What Is a Brokerage Account and How Do I Open One?

Ready to start buying stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other investments? Opening a brokerage account is the first step.
Pamela de la Fuente
Arielle O'Shea
By Arielle O'Shea and  Pamela de la Fuente 
Reviewed by Michael Randall
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Nerdy takeaways
  • A brokerage account is an investment account used to trade assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs.

  • There are two brokerage account options that meet the needs of most investors: online brokers and robo-advisors.

  • Setting up a brokerage account is simple. You can typically complete an application online in under 15 minutes.

  • Brokerage accounts are good for saving for short-term goals, while tax-advantaged accounts are better for retirement savings.

MORE LIKE THISBrokerage Accounts

What is a brokerage account?

A brokerage account is an investment account used to trade assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs. You can set up a brokerage account at many brokerage firms — from pricey full-service stockbrokers to low-fee online discount brokers.

» Already know the basics? Jump to How to open a brokerage account

You can transfer money into and out of them like a bank account. But unlike banks, brokerage accounts give you access to the stock market and other investments.

Brokerage accounts are also called taxable accounts, because investment income within a brokerage account is subject to capital gains taxes. Retirement accounts (such as IRAs) have a different set of tax and withdrawal rules. They may be better for retirement savings and investing.

"A lot of people think that brokerage accounts are 'non-tax advantaged,' but there are tax advantages," said Delyanne Barros, founder of Delyanne The Money Coach.

"The benefit of the brokerage account is leveraging the long-term capital gains tax," she said in an email interview. "In order to do that you must be a long- term investor. That means you have to hold your investments for over a year. Not only will this help you capture the most favorable tax bracket, but it will likely result in better returns."

Depending on your taxable income and filing status, the long-term capital gains tax rate is 0%, 15% or 20%

IRS. Capital Gains and Losses. Accessed Mar 16, 2022.
.

The key to reaping a brokerage account's advantages, Barros said, is to stay invested, ignore the day-to-day stock market noise, "and go live your life."

» Ready to compare brokerage accounts? See our roundup of the best online brokers

How do brokerage accounts work?

You can open a brokerage account quickly online. You generally do not need a lot of money to do so. In fact, many brokerage firms allow you to open an account with no up-front deposit. However, you will need to fund the account before you buy investments. You can do that by moving money from your checking or savings account, or from another brokerage account.

You own the money and investments in your brokerage account, and you can sell investments at any time. The broker holds your account and acts as a middleman between you and the investments you want to buy.

There is no limit on the number of brokerage accounts you can have, or the amount of money you can put into a taxable brokerage account each year. There should be no fee to open a brokerage account.

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How to choose a brokerage account provider

There are two options that meet the needs of most investors: online brokers and robo-advisors. Both offer retirement accounts and taxable brokerage accounts.

"You want to be careful with which company you open your brokerage accounts with," says Wendy Moyers, a certified financial planner at Chevy Chase Trust in Bethesda, Maryland. "And you should be walking in with an awareness of what you’re going to be investing in. You want to do a little research."

Online brokerage account

If you want to purchase and manage your own investments, an online brokerage account is for you.

An account with an online brokerage company enables you to buy and sell investments through the broker’s website. Discount brokers offer a range of investments, including stocks, mutual funds and bonds.

» Want to compare options? Check out our roundup of the best brokers for beginners.

Managed brokerage account

A managed brokerage account comes with investment management, either from a human investment advisor or a robo-advisor. A robo-advisor provides a low-cost alternative to hiring a human investment manager. These companies use computer programs to choose and manage your investments for you, based on your goals and timeline.

Robo-advisors may be a good fit for you if you’d like to be largely hands-off when it comes to your investments. We have a full list of the best robo-advisors.

Note: We don’t recommend investing money you need within the next five years. If you’re saving for a short-term goal, skip the brokerage or investment account and consider these options for short-term investments.

How to open a brokerage account

Setting up a brokerage account is simple. You can typically complete an application online in under 15 minutes. (In most states, you’ll need to be 18 to open your own account. Here’s how parents can set up a brokerage account for their kids.)

Once you've opened the account, you’ll need to deposit or transfer funds. That sounds complicated, but these days, it’s pretty simple to link your bank account with a brokerage account online.

Some brokers make you verify a transaction. If that’s the case, you’ll have to wait until the broker deposits a small sum in your bank account — typically a few cents. Then you’ll confirm the transaction by telling the brokerage the exact amount that was deposited. If you have any questions, the broker can walk you through the process. After the transfer is complete and your brokerage account is funded, you can start investing.

You might be asked if you want a cash account or a margin account. A margin account allows you to borrow money from the broker in order to make trades, but you'll pay interest and it's risky. Generally, it's best to stick with a cash account at first.

» Looking for some guidance to start investing? Here's how to invest in stocks

Brokerage accounts vs. IRA

In a standard brokerage account you're contributing post-tax money. In most cases, your investment earnings will be taxed. On the plus side, there are very few rules for brokerage accounts. You can pull your money out at any time, for any reason, and invest as much as you’d like. (Here are our picks for the best brokerage accounts.)

In a Roth IRA, you also contribute post-tax money. Once you reach 59½ and have held your account for at least five years, you can take withdrawals, including earnings, without paying additional taxes.

Publication 590-B (2020), Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). Accessed Mar 16, 2022.

"Ideally, you should have both, but prioritizing the Roth IRA is best so you can grow your money tax-free," said Barros.

Moyers also says the ideal situation is to have both, but it depends on your goals. An IRA is a good way to save money for retirement. But, she says, you are tying your money up for a long time.

"If you want to save money to buy a house, a brokerage account would be more appropriate," she says.

If you want to invest for retirement, you might want to open a retirement account rather than a taxable brokerage account. (Here are our picks for the best IRA accounts.)

You might already be investing for retirement through your work. Many companies offer an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) and match your contributions. You can still open an IRA, but we recommend contributing at least enough to your 401(k) to earn that match first.

The table below compares brokerage accounts with retirement accounts.

Brokerage account

Retirement account

Taxes

May incur capitals gains tax on investment income; investments sold 1 year or less after buying are subject to ordinary income tax

Typically no capital gains; tax-deferred or tax-free growth

Contributions

Unlimited

Caps on annual contributions

Withdrawals

No limits or penalties

Penalties for withdrawing before a certain age, unless exceptions are met

Used primarily for

Stock trading, options trading, additional long-term investments after maxing out retirement accounts

Long-term growth, retirement savings

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