8 Best Free Checking Accounts in 2020

|
Here are the best free checking accounts in 2020 according to Clark.com.
Image Credit: Clark.com

The best checking accounts in 2020 are free, and most offer perks to their customers.

If you’re looking for a new checking account, read on: I’ll tell you which factors matter, which accounts to consider and, perhaps just as importantly, which ones to avoid.


Best Free Checking Accounts in 2020

Money expert Clark Howard has strong opinions on where you should do your banking. His main tenets about banking are to avoid paying fees and to go somewhere that cares about you as a customer (he advises you to avoid big institutional banks).

In developing the list below, I considered factors such as the availability of ATM networks, online services like mobile deposits and the quality of mobile apps. All of the options below are federally insured for at least $250,000 per account.

After reviewing dozens of checking account options, I’ve listed eight in alphabetical order below. All of the options meet the criteria of minimal fees and requirements. There’s not a whole lot of difference between these accounts. You should choose the account that offers the features that are most important to you.

I’ve also provided a table of five additional checking accounts that didn’t quite crack our list but could be great options for specific people (USAA for those with military connections, for example).


Table of Contents


Best Free Checking Accounts

Financial InstitutionAccount NameWhy It Makes Our List
Alliant Credit UnionHigh Rate Checking AccountEasily accessible, national credit union with well-rounded features
Ally BankInterest Checking AccountClean-sheet online bank with minimal fees and requirements
Capital One360 Checking AccountFree checking account with a good app and good service that pays interest
ChimeSpending AccountGood free online option for the unbanked and people with negative banking histories
Discover BankChecking AccountGood option for those who despise fees and like cash back
Fidelity InvestmentsCash Management AccountCash management account that automatically earns interest on uninvested money
Radius BankRewards Checking AccountCombines early direct deposit, cash back and free ATM use worldwide
SchwabHigh Yield Investor Checking AccountGreat option for investors, especially those who travel internationally

Alliant Credit Union

Alliant Credit Union is a free, accessible checking account option.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

Up to 0.25%

$0

$0

80,000+

4.5

4.7

The Details: This is the only credit union on our list, mostly because credit unions tend to be hyper-local. However, you can become an Alliant member with a $5 donation to the nonprofit Foster Care to Success. If that’s too much for you, Alliant will even donate on your behalf.

Clark thinks credit unions are a terrific idea for your checking account needs, so if you don’t choose Alliant, check out the credit unions in your area.

Alliant won’t charge you hidden fees and gives you up to $20 per month in ATM rebates. The bank also features a popular app, allows for digital payments and pays a fairly competitive interest rate. You must make one electronic deposit per month and decline paper statements for your account to be eligible to earn interest.

Advertisement

Ally Bank

Ally Bank is one of the best free checking accounts in 2020.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

0.10%/0.25%

$0

$0

43,000+

4.0

4.7

The Details: Clark says Ally Bank is a great example of an online bank with no monthly fees, no overdraft fees and no minimum deposit: “I really like for people that are younger without a lot of money at stake to do an online account like Ally Bank.”

Ally Bank has built a reputation for strong customer service and ranked second among branchless banks in a 2019 J.D. Power survey of customer satisfaction.

Although you can earn more interest elsewhere, its 0.1% APY (0.25% APY if you maintain a daily balance of at least $15,000) is a nice gesture. You won’t be able to deposit cash, but you can make mobile check deposits. This checking account is compatible with Zelle and Amazon Alexa and reimburses your ATM fees up to $10 per statement cycle.


Capital One 360

Capital One 360 offers a strong checking account option with few fees.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

0.10%

$0

$0

40,000+

4.6

4.8

The Details: If you want a fee-free checking account that pays interest and offers a good app and good customer service, this may be the best option for you.

Capital One has physical locations in the form of “Capital One Cafés,” something Capital One markets as a factor setting itself apart from other online banks. That said, most cities don’t have the cafés, and the reviews on them are decidedly mixed.

However, this is a well-rounded checking account option that is set up for mobile banking and payments. Capital One also offers free incoming wire transfers and lets you send and receive money for free through Popmoney.


Chime

Chime Bank is a good option for people with no banking history and limited funds who want a free online checking account.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

-

$0

$0

38,000+

4.6

4.8

The Details: Chime is fee-free much like Ally Bank. The main difference is that Chime’s checking account offers some additional features but does not pay interest.

Advertisement

Chime will let you access your paycheck up to two days early via direct deposit. Foreign transactions and person-to-person transfers are free. The account is compatible with Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay, and it offers mobile check deposit. At 4.8, Chime’s app is tied for the highest App Store rating of any of the banks I reviewed.

Chime does not offer overdraft protection, and in most cases will automatically decline purchase attempts that would drop your balance below zero. That matches well with Clark’s philosophy on overdraft protection but also means you have to be especially careful not to overdraw your account.

Chime is a good option for the unbanked and people with negative banking history, as it doesn’t hold a bad banking track record against you.

If you want to build your savings, Chime has an account that can help with that too. It offers an automated feature that rounds up purchases you make with your checking account to the nearest dollar and puts that money in your savings account.


Discover Bank

Discover Bank offers customers minimal fees and 1 percent cash back.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

-

$0

$0

60,000+

4.5

4.8

The Details: If you despise fees and like getting cash back on purchases, Discover Bank may have the right checking account for you.

Discover takes a lack of fees to a positive extreme: there are no charges for insufficient funds and excess withdrawals. This account also pays 1% cash back on up to $3,000 in debit card purchases per month. But note that Clark strongly discourages using debit cards for purchases.

You can’t deposit cash and the daily ATM withdrawal limits are lower than some competitors, but Discover’s checking account does give you free standard checks.


Fidelity Investments

Fidelity Investments is one of Clark Howard's favorite options for checking.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

0.01%

$0

$0

1,000,000+

4.6

4.8

The Details: Fidelity offers a cash management account that includes check-writing, ATM access and mobile banking.

Advertisement

It automatically sweeps your uninvested cash into an interest-yielding account. So any money you have in your account that you haven’t invested automatically earns interest. Clark is a big fan of that automated interest feature.

Fidelity’s app is highly rated and the customer service resources are expansive.

This is a good option if you’re an investor with assets and want a free checking account that automatically earns you interest on money you don’t want to keep tied up.


Radius Bank

Radius Bank is one of the best free checking account options.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

0.0%/0.10%/0.15%

$0

$100

500,000+

4.3

4.5

The Details: With this account, you can get your paycheck up to two days early with direct deposits and enjoy unlimited ATM reimbursements worldwide. You’ll also avoid fees, earn interest and get cash back.

Like Discover, Radius Bank pays 1% to 1.5% cash back. However, its cash back program is only for “credit” transactions you make with a Radius debit card (which will keep you in Clark’s good graces by avoiding debit card purchases). The cash back program does require that your account take in at least $2,500 per month in direct deposits or that you keep an average monthly balance of $2,500.

“2,500” seems to be a magic number for Radius, as you won’t earn interest until your balance reaches $2,500. But if you maintain that minimum balance, you’ll be able to earn interest as well as enjoy the cash back perks.


Schwab

Charles Schwab is a good option for people with assets.

Monthly Fees

APY

Minimum
Balance

Minimum
Deposit

ATMs

Android
App Rating

iOS
App Rating

$0

0.03%

$0

$0

Virtually unlimited

4.2

4.8

The Details: This is not a traditional checking account, because it is tied to a Schwab One brokerage account. But, along with Fidelity Investments, it is Clark’s favorite recommendation for anyone with enough assets to invest. “Anybody who’s an investor should look at doing their checking account with Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab because they offer fee-free checking accounts, no gotchas.”

Schwab provides unlimited ATM rebates worldwide and no foreign transaction fees, so it’s great for travelers. It offers robust security features, check-writing and mobile payment as well.

Advertisement

You can find other brokers, especially digital competitors, that will offer more interest, but their investment tools lag.


Other Checking Account Options

Here are some other checking accounts that stand out for specific reasons.

BankWhy It Stands OutAccount Features
AspirationBest for the environmentally conscious-3-5% cash back on purchases at Conscience Coalition companies
-Option to round up purchases to the nearest dollar to plant trees
-Deposits won't fund fossil fuel exploration/production
AzloBest for small buisness owners-Few fees/requirements
-Pay vendors/make transfers for free
-Create/manage/send digital invoices
-Integrated with Quickbooks, PayPal, Square and more
-Unlimited transactions
HMBradleyBest for big savers-Hybrid checking/savings
-Tiered APY based on the % of your direct deposits you save
-APY up to 3% if you save 20%+
-Highest-rated bank app we reviewed
TIAABest if interest is important to you-Pledge: top 5% yield among all U.S. checking accounts
-Promotional 0.4% APY for first year
USAABest for those with military connections-Few fees/requirements
-Well-received app
-Modern mobile tools/integrations

What You Need in a Checking Account

In Clark’s view, the most important feature of your checking account should be its lack of fees.

You should be able to conduct basic banking activity without having to dodge fee land mines. Also, be wary of banks that offer you perks and benefits but have a lot of fees and requirements.

The best checking accounts I found each offer a good mobile setup, FDIC insurance and good customer service.

Fees and Requirements to Avoid

  • No maintenance fees. There’s no need to pay a maintenance fee for your checking account in 2020. Some banks offer perks such as higher interest rates in exchange for a monthly or annual fee, but in many cases, the bank gets the better of that deal.
  • No overdraft feesThere’s a limit to this, of course. It’s hard to imagine a bank allowing you to overdraft by the price of a Lamborghini and not charge you a penny. But try to find a bank that will not hammer you with fees for small overdrafts that you pay back relatively quickly.
  • No ATM fees. There’s little need for you to pay fees to access your money through ATMs. A good checking account includes a large network of ATMs and even reimburses you if you incur fees for using an ATM outside of its network.
  • No paper statement fees. Some banks will charge you if you want a paper statement mailed to you. You can opt for online statements to avoid charges.
  • No monthly balance requirements. Plenty of good checking account options don’t require you to keep a single dollar in your account.
  • No direct deposit required. This is not a guaranteed deal-breaker. Not everyone with a bank account has direct deposit. Ideally, your bank won’t require any kind of direct deposit minimum to qualify for certain perks or avoid fees, but some do.

Checking Account Features You Want

  • Online and mobile access. A lot of the best free checking accounts are online-only. Financial institutions with zero or few branches contend with less overhead and can pass those savings along to the customer. No matter which bank you choose, you’ll want it to have a well-designed website and/or mobile app.
  • Good customer service. No matter how digitally-oriented we’ve become, sometimes there’s no substitute for human help.
  • FDIC insured. This should be a given, but make sure that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures your bank. The FDIC typically protects the money in your account up to $250,000. The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) is the credit union equivalent of the FDIC.
  • Pays interest. This is not a must-have, as checking accounts typically aren’t the best places to put your money to work. But, all else being equal, wouldn’t you rather earn interest on your money than not?

Clark: Avoid Big, Expensive Banks

When you’re looking for a checking account, it can be tempting to select JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo or Citigroup.

And many people have succumbed to that temptation: The “big four” of American banking held more than 35% of all U.S. customer deposits as of June 2019, according to the FDIC. And they’ve gotten even bigger during the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But money expert Clark Howard strongly cautions against banking with those financial institutions.

“I see no reason for anybody at any time to ever do banking with any of those four under any circumstances. Because they’re very expensive to do business with,” Clark says. “And if you have a problem with your account, you’re facing dealing with a giant bureaucracy that is set up to not care. And they don’t.”

One of the reasons Clark loves pointing people toward credit unions is that they’re nonprofit, member-owned organizations that, by nature, value their customers.


Why You Should Avoid Overdraft Protection

Checking accounts are designed for you to use them to pay for things.

Advertisement

But if you don’t keep close track of your balance, you could end up writing a check or using your debit card for a purchase you can’t afford based on the money in your account. That’s overdrafting.

What happens when you overdraft depends on your bank and the way you set up your account.

Banks often offer overdraft protection, paying for a transaction even if your account doesn’t have enough money to cover the payment. But banks often charge customers a premium for this “generosity” — an average of $33.36 per overdraft, according to a 2019 Bankrate study.

Fortunately, financial institutions are required to get your written or electronic consent before enrolling you in overdraft protection. And you can contact your bank and ask to opt-out if you’re already enrolled.

“If your bank pitches you or has already conned you into signing up for overdraft protection, I want you to ‘un-protect’ yourself,” Clark says. “Banks live by ‘fee-ing’ you to death. So look at online banks, credit unions and small local banks that don’t want to do that.”

Instead of relying on overdraft protection, opt to get text alerts when you have a low account balance, practice good budgeting and choose a bank that won’t charge you fees. Some financial institutions offer an auto-decline option for transactions that would put your account balance into the red.


Frequently Asked Questions About Free Checking Accounts

Are Free Checking Accounts a Real Thing?

It depends on your definition of free. In this instance, I consider a bank account that does not charge fees for things like monthly maintenance, monthly statements, failure to maintain a minimum balance and ATM usage to be “free.” However, I have not seen a bank that offers a checking account with zero fees for any possible action that its customers take (such as overdrafting).

Do Checking Accounts Pay Interest?

Some checking accounts pay interest. Some don’t. And some require you to make a certain number of debit card transactions and/or deposit a certain amount of money each month to access the best interest rates. Although it’s nice if your checking account pays interest, savings accounts usually provide better interest rates.

Do You Have to Pay to Withdraw Money From ATMs?

Usually not, if you’re using an ATM that’s within your bank’s network. However, you may be charged a fee if you’re using an ATM outside of that network and/or in a foreign country. Many of the checking accounts I recommend will reimburse you between $10 and $20 per month if you incur fees at ATMs outside of their networks.

Do Any Banks Offer Bonuses to Open Checking Accounts?

Yes. Some banks offer bonuses to incentivize you to open accounts with them. Typically they come with strings attached. And those strings can come in different forms: minimum balance requirements, deposit requirements or even a requirement for the number of transactions you make within a certain period. However, bonuses of $100 or more do exist. Before you open an account due to a welcome bonus, compare it to other options. You could be forced to pay an amount in fees that exceeds your bonus, which would defeat the purpose.


Final Thoughts

There’s no reason to pay fees for a checking account in 2020.

Clark says you should find a bank that provides free checking and values you as a customer and isn’t looking to hit you with “gotcha” charges. He says one proven way to do that is to consider banking with your local credit union.

“I love credit unions for checking accounts,” Clark says. “It’s very rare that a credit union will have junk fees on a checking account, although some might. Because they’re owned by the membership, their whole structure is about serving the member instead of gouging the customer.”


More Clark.com Content You May Like:

Advertisement
  • Show Comments Hide Comments