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How to Open a Brokerage Account: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Choosing the right brokerage account can seem like a difficult process, but it doesn't have to be. 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.

In this guide, we'll cover each step of opening a brokerage account.

How to open a brokerage account

1. Determine the type of brokerage account you need

An adult checks their online brokerage account using their tablet and smartphone.

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. For this reason, a traditional, or standard brokerage account is often referred to as a taxable brokerage account.

If you choose a traditional brokerage account, your broker will likely ask if you want a cash account or margin account. If you choose to apply for margin privileges, this 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 individual retirement account (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 Roth IRA withdrawals will be tax-free. Plus, you can withdraw Roth IRA 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.

It's also worth noting that many people choose to open multiple brokerage accounts -- such as a taxable account and an IRA, in order to keep their money in separate baskets.

2. Compare the costs and incentives

These days, virtually all of the major discount brokers offer commission-free trading. They may also offer you a discount to reward you for certain actions, such as transferring a large investment account from another broker.

That said, it's important to review each online brokerage firm's full pricing schedule, particularly if you plan on trading anything other than stocks (options, mutual funds, ETFs, bonds, etc.), as these often come with their own costs. For example, many brokers charge a commission in the range of $0.50 to $0.75 per options contract, so even if the broker doesn't charge a base commission, options trading won't exactly be free.

Finally, many brokers offer incentives in order to attract business, and you don't need to be a millionaire to take advantage of them. 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.
  • Fractional shares: This can be especially important to new investors, as you don't necessarily need to be able to afford an entire share to start investing in your favorite stocks.
  • 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 the conveniences they offer. For each brokerage, you should weigh the pros and cons as they pertain to your investment objectives and determine which broker is right for you.

5. Fill out the new account application

You can apply to open a new account online, and this is generally a quick and painless process with online brokers. 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 online broker 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 in stocks. 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.

LEARN MORE: How to research stocks

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