Normal stock market trading hours for the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq are from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET. However, depending on your brokerage, you may still be able to buy and sell stocks after the market closes in a process known as after-hours trading.

The exterior of an old building with three American flags and the Wall St. street sign in the foreground.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Image source: Getty Images.

What is after-hours trading?

After-hours trading takes place after the trading day for a stock exchange, and it allows you to buy or sell stocks outside of normal trading hours. Typical after-hours trading hours in the U.S. are between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET.

Trading outside of normal hours used to be limited to institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals, but technology has made it possible for the average investor to place orders for after-hour execution.

After-hours trading allows investors to react to company earnings releases and other news that typically takes place before or after normal trading hours. Prices can swing wildly on an earnings release or news that a CEO is stepping down. If you want to buy or sell as soon as possible based on the news, you'll need to place an order for after-hours trading.

How after-hours trading works

After-hours trading is a bit different from regular trading on the exchanges throughout the day. Instead of placing your order on the exchange, your order goes to an electronic communication network, or ECN. That presents some limitations and additional risks compared to regular trading on the Nasdaq or the New York Stock Exchange.

Most notably, investors can only use limit orders to buy or sell shares. The ECN matches orders based on limit prices. Additionally, after-hours orders are only good for that session. You'll have to put in another order when trading opens the next day if you're still interested in the stock.

To execute an after-hours trade, you log in to your brokerage account and select the stock you want to buy. You then place a limit order similar to how you'd place a limit order during a normal trading session. Your broker may charge extra fees for after-hours trading, but many don't, so be sure to check.

Your broker then sends your order to the ECN it uses for after-hours trading. The ECN attempts to match your order to a corresponding buy or sell order on the network. So if you put in an order to buy 100 shares of XYZ for $50 each, the ECN will look for an order to sell at least 100 shares for $50. If it can match your order, the trade is executed, and settlement times are the same as during regular sessions.

Risks of after-hours trading

After-hours trading comes with several risks not associated with trading on an exchange during regular trading sessions.

  • Pricing risk: There are multiple ECNs used by different financial institutions to execute after-hours trades, but you'll only get access to one of them through your broker. During a normal trading session, you'll get the best available price from multiple venues. But after-hours sessions limit your price discovery to just one network.
  • Liquidity risk: Not only are you limited to the ECN your broker uses, there are fewer market participants in after-hours sessions. As a result, there's limited liquidity for most stocks. That creates wider bid-ask spreads and increased risk that your order won't get executed.
  • Volatility: When everyone's trying to react to a news item all at once, a stock will trade wildly in the after-hours session as the market works to digest the news and discover a new price for the security. That can make it difficult for an average investor to judge whether or not their limit order will have a good chance of execution. Moreover, you may be able to get a better price in the regular trading session the next day. 

The bottom line is that after-hours trading is possible and can help you react to earnings reports and other news that takes place outside of normal market hours. However, each brokerage is a little different, so be sure to do your homework before getting started.