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Credit unions stand out by offering free checking

NEW YORK » Free checking is alive and well — at least at the nation’s largest credit unions.

Of the top 50, there are 38 that still offer free checking accounts with no strings attached, according to a new survey by Bankrate, a site that lets consumers compare pricing on banking products.

Even among the credit unions where customers have to pay for checking, nearly all offer ways to avoid fees by meeting certain conditions. For example, consumers can maintain a minimum balance, set up direct deposit or sign up for electronic statements.

The survey also found that nearly half the credit unions do not require a minimum balance to open an account. Fees rose modestly from last year as well; bounced check fees are up by about a dollar at $26. ATM fees rose slightly to $2.10 from $2.

Unlike banks, credit unions are member-owned not-for-profits that cater to specific communities, such as a particular profession, company, university or church.

Still, the steadfast availability of free checking at more than three-quarters of the surveyed credit unions contrasts with the corresponding pullback by banks in the recent times. Last year, 65 percent of bank checking accounts were free with no strings attached, down from 76 percent the previous year, according to Bankrate.

Although free checking remains widely available at banks, customers increasingly have to meet certain conditions to have monthly fees waived.

The growing prevalence of fees and conditions comes as new regulations make checking accounts less profitable. For starters, overdraft fees can’t be charged unless an account holder chooses to allow such transactions to go through.

Additionally, federal regulators are debating a cap on the fees banks and credit unions collect from merchants whenever customers use their debit cards. The proposed regulation currently exempts smaller financial institutions with less than $10 billion in assets from the cap, meaning credit unions would be less affected than larger banks.

The turmoil in the banking world over the past few years has helped generate positive attention for credit unions, which tend to offer more competitive rates on savings accounts, CDs and other financial products because of their not-for-profit status. Before consumers start looking for a credit union to join, however, there are key differences that should be considered.

For example, credit unions tend to have a more limited menu of services, and might not offer small-business or wealth management services. The number of branches and ATM locations is likely much more limited as well.

It should also be noted that there are more than 8,000 credit unions in the country and that the fees and services vary greatly.


Candice Choi writes about consumer issues for the Associated Press. Write to her at cchoi@ap.org.

On the Net:

» For detailed results from the 2011 Credit Union Checking Study, see tinyurl.com/6l5g5ey.

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