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Choosing the right brokerage account can seem like a difficult process, but it doesn't have to be. Starting by deciding what type of account you want, and then comparing several online stock brokers, you should be able to choose the one that best meets your needs.

Broker

Online trades

Broker-assisted trades

Cash account minimum (margin)

Current offer

TD Ameritrade

$9.99

$44.99

$0 ($2,000)

Up to $600 and 60 days of commission-free trading with deposit of $250,000 or more.

E*Trade

$9.99

$34.99

$500 ($2,000)

Up to $2,500 and 60 days of free trading with $1 million or more.

Scottrade

$7.00

$32.00

$2,500 ($2,000)

Up to $2,000 and 50 free trades with $1 million deposited or more.

Fidelity

$7.95

$32.95

$2,500 ($2,500)

500 commission-free trades over two years with $100,000 deposit.

Capital One Investing

$6.95

$19.95

$0 ($2,000)

Up to $600 with $200,000 opening deposit.

Interactive Brokers

$0.005/share

$0.01/share

$10,000 ($10,000)

 

Merrill Edge

$6.95

$29.95

$0 ($2,000)

Up to $600 with $200,000 opening deposit plus 90 days of commission-free trades

Note: Offers are each broker's maximum as of July 26, 2016. For the most current offers, check the Fool's broker page. Smaller bonuses may be available with smaller opening deposits. Commissions are brokers' standard rates, and do not reflect possible discounts, such as for high volume.

Here's your step-by-step process:

  1. Determine the type of brokerage account you need.
  2. Compare the costs and incentives.
  3. Consider the services offered.
  4. Decide on a brokerage firm.
  5. Fill out the new account application.
  6. Fund the account.
  7. Start researching investments.

1. Determine the type of brokerage account you need

What are your investment objectives? If you simply want to invest for a rainy day or for a certain relatively near-term goal, and don't necessarily want your money tied up until you retire, a traditional brokerage account is the way to go. These accounts don't have tax advantages – you may have to pay tax on investment profits and dividends – but you are free to withdraw your money whenever you'd like.

If you choose a cash account, your broker will likely ask if you want margin privileges, which basically means that you can borrow money to buy stocks, with the stocks in your portfolio serving as collateral. You'll pay interest on the borrowed money, and there are some inherent risks involved with investing on margin that you should be aware of.

On the other hand, if your goal is to save money for retirement, an IRA is the best bet. Traditional IRAs can get you tax deductions when you contribute to them, but you won't be able to use your money until you're 59-1/2. Contributions to Roth IRAs don't give you  a tax benefit when you make them, but qualified withdrawals will be tax-free. Plus, you can withdraw Roth contributions (but not your investment profits) whenever you want. Finally, if you're self employed, there are some special options for you, such as a SIMPLE IRA, SEP-IRA, or individual 401(k). You can read through a more thorough guide to help you pick the best IRA as well.

2. Compare the costs and incentives

Standard commissions for some of the major brokerage firms are listed in the table above. It's important to mention that some brokers offer discounts for various reasons. For example, E*Trade cuts commissions to as low as $6.99 for high-volume traders, and brokerages linked to banks sometimes offer discounts for maintaining a checking account or other banking relationship.

It's also important to review the brokers' full pricing schedule, particularly if you plan on trading anything other than stocks (options, funds, bonds, etc.), as these often come with their own costs. For example, many brokers charge $0.75 per options contract on top of their standard commission rate.

Finally, many brokers offer incentives in order to attract business, and you don't need to be a millionaire to take advantage of them. Sure, E*Trade offers a $2,500 cash bonus for accounts with an opening deposit of $1 million or more, but a $25,000 deposit will still get you $200, plus up to 500 free trades in the first 60 days. I'm not saying that a good incentive all by itself should sway your decision, but it's definitely a piece of the puzzle worth taking into consideration.

3. Consider the services and conveniences offered

Pricing isn't everything -- especially for new investors. Of course, all other things being equal, it's best to find the lowest price, but here are a few other things you need to consider when picking a broker:

  • Access to research – Many brokers provide their own stock ratings, as well as access to third-party research from firms such as Standard & Poor's and Morningstar.
  • Foreign trading – Some brokers offer the ability to convert money in your account into foreign currencies in order to trade on international stock exchanges. If this is important to you, make sure the broker you choose allows this.
  • Trading platforms – The various brokerages offer a wide variety of trading software and mobile apps, and many actually allow people to test out their platforms before opening an account. For example, Fidelity offers a demo version of its Active Trader Pro platform for prospective clients to test-drive. Also, read some reviews of brokers' mobile apps if being able to access your account on the go is important to you.
  • Convenience – Some brokerages have large networks of local branch offices you can visit for face-to-face investment guidance, while others do not. For example, Merrill Edge customers can get one-on-one advice and guidance at more than 2,000 Bank of America locations. Also, brokerages operated by banks offer customers the ability to connect their brokerage and checking accounts, transferring money between the accounts in real-time – and may offer some sort of "relationship discount" for doing so. For this reason, it's also a good idea to check if your bank has an online brokerage, even if it's not mentioned here.
  • Other features – This isn't an exhaustive list, so before you choose a broker, be sure to spend some time on its website exploring what it offers.

4. Decide on a brokerage firm

You've gathered your information about various firms' costs, fees and they conveniences they offer. For each brokerage, you should weigh the pros and cons as they pertain to your investment objectives, and determine the best overall option for you.

5. Fill out the new account application

You can apply to open a new account online. You'll need some identifying information, such as your Social Security number and driver's license. You may need to sign additional forms if you're requesting margin privileges or the ability to trade options, and the broker will need to collect information about your net worth, employment status, investable assets, and investment goals.

6. Fund the account

Your new brokerage will probably give you a few options to move money into your account, including:

  • Electronic funds transfer (EFT) – Transferring funds from a linked checking or savings account is a convenient way to fund the account. In most cases, the funds will post to the account on the following business day.
  • Wire transfer – The quickest way to fund your account. Since a wire transfer is a direct bank-to-bank transfer of money, it often takes place within minutes.
  • Checks – Acceptable forms of check deposits and fund availability vary between brokers.
  • Asset transfer – If you're rolling over a 401(k) or transferring existing investments from another broker, that's an acceptable funding method.
  • Stock certificates – Yes, these still exist. If you have a paper stock certificate, it can be deposited via mail into an online brokerage account.

As a final note, when funding your new account, be sure to keep your broker's minimums in mind. Many have different minimums for taxable accounts and retirement accounts, and they also may have different minimum requirements for margin accounts.

7. Start researching investments

Congratulations on taking the initiative and opening a brokerage account -- your future self will thank you for taking this important step on the road toward financial security.

Now comes the fun part: investing. Before diving in, it's a good idea to spend some time learning the basics of how to responsibly choose stocks, bonds, and/or funds, as well as how to create a well-diversified portfolio. Check out some of The Motley Fool's other content and services, particularly our Knowledge Center, which is an excellent place to start your investment education.

Matthew Frankel wrote this article and owns shares of Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends TD Ameritrade. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America and Interactive Brokers. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.