There’s a dizzying choice of accounts out there, from checking accounts from traditional banks to specialist products from modern alternative providers. Each has slightly different features and fees - and there will also be some variance in how you get an account up and running.
The good news is that opening an account shouldn’t be too hard as long as you have some basic identification documents to hand.
This helpful guide will walk through the process, step by step, looking at traditional banks, Credit Unions, online banks, and specialist options like the TransferWise multi-currency account.
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Before you get started, let’s talk a little about how to choose the best account for your needs. There are checking and savings accounts from traditional banks, of course - but you might also benefit from looking at alternative options such as Credit Unions and online banks. The account products and services available may differ slightly, but you’ll often find that the fees are competitive, with online accounts also providing convenient and intuitive 24/7 access and support via an app.
Credit Unions work in a different way to banks. Instead of customers, Credit Unions have members, who are accepted based on their ‘field of membership’. This might mean a particular Credit Union will only accept members from a certain geographic location, people active in a specific community group, or those who work for one employer, or in one profession. You’ll need to investigate which Credit Unions you might be eligible for, based on your personal circumstances.
For example, you could choose the Navy Federal Credit Union¹ if you or a family member are in the services, or the Consumers Credit Union² if you pay a small fee to join the Consumers Cooperative Association. Or, look for the Credit Unions serving your local area, for more ideas.
Online banks and specialist digital accounts are also worth looking at. Because these tend to be newer, they’re usually optimized to meet the needs of a modern customer. In most cases everything from opening an account, managing your money and dealing with customer services can be done online and via apps, which means you’ll never need to set foot in a physical bank branch again. And because online providers don’t have the same overheads as traditional banks, the fees are often cheaper, too.
To help you decide which account and service provider is right for you, you’ll need to think about what really matters to you when it comes to managing your money.
Think about how you’ll use the account, so you can check the features and fees for different options - and get the one which suits your needs best. Here are a few things to consider.
Many banks and service providers have specialist accounts for certain groups. For example, you might be able to get an account aimed at teenagers or seniors, joint accounts, or account products which have features aimed at students, frequent travellers or high wealth individuals. If you're interested in a specialist account product, this may narrow your choices.
Think about the transactions you make frequently, so you can check the availability of the services you really need - and the fees associated. Some basic accounts don’t allow wire transfers for example, while others may not come with checking facilities. Make sure you get the features you need, and don’t pay for ones you don’t use.
It’s worth looking at how many ATMs are in the bank’s network, and what fee you’ll be charged for using your card at other ATMs. Make sure you look at the fees for using an ATM overseas, too, as this can be especially expensive for some accounts. If you want to use your card when you travel, you might benefit from a specialist option like the TransferWise multi-currency Mastercard. More on that later.
If you prefer to bank face to face, you’ll probably not be interested in online banks - make sure there are branches of your preferred bank near to home and work for convenience.
Traditional banks aren’t always great value if you plan to travel, shop online with international retailers, or make cross border payments.
You might find you have to pay a fee to use your card overseas or to make an international transfer, and currency conversion rates may not be the best available when sending payments abroad.
One way round that is to get an account with a currency specialist, such as the TransferWise multi-currency account.
The TransferWise multi-currency account lets you hold dozens of currencies, and make and receive payments all over the world. You’ll get a linked debit Mastercard for simple spending, and your own bank details for the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the euro area, so you can receive fee free payments from those regions just like a local.
If you want to switch between currencies, you can do that easily with the TransferWise app, using the mid-market exchange rate, and for just a low transparent fee. When you travel, just use your card for everyday spending, and avoid foreign transaction fees. This can be much cheaper than using a traditional bank, or an alternative like PayPal.
If you like to manage your money online - or if getting to a branch just isn't convenient for you, you’ll want to check out the online services available from your preferred providers. You might find that an online account or bank is the best choice for you, if what really matters is a simple and intuitive online experience.
Finally, if you’re planning on using your account to hold a large balance and want to earn interest, there are specialist accounts which may suit you better than a regular checking account. You’ll get a bigger return on your savings with a little advance research into your options.
When you’re analyzing your account options, you’ll want to review the availability of features which matter to you, and also the fees which you might need to pay. Take the time to look at the fees for services you’ll use most, and compare accounts with this in mind.
Some charges to look out for:
- Monthly service charge
- Any penalty charges applied - for overdraft use for example
- Transaction charges including ATM fees
- Costs associated with sending and receiving wire transfers
- Foreign currency fees, including when using your card online
- Fees on checks
Before you make a final decision, make sure you have double checked the requirements to open and operate the account.
Don’t forget to check details like:
- Eligibility criteria
- Any minimum balance requirement
- Early closure penalties
- Excess transaction clauses and penalties
Whether you’re opening an account online or in person, you’ll need to provide some supporting evidence to get started. This varies from bank to bank, so do check the details for your chosen provider carefully. You can expect to require the following:
- 2 forms of identification - these may be a passport, driving license or other state issued ID, for example
- Proof of residential address, such as a utility bill or mortgage statement
- Social Security Card if available
You can usually open a joint account in the same way as you’d open a personal account product - except, of course, that you need to provide documents and details for all named signatories. That will mean that each joint account holder will need to provide the documents above to get started.
Some banks let you open an account if you’re under 18, often with a co-signatory, such as a parent or guardian. In this case, you’ll probably need proof of identity for both signatories, including the documents laid out above.
Some accounts specify who can be a co-signatory for a minor - in this case you may also need to show proof of the relationship between the account holder and co-signatory to get started.
Here’s a run through of the typical steps needed to get your checking account opened, online or in person.
Double check the account requirements, and gather your paperwork. In some cases, documents must be recent to be acceptable - for example, a utility bill from the last 3 months may be specified by the account provider. Don’t get caught out.
You’ll then need to complete the application form, online or in person at the bank. This will involve giving personal details and contact information. You’ll also need to show your documents so the bank can verify your identity. Some banks require you to go to a branch to submit documents, while other banks and online service providers are happy to accept copies of your paperwork which you can email or upload as part of your application.
Many accounts require an initial, or opening deposit. This could be paid in cash, by check or using a wire transfer from another account.
In some cases, you’ll be asked to sign a signature card, which may mean you have to attend a branch in person. This is more common for joint accounts and business accounts where there are multiple signatories.
You’re almost there. The final step in most cases will be to activate your ATM card, and close down any old accounts. Then you can start using your new account right away.
Getting a new account can seem like a daunting task. But it doesn’t need to be a headache if you take it step by step. Start with some research to make sure you get the right account for your needs, and remember to look at a good range of options including modern accounts like the TransferWise multi-currency account. Once you’ve found the account for you, you’re just a few short steps away from getting started - good luck!
Sources last checked on 7. February 2020
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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