The best credit unions offer the same accounts and services as banks but often with much better terms. NerdWallet researched some of the country’s top institutions — both national and local — to determine our picks.
This year’s best credit unions have great rates, low fees and generous perks. Our top five options are easy to join, too, and below you’ll find five more with more stringent eligibility requirements. Here’s a closer look.
|Best credit union for checking and savings|
|Best credit union for checking|
|Best credit union for member experience|
|Best credit union for teens and college students|
The Golden 1:
|Best credit union for APY|
» Explore more options with NerdWallet’s best banks and credit unions
Best credit unions
Alliant: Best credit union for checking and savings
Checking and savings options: Alliant Credit Union‘s High-Rate Checking earns 0.25% annual percentage yield if you receive e-statements and have at least one electronic deposit a month, with no minimum balances or monthly fees. And High-Rate Savings earns 0.65% APY on balances of $100 or more. There are no monthly fees if you opt for e-statements.
Eligibility, branches and ATM access: Alliant members have access to over 80,000 fee-free ATMs across the country and one Chicago branch. People who live or work nearby are eligible to join, as well as those who agree to support Foster Care to Success — and have Alliant make a $5 donation on their behalf — among other ways of qualifying.
» To see how other banks’ rates compare, check out NerdWallet’s best savings accounts
Connexus: Best credit union for checking
Checking and savings options: Connexus Credit Union’s Xtraordinary checking account earns 1.75% APY on balances up to $25,000. It also reimburses up to $25 in non-network ATM fees if you meet four requirements, including subscribing to e-statements and making at least one online bill payment each month. There’s no monthly fee. The regular savings account pays a much lower rate.
Eligibility, branches and ATM access: Connexus members can bank at a handful of public branches, mostly in Wisconsin, thousands of shared branches and over 54,000 free ATMs. You can apply for an account if you join the Connexus Association, which provides college scholarships and financial education, for a one-time $5 fee.
» See how Connexus stacks up with NerdWallet’s top online checking accounts
First Tech: Best credit union for member experience
Checking and savings options: First Tech Federal Credit Union’s Dividend Rewards Checking earns 1.25% APY on balances of up to $15,000, as long as you meet three requirements, including receiving e-statements and making 12 monthly debit card purchases. Meet the qualifications, and First Tech will also refund fees for non-network ATM transactions within the country. Savings yields are less impressive, and the highest rate account has a $5,000 minimum.
Eligibility, branches and ATM access: One way to qualify for membership is becoming a member of the nonprofit Financial Fitness Association, which costs $8.
First Tech operates its own branches in seven states plus Puerto Rico (some are open Saturdays), and it participates in the CO-OP Shared Branch network, including over 5,000 branches nationwide and 30,000 ATMs. It also offers extended hours for customer service calls, social media support and well-rated mobile apps.
» Looking for great yields on long-term savings? Check out NerdWallet’s best CD rates this month.
Golden 1: Best credit union for teens and college students
Checking and savings options: Along with standard free and premium checking accounts, Golden 1 Credit Union has free checking accounts for teens and college students. New Generation Checking has low ATM withdrawal limits and requires an adult co-owner. Student Checking gives college students full account privileges.
The Youth Savings account requires a co-owner, but lets young accountholders transact without them present. The account earns the same 0.05% APY as the regular savings account.
Eligibility, branches and ATM access: Anyone who lives or works in California is eligible for Golden 1. And members can also take advantage of shared ATMs (about 30,000) and shared branches.
Consumers: Best credit union for APY
Checking and savings options: Consumers Credit Union‘s Rewards checking account earns 4.09% APY on balances of $10,000 or less if you meet the requirements, including spending at least $1,000 per month on an affiliated credit card. Meeting fewer requirements still earns you high rates, and there are other checking options with fewer hoops to jump through. The basic savings account is free, but it pays much less.
Eligibility, branches and ATM access: Though Consumers is based in Illinois, and all of its branches are in the Chicago area, anyone can become a member by joining a Consumers-affiliated nonprofit for $5. Members can also access CO-OP shared branches and ATMs.
Notable credit unions across the U.S.
These credit unions are worth a look if you can meet the somewhat strict membership requirements. To join, you generally have to live or work in a certain area, or your employer must sponsor memberships.
America First Credit Union:
Boeing Employees Credit Union:
SchoolsFirst Credit Union:
State Employees Credit Union:
Suncoast Credit Union:
America First Credit Union
This credit union is based in Ogden, Utah, but it participates in the CO-OP network, which gives members access to about 30,000 fee-free ATMs across the country. The America First regular checking account doesn’t have a monthly fee, and it earns a small amount of interest on balances of at least $500.
Boeing Employees Credit Union
Most of BECU’s over 50 branches are in Washington state, but the credit union participates in the CO-OP network that gives members access to over 5,000 branch locations and 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the country. BECU’s Member Advantage checking offers 1.00% APY on balances of $500 or less.
SchoolsFirst Credit Union
This credit union has checking and savings accounts with no monthly fees, and it offers access to over 28,000 fee-free ATMs across the country. SchoolsFirst also has JV Club and Varsity Club accounts for young people. You can apply if you are part of California’s public educational community or work in other education jobs.
State Employees Credit Union
State Employees Credit Unions’ checking and savings accounts both earn interest, but its savings certificates pay higher rates. A five-year certificate pays 1.00% APY, which is higher than the national average. The credit union has a large branch network in North Carolina; membership is mostly limited to state employees and their family members.
Suncoast Credit Union
Tampa, Florida-based Suncoast offers checking and savings accounts that earn interest and have no monthly fees.
Members also have access to over 30,000 fee-free ATMs through various networks.
These credit unions represent some of the best institutions overall, but there may also be local winners in your community. Use our checking account tool to see if there’s a credit union or bank near you that offers low fees and gives you a good return on your money.
Credit union FAQs
What do credit unions do?
Credit unions are not-for-profit financial institutions that, like banks, offer checking and savings accounts and long-term savings certificates. Some also offer loans and other products.
How can you join a credit union?
That depends on the credit union. Many credit unions were created by and for certain groups of people, such as employees of a certain company or residents of a certain town — and some are still fairly restrictive. If your job, location, faith community or other group is represented with a credit union, you can apply for membership.
Other credit unions require only that you make a small donation (often less than $10) to an affiliated nonprofit to become eligible for membership. You can join these credit unions even if you live far from headquarters.
What makes a credit union different from a bank? Are the best credit unions better than the best banks?
Although they offer many of the same products, banks and credit unions operate differently. Credit unions are not-for-profit institutions, which often translates to fewer fees and higher savings rates. Banks, meanwhile, tend to offer a greater variety of products and better technology, but usually have more fees and lower savings rates.
Many credit unions were also created to serve certain, specific groups of people, such as employees of specific companies. Some credit unions have expanded their membership requirements, but others are still fairly exclusive. It’s generally easier to join a bank.
Keep in mind that many online banks have higher savings rates than the average credit union. And neither banks nor credit unions are necessarily better; you should compare both to decide which is right for you.
» Explore some of the best high-yield online savings accounts
Can I use both a credit union and a bank?
Yes. There’s no rule that says you can’t keep some money at a credit union and some at a bank. It’s possible to use both services at the same time.
Are online credit union accounts different from in-person ones?
Using your credit union online is similar to using a bank online: You can typically deposit checks, pay bills, review your transactions and transfer money to your other accounts or friends and family. If you live close to one of your credit union’s branches, you can get help there, too — but being able to transact online is especially handy if you’re not near one.
Are the best credit unions also the biggest?
Not necessarily. Some of the biggest credit unions have similar advantages to banks, including highly rated mobile apps and wide ranges of financial products. But you might get more personalized service at a small, local credit union. And some credit unions belong to the CO-OP network, meaning you can bank at over 5,000 credit union branches across the country and use over 30,000 ATMs — that’s a larger ATM network than many banks have.
Don’t count out your local credit union when searching for a financial institution.
What separates the best credit unions from other credit unions?
NerdWallet’s picks for best credit union typically pay high rates on your balances, charge few fees and have easily accessible customer service and relaxed membership requirements. But not all credit unions offer all of those qualities. Some have only a small number of branches and ATMs and limited customer service hours, or restrictive membership requirements, for example. That doesn’t necessarily matter — just make sure the credit union (or bank) you choose is strong in areas that are important to you.
Is the money in credit union accounts safe?
Yes. Like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which handles banks, the National Credit Union Administration insures customers’ deposits in case a credit union fails. All federally chartered credit unions must carry NCUA insurance. It covers credit union members’ deposit accounts: checking, savings, and money market accounts, as well as certificates of deposit. The NCUA insures up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution, per ownership category. “Ownership category” refers to account types such as single (owned by one person) or joint (owned by two or more people).
How can you find a local credit union?
If you’re in the market for a credit union, and you’d like to be able to visit a branch, check out the NCUA’s credit union locator. Just remember that if you’re comfortable with banking online, you can choose one of the top five credit unions mentioned above, almost no matter where you live.
Do the best credit unions pay more interest than banks?
Credit unions have a reputation for paying more interest than banks, and it’s often well-deserved. According to the most recent data from the National Credit Union Administration, credit unions pay higher average rates on money markets and all surveyed certificate terms — by as much as half a percentage point.
But it’s not hard to find an online bank that pays higher rates on savings and checking than the average credit union.
If you’re comparing your credit union to big, brick-and-mortar banks, the credit union’s rates will probably come out on top. But if you’re comparing it to an online bank, the competition might be tougher.
» Get more information about annual percentage yields (APY)
Do credit unions build credit?
Individual credit scores come from a mixture of the following: the number of loans or credit card accounts you have, the number of on-time payments you’ve made, the percentage of your overall credit limit that you’re utilizing, the number of hard credit checks that have recently been made for you, the derogatory marks (like bankruptcies or foreclosures) made against you and the age of your credit history.
To this end, you can build your credit by taking out a mortgage, auto loan, student loan, personal loan or credit card with a credit union.
Do credit unions check your credit?
When it comes to getting a loan, a lender will typically pull a credit report on you, whether it’s a bank, a credit union, an online lender or another type of company. But for checking and savings accounts, policies vary. It’s more common for financial institutions to pull up your report through a service known as ChexSystems, which records information such as past bounced checks and overdrafts.
The only sure way to find out which reports your credit union pulls when deciding to approve you for membership or products is to ask.
» Learn more about how to clear your ChexSystems report
Do credit unions have ATMs?
Yes, credit unions usually have their own ATMs and they often belong to a network of ATMs that customers can use to withdraw and deposit cash. These networks usually provide nationwide access to fee-free services at tens of thousands of ATMs.
Are there any downsides to credit unions?
Membership requirements. Credit unions require membership, and sometimes the requirements are too exclusive for the average person, like military credit unions for example. There are cases, however, where a potential customer can do something as easy as make a small donation to a partner charity in order to gain membership to a credit union.
Limited branches. Many credit unions are limited to local, state or regional areas, which means in-person customer service can be hard to get, especially when traveling.
Might not be as up-to-date on technology. Some credit unions are behind the curve with their desktop and smartphone app designs, offering only bare-bone services. Make sure a credit union has the services you want (like mobile check deposit) before you open an account.
Services may be more limited. Smaller credit unions might not have the variety of services and products that larger banks do, so before you open an account, make sure your credit union has all of your preferred features.
Credit union terms you need to know
Credit unions and banks both have checking accounts, but they might call them different things. Here are a few credit union translations.
Share certificate: Credit unions typically use this term to refer to certificates of deposit.
» Find out more about certificates of deposit
Share draft account: Another term for a checking account. Some credit unions also call checks “share drafts.”
Dividend: Another word for interest paid by a credit union.
Best credit unions
|Credit Union||Key features|
|Alliant Credit Union||Best credit union for checking and savings.|
|Connexus Credit Union||Best credit union for checking.|
|First Tech Federal Credit Union||Best credit union for member experience.|
|Golden 1 Credit Union||Best credit union for teens and college students.|
|Consumers Credit Union||Best credit union for APY.|
|America First Credit Union||No monthly fee on regular checking account.|
|Boeing Employees Credit Union||High APY on balances below $500.|
|SchoolsFirst Credit Union||No monthly fees and youth-friendly accounts.|
|State Employees Credit Union||Competitive certificate rates.|
|Suncoast Credit Union||No monthly fees and decent APYs.|
To determine the best credit unions, we compared some of the nation’s largest credit unions with broad-based membership requirements. Financial institutions surveyed included State Employees’ Credit Union of North Carolina, Navy Federal Credit Union, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, Boeing Employees Credit Union, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, The Golden 1 Credit Union, Alliant Credit Union, Consumers Credit Union, First Tech Federal Credit Union, Security Service Federal Credit Union, Star One Credit Union, America First Credit Union, Suncoast Credit Union, Connexus Credit Union.