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How to Choose a Student Checking Account

March 21, 2016 Banking, Checking Accounts
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Choosing a student checking account can be as difficult as choosing a major, especially if you’ve never had a bank account before. And even if you have, you’re likely to be so bombarded during orientation with promotions and sales pitches that it’s hard to know which option is best for you.

Banks and credit unions offer accounts geared toward students — often with simpler terms and freer access — so if you need a safe place to keep your money, there are some good options out there.

Here are some things to think about as you choose a student checking account. (A major? That’s up to you.)

Understand and avoid fees

A free student checking account, or one with low fees, provides more financial freedom for students who have to stretch their dollars.

Overdraft fees

Many banks automatically enroll you in an overdraft program when you sign up, which will cover you if you spend more than what’s in your checking account. But it’ll cost you in fees. That $3 cup of coffee during finals week could cost you 10 times as much if you’re not careful.

Generally, a bank responds to overdrafts by:

  • Covering your purchase, but charging an overdraft fee; the national average amount is $34 each time.
  • Drawing from a linked savings account to cover the purchase and charging an overdraft transfer fee — usually around $10.
  • Declining the purchase if you opted out of any sort of overdraft coverage or protection; all it costs you is a small bit of pride at the register.

Just because a checking account has your school’s name on it, that doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, it might be a very bad choice.

If you opt out of overdraft coverage, still watch for other fees associated with insufficient funds. Let’s say you bounce a check. You could be charged a non-sufficient funds fee and a returned item fee.

Banks make tens of billions of dollars every year off of overdraft fees. The best and smartest option is to buy stuff only when you know your funds can cover it.

ATM fees

You want your checking account at a bank with plenty of ATMs conveniently located on campus, because ATM withdrawals at your bank’s machines are usually free. It’s a plus if the bank also reimburses out-of-network ATM fees or has a large ATM network, so you’ll have free access when you go on spring break or head home for the holidays.

Maintenance fees

Some banks or credit unions waive monthly maintenance fees and minimum balance requirements if you enroll in electronic statements, set up a direct deposit, or make a certain amount of debit card purchases each month.

Fees for paper checks

Checks might seem old-fashioned, but your landlord may accept rent payments only that way. If so, a student checking account that offers free or discounted checks would be nice.

» MORE: How to choose a bank

Consider convenience

Technology can help you stay on top of your budget and simplify banking if you can’t easily drive to a branch or if you keep a full schedule — or if you’d rather bank from your couch.

Mobile and text banking

You do most everything else on your phone. Banking can be no different. Most banks and credit unions offer an app for your phone from which you can check your balances, pay bills, move money between accounts, and even deposit checks by taking and uploading a photo.

With some banks, you can send a text message to fetch nearby ATM locations, payment due dates, recent account activity, or balance information. And text alerts sent to your phone can help prevent overdraft charges.

SENDING money TO FRIENDS

When you’re out and a friend picks up the tab, you want to pay him or her back quickly. Most checking accounts can be linked to popular person-to-person payment apps. But some banks have their own P2P service, and it might come with fewer fees.

Customer service

How you prefer to communicate will determine the type of service you need. A feature allowing you to instantly message a representative on a bank or credit union’s website or mobile app could be useful.

If you like knowing you can speak to someone face to face, whether it’s an emergency or you’re just confused about something, then a branch location near campus or your apartment is more important.

Think twice about …

College-sponsored ACCOUNTS

Just because a checking account has your school’s name or logo on it, that doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, it might be a very bad choice.

In many cases, your school has a business relationship with the bank, which is providing services in exchange for access to potential student customers. And although it’s possible the deal you can get on campus is great, more likely it’s no better — or is indeed worse — than what you could get elsewhere.

Shop around, and always read the fine print before opening any account.

Ask questions

What do you need to open an account?

Many banks and credit unions offer accounts for students ages 17 to 24; students under 18 may need to open an account with a parent or legal guardian.

Requirements vary, but usually accounts can be opened at a branch location, online or by phone with a valid ID, address, Social Security number and proof of student status.

You can usually fund an account at a branch with cash, a check or a money order. Online accounts may be funded by checks or linked debit or credit cards.

What happens after graduation?

Each bank or credit union has its own policies. When you graduate, your student checking account might roll over to a standard checking account, with new fees and requirements. These should be weighed against checking accounts at other places.

Enjoy it while it lasts

Once you become a working adult, you’ll have plenty of financial responsibilities. Find the best student checking account for you and take advantage of the low fees while you can.

Melissa Lambarena is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mlambarena@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena.

This post was updated. It was originally published Aug. 23, 2012.


Image via iStock.

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