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Best Online Brokers for Futures Trading and Commodities 2019

Jan. 23, 2019
Brokers, Investing
At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Futures trading is a complicated business, even for experienced investors, and so is shopping for a brokerage to use for futures and commodities trading. It’s not just about commissions and customer service (although both are important factors to consider).

Trading in futures requires using a brokerage that offers investing tools, research and data that are different from those you’d seek in a company to house your IRA or roll over your 401(k). Here, you’re looking for the highest level of real-time data and quotes, an intuitive trading platform, an abundance of charting and screening tools, technical indicators and a wealth of research — plus the ability to leverage your account with reduced day-trading margin requirements. All of that, and you still want low costs and high-quality customer support.

These are the features and services we focused on in our rankings, concentrating on the world of online discount brokers that serve self-directed traders (not pros) seeking to quickly execute their own futures strategies.

One note before we dive into the top-ranked brokers for trading futures: Investing in futures is a strategy that earns a few caveats from NerdWallet. It comes with risk, as do all investing strategies. But futures trading is even riskier: You’re making a bet on the direction a market is going to go, an outcome that is difficult for even professional analysts to predict correctly. In other words: You can do a lot of research, feel confident in your prediction and still lose a lot of money very quickly.

If you’re new to futures trading and want to dabble in this strategy, you should understand how to trade futures, determine the risks involved, and have your financial bases covered. And if you decide you’d rather stick to stock trading, which — while still plenty risky — is vanilla compared to futures? Check out our list of the best brokers for stock trading instead.

The best online brokers for trading futures overall

TradeStation and Generic Trade do a good job of serving two different types of futures traders.

tradestation-logo-2019
  • See our TradeStation review.
  • Commission: Fixed: $1.50 per contract, per side or Tiered: $0.25-$1.20 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25%-50% on select contracts; none on most contracts.
  • Account minimum: $5,000.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24-hour phone support from Sunday 4:45 p.m. to Friday 6 p.m. Eastern.
  • See our Generic Trade review.
  • Commission: $0.59 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25%, and lower on select contracts.
  • Account minimum: $0.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone support.

The best futures broker should have the tools you need to research, test, customize and quickly execute your trades, round-the-clock customer service (access to a trading desk for after-hours support), reliable technology, and reasonable commissions and day-margin rates. That’s a tall order for any single broker to fill. Then again, the best futures broker for you may not need to check all the boxes as long as it excels in the areas of service that matter most to you.

In the sections below, we highlight the standout firms in various categories. It’s hard to crown one as the futures trading MVP of the bunch, but both Generic Trade and TradeStation come pretty close.

Each excels in different ways: TradeStation is a strong choice for seasoned tech-savvy futures traders. It started out as a platform solely for use by professional traders, as is clear by the breadth of markets covered, data offered, and the range of trading options, research and customizable tools at each client’s fingertips. Generic Trade — a futures- and options-only brokerage firm — stands out as a “nothing fancy” lower-cost entree into futures and options trading. To see if its bare-bones approach suits potential customers, the company offers a two-week demo account to fully test-drive the service before making a commitment. Generic Trade charges a flat $0.59 per-contract, per-side commission, has a $0 account minimum and no inactivity fees. Investors should be aware that there are additional platform and data fees, however.

Low-cost brokers for futures trading

High-volume traders will benefit from the tiered pricing at these brokers.

  • See our Lightspeed Trading review.
  • Commission: Tiered: 100,000+ contracts/month: $0.25 per contract, per side; over 50,000: $0.30; over 10,000: $0.35; over 2,000: $0.45; over 500: $0.50; less than 500: $0.60 + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25% on all products.
  • Account minimum: $10,000 ($25,000 for select trading platforms).
  • Futures products: 60+.
  • Trader support: 24-hour phone support when futures markets are open; tutorials and webinars.
  • See our Interactive Brokers review.
  • Commission: Tiered: 20,001+ contracts/month: $0.25 per contract, per side; 10,001-20,000: $0.45; 1,001-10,000: $0.65; 1,000 or less: $0.85 + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: Varies by contract; select contracts 100%, some 50%.
  • Account minimum: $0.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone, email and chat support.

 

Lightspeed Trading and Interactive Brokers stand out by offering tiered commission schedules based on monthly trade volume.

Lightspeed Trading’s commissions range from $0.25 for high-rollers with 100,000 monthly contracts to $0.60 for those dealing with less than 500 per month. One thing to be aware of: Lightspeed’s trading platforms impose additional monthly software fees, and accounts with less than $15,000 require a minimum monthly commission of $25.

The range at Interactive Brokers is $0.25 per contract for more than 20,000 contracts to $0.85 for 1,000 or less. Customers get free access to all the bells and whistles on the company’s desktop, web and mobile platforms. Some data comes at an additional cost.

Best trading platform, research and tools

These brokers offer the highest level of real-time data and quotes, charting and screening tools, technical indicators and a wealth of research.

  • See our Interactive Brokers review.
  • Commission: Tiered: 20,001+ contracts/month: $0.25 per contract, per side; 10,001-20,000: $0.45; 1,001-10,000: $0.65; 1,000 or less: $0.85 + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: Varies by contract; select contracts 100%, some 50%.
  • Account minimum: $0.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone, email and chat support.
tradestation-logo-2019
  • See our TradeStation review.
  • Commission: Fixed: $1.50 per contract, per side or Tiered: $0.25–$1.20 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25%-50% on select contracts; none on most contracts.
  • Account minimum: $5,000.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24-hour phone support from Sunday 4:45 p.m. to Friday 6 p.m. Eastern.

 

TradeStation and Interactive Brokers stand out in this category, which recognizes brokers offering advanced research, analytics, charting and screening tools, lots of technical indicators, a variety of streaming news and research as well as automated futures trades.

TradeStation’s desktop platform is aimed at tech-savvy retail and professional traders seeking a luxury-class experience. Its array of features includes one-click order entry, automated trading strategies, 24-hour global market analysis, decades of historical futures market data and the ability for investors to design their own trade-strategy customizations.

Interactive Brokers ably serves both retail and professional clients via its Trader Workstation and Web Trader platforms. The broker also offers a full-featured mobile app. On the research side, Interactive Brokers offers free reports and analysis from more than 33 providers and allows clients to subscribe for additional premium research reports.

Low day-trading margin requirements

Traders who want the most leverage will appreciate the low day-trade margins at these brokers.

  • See our Generic Trade review.
  • Commission: $0.59 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25%, and lower on select contracts.
  • Account minimum: $0.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone support.
tradestation-logo-2019
  • See our TradeStation review.
  • Commission: Fixed: $1.50 per contract, per side or Tiered: $0.25–$1.20 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25%-50% on select contracts; none on most contracts.
  • Account minimum: $5,000.
  • Futures products: 200+.
  • Trader support: 24-hour phone support from Sunday 4:45 p.m. to Friday 6 p.m. Eastern.

 

Futures contracts are highly leveraged: You can put down a small amount of money — generally 5% to 10% — on a large contract. That sounds like a good thing, and it is. But it also adds to the risk: Leverage can lead to bigger gains and bigger losses, and if your account dips below the maintenance-margin requirement, your broker may issue a margin call that requires you to add funds immediately. That means you need money available above and beyond any positions you hold.

The initial overnight margin requirement will be set by the exchange, and it doesn’t vary by broker. But futures contracts are often bought and sold within the same day, and some brokers offer a reduced margin requirement for day trades; generally a percentage of the initial margin requirement. If leverage is important to you, TradeStation and Generic Trade offer attractive day-trade margins and some of the lowest minimum-balance requirements available for a futures trading account. TradeStation offers 25% margin on many contracts, 50% on some and 0% on most of its contracts. Generic Trade features 25% day-trade margins and offers an Enhanced Intraday Margin System on request; this is available during limited trading hours for seasoned traders who maintain a $1,000 balance and may reduce the margin requirement even further. (Lightspeed, mentioned above, also offers 25% margin, albeit with a higher account minimum.)

The best futures brokers for trader support

These brokers offer phone support around the clock, in addition to online educational resources. 

Etrade
  • See our E-Trade review.
  • Commission: $1.50 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 50%.
  • Account minimum: $500.
  • Futures products: 50+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone support; email support and live chat.
  • See our TD Ameritrade review.
  • Commission: $2.25 per contract, per side + exchange and NFA fees.
  • Day-trade margin: 25% with $15,000 minimum.
  • Account minimum: No minimum, but traders must apply for a futures account.
  • Futures products: 60+.
  • Trader support: 24/7 phone support, live chat and email support, 360+ local branches, weekly webcasts, online courses and live interactive workshops.

We’re assuming you’re an experienced trader; if you’re not, click away, because futures trading is not where you get your start.

But even experienced traders need assistance: It can take time to adjust to a new trading platform, and many of the best ones are so advanced that even the most active traders could use a road map. You also may want to call and speak to a trading desk, or place broker-assisted trades occasionally — either to transact when you’re away from your computer or discuss a strategy with a like-minded person.

All of that means you may want a futures brokerage that has expert traders available during futures hours, which are different from standard trading hours: Look for 24-hour service at least from Sunday afternoon through Friday evening.

TD Ameritrade and E-Trade both excel in their trader support, with around-the-clock qualified brokers and lots of online education. The trade-off: You’ll pay more in commissions at both brokers (no tiered volume pricing here), but data and trading platforms are free.

Best brokers for trading futures and commodities

Broker
Best
for
Highlights
Commission
Account minimum
Start investing
Trader support
Educational resources; no platform fees
$1.50 per contract, per side
$500
TradeStation
Overall
+
Platform
+
Low day-trading margin
Volume discounts for frequent traders; pro-level platform
Fixed: $1.50 per contract, per side
Tiered: $0.25-$1.20 per contract, per side
$5,000
Generic Trade
Overall
+
Low day-trading margin
Flat commission; 25% intraday margin requirement
$0.59 per contract, per side
$0
Lightspeed
Low cost
Volume discounts for frequent traders
$0.25-$0.60 per contract, per side
$10,000
TD Ameritrade
Trader support
24/7 phone support; free platform, research and data
$2.25 per contract, per side
No minimum, but traders must apply for a futures account.
Interactive Brokers
Platform + Low cost
Volume discounts for frequent traders; pro-level platforms
$0.25 - $0.85 per contract, per side
$0

James Royal also contributed to this article. 

About the authors