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Best checking accounts for December 2020

Best checking accounts for December 2020

A checking account is likely to be your fundamental — and most frequently used — financial tool. As the primary vehicle for collecting deposits, funding payments and initiating transactions, it’s nothing less than the gateway to your personal finances.

To help you choose the best checking account, we compared more than two dozen options across a broad range of categories, looking at offerings from both traditional and online-only banks. As with any financial account, a handful of key features rise above the rest: ATM and branch availability, fees (and reimbursements) and just how easy it is to move money in and out of an account — whether by direct deposit, mobile deposit or old-school cash deposit. We also looked at some new, trendy features, such as banks making funds available a few days early to customers who have signed up to receive their paycheck via direct deposit. Each financial institution’s online banking capabilities were taken into consideration as well.

We paid particularly close attention to fees. If there’s one thing to take a hard look at before applying for a new checking account, it’s the fee schedule , which will reveal how much a bank charges for “monthly maintenance,” using an out-of-network ATM, falling below a minimum balance requirement or spending more than you have. Though some fees may apply only in certain conditions — you haven’t set up direct deposit or you want to receive monthly paper statements, for example — such waivers should be scrutinized carefully. You won’t want to be in a position where missing your minimum deposit by a couple of bucks or keeping an account balance that’s slightly too low racks up a “maintenance fee.”

We’re also a bit dubious of checking accounts that feature cash-back and rewards incentives. Though a 1% cash-back account could be moderately lucrative, it may obligate you to hit a monthly spending threshold or maintain a certain balance. If earning cash back or rewards is your priority, you’re better off using a cash-back credit card, the best of which offer significantly higher rates. And if you tend to maintain a high balance in your checking account, consider putting some of that cash into a savings account, CD or money market with a higher annual percentage yield.

Best checking accounts, compared

Best overall checking account Best overall checking account (runner-up) Best for in-person banking Highest APY Another good choice
Bank/institution Radius NBKC Bank Chase Consumers CU Alliant Credit Union
Account Rewards Checking Everything Account Total Checking Rewards Checking High-Rate Checking
Branch access No Limited (4 locations) Yes Shared Branching No
ATMs (number/network) 35,000+ / MoneyPass and SUM 34,000 / MoneyPass 16,000 ATMs / 4,900 Branches 30,000 / CO-OP 80,000 / AllPoint
Out-of-network ATM fee reimbursement (monthly) Unlimited $12 None Unlimited $20
Overdraft fee $25 None $34 $30 $25
Foreign transaction fee None None $5 per withdrawal and $2.50 for transfers/inquiries at ATMs outside the US $3 ATM, 2% 1%
Monthly fee None None $12 None None
Minimum opening deposit $100 None None $5 None

It may be helpful to think of a checking account as one part of a multifaceted personal financial system. Though it may require some management on your end, there are benefits to using an array of tools, with each serving a primary function: a checking account for receiving money and paying bills, a credit card for spending (and earning rewards or cash-back incentives), and a savings account for storing short-term savings or an emergency fund, with investment and brokerage accounts driving long-term savings goals such as retirement and college. 

  • Monthly fee: None
  • Minimum opening deposit: $100
  • Out-of-network ATM fees: None
  • Out-of-network ATM reimbursements: Unlimited
  • In-network ATMs: 35,000+ (MoneyPass and SUM)
  • Direct deposit funds available early: Yes
  • Mobile check deposit: Yes
  • Cash deposits: MoneyPass ATMs
  • APY: 0.10% on balances of at least $2,500

Radius checks all of the boxes: unlimited ATM reimbursements, support for mobile check deposits and transfers and no monthly or out-of-network ATM fees. It’s an excellent checking account — and with its modest APY and decent cash-back reward structure (for a checking account), it could suitably serve as a one-size-fits-all account to cover all of your savings, spending and checking needs. 

It’s worth noting that Radius will never charge you for using an ATM outside of its partner networks (MoneyPass and SUM) — and that it will provide unlimited reimbursements if another financial institution charges you for using its ATM. That’s an unparalleled level of protection from ATM fees. Another nice feature: If you have direct deposit set up, Radius will make your funds available a few days early. 

You can also earn up to 1.5% cash back on “signature-based purchases” in certain categories — if you maintain an account balance of at least $2,500. You can also earn a 0.10% APY, which is a higher rate than most checking accounts but probably not enough to make a difference in your overall financial picture. Still, even without the APY or rewards, the Radius account stands out above the rest. 

  • Monthly fee: None
  • Minimum opening deposit: None
  • Out-of-network ATM fees: None
  • Out-of-network ATM reimbursements: $12 per month
  • In-network ATMs: 34,000 (MoneyPass)
  • Direct deposit funds available early: No
  • Mobile check deposit: Yes
  • Cash Ddeposits: MoneyPass ATMs
  • APY: 0.8% on all balances 

This bank shares our distaste for fees. As such, there are no minimum balance fees, overdraft fees, maintenance fees or foreign transaction fees. Aside from a few esoteric international wire fees, when NBKC says it doesn’t charge fees, it means it. 

The NBKC Everything account offers an 0.8% APY on all balances. For a checking account, that’s a high rate. And, in contrast to most other banks, who ask you to jump through hoops — like making a number of monthly debit card purchases, signing up for direct deposit or maintaining a certain balance — to earn interest, NBKC takes a simpler, unconditional approach. And like Radius, NKBC will provide early access to your paycheck if you sign up for direct deposit. You get $12 in monthly ATM reimbursements — which is good, though not as great as Radius’s unlimited offer. 

We also like NBKC’s app, which offers useful money-management features. The “virtual piggy bank” can help you save for specific items and the financial snapshot, which allows you to link external accounts, provides a complete financial picture in one place.

  • Monthly fee: $12
  • Requirements to avoid monthly fee: Monthly direct deposit of at least $500+; or $1,500 daily balance; OR $5,000 combined average balance
  • Minimum opening deposit: None
  • Out-of-network ATM fees: $2.50
  • Out-of-network ATM reimbursements: None
  • In-network ATMs: 16,000 ATMs, 4,900 branches
  • Direct deposit funds available early: No
  • Mobile check deposit: Yes
  • Cash deposits: Branches and ATMs
  • APY: None

Large traditional banks like Chase (and Bank of America and Wells Fargo) are more likely to charge fees — for nebulous purposes like “monthly maintenance” or routine transactions made via an out-of-network ATM — than newer players. That noted, if you’re able to maintain a significant balance in your checking account and can stick to using in-network ATMs, the big banks offer national branch access, in-person customer service and online and mobile banking tools that are both sophisticated and easy to use. 

Chase has nearly 4,900 branches in the US, second only to Wells Fargo, and 16,000 ATM locations, more than any other US bank. If branch access is a priority — whether for making transactions or speaking with someone — Chase is a great option. But you’ll want to make sure you can easily meet the requirements (listed above) to waive that pesky $12 monthly fee. 

It’s also worth noting that the Chase Total Checking account offers a $200 bonus when you fund a new account with direct deposit. Given that those checking accounts offering the highest APY likely won’t yield $200 in interest over years, this one-time incentive goes a long way. 

  • Monthly fee: None
  • Minimum opening deposit: $5
  • Out-of-network ATM fees: None
  • Out-of-network ATM reimbursements: Unlimited
  • In-network ATMs: 30,000 (CO-OP)
  • Direct deposit funds available early: Yes
  • Mobile check deposit: Yes
  • Cash deposits: No
  • APY: 2.09% – 4.09% tiered system, on balances up to $10,000

If earning interest is your top priority, Consumers Credit Union’s Rewards Checking account offers the highest APY — though it comes with some hefty requirements. To qualify for the category-high 2.09% APY, you’ll need to: sign up for electronic monthly statements (instead of paper statements); make at least 12 debit card purchases per month; and receive at least $500 in direct deposits or mobile check deposits every month. To qualify for a 3.09% APY, you need to meet all those requirements and spend at least $500 with a Consumers Credit Union credit card each month. And to qualify for 4.09%, you need to spend at least $1,000 with a Consumers Credit Union credit card each month. 

And yet, interest aside, this account has a lot going for it: CCU doesn’t charge monthly fees and it offers unlimited ATM reimbursements, mobile check deposit and early access to direct deposits. If the APY requirements aren’t daunting to you, this could be a great checking account. Otherwise, if earning cash back is your priority, you’re better off with a dedicated cash-back credit card

Alliant Credit Union

  • Monthly fee: None
  • Minimum opening deposit: None
  • Out-of-network ATM fees: None
  • Out-of-network ATM reimbursements: $20 per month
  • In-network ATMs: 35,000+ (MoneyPass and SUM)
  • Direct deposit funds available early: No
  • Mobile check deposit: Yes
  • Cash deposits: Select AllPoint ATMs
  • APY: 0.25%, as long as you opt-in to eStatements and receive 1 DD per month

This checking account is exclusive to members of the Alliant Credit Union (and its partners), most of which are based in the Chicago area. That noted, you can become a member of the organization’s “partner charity” with a $5 donation. Once you’ve joined, there’s quite a bit to like: up to $20 in ATM reimbursements a month (sufficient to cover one cash withdrawal outside of AllPoint’s ATM network per week) and a 0.25% APY — if you set up direct deposit and forgo monthly paper statements. That noted, unlike some other banks, the Alliant Credit Union doesn’t provide early access to direct deposits and there are no cash-back offers for using the debit card. 

Is it standard practice to pay fees regularly to use a checking account?

No. Some banks may pass off fees as the normal costs of doing business, but with all of the free options available, you should avoid fee-heavy accounts. There are plenty of options that will give you the tools you need to receive income and make payments, in addition to other benefits, without incurring any regular charges. 

How many checking accounts should I have?

For most people, the answer is one. Even if you can earn a little extra money by combining rewards or interest, it’s usually not worth the time and hassle. Your checking account should be simple, easy to use and easy to manage.

How do the ATM networks like MoneyPass and Allpoint work? 

An increasing number of financial institutions are online-only (like some of the banks profiled above), without their own branches or ATM networks. Given this, they partner with established networks like MoneyPass or Allpoint, which place ATM locations in popular retail establishments such as pharmacies, grocery stories and convenience stores. You can use a “Find a nearby ATM” feature on your bank’s website or mobile app. 

How much interest can I earn with a checking account vs. with a savings account?

While many accounts use an APY as a selling point, it’s important to note that a checking account’s interest rate will rarely net you much. A balance of $2,500 at a 0.10% APY earns you roughly $2.50 annually. In contrast, savings accounts generally deliver between 0.60% and 1%, which would net you between $15 and $25 per year.

Checking accounts researched

  • Radius Rewards Checking
  • NBKC Bank Everything Account
  • Chase Total Checking
  • Consumers Credit Union Rewards Checking
  • Alliant Credit Union High-Rate Checking
  • Chime Spending Account
  • Axos Essential Checking
  • Connexus Credit Union Xtraordinary Checking
  • Simple Simple Account
  • CIT Bank eChecking
  • Wells Fargo Everyday Checking
  • Bank of America Advantage Plus Banking
  • Discover Cashback Debit
  • Capital One 360 Checking
  • Aspiration
  • PNC Virtual Wallet with performance spend
  • Betterment
  • Fidelity Cash Management Account
  • HSBC Choice Checking
  • TD Checking
  • Current Bank
  • Varo Checking Account
  • Wealthfront Cash Account
  • Novo
  • BlueVine Business Checking
  • Ally Bank 

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