Getting Set Up
Getting set up online is not difficult.
The Cyberwing of Your Traditional Bank
To set up an online bank account, you can call your bank and ask to speak to their PC experts. Typically you'll be asked for specific information to verify that you are the account holder, so be sure to remember your name. They'll also likely ask you things like your mother's maiden name, your address, and so forth.
If you're just going to be checking account balances or using their stand-alone Web software, then that's pretty much all the info your bank is going to need.
If, on the other hand, you don't yet have a personal finance software package, then you're going to have to choose one: either Quicken or Microsoft Money. These are both excellent programs that have become increasingly easy to use as the software companies have benefited from customer feedback. Quicken still has the lion's share of the market.
You'll need to set aside time to familiarize yourself with the program, but whichever you choose, the great likelihood is that, over the long term, you're going to save yourself a heck of a lot of time and hassle by using one of these programs. Even if you one day (for some reason) decide that you'd just like to use an Internet-only interface, you'll still have the benefit of a solid foundation in the same principles that underlie that software.
Your bank will also want to know which program you're using and whether you're using Windows or Macintosh.
You'll then need a PIN number (you'll either choose one or it will arrive in the mail) that will give you access to the bank's website. You may also need a customer number, which appears on your ATM card and is separate from the PIN number.
An Internet-Only Bank
Registration for new customers goes something like this (if we hum a few bars, feel free to join right in). First, you select the type of account you wish to open. Then, you complete an electronic application, which you print out. If you don't have a printer, the bank will print it for you. You then sign the form (yes, even in this age of electronic everything, you sometimes need a good old-fashioned signature to kick things off) and mail it in. Alternatively, you may be able to fill out all of the information online, but you'll have to a) send a check, and b) fill out a signature card so they have your signature on file.
When choosing an online bank, you will of course want to check out the bank's website. One of the first indications you'll have of their customer service is the ease with which you can figure out what to do next. Some will have tutorials that will walk you through the process. Go ahead and walk. If you can't figure it out from what's online, that's a pretty good bet the learning curve is too steep.
You might also want to click on the "contact us" button and see what you find. If it includes a phone number (and it should) then call the number. See how long you get put on hold. In short, do any of the common-sense things you might think of when getting involved with a company with which you expect to develop a business relationship.
And finally, is all this online hooey safe?