ETRADE vs. TD Ameritrade vs. Schwab: Reviewing the Biggest Online Brokers - NerdWallet
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ETRADE vs. TD Ameritrade vs. Schwab: Reviewing the Biggest Online Brokers

The three largest online brokers – Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and E*TRADE – collectively have over 17 million active brokerage accounts.  While Schwab wins in terms of sheer size, which is the best online broker of the three?  Though all of these major online brokerages receive NerdWallet’s 5-star rating for different reasons, and you can trade a variety of asset classes at each, these brokers differ in terms of their top premium features and who they’ll serve best.

If you’re trying to decide which of the three largest online brokerages is best for you, NerdWallet breaks down your big brand name options and their specialities:


E*TRADE is home to just over 2.9 million total brokerage accounts as of December 2012, as well as $201.2 billion in customer assets.

Known most widely for its talking baby commercials, E*TRADE should perhaps be known best for something else instead: all around low minimums and fees, coupled with all-included premium features like free research, real time data, and 24/7 service.  E*TRADE offers access to all asset classes you might want to trade, including not just stocks and funds but also options, futures, and forex.  E*TRADE is also offering 60 free days of trading upfront – up to 500 free trade commissions for stock and options if you deposit at least $10,000 upfront – an excellent savings to take advantage of if you want to initially fund the account fully but don’t plan to trade very frequently in years to come.

You should sign up for an E*TRADE account if: you’re an active trader or if you’re looking to ramp up your trading, because E*TRADE’s advanced platform is free if you make at least 10 trades per month and also offers a security token for maximum account security.

Account Details:

  • Commission: $9.99 per trade
  • Account Minimum: $500
  • Account Fees: No annual account fee
  • Promotion: Make initial $10,000 deposit to receive 60 days of free trades & up to $500

Open an account

The downside?  Although E*TRADE does offer free research reports, its basic account offers no free trading software: this comes at the hefty monthly fee for $99.95 extra to upgrade.

Read our full ETRADE review

TD Ameritrade

TD Ameritrade has 5.8 million funded accounts and approximately $472.3 billion in client assets.

For the more casual investor, TD Ameritrade offers a full suite of investing options, including over 100 commission-free ETFs to help affordably diversify a portfolio of funds.  TD Ameritrade is consistently rated highly across the board for customer service and support.  TD Ameritrade also acquired thinkorswim back in 2009, a powerful stock and options trading platform that has provided TD many top volatility-trading features.

You should sign up for a TD Ameritrade account if: you’re looking for strong, secure trading technology combined with all the basics in one place: a powerful yet easy to use investing platform and user interface.

Account Details:

  • Commission: $9.99 per trade
  • Account Minimum: $500
  • No annual account fee
  • Promotion: Make an initial $2000 deposit and trade free for 60 days + get up to $600
  • Read the full NerdWallet review here for all the details

Open an account

The downside?  Casual investors not in search of the most powerful trading platforms and research tools can find better deals elsewhere.

Read our full TD Ameritrade review

Charles Schwab

Schwab currently comes in first with the status of the largest online broker, boasting 8.8 million active brokerage accounts and totaling just over $1.95 trillion in client assets.

How well does this status translate into quality offerings?  Schwab is a common household name for a reason; it provides a comprehensive suite of investment products and services for customers looking to diversify and host a variety of accounts.  It also offers customers the convenience of visiting physical locations across the country, as well as merging investing with some of the other advantages of traditional banking, such as the no-ATM-fee Schwab debit card.

You should sign up for a Schwab account if: you’re looking for the best of both worlds to integrate your banking with your investing all at the same institution offering both online and in-person services.

Account details:

  • Commission: $8.95 per trade
  • Account Minimum: $1,000
  • No annual account fee

Open an account

The downside?  Schwab is not currently offering any introductory perks or promotions to take advantage of, unlike its competitors outlined below.  Schwab does not offer the most sophisticated trading platform in the business.

Caveat to Investors: Pay For Only What You Need

Last, a word of caution: just because these are the largest online brokers does not automatically make them the best for your investing needs, so be sure to shop around for the best trading prices available.

If you merely want to buy and trade stocks or another investment vehicle, and will not be using any of the additional premium features described above, you could likely be trading for less money with a discount brokerage.  In fact, a recent NerdWallet study found that investors with the three largest brokerages are overpaying to the tune of $1.8 billion on unnecessary fees for things they don’t really need.

Not sure yet where you fit into this mix?  By plugging your trading preferences into NerdWallet’s search-and-compare tool, you can find the list of the best brokers for your specific needs.

Compare more brokers

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  • chanctob

    What does he mean when he says about etrade…..”The downside? Although E*TRADE does offer free research reports, its
    basic account offers no free trading software: this comes at the hefty
    monthly fee for $99.95 extra to upgrade.” ??

  • CharlieCapp

    OMG, it just took me 14 days for Fidelity to fund an account on money I had moved two weeks ago. When I talked to them (every time you call you get a different rep) they said it would take 4 days. Not sure why an electonic transfer takes four days, let alone 14 days to move into an account. I am now in the process of looking for a new broker.

  • jm

    wow this review is a bit shy on info, who cares how big the company is and the only big take on TD ameritrade is the TOS and thats why Im looking to make a change, TOS is just too complicated for somebody trading under pressure. I have a lot of errors placing trades that have to be re-entered, I get logged out way to often, I ended up using a 3rd party for charts, screening and watch list, I have 2 accounts and cant be logged into both at the same time. Your review does not touch on a single thing I would be interested in as a trader… but in all fairness, I cant find any trading reviews that seem like they are written by somebody that trades

  • Charles

    I have a thinkorswim legacy account (before they got bought out by TDA). Much to my surprise their service has, if anything, gotten even better. ToS reps reply to you within 20 minutes for trading platform questions, and TDA customer service is very good as well. ToS desktop software is best-in-class, and trade executions are fast. Best of all, they’ve kept their commissions at $5 per trade for stocks, half the cost of the regular TDA platform.

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  • DrJay DrJay

    It’s so funny that every commentator here has clearly missed the point of this article. It’s really typical American mentality to speak in absolutes – to say X is the best – when the whole point of the article is that life is about Diff’rent Strokes & what might be right for you might not be right for some…

    The different services are “best” depending on one’s definition of “better”, which will vary based on lifestyle, experience, age, wealth, knowledge, education, parents, geography, preferences, etc.

    For example, a 20yo inexperienced male student who lives life indirectly via his iphone will look for different features & have different means/financial considerations from a 35yo FT-working single mum from a less tech-savvy wealthy senior ex-accountant who prefers face-to-face contact from the same senior but blue-collar & less educated from a middle-aged day-trading trust-funder, etc etc.

    So, the X vs Y question will almost ALWAYS yield the same answer: depends !

  • Joanna Pratt

    TD Ameritrade is one of NerdWallet’s favorites for beginners because they have an easy to use free platform, access to market commentary and research, and a lot of other great features included in their basis $9.99/trade fee. Read our full review here:

  • guest

    ok so you stay with this company for about 18 years and now you complain??

  • guest

    you’ll pretty much find the same anywhere you go. these are tightened laws due to money laundry surveillance because you are out of the country.

  • frustrated beyond beyond

    Agreed……my daughter opened an account this Monday and we are already in the process of closing it because of their non-user freindly security random pin app that you must respond to in 30 seconds just to sign on…..are they nuts…..PS what customer service

  • Guest

    I have been using Fidelity since 2005…$8 a trade

  • joeo74

    fidelity is great EXCEPT for the trading platform – flaky and unreliable. tons of other great tools and research … so if you want great Mutual Fund access and are not looking for a trading platform for active investors then Fidelity is a good option.

  • Maxime Rieman

    Etrade’s Mobile Security ID feature (also called “VIP Access”) isn’t required for brokerage accounts, it’s simply offered as an additional service. If you would like this feature removed from your daughter’s account, just call their customer service line at 1-800-387-2331.

  • Maxime Rieman

    If you’re interested in direct access trading, we suggest you look into Lightspeed Trading, because of their high quality analytic software. However, for most traders, our analysis demonstrates that you’ll find comparable execution quality at any reputable brokerage firm:

  • frustrated beyond beyond

    She did and their customer service couldn’t or wouldn’t……maybe you should send this information to etrade’s customer service if in fact it is fact as the individuals she dealt with didn’t know……she closed the account….we are done…thanks for your effort

  • jm

    As I read all these comments, wonder if there are problems with a lot of these. I have been looking for a change but cant find anyone who has tried more than 1 of these and it seems like everyone has different criteria. Im an active technical trader, I want fast and simple all on one screen so I can execute trades in real time without having to re-enter anything, I want to see quotes for all of my stocks including their queue. starting to think I may need to look at a 3rd party trading software.