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How to Trade Stocks Online

By Rich Smith - Jan 6, 2017 at 12:22PM

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Here's a step-by-step guide for beginners on how to start investing in the stock market.

So you've opened your first online discount brokerage account, and put a little money in it. You're all ready to trade stocks online. But how do you start?

With just the push of a few buttons, you can learn to invest and start trading stocks online. Image source: Getty Images.

Learning where to start investing in the market can be intimidating for beginners. But here's the good news: If you've already navigated the forms needed to set up a brokerage account and transferred money into it, that was the hard part. Learning how to use that account to buy and sell shares of stock is actually pretty easy, as we'll now show you with this easy three-step guide to start trading.

Trading stocks online really boils down to just three steps: Log on, find your ticker, and fill in the blanks.

Step 1: Log on

Regardless of which broker you're using, the first step to trading stocks is to log on to your discount broker's website. Enter the user name and password that you picked when you set up the account. Click "log in," and you should be taken to your broker's main page.

Step 2: Find your ticker

Presumably, you have a stock in mind that you want to buy, right? Let's say you want to invest in shares of Bank of America (BAC 0.66%) stock. Statistically, that seems a likely choice. After all, Bank of America was the most active stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange on the last trading day of 2016 -- and the first trading day of 2017, too!

Before you can buy and sell Bank of America stock, though, you need to know how your broker refers to it: by its "stock ticker." A ticker is a unique series of one-to-five letters, each identifying one of the 7,000-odd stocks trading in the U.S. today.

There are many ways to learn a company's stock ticker. Here's an easy one: Click over to Yahoo! Finance (Here's a link.) Find the search box at the top center, and start typing the words "Bank of America" into the box. About halfway through your typing, the search engine is going to suggest you might be looking for "BAC, Bank of America Corporation." And bingo! That's the one you want.

That three-letter stock ticker is how the market refers to shares of Bank of America stock.

Step 3: Fill in the blanks

Now that you know what you want to buy, you need to find the right "button" on your brokerage account to buy it. This could be anywhere, depending on which broker you use, but it's probably labeled some variation of "trade" or "trading." Click it, and you should be presented with a box containing several blank fields, into which you'll type the following information:

  • What you want to do ("buy")
  • The number of shares you want to buy (let's say "100")
  • The name of the stock you want to buy (BAC)
  • The price you're willing to pay per share (right now, Bank of America shares cost about $23)
  • The order type
  • And the time frame for the order

Answering "100," "BAC," and "23.00" will create an order to buy 100 shares of Bank of America stock, at a cost of $2,300 -- plus a small commission of perhaps $10. But let's flesh out those last two points a bit further.

Order type

The two most common order types are "market" and "limit," but your broker may offer other options -- "stop loss" or "stop limit," for example. Rather than confuse you with the specifics of what these all mean, here's my advice: Always choose "limit."

With a limit order, you can be certain you'll never pay more than the price you enter -- nor sell for less. Simple as that. By contrast, a market order will execute at whatever price the stock happens to trade at the moment you enter it, and that runs the risk of paying much more than you expected.

Time frame

Your broker may offer you even more options for the time frame your order will remain in force. It might "fill or kill" immediately, expire at the end of the day, be good only during ordinary market trading hours -- or only outside of those hours, or remain "good till cancelled," for example.

Your safest choice? Set your order to expire at the end of the day, and you'll never forget you entered an order for something. You'll never "accidentally" buy a stock days or weeks after you placed the order -- especially right after your stock reports bad news and plunges in price.

Decision time

At this point, you've entered all the information your broker requires of you. Click "enter" (or "preview," or a reasonable facsimile), and your broker will present you with a summary of your order, including its total cost. At this point, you can confirm that you want to place the order -- or not. Your broker will attempt to buy the stock at the price you set, within the time frame you set.

Once it succeeds -- if it succeeds -- you'll own your first stock, and have successfully made your first stock trade online.

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