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What Is a Checking Account?

Kevin Payne
Cole Tretheway
By: Kevin Payne and Cole Tretheway

Our Banking Experts

Eric McWhinnie
Check IconFact Checked Eric McWhinnie
Many or all of the products here are from our partners that compensate us. It’s how we make money. But our editorial integrity ensures our experts’ opinions aren’t influenced by compensation. Terms may apply to offers listed on this page. APY = Annual Percentage Yield

Checking accounts are ideal for everyday banking needs. From small purchases to recurring bills, checking accounts offer ways to send, receive, and spend money easily.

Unsure of whether to open one? Read on. We'll take a detailed look at checking accounts, why you need one, and what to look for when shopping around.

What is a checking account?

A checking account is a safe place to manage everyday spending money. Many checking accounts offer all of the following features:

  • Deposits
  • Withdrawals
  • Direct deposits
  • Bill pay
  • Debit cards
  • Electronic funds transfers (EFTs)

Not every checking account looks the same or offers the same benefits. Checking accounts, which are offered by banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, often come with a debit card to use for purchases and ATM transactions.

Check-writing privileges are standard with most brick-and-mortar checking accounts. Checks are usually supplied by the bank (or a third party). You may get your first set of starter checks free of charge and then have to pay for replacement checks.

Many banks offer specialized checking accounts. Student checking accounts offer perks to college students. Checking accounts for teens give parents control over kids' spending. Checking accounts for seniors may offer senior-specific benefits.

  • Other account types:
  • Businesses
  • Commercial
  • Online-only

Joint checking accounts are available for couples too. Some banks even offer customers an opportunity to earn money through rewards, interest, or sign-up bonuses. To choose the best account for you, consider looking into ones catered to your demographic. If you're a student, look into student accounts, and so on. But do you even need a checking account?

Why you need a checking account

A checking account should be part of every individual's personal banking line-up. Checking accounts are all about convenience. You can quickly transfer money, pay bills, make purchases, get cash, receive wages, and track spending as needed. It's cheap and easy.

You can spend money using traditional payment methods, like paper checks and debit cards, or more convenient ways, like online and mobile payments. You can link your debit card to payment apps like Apple Pay and Google Wallet for contactless payments on retail purchases.

Savings accounts pay higher interest rates than checking accounts, but savings accounts may limit monthly transactions. This is why people often use them only for their savings goals, like building an emergency fund.

Pairing a checking account with a savings account gives you the best of both worlds. You can earn interest on your savings and transfer money to your checking account when you need it.

What to look for in a checking account

Needs vary, but generally speaking, there are some basic features that you should look for. Check these off when shopping for a checking account.

No fees or low-fee options: Some banks charge monthly maintenance fees along with other miscellaneous charges, like ATM fees. Look for a checking account that won't charge you for activities you carry out regularly so that you can keep more of your money in the bank.

Minimum opening deposit: When you open a checking account, be aware that some of them have minimum deposit requirements.

Convenience: Checking accounts should be convenient. Choose an account that meets you where you're at right now; it should let you transact how you want. If you want mobile banking, open a banking app checking account you can access wherever and whenever. If you want to send checks, open a checking account that offers the feature -- they exist.


Read checking account reviews

ATM access: If you want to use ATMs, find a bank that has its own ATM network, gives fee-free access to a larger partner network, or offers monthly refunds for out-of-network ATM use. Many offer one of these features.

Good customer service: Choose a checking account with good customer service. You can look up reviews on Trustpilot. If you prefer in-person service, consider opening a checking account with a brick-and-mortar bank. Online banks typically let you connect over phone, text, email, chat, or direct messages. Find an account that communicates your style.

Overdraft protection: If you tend to overextend your finances, it could be beneficial to find a checking account that offers overdraft protection. This might be in the form of linking another bank account, a credit card, or opening a new line of credit. Be aware that banks often charge for overdraft protection services. Another option is to bank with checking accounts that automatically reject attempts to overdraw, sparing you any fees.

Incentives: Some banks offer interest-bearing checking accounts. The interest earned is usually lower than you would find with high-yield savings accounts. Rewards checking accounts offer cash back or other rewards to account holders.

FDIC insurance: When you open a new bank account, you want to know that your money is safe. Look to see if a bank is FDIC insured, which means your money is protected up to $250,000 per depositor. Most bank accounts are FDIC insured.

What fees are associated with checking?

Depending on the account, your bank may charge you various checking account fees. You'll find some can be waived if you meet certain criteria -- like maintaining a minimum balance.

Common fees:

  • Monthly maintenance fees
  • ATM fees
  • Overdraft fees
  • Non-sufficient funds (NSF) fee

ATM fees might be charged by your bank or by other banks if you use an out-of-network ATM. These fees used to be a big source of income for banks, but now you can find plenty of good banks that have fee-free ATM networks.

Banks sometimes charge fees for additional services, like check orders, money orders, wire transfers, paper statements, and more. Take a few minutes to read through the fee schedule of your favorite account to avoid hidden fees.


What's a fee schedule?

A fee schedule is a list of fees banks charge. You can find them on banking websites or by requesting one from a banking representative. Banks are legally required to disclose fees, but you may have to dig a little to find hidden ones. Doing so could save you money.

How to choose a checking account

Make a checklist of all the checking account attributes that are important to you. Use your list to narrow down your choices until you find the account that best fits your needs. You'll notice that many of the best checking accounts will tick a lot of your boxes.

Once you've chosen an account you like, you can open one with your bank or credit union.

How to open a checking account

You can open a checking account online or in person, depending on your bank. It's easy. You can do so in as little as 10 minutes.

Regardless of how you open the account, you'll need personal information on hand to fill out an application. You may need to provide the following:

  • Name and date of birth
  • Mailing address
  • Social Security number
  • Government-issued photo ID
  • An initial deposit

Opening a checking account doesn't typically involve the level of scrutiny you find when applying for a credit card. Your bank may run your information through ChexSystems, which is the banking equivalent of a credit check. If you have an old account with unpaid fees or one that is still overdrawn, you may have trouble getting approved for a new checking account.

Once your account is approved, you can deposit, withdraw, and transfer money. You can set up direct deposits, request a debit card (if you weren't sent one automatically), and link financial accounts to make your life easier.

RELATED: See The Ascent's complete guide on how to open a checking account online

Still have questions?

Here are some other questions we've answered:


  • It makes money easy to manage. You can pay and receive money instantly. Your employer can direct deposit paychecks into your account within days (sometimes sooner). You can spend checking account money by swiping linked debit cards. There are many other perks.

  • A debit card is not a checking account -- it's a separate tool linked to a checking account. Banks give you debit cards so you can spend money stored in your checking account by swiping in stores. Debit cards make checking accounts great for everyday spending.

Our Banking Experts