Banking 101: Your Guide to Getting in the System

A bank account offers more access to protections and low-cost loan options compared with alternative services.

Anna HelhoskiOctober 2, 2020
Banking 101: Your Guide to Getting in the System

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Getting a bank account opens doors to opportunities that alternative services can’t match, such as fraud protection, free check cashing and access to lower-cost loans.

If you don’t have a bank account, you’re not alone: Nearly 1 in 10 (8.5%) consumers are unbanked, according to an August 2020 report from Mintel, a market research company. Mintel also found that nearly one-quarter are “underbanked,” meaning they had a bank account, but also used an alternative financial service such as a money order, check cashing or payday loan.

You can use this Banking 101 guide to help you navigate the process of getting into the banking system. Here are a few answers to typical questions first-time (and second-chance) bank customers have:

What do you need to open a bank account?

To open a bank account, you’ll need your Social Security number, one or two forms of government-issued identification and any money for the first deposit that is required. Some banks do not have minimum deposits.

If you don’t have a SSN, you may be able to use a tax ID number to open an account, or find a bank or credit union that will accept a passport or other government-issued identification instead.

Typically, you open two bank accounts at the same time: checking and savings. Checking is the place for spending, paying bills and receiving income. Savings is where you store funds for later use.

Can I open a bank account online?

Maybe. You can open a bank account online by completing an online application with a bank, provided you can fund the new account with an existing bank account. That means first-timers may have to start with a bank they can visit in person.

If you do qualify for an online account, it could be an online-only bank (one that is FDIC-insured) or a traditional brick-and-mortar bank with mobile and online banking options.

Can I be denied a bank account?

Yes, you could be denied a bank account if you lost access to a previous bank account and have a negative record with ChexSystems, a national reporting agency that keeps records of accounts closed against a person’s will. You may need to pay off debt to a bank or dispute any errors with ChexSystems. Even then, a record on ChexSystems can last years.

If you’ve been denied, consider a second chance checking account or a BankOn-approved checking account. Such accounts often don’t let you overdraw and can be easier to get.

How can I open a bank account without a bank account?

If you’ve had issues getting a bank account before, consider going local with a community bank or credit union. You’ll need to deposit a minimum amount to get started. See our list of community-focused banking institutions.

What should I ask when opening a bank account?

When opening a bank account, ask about any hidden fees such as overdraft and inactivity fees, which tend to be disclosed in the fine-print “terms and conditions” section of the site. Most banks clearly state monthly maintenance fees on their checking and savings pages. You should also find out if the bank has free access to ATMs and in-person branches if those are important to you.

Where are you in your banking journey?

To learn more about getting started with banking, look for the description that best matches where you are now.

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