If you’re choosing between credit unions and banks, look at key differences like profit models, fees and branch access to figure out which aspects are most important to you.
Why choose a credit union?
- Typically has lower fees and higher interest rates on deposits
- Emphasis on customer service
Why choose a bank?
- More branches in the region or across the country
- Typically quicker to roll out new apps and other tech
The difference and why it matters
At bottom, banks are for-profit enterprises, while credit unions are nonprofits. Credit unions in principle exist to serve a community of people tied by a “bond of association,” which may be based on location, employer, faith, membership in another organization, or other factors.
Credit unions offer small dividends, discounted loan rates, reduced fees and other benefits to their members.
To serve its community, a credit union provides financial products on the most favorable terms it can afford to offer. This means that instead of offering accounts to customers and large dividends to a small group of owners, as banks do, credit unions offer small dividends — and discounted loan rates, reduced fees and other benefits — to a large group of members.
Choosing between a bank and a credit union involves some tradeoffs. Credit unions generally provide better customer service than banks do, though the ratings for smaller banks are nearly as good. Credit unions also offer higher interest rates on deposits, lower rates on loans and lower fees. Banks often adopt new technology and tools more quickly. Broad ATM and branch networks are the norm for big banks; credit unions keep up with large, cooperative networks of ATMs and shared branches.
|Rates and fees||Usually lower interest rates, higher fees||Usually higher interest rates, lower fees|
|Deposit insurance||FDIC insures up to $250,000 per account||NCUA insures up to $250,000 per account|
|Customer service||Personal interactions less of a priority||Local and personal engagement emphasized|
|Physical locations||National banks have many more branches; regional ones, not quite as many||Fewer branches than banks, but may share branches via a network|
|Technology||Often quicker to roll out new apps and other tech||Generally lag in new technology|
Making your choice
- Identify what matters to you most and make a prioritized list of what you’re looking for
- Find your top contenders; you may want to look at NerdWallet’s recommended credit unions and national banks
- Narrow the list based on your top criteria. Other aspects to consider: Do some on your list perform better in ways you might value in the future (such as having a great digital experience or extensive ATM access)? Do any negatives (higher fees, too few branches) change your mind about which to choose?
Devan Goldstein is a content strategist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @devangoldstein.
Updated Oct. 5, 2017.