MONEY best banks

Best Banks in America

While high fees and low yields are still the norm, MONEY's annual survey uncovered a few financial institutions that are offering the opposite. You may just want to move your money to one of them.

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Danita Delimont—Getty Images/Gallo Images

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Money magazine.

Do you — gasp! — like your bank?

Surprising as it may seem, Americans are pretty happy with their financial institutions. According to a recent J.D. Power & Associates survey, customer satisfaction is back up as high as it was in 2007, before the financial crisis began. The nation’s largest banks in particular have seen a big jump in customer ratings over the past year, narrowing the lead their smaller peers have long maintained.

Your growing contentment may be owed, at least partly, to the fact that banks have been working to improve client relations: “Many of the big banks are now offering person-to-person customer service at the same level that the smaller banks have in the past,” says Jim Miller, J.D. Power’s senior director of banking.

The largest depository institutions, he explains, have been pushing employees to build relationships, even to simply greet people with a smile.

Or maybe you like the new technological conveniences offered. In response to Americans’ rapid adoption of web and mobile banking, banks of all sizes have been adding services in these areas — like having customer reps available by instant-messaging and allowing check deposit via smartphone.

In fact, “institutions are rolling out mobile-banking features as soon as they can,” says Mary Monahan, executive vice president of market research firm Javelin.

But what about all the fees banks tacked on and hiked up post-2008? You can’t have forgotten about those? Well, the J.D. Power data shows that consumers better understand what they’re being charged, and Miller takes satisfaction in this realm to mean that you’ve accepted the fees as standard. So maybe you’re not happy so much as … resigned?

You need not give up so easily. MONEY’s third annual quest to find the best banks in America — which involved reviewing checking, savings, and CD terms from 58 of the nation’s largest banks and credit unions — uncovered a few atypical institutions that deserve your loyalty. Plus, industry gurus say there are some interesting new developments coming down the pike for retail depositors.

  • Best Online Bank

    Winner: Ally Bank
    Branches: None

    Repeating last year’s performance, online banks walloped all sizes of brick-and-mortars; the 15 web-only institutions MONEY surveyed commonly offered free checking and high rates on savings. Plus, since the banks typically don’t have their own ATMs, you won’t be charged to use another bank’s machine — and you may even be reimbursed for that institution’s surcharges.

    Why Ally is a winner

    Ally offers stellar interest rates on fee-free checking and savings accounts. For checking, the bank has the best yields on balances below $50,000, with 0.4% on up to $15,000 and 0.75% above it. Plus you can use any ATM free, no fees or surcharges.

    Related: What does the bank of the future look like?

    On savings, Ally’s flat 0.84% APY handily beats the averages for online banks across all balances. You also have the option of a money-market account at the same rate. Another plus: Customer reps — real live people! — are available by phone and instant message 24/7.

    Caveat

    Savings yield is lower than some competitors’, including standalone savings co-winners Barclays and GE Capital, but they don’t also have checking.

    Standout accounts

    Ally Interest Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0, plus reimburses unlimited surcharges
    • Interest rate on $3,000: 0.4%

    Ally Online Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.84%

  • Best Big Bank

    Winner: TD Bank
    Branches: 1,300 in 15 states and D.C.

    Understanding that some people prefer a physical institution with a wide national presence, MONEY looked for a pick among the 13 banks with more than 1,000 branches. It was tough going since these big banks were still the worst of the worst in terms of account terms. Only 2% of checking accounts were free, and hurdles to waive fees were high compared with all banks: a median minimum balance of $5,000 or direct deposit of $500 a month. On savings, the average yield on $20,000 was a grim 0.07% — 14 bucks a year.

    Why TD Bank is a winner

    Good perks on high-balance accounts, decent lower-balance options, and an impressive commitment to customer service.

    The simplest checking account, TD Convenience Checking, makes it easy to skirt maintenance fees: Just keep a very low $100 daily minimum. Simple Savings requires only a $300 balance and earns a flat 0.05% — not jaw dropping, but it is the median rate for balances below $15,000 across all surveyed.

    For those who stash more — at least $2,500 — the perks on checking are among the best from large banks. You get ATM surcharge reimbursements and a bit of interest. With $10,000 in savings, you get better-than-average interest. In addition, TD has 24/7 customer service on the phone and extended branch hours that include evenings and weekends (70 hours total a week, vs. 47 on average among banks we surveyed).

    Caveat

    TD Relationship Savings requires linked checking, credit card, or mortgage.

    Standout accounts

    TD Premier Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $25 ($24 if paperless)
    • Minimum balance to avoid maintenance fee: $2,500 daily
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0, plus reimburses unlimited surcharges with a $2,500 balance
    • Interest on $3,000: 0.05%

    TD Relationship Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $15 ($14 if paperless)
    • Minimum balance to avoid maintenance fee: $10,000 daily
    • Interest rate on…

    $20,000: 0.3%,
    $40,000: 0.4%,
    $100,000: 0.5%

  • Best Customer Experience

    Winner: Citizens Bank
    Branches: 1,369 in 12 states

    This year, for the first time, MONEY took a look at each bank’s availability of customer service. While all had reps reachable by phone, only 28% offered live service around the clock. Four in 10 provided help through instant-messaging. The average branch is open 47 hours a week. Also, to get a sense of customer satisfaction, MONEY reviewed independent surveys on Americans’ experiences with their banks.

    Why it’s a winner

    Citizens is a customer-service triple threat — the only institution in our survey that had phone reps available 24/7, offered customer service via online instant-messaging (weekdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.), and had long branch hours (55 during the week, plus 10 on weekends, including Sundays).

    With more than 1,300 branches — plus 3,600 ATMs — Citizens offers a robust presence for those who don’t do all their banking online. Citizens also scored well with customers in a recent American Banker/Reputation Institute survey.

    Caveat

    Citizens’ accounts didn’t shine in our analysis, since the bank doesn’t offer free checking or pay well on savings. That said, the $10 fee on Green Checking can be waived with five transactions a month.

  • Best Mobile App

    Winner: Chase
    Branches: 5,657 in 23 states

    Of the 58 institutions MONEY surveyed, 54 had a mobile app. Almost all allowed users to check balances, transfer funds between their own accounts, and find the nearest ATM. Thirty-seven offered the ability to deposit checks, 26 let customers cancel a pending transaction, and 25 allowed for person-to-person transfers. Bigger banks led the way in both form and function.

    Why Chase is a winner

    Chase’s app was the full package. It had all the basic features MONEY was surveying for. Plus it offers remote deposit capture for checks and real-time alerts that tell you when your account has dipped below a limit you set.

    One neat feature for date night with the neighbors: QuickPay lets you transfer money to someone with simply a phone number or email (they’ll just need to go through a one-time setup). Best of all, the app is easy to use, with clearly labeled buttons and tabs. Chase also offers the option to bank by text-messaging (SMS) if you prefer.

    Caveat

    Chase’s account options were poor. The most basic checking comes with a $12 monthly fee and $2 nonbank ATM fee; the best rate on savings is 0.2% — and that’s for balances over $500,000.

  • Best Midsize Bank

    Winner: Capital One
    Branches: 929 in eight states and D.C.

    Midsize banks — those with fewer than 1,000 branches — tended to offer slightly better terms than bigger banks, like higher yields on savings (0.11% on $20,000 vs. 0.07%) and more no-fee checking (19% of accounts vs. 2%).

    The next four banks were the stars. Don’t live near one of them? Go with the big bank or online winners instead.

    Why Capital One is a winner

    No other physical bank surveyed offered account terms as good as these. The free High Yield Checking account comes with no out-of-network ATM fees and an APY higher than any other brick-and-mortar surveyed. The Smart Savings account pays the same, five times the average savings yield for non-online institutions surveyed.

    Caveats

    The interest rate on High Yield Checking is reset after a year, to a rate the bank says is “competitive.” The current yield on older accounts is 0.25% — still among the best from a brick-and-mortar.

    Standout accounts

    High Yield Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0, plus reimburses up to $15 in surcharges a month.
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.5%

    Smart Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $5
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $300
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.5%

    NOTE: Interest rates may vary from state to state. Capital One is in Conn., Del., La., Md., N.Y., N.J., Texas, and Va.

  • Best Midsize Bank, part 2

    Winner: Susquehanna
    Branches: 247 in four states

    Why it’s a winner

    Susquehanna has interest-earning checking with relatively simple hurdles to avoid fees, and above-average rates on savings. Plus, with the free Stellar Checking, you can juice your return with a rewards program that gives you, for example, 5¢ for every bill paid online, 5¢ per debit purchase, and $1 each month you transfer $100 to a bank savings account.

    Caveat

    Checking accounts have high foreign-transaction, insufficient-fund, and inactivity fees ($25, $40, and $10, respectively).

    Standout accounts

    Stellar Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $2, but up to four are waived and four surcharges a month are reimbursed with a $2,500 balance
    • Interest rate on all balances of $1,000 or more: 0.05%

    Premium Money Market

    • Maintenance fee: $12
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $1,000 daily
    • Interest rate on…

    $20,000: 0.1%
    $40,000: 0.2%
    $100,000: 0.4%

    NOTE: Interest rates may vary from state to state. Susquehanna is in Md., N.J., Pa., and W. Va.

  • Best Midsize Bank, part 3

    Winner: Zions
    Branches: 127 in two states

    Why it’s a winner

    On the low end, Basic Checking has no maintenance fee. But Gold Interest Checking offers more — four out-of-network ATM transactions a month and a little interest — with a relatively low balance requirement. Ultimate Savings has nearly double the average interest of the banks surveyed.

    Caveat

    Basic Checking has a $2 nonbank ATM fee.

    Standout accounts

    Gold Interest Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $12
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $2,000
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $2, but up to four waived a month
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.04%

    Ultimate Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Interest rate on all balances above $5,000: 0.16%

    NOTE: Interest rates may vary from state to state. Zions is in Idaho and Utah.

  • Best Midsize Bank, part 4

    Winner: Bank of the West
    Branches: 615 in 19 states

    Why it’s a winner

    Above-average yields and no out-of-network ATM fees for those who keep a high balance. Bank of the West does not have free checking, but you can waive the $8 on Easy Checking with a $250 monthly direct deposit.

    Caveat

    Must have linked Premier Checking to get yields below.

    Standout accounts

    Premier Relationship Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $30
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $15,000, or $25,000 across all accounts
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0, plus reimburses up to $15 in surcharges a month
    • Interest rate on $3,000: 0.01%

    Choice Money Market

    • Maintenance fee: $15
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $5,000 or $75 monthly direct deposit
    • Interest rates on…

    $20,000: 0.12%
    $40,000: 0.21%
    $100,000: 0.35%

    NOTE: Interest rates may vary from state to state. Bank of the West is in Ariz., Calif., Colo., Idaho, lowa, Kans., Minn., Mo., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.D., Okla., Ore., S.D., Utah, Wash., Wis., and Wyo.

  • Best Military Bank

    Winner: Navy Federal Credit Union
    Branches: 235 in 31 states

    America’s armed forces — and their relatives — have access to some very decent banking options. MONEY looked at six military-oriented financial institutions, most of them credit unions, and found that free checking was almost standard (all but one institution had it) and higher rates were customary (the median savings yield for deposits of $20,000 was 0.28%). The institution above was a runner-up for many categories surveyed.

    Why it’s a winner

    Navy Federal — which you can join if you are active-duty military, a Department of Defense or Coast Guard civilian employee or contractor, or are a household or family member of an NFCU member — gets a special nod because of the top-shelf terms it offers across a variety of accounts, both personal and business.

    EveryDay Checking has no monthly service fee and pays a 0.05% rate; Flagship Checking, which is fee-free if you keep a balance of $1,500, has an APY as high as 0.45% and reimburses up to $10 in ATM surcharges a month. (It’s also worth noting that Navy Federal participates in the CO-OP network, which allows you to use 55,000 ATMs for free, plus you also pay only $1 to use a Plus network machine.) Navy Federal’s Money Market Savings Account, meanwhile, offers 0.5% on $25,000.

    All of Navy Federal’s business accounts allow unlimited electronic deposits. The maintenance fee-free Business Checking can make sense for those with a side gig, while more established companies should look at the Premier Business Checking account, which has a higher free-transaction limit.

    Caveats

    Navy Federal’s most basic business account offers only 30 free cash transactions (though all electronic transactions are free).

    Standout Accounts

    NFCU Flagship Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $10
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $1,500 daily
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0, plus reimburses up to $10 in surcharges a month
    • Interest rate on $3,000: 0.35%

    Money Market Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Interest rate on… $20,000: 0.45%; $40,000: 0.5%; $100,000: 0.55%

    Business Checking Terms

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Free-transaction cap: 30 cash deposits (unlimited electronic)
    • Fee per additional transaction: $0.25
    • Cash deposit limit: None
    • Fee per additional $100 deposit: None
  • Best Checking Account

    Winner: Ally Bank
    Branches: None

    Splitting your deposits among multiple institutions can allow you to chase the best yields, since some of the banks that pay the most on savings and CDs do not also offer checking. No surprise that online banks took all the prizes here, though interest rates had fallen a hair since last year. Ally, which had paid 1.01% on one-year CDs, now pays 0.94%.

    Why it’s a winner

    Ally has a fee-free checking account that pays interest — with no linked savings account required. (That’s important if you’re splitting up your banking.) Best of all, the yields — 0.4% below $15,000 and 0.75% above it — outdo those on savings accounts at most banks.

    Caveat

    Capital One’s High Yield Checking across-the-board 0.5% rate beats Ally’s for balances less than $15,000. That 0.5% APY is locked in for only a year, however, after which it has been resetting to 0.25%. So Ally’s the better deal in the long run.

    Standout account

    Ally Interest Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0
    • Interest rate on $3,000: 0.4%

  • Best Teen & College Student Checking

    Winner: Citibank and U.S. Bank (Tie)
    Branches: 982 in 13 states and the District of Columbia for Citibank, 3,087 in 25 states for U.S. Bank

    MONEY looked at 36 checking accounts geared toward teenagers and/or college students. Two-thirds had no minimum balances or maintenance fees, though about half did not offer any discernible perks over a normal account.

    The winners combined free accounts with educational tools to teach budgeting and financial skills and offered at least a few free out-of-network ATM transactions a month (an important consideration for busy college students, who often forget to take out cash until the last minute).

    Which of the two is best for your child depends on which offers the closest ATMs, so as to reduce the ding of out-of-network fees or surcharges.

    Why they are winners

    Citibank’s account for college students has no minimums or fees, plus out-of-network ATM usage won’t rack up charges (at least not from Citibank). Also, if parents are co-signers, they can receive SMS or email alerts to keep them abreast of account activity. Another perk is Citi’s suite of online financial management tools. These are available for all customers — not just students — but can be particularly useful to those on a budget for the first time. Your child can track goals, set bill reminders and budget alerts, and create spending reports.

    U.S. Bank’s no-fee student checking is open to both high school and college students, and it features educational materials geared toward young people on money management topics like avoiding overdrafts and preventing identity theft.

    Although this account waives only four out-of-network ATM fees per cycle, the high number of ATM locations (the bank has 5,000 plus participates in the MoneyPass -surcharge-free ATM network, adding another 25,000 nationwide) means there’s a good likelihood teens can limit withdrawals to U.S. Bank ATMs. As with Citi’s account, co-signing parents can receive SMS or email alerts on account activity.

    Caveats

    Teenagers who are not yet in college can’t use Citibank’s account. U.S. Bank provides educational articles but no tools for budgeting or money management beyond basics like account alerts.

    Standout accounts

    Citibank Student Account

    • Minimum deposit: None
    • Maintenance fee: None
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: None

    U.S. Bank Student Account

    • Minimum deposit: $25
    • Maintenance fee: None
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: Four free transactions a month, then $2.50
  • Best Checking for Established Businesses

    Winner: Capital One
    Branches: 929 in eight states and D.C.

    Only 15% of the business accounts surveyed had no maintenance fee. Among the rest, charges ranged from $5 to $95, and averaged $16. In choosing an account, consider how many transactions you make a month (some offer as few as 25 for free, others are unlimited) and how much cash you deposit (accounts varied in the amount allowed without charge).

    Why Capital One is a winner

    For businesses that generate and spend a lot of money, Spark Business Unlimited provides a sweet suite of features: no cap on free transactions plus the fourth-highest cash deposit threshold.

    Caveat

    Minimum balance is high — and so is the fee — so the account makes sense only for businesses that already have a cash cushion.

    Standout account

    Spark Business Unlimited Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $35
    • Minimum balance to avoid fee: $25,000
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $2
    • Free transactions: unlimited
    • Cash deposit limit: $40,000; above it you may get moved to another account

  • Best Checking for Startups or Side Businesses

    Winner: PNC
    Branches: 2,780 in 19 states

    Why it’s a winner

    PNC’s Free Business Checking was one of only a few small-business accounts that had no minimum balance and charged no maintenance fee — musts for businesses that don’t have consistent or significant revenue. Plus, the account allows a generous number of free transactions per month (200, vs. the average of 142 among no-fee small-business accounts). Moreover, the $5,000 in free cash deposits is nearly $500 more than its rivals. Finally, there’s no monthly inactivity fee, so if business is slow, at least you won’t have to worry about the bank putting you one step closer to the poorhouse.

    Caveat

    Because of the costs for transactions over the limit and for cash deposits over $5,000, a bigger business will do better with the Capital One account on the prior slide.

    Standout account

    Free Business Checking

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Out-of-network ATM fee: $2.50
    • Free transactions: 200
    • Fee per additional transaction: 50¢
    • Cash deposit limit: $5,000
    • Fee per additional $100 deposit: 50¢

  • Best Savings Account

    Winner: Barclays and GE Capital Bank (tie)
    Branches: None for either

    Why they are winners

    GE’s Online Savings account and Barclays’ Online Savings account are neck and neck, both offering the highest rate among all the accounts surveyed — a flat 0.90%, with no fees or minimum balances.

    Caveats

    Interest rates may vary after the accounts are opened, though both have been relatively consistent. Neither bank offers checking accounts.

    Standout accounts

    GE Online Savings and Barclays Online Savings

    • Maintenance fee: $0
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.90%

  • Best for 12-Month CDs

    Winner: GE Capital Retail Bank and Ally Bank (tie)
    Branches: One for GE, none for Ally

    Why they are winners

    On one-year CDs with balances of $25,000 and up, GE pays more than any other bank surveyed (the average was 0.45%, the median 0.25%). For balances below $15,000, GE pays a high rate, but is outdone by Ally’s 12-month CD and tied with Ally’s no-penalty 11-month CD.

    Caveats

    GE’s penalty for early withdrawal is 90 days’ worth of interest; Ally’s is 60 days’ interest. Ally’s No Penalty CD does not deduct interest if you withdraw after the first six days.

    Standout accounts

    GE Capital 12-Month CD

    • Minimum deposit: $2,000
    • Interest rate on…

    $10,000: 0.85%
    $20,000: 0.95%
    $30,000: 1.05%

    Ally High Yield 12-Month CD

    • Minimum deposit: $1
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.94%

    Ally No Penalty 11-Month CD

    • Minimum deposit: $1
    • Interest rate on all balances: 0.85%

     

    MONEY looked at the 40 biggest retail banks by consumer deposits and number of branches, plus the 15 biggest online banks and three biggest credit unions by deposits, according to financial services consulting firm Novantas. Banks with more than 1,000 branches were in the running for Best Big Bank, while those with fewer were up for Midsize. All banks surveyed were candidates for best customer experience, business accounts, app, and standalone accounts.
    The top consideration for checking picks was maintenance fees and ease of waiving them, followed by other charges, restrictions, and perks, like interest. For savings and CDs, MONEY weighted rates first, followed by fees, minimums and other rules. For customer experience, we looked at the availability of service; for mobile, breadth of features and ease of use. As a tiebreaker, MONEY used data from independent customer service studies.

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