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If you want to open a bank account, there’s no shortage of options out there. For many people, opening a bank account is relatively easy. Most banks and credit unions follow a straightforward process similar to the one described below. Generally, opening an account is a matter of choosing a bank, providing certain details, and funding your account. Once the formalities are done, you can start using your account—potentially saving you time and money.
Of course, not everyone wants to have a bank account or feels they could qualify for one. Around 7.1 million households in the U.S. are “unbanked,” meaning that no one in the household has a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union, according to a 2019 FDIC study.1 The number one reason respondents gave for being unbanked? They didn’t have enough money to meet the minimum balance requirements. That’s a real concern, though often solutions such as check-cashing services that people without bank accounts rely on are also costly.
If you are able to qualify for a bank account and feel you want one, here’s a quick and easy guide to opening an account.
“We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life.”William Osler
"We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life."
You might already know where you want to bank even if you aren’t yet sure of the steps to open an account there. If not, shop around. Start by finding the best match for your immediate need (a checking account or savings account, for example). As you compare institutions, be mindful of account usage restrictions and fees, which can quickly add up.
There are three basic categories of financial institutions:
If you prefer, you can even pick more than one type of bank. For example, you may decide to open an online bank account and keep your brick-and-mortar bank to keep your fees low and maintain the ability to visit a bank in the event of a financial emergency.
If you have access to a computer or mobile device and an internet connection, you can open an account by visiting the institution’s website. Search for the bank online, or visit the website listed on the bank’s marketing materials.
Be careful when you type in the institution’s web address—impostor sites with similar names may exist.
The advantage of opening accounts online is that you can do it at any time, from anywhere. If you’d rather open an account in person, that’s usually an option, although you’ll need to visit the branch during business hours. Before you go, have the following items ready:
Generally, banks are required to verify your identity when you open an account. If you don’t have a government-issued ID, however, you may be able to use another form of ID. Ask your bank what other forms of identification it can accept.
Similarly, if you don’t have a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), some financial institutions will accept a passport number from the issuing country, an alien identification card number, or another government-issued ID number.
Once you determine the bank where you want to open an account, you’ll generally have a variety of account types and services to choose from, including:
Within one of the above categories, a bank may offer multiple products, each with a different name and level of service. Premium accounts that come with more features have correspondingly higher fees (like monthly service fees, ATM fees, and overdraft fees) and higher thresholds to avoid the service fee.9
A general rule of thumb is to choose an option with a mix of features and fees that meet your needs and budget. For example, if you think you won’t keep a lot of money in the account, you may want to open a bank account with a low initial deposit and low or no minimum balance and fee requirements so you don’t get stuck paying unnecessary fees.
If you’re viewing a bank’s products online, you might have to drill down to the product that is right for you. For example, you might have to click “Open an Account,” and then click “Checking” and peruse the options for free checking, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you open your accounts in person, chat with a banker to find the best account for your needs. Generally speaking, you’ll only want to bank where your money is protected by FDIC insurance (or NCUSIF coverage if you use a credit union).
Avoid accounts that require a large balance to qualify for fee waivers unless you plan to keep that amount in the account and intend to use the special account features. But bear in mind that even a “free” account might impose some fees even if it has no monthly maintenance fee.
As you open a new bank account, you’ll need to provide sensitive information to the bank. To protect themselves and comply with regulations such as the Patriot Act, banks can’t open an account without verifying your identity.10
You’ll need to provide details like your name, birthday, and mailing address, as well as identification numbers (in the United States, this is most likely your Social Security Number, but you may be able to use an ITIN or another government-issued ID number). You’ll also be asked to present a valid government ID (such as a driver’s license or passport).6 Again, if you don’t have these, ask your bank what other forms of identification it can accept.
If you’re opening a bank account online, you’ll type this information into a text box. If you set up your accounts in person, be prepared to hand your ID to the banker, who will probably photocopy it for the bank’s records.
Your financial history doesn’t need to be impeccable to open a bank account, but it may play into the bank’s decision to approve or deny your application. Banks often use ChexSystem, a targeted consumer reporting agency that tracks checking and savings accounts, to determine how much risk a potential customer might pose to the institution where they’re applying for an account. ChexSystem is the banking equivalent of the credit reporting bureaus.
Many banks will also check your credit to see if you’ve had problems repaying loans in the past. These credit checks are usually “soft” pulls that do not damage your credit—but it’s best to ask, if you’re concerned. You don’t necessarily need good credit to get a bank account, but having bad credit can sometimes lead to denials.
You’ll have to agree to abide by certain rules and accept responsibility for certain activities in your accounts. When you open an account at a bank, you form a relationship based on an important subject: your money. Therefore, you should know what you’re getting into. If you open a bank account online, you’ll complete this step by clicking the “I Agree” (or similar) button and moving on to the next step.11 You’ll likely need to sign a paper contract if you open an account in-person at a branch.
If you’re under 18 years old, you’ll need someone over age 18 to open the account with you. You still might be able to use a debit card and online banking, and you can eventually get your own account.
If you’re opening a joint account of any kind, you’ll need the personal information for all of the account holders and a signature from each of them. If possible, it’s best to get everybody together in one place to complete the application.
Although disclosures have improved over time, there are a lot of important details buried in the fine print when opening a bank account. In particular, you’ll want to know about any fees applicable to your account, and when your funds will be available for withdrawal.
In addition to bank agreements, federal law dictates your rights and responsibilities as an account holder. For example, if somebody takes money out of your account fraudulently, you might be protected against losses. However, you may need to report the withdrawal quickly for full protection.12
If you’re opening a bank account online, you may have to print, sign, and mail a document to the bank before the account is opened. Some banks use electronic disclosure and consent to make the banking relationship legally binding—you can do everything online.11
Others still require a signed document to open an account.13 Until the bank receives the documents, your account is not active.
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