When it comes to banking, there is a tremendous variety of institutions to choose from. There are the big, convenient national banks, and some slightly smaller regional banks. Then you have the smaller, but more personal community banks, and finally the independent credit unions which are actually owned by the members and can offer very low rates on loans.
Whichever type of institution you choose, there are a few things you should look for. Some are more likely to be found at one of the big banks, and some are more common at smaller institutions.
A checking account that's free for you
Note the phrase "for you" here. The trend over the past several years has been toward higher account fees, especially at the big banks, but there is usually a way to avoid the fee. Just make sure you'll qualify each and every month.
Perhaps the most common reason, many banks will waive their monthly fee if you maintain a balance over a certain level. Direct deposit is also a popular fee waiver, though the amount varies from bank to bank. And many banks have their own conditions, based on services they are trying to promote, like opening a credit card account with the bank.
For example, Wells Fargo's everyday checking account comes with a $10 monthly fee, but there are several ways to waive the fee. If your daily balance stays over $1,500, you have more than $500 in direct deposits, or use your debit card to make more than 10 purchases in a month; the account is monthly fee-free.
Check around for an account that will be free for your circumstances, while meeting all of your banking needs. Bank of America's core checking account only has a direct deposit requirement of $250, for example. And, college students are eligible for a fee waiver at most banks.
Online and mobile services
This is one area where the big banks have an edge. With more money to invest in technology, you're much more likely to find the best mobile apps and online banking services with one of the big banks than with your local credit union.
If features like mobile check deposits and online bill pay are important to you, make sure your bank offers these, but more importantly make sure they are easy to use and reliable. It is an extremely frustrating experience to take a picture of your check only to find that your bank's mobile deposit app only works 20% of the time. You can find reviews on several websites, and mybanktracker.com is a good place to start.
Convenient access to your money
It may seem like the big banks would have a clear edge here, but don't be so sure.
As far as being able to find an ATM, you really can't beat the convenience of one of the big banks. However, smaller banks know this, and many will actually refund a certain amount of non-bank ATM fees. So, instead of having to go out of the way to the nearest Wells Fargo ATM, every single ATM you see becomes part of your "network".
Another thing to consider is hours of operations. If you don't leave work until 6PM or later, "bankers' hours" might not work for you. Many local banks and even some of the national companies offer extended hours.
For example, TD Bank offers branch hours seven days a week, including some holidays, and stays open late in most locations. You can even use drive-through services until midnight in many places.
Choose to be comfortable
While some banks sound very enticing on paper, the most important thing is that you feel your needs are being met. Especially in the case of local banks and credit unions, there are some intangible benefits that could be worth more to you than fee waivers and mobile apps.
Many make an effort to get to know their customers, greet them by name, and make banking a much more personalized experience. This can also work in your favor when it comes time to apply for a loan, as you'll be more than just numbers on a paper.
The bottom line is you need to choose a bank that works for your situation, whether that means saving money, convenient hours, or great service. We are all different, and that is exactly why banks are different as well.