Send Your Child to School With the Best Student Checking Account

Whether your child will be living at home or at school, choosing the right checking account is an essential step in your child’s financial independence.

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Starting your child off right at college doesn’t just mean buying him or her the latest Macbook. As a parent, you will likely be stuck figuring out how to cover the tuition bill, while your son or daughter will soon be managing their own day-to-day finances. Whether your child will be living at home or at school, choosing the right checking account is an essential step in your child’s financial independence. We’ll give you a brief overview of what to look for in a child’s first checking account and our thoughts on the best picks out there.

[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2012.]

Accessibility and Affordability

The good news is that student checking accounts are actually quite attractive when compared to the traditional “adult” accounts. The reason for this is simple: When a student opens their first account, he or she could be a customer for life. This does not mean all accounts are created equal. Student accounts should be measured by accessibility and affordability: How accessible is my money and what are the fees for my account? When researching various banks, you’ll want to compare the following:

Accessibility:

• Your need for a local branch, both at home and close to campus

• Availability of in-network ATMs

• Online and mobile banking features

Affordability:

• Is there a monthly maintenance fee?

• What is the minimum balance required?

• Is there an overdraft or ATM withdrawal fee?

[See How to Find the Best Bank Account for You.]

Let’s start with the obvious. The major banks all offer student checking accounts, and all include comparable features such as a free debit card, bill payment, online, and mobile banking. The main advantage with a nationwide bank is just that: It has many locations across the country. For many parents, it is critical to find a bank with a presence both at home and on campus. However, increased online and mobile banking features make a physical branch a convenience, rather than a necessity, for tech-savvy students.

Bank of America: If your child can handle all his basic transactions online or at an ATM, the Bank of America eBanking account is a great option. The $8.95 monthly service charge is waived as long as customers choose paperless statements and do not transact any banking with a teller. There is no minimum balance for this account, but watch out for overdrafts, which cost $35 a pop.

Wells Fargo: Wells Fargo offers linked checking and savings accounts in its College Combo service. However, unlike the eBanking account, students are free to do their banking at one of Wells Fargo’s 6,600 branches as well as online. Monthly service charges are waived as long as you maintain a $500 balance in your account (or enroll in direct deposit). Otherwise, the monthly service fee for the checking account is only $3, and the two accounts can be opened with as little as $125.

Chase: If your student isn’t looking for a savings account, our top pick is the Chase College Checking Account. This account can be opened with as little as $25, and the $6 monthly service fee is dropped for up to five years as long as your child is enrolled in school. Simple, straightforward, and minimal fees, that’s the way we like it!

Alternatives to consider. You are not limited to the big nationwide banks when it comes to a student checking account. Credit unions offer another solution at the local level, and thanks to ATM networks and online banking, are just as accessible as the big banks. Credit unions are often just as competitive the major players–and often top the major banks’ offers.

[See Should You Join a Credit Union?]

If your student is having trouble opening a checking account due to a previous bounced check or defaulted credit card, you can help them get on the road to financial recovery with a second-chance checking account. Las Colinas Federal Credit Union offers such an account that transitions members into traditional checking. This credit union is open to anyone who makes a $5 donation to the Star Savers Education Foundation and offers surcharge-free ATMs across the country as part of the CO-OP ATM Network. The account has a $10 monthly fee, which is waived after six consecutive months of successful account management. Although this fee is unavoidable at the start, Las Colinas’ Second Chance Checking is a great opportunity for students who might not be able to find banking elsewhere.

Although not student-specific, one more option to consider is PerkStreet. This account is similar to the Bank of America eBanking account, in that all banking is done online or at ATMs. The $4 monthly inactivity fee is waived as long as you perform at least one transaction per month. While there is no minimum balance, students can earn 2 percent back on debit transactions if a $5,000 balance is maintained. Otherwise, they still earn 1 percent back on all purchases, and face no monthly fees.

Tuition is already fantastically expensive, and with today’s student-friendly banking options, your child should not have to worry about excessive fees or accessing their funds. There will be plenty of time to stress over that rising tuition bill–no need to stress over your student’s banking.

Joseph Audette is the VP of Education and Financial Literacy for NerdWallet, a personal finance website dedicated to bringing unbiased advice on student finances, debit products, and the top credit cards of 2012.