New banking players are redefining what a checking account looks like.
Financial technology, or fintech, companies in banking — often called neobanks — typically offer mobile-focused accounts with eye-catching features, generally do without branches, and partner with banks since many don’t have banking licenses of their own. From 2018 to 2020, neobanks skyrocketed from 60 to 256 worldwide, according to a report by the business strategy firm Exton Consulting.
But more competition can have side effects. Once-innovative banking services such as two-day early direct deposits are becoming standardized, so “the challenge is how to stay differentiated,” says Kevin Travis, an executive vice president at the financial analytics firm Novantas.
Differentiating might mean appealing to certain groups, like freelancers or international travelers, or offering unusual perks. Here’s how some current and upcoming neobanks try to stand out.
Launched in early 2020, Oxygen’s digital banking account aims to help freelancers and self-employed workers manage cash flow. Expenses can be sorted and saved with photos of receipts, and fast payment delivery is available thanks to Oxygen’s partner bank’s participation with Visa Direct, Visa’s speedy payment service. Oxygen doesn’t charge monthly or overdraft fees. One unusual perk is the ability to incorporate, or legally become a company, in the app and then open a business account. (For more details, see our Oxygen review.)
Launched in 2019, Lili is a free mobile bank account designed specifically with freelancers and independent contractors in mind. With Lili, you can categorize your expenses by simply swiping left for “life,” or personal, and right for “work,” or business. Lili also includes integrated digital tools to help freelancers save for taxes, as well as create and save with an emergency fund. Plus, if you use Lili’s bank account to deposit your earnings from online platforms and payment apps, you can receive your funds up to two days earlier.
For cheap overdraft
The crown jewel of One Finance’s banking account is its low-cost line of credit. Launched in 2020, One doesn’t charge fees or interest on transactions that go negative if a customer pays back within a month; otherwise it charges 1% interest monthly on the unpaid balance. That’s cheaper than big banks’ overdraft fees, which average around $35. One also provides up to two-day early direct deposit, a free nationwide ATM network and interest-earning subaccounts called pockets, which can be single or joint accounts.
» Learn more about overdraft fees
For cash-back rewards
Current, founded in 2015, saw sign-ups surge to 100,000 a month in April and May 2020 as essential workers gravitated to the app. The neobank offers free and premium checking options with cash back at some merchants, two-day early direct deposit and fast refunds on gas station debit card holds. The latter two perks are available only for premium accounts, which have a $5 monthly fee. Premium accounts with direct deposits can also have up to $100 in overdrafts covered for free.
Personal loan company Upgrade, started in 2017, launched a free checking account in 2021 with cash-back rewards more extensive than Current’s. Upgrade’s main perks for its checking customers include 2% cash back on everyday purchases, such as at drugstores and restaurants, and up to 20% rate discounts on the company’s personal loans. Customers can also see their credit scores for free and summaries of their credit report through Upgrade’s Credit Health service.
Bella approaches banking, in its words, “built on love.” That translates to a checking account rewards program that gives a random percentage of cash back from 5% to 200%. Launched in 2020, Bella doesn’t charge monthly, overdraft or ATM fees, and Bella currently covers ATM operator fees. There are also multiple no-fee savings accounts and an optional “karma account,” which is a fund of up to $20 to pay for other customers' small purchases or be a recipient of another’s generosity.
» See our list of the best rewards checking
For budgeting and credit
MoCaFi, or Mobility Capital Finance, is a Black-owned digital platform started in 2016 that provides free checking and tools, including a credit score tracker, to serve largely unbanked and underbanked communities, with a focus on closing the racial wealth gap. Its bill pay feature lets customers report rent payments to major credit bureaus to build credit history. MoCaFi works with its third-party partners to provide free cash reloads at various retailers and free mobile check deposits with fast release of funds.
The San Francisco-based credit company Credit Sesame launched a free digital banking account in March 2020 as part of its suite of products that focus on people living paycheck to paycheck. There are up to two-day early direct deposits, cash and mobile check deposits, a limited debit card cash-back program and free access to a nationwide ATM network. The account gives access to Credit Sesame’s existing offers of free credit monitoring and daily updates to credit scores.
» Compare the best budgeting apps
Started in 2015, the U.K.-based Revolut may particularly appeal to savvy international travelers who want competitive exchange rates and a debit card that can hold over 150 currencies. Customers can transfer funds internationally with other Revolut users, withdraw up to $300 monthly with no fees and earn interest on savings. That’s all with the free account. For more perks including overseas medical insurance, Revolut offers two accounts with monthly fees of $10 and $17. (See more details on our Revolut review.)
The U.K.-based money transfer company Wise, formerly TransferWise, created a multicurrency account that rolled out to U.S. customers in 2017. After the initial $9 fee for the debit card, Wise doesn’t charge monthly fees and converts currencies at a competitive exchange rate with a small upfront fee. Converting a balance of $1,000 to euros, for example, costs about $4, or 0.4%, which is cheaper than many banks’ foreign transaction fees of 1% to 3%. An account can hold over 50 currencies at once, and converting may take only seconds.
Unlike Revolut and TransferWise, Germany-based N26 doesn’t have a multicurrency account, but its main account — available to U.S. customers since 2019 — is travel-friendly in other ways. In addition to charging no monthly or foreign transaction fees, N26 lets customers enable and disable international purchases, follows Visa’s Zero Liability policy to ensure customers are off the hook for unauthorized purchases and has a way to blur sensitive information when using the app in public. N26 also provides two subaccounts for savings goals as well. (Learn more on our N26 review.)
» Sending money abroad? See the best transfer providers
More players on deck
Keep an eye out for these three neobanks’ debuts later in 2021:
Daylight: Formerly called Be Money, Daylight will launch a mobile bank account focusing on the LGBTQ community with features such as access to financial coaches and accounts with a person’s chosen name, rather than their legal name.
Greenwood: The Black-owned digital banking company already has half a million people on its waitlist for spending and savings accounts that emphasize reinvesting wealth in Black and Latino communities. (See our list of upcoming and current black-owned banks.)
Plex (by Google): The search engine giant plans to combine Google Pay with a full-fledged, mobile-first checking account called Plex with 11 banks and credit unions. It will provide tools such as advanced transaction searches and a spending tracker.
From credit tracking tools to travel perks, modern checking accounts offer more than their predecessors. Before getting one, check whether the fintech company is a bank or partners with a bank that covers your account with FDIC insurance, and see which features would best serve your financial life.