A college student almost always needs a checking account. That’s a no-brainer. But flashy accounts from big banks — often promoted on campus and bearing the school’s name and logo — usually aren’t the best option.
That’s because they tend to have high overdraft fees, as revealed in a NerdWallet study of university checking accounts.
For the best features and tools — and low or no monthly fees — look beyond the student union to off-campus, online or credit union checking options. These accounts also have few, if any, overdraft charges — penalties that can turn a $4 slice of pizza into an error costing almost $40 at high-fee banks.
The online bank Simple lives up to its name with an easy-to-manage account and smooth mobile banking experience.
Simple charges no monthly maintenance or overdraft fees. If you try to spend money you don’t have, the transaction is declined. You get a debit card you can use to make purchases and to withdraw cash from one of its more than 40,000 partner ATMs. Using your phone, you can pay bills, deposit checks, and set and track your financial goals with the Safe-to-Spend budgeting tool.
There are a few limitations. Depositing cash is complicated. You have to buy a money order and deposit it using your phone or send it by mail. And you don’t get personal checks; instead, you can request a cashier’s check, which is free. Read more about Simple’s banking experience in our Simple review.
Capital One 360
Another strong online option is the Capital One 360 online checking account. It has no minimum balance or monthly fee. You also earn a little bit of interest on your balance, with annual percentage yields starting at 0.20%.
The account is especially attractive for students who travel. Capital One 360 has a network of almost 40,000 ATMs nationwide. It doesn’t charge a fee for using an out-of-network cash machine in the U.S. or abroad, though the ATM’s owner might ding you. Another plus: Capital One 360 doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees for withdrawing money at its ATMs outside of the country.
If you’re worried about overspending, keep the default “auto decline” option to avoid overdraft fees for debit card swipes. The bank will simply decline transactions that exceed your balance. If you’d rather spare yourself embarrassment at the register, you can opt in to Capital One 360’s overdraft service, which lets you use a linked savings account or a line of credit to add funds into your checking account as needed. Transfers from the linked savings account are free. With the line of credit, you’ll pay interest on the money you borrow, but if you replenish your account within a few days, you’ll pay only pennies.
Read more about Capital One 360 in our review.
» Learn about more online options in NerdWallet’s best online checking accounts roundup.
Golden 1 Credit Union
Credit unions are known for having low fees compared with large banks, and Golden 1 Credit Union is no exception. Its Student Checking account, for college students 17 and older, has no monthly maintenance fees and no minimum balance requirements.
Golden 1 participates in a network of 30,000 ATMs across the country, so you can withdraw cash as needed from thousands of machines without paying out-of-network fees. If you need to write a paper check, the credit union has you covered: Your first box of checks is free.
Golden 1 is based in California, but it’s easy to join, even if you live or attend school elsewhere in the U.S. For example, you can become eligible by joining the Financial Fitness Association, a nonprofit that raises awareness about personal finance. Membership in the association costs $8.
» Wondering how big banks measure up? Use our student checking account tool to compare.
Keep it cheap
The checking accounts featured here have one thing in common: low fees. If you’re not working full time yet or if money is tight, these accounts let you hang on to as much of your cash as you can.
Updated Nov. 15, 2017.
To determine the best accounts, we took a close look at 70 financial institutions, including the largest U.S. banks based on assets, debit card volume, Internet search traffic and other factors; the nation’s largest credit unions, based on deposits as well as broad-based membership requirements; and other notable and/or emerging players in the industry. We rated them on criteria including annual percentage rates, minimum balances, fees, digital experience and more.
Financial institutions surveyed include: Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, Alliant Credit Union, Ally Bank, America First Credit Union, American Express, Aspiration, Associated Bank, Bank5 Connect, BankDirect, Bank of America, Bank of Internet, Bank of the West, Barclays, BB&T, BBVA Compass, Boeing Employees Credit Union, BMO Harris, Capital One 360, Charles Schwab Bank, Chase, Chime, CIT, Citibank, Citizens Bank, Comerica Bank, Commerce Bank, Connexus Credit Union, Consumers Credit Union, Discover Bank, EverBank, Fidelity, Fifth Third Bank, First Citizens Bank, First National Bank, First Tech Federal Credit Union, GoBank, Golden 1 Credit Union, GS Bank, HSBC Bank USA, Huntington Bank, KeyBank, M&T Bank, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, PNC, PurePoint Financial, Qapital, Radius Bank, Regions Bank, Santander Bank, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, Security Service Federal Credit Union, Simple, Star One Credit Union, State Employees’ Credit Union of North Carolina, State Farm Bank, Suncoast Credit Union, SunTrust Bank, Synchrony Bank, TCF Bank, TD Bank, Union Bank, UFB Direct, USAA, U.S. Bank, Varo, Wells Fargo, Woodforest National Bank, and Zions Bank.