No-strings free checking now is more than twice as common at large credit unions as at large banks. About 84% of large credit unions offer no-fee checking accounts without requiring such things as direct paycheck deposits or maintaining a minimum balance, although a minimum opening balance may be required. That’s up from 72% two years ago. In comparison, only 38% of large banks offer no-strings free checking. To find a credit union with free checking in your area, go to MyCreditUnion.gov, click “CULocator” and compare credit union features to those at banks you are considering.
Most of the credit unions surveyed do not require a minimum opening deposit for checking accounts, and at ones that do, the average minimum is about $8. In contrast, at the banks that require a minimum opening balance, it averages about $170. Also, the typical fee charged by the credit unions for using an out-of-network ATM is $1.50, compared with $2.50 at the banks.
Still, credit union members need to be vigilant about costs because certain penalties have jumped. For instance, the average checking account overdraft fee at credit unions has risen to $27.76, almost $1 more than in 2016. Of course, that’s still more attractive than the average bank overdraft fee of $33.
In the past, credit unions had limited appeal because they offered relatively few branches and ATMs and imposed stiff requirements to become a member, typically based on where you live, where you worked or what religious organization you belonged to. But many credit unions have expanded their charters to include wider geographic areas and joined networks that allow customers to use tens of thousands of surcharge-free ATMs around the country.
Here are four examples of credit unions that anyone can join by making a onetime donation of $5 to $10 to a designated nonprofit organization. Each of these institutions offers free checking and access to thousands of surcharge-free ATMs. Alliant Credit Union (800-328-1935, AlliantCreditUnion.org)…Connexus Credit Union (800-845-5025, ConnexusCU.org)…GTE Financial Credit Union (888-871-2690, GTEFinancial.org)…Lake Michigan Credit Union (800-242-9790, LMCU.org).