What Does It Mean to Be Unbanked?

By Emily Greenhill Pierce · November 21, 2022 · 9 minute read

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What Does It Mean to Be Unbanked?

The term “unbanked” applies to an individual or household that doesn’t use a traditional banking account or credit union for financial services. An unbanked adult has no checking or savings account, relying instead on alternative financial services to pay for life’s expenses.

While the urge to store cash under a mattress may be strong for some, being unbanked can be both expensive and impractical. The benefits of using a financial institution may well outweigh those of the alternatives. However, many people encounter obstacles when trying to access a bank or credit union.

Here, you’ll learn:

•   What does “unbanked mean?

•   Why do people become unbanked?

•   What types of people are typically unbanked?

•   What are the pros and cons of being unbanked?

•   What are initiatives to help the unbanked?

What Does Unbanked Mean?

First, it’s important to give a definition of “unbanked.” If a person is unbanked, that means they are not served by a bank or similar financial institution. If you are over the age of 18 and have no checking or savings account and no credit or debit card, you are considered to be an unbanked adult.

You may wonder, how do unbanked adults conduct financial transactions? How do they go about cashing checks without a bank account and pay bills?

Many unbanked individuals deal in cash, whether by their preference or due to their circumstances. In order to conduct everyday financial transactions, they may use check cashing services, payday advances or loans, pawn shops, and/or make payments with cash or money orders.

Why Do People Become Unbanked?

People become unbanked for various reasons. These can include:

•   Lack of money to meet minimum balance requirements at financial institutions

•   Lack of the credentials needed to open bank accounts (say, a Social Security number)

•   An underlying distrust of financial institutions

•   A desire to avoid any fees involved in opening a checking or savings account, or the penalties for incurring a negative bank account balance

•   Inability to open an account due to having a previous account closed by a bank or credit union, or because they have bad credit

•   Living too far away from a bricks-and-mortar banking location or being unable to drive or take transportation to a financial institution

•   Lacking a computer, a Wi-Fi connection, and/or the tech skills to open an account online.

How Many People are Unbanked in the U.S.?

The United States has a considerable number of unbanked adults. A recent survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) found that over 6% of American households are unbanked, which accounts for about 14 million U.S. adults. According to a 2020-2021 Federal Reserve poll, 5% of adults in the United States are unbanked, having no traditional checking or savings accounts.

While these are large numbers, it’s worth noting that other nations have much larger percentages of unbanked people. The countries with the highest percentage include Morocco, Mexico, Vietnam, Egypt, and the Philippines, all with unbanked populations of 60% or more.

What Are the Types of People Who Are Unbanked?

The Federal Reserve of the United States estimates that most of the unbanked population fall into the following demographics:

•   Low-income: Families making below $25,000/year

•   Less-educated: A higher percentage of the unbanked never graduated from high school

•   Non-white: Blacks and Hispanics make up the majority of the unbanked

•   Women: More females are unbanked than males, possibly because some women don’t view themselves as in charge of household finances, with someone else in the family managing the bank account

•   Young people: They tend to be unbanked more often than older adults, possibly because they are college students, without jobs, and lack the financial means or the know-how to open an account. (It’s worth noting that some institutions offer college student bank accounts, which are specially designed to help students begin banking. These can be a useful option.)

What Is the Difference Between Unbanked and Underbanked?

You may also have heard the term underbanked as well as unbanked. An underbanked person typically does have a checking and savings account with an FDIC-insured institution, but regularly relies on alternative financial services. Despite having traditional accounts, they may still utilize check-cashing services, money orders, and short-term payday loans.

The Federal Reserve estimates that 13% of adults in the United States are underbanked. As with the unbanked population, this could be due to a lack of access to banking services, bad credit, a lack of financial or technical resources to open and maintain an account, a distrust of financial institutions, or having had a previous account closed.

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Initiatives to Help the Unbanked

Being unbanked can make it a challenge for a person to manage their money and build wealth. Fortunately, government programs and some financial entities are working to solve this issue. They are developing new ways to provide incentives and encourage unbanked individuals to choose traditional banking options. These include:

•   Eliminating banking fees. Getting rid of minimum balance requirements, monthly account fees, and other financial deterrents can encourage low-income individuals to open an account.

•   Developing banking apps. Banking on the phone or computer can help make it easier for people who don’t have a convenient banking branch or have physical challenges.

•   Second chance accounts. Some banks may offer a second chance checking account. When opening this type of account, the bank is willing to overlook bad credit, previously unpaid overdraft fees, or past forced account closures. The account will likely have some limitations, but it can be an on-ramp to a standard checking account.

•   Bringing back postal banking. Decades ago, an individual could perform basic banking transactions at their local post office—cashing checks, bill payment processing, sending money to other branches, and issuing modest loans. There is a movement to bring back these services, and some post offices are already offering to cash payroll checks and have the amount put on a debit card for a small fee.

•   Educational outreach. In 2021, the FDIC announced a “tech sprint” program, incentivizing participating banks to research and implement new ideas to reach the unbanked population in their communities. Among the offerings in development: workshops on how to balance your bank account and banking tutorial videos.

Why Is Being Unbanked a Problem?

Being unbanked can be a problem for a few reasons. For example:

•   It can be complicated and time-consuming to conduct banking transactions without having standard bank accounts.

•   Being unbanked can be expensive as well. A person may have to pay high fees for check cashing and other services from predatory businesses. Plus, an unbanked individual won’t earn any interest on your money.

•   It can be risky to carry cash versus safely keeping it with a bank or credit union.

•   Unbanked people may struggle to build wealth and have a solid credit and banking history.

Pros of Being Unbanked

Being unbanked could be seen as a positive for some people. The upsides include:

•   Not having to deal with the bureaucracy or paperwork of opening and maintaining accounts at banks

•   No checking or savings account fees

•   No overdraft or minimum balance fees

•   No record of one’s finances, if a person wants that kind of privacy.

•   Can be seen as more convenient to use cash vs. using debit cards, ATMs, and bank branches.

Cons of Being Unbanked

As mentioned above, being unbanked can be problematic. Those who don’t have checking and savings account may find that:

•   Using money orders and similar products to pay bills can be costly (fees) and time-consuming.

•   Carrying and/or keeping cash at home can be risky; what happens if you are robbed?

•   No convenient direct deposit for paychecks. The unbanked may have to utilize a check-cashing or payday loan service, which can charge very high fees or interest rates.

•   No opportunity to build up a banking history or possibly a credit history for future borrowing.

•   No access to safe and convenient money transfers.

•   No opportunity to securely save money for the future.

•   No interest earned on your money.

•   No access to other products and services that banks may offer when you are a customer, such as cashback programs or better mortgage rates.

Opening a Bank Account

There are many reasons people may shy away from opening a bank account. That said, being unbanked has a number of disadvantages. Your money may not be as secure, and it may be more costly and time-consuming to conduct transactions. What’s more, your funds won’t earn interest and grow.

Opening a bank account can be a very simple process. For most people, what you need is:

•   A valid government-issued photo ID

•   A Social Security number or taxpayer ID number

•   Proof of address.

Then, once you’ve selected a financial entity you trust, it can be quite quick to complete the sign-up process, whether you do so in person or if you’re someone who can open an account online. What’s more, there are banks that will allow you to open an account without an initial deposit and that don’t have minimum balance requirements either.

For those who have past banking problems, like having had accounts closed before, a second chance account can be a good move. While it may not be a full-fledged standard account (there are typically limitations, such as no overdraft protection), it can be a positive step towards becoming banked.

By the way, if you previously had an account that’s now shuttered, it’s unlikely that you can reopen your closed bank account. It’s usually best to start over with a new account, at your prior financial institution or elsewhere.

The Takeaway

By choice or circumstance, millions of Americans are unbanked. Typically, this means they don’t have a checking or savings account and don’t participate in personal banking. There can definitely be a downside to being unbanked, including factors like spending more time and money to conduct banking transactions and not earning any interest on one’s funds. For many people, becoming a client of a bank or credit union can be a positive step towards improving their money management and gaining wealth.

SoFi can be a great option if you are just starting out as a banking client. Our Checking and Savings, when opened with direct deposit, can be a secure place to deposit your paychecks, pay bills, transfer funds, and enjoy peace of mind. Plus, you’ll earn a competitive APY while paying no account fees. Opening a SoFi bank account can be a great way to help your money grow faster.

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What does it mean when a person is unbanked?

Being unbanked means an individual who doesn’t have access to or doesn’t use traditional financial services, such as checking and/or savings accounts or debit and credit cards.

What are the needs of the unbanked?

The unbanked need to hold onto cash securely, pay bills, and transfer funds. Without using the traditional banking system, they are likely to spend more time and pay higher fees and interest rates to conduct basic banking transactions.

How do unbanked people get paid?

Unbanked people can receive funds by cash, a money order, a money transfer service for cash pickup, or by receiving a prepaid debit card.

Photo credit: iStock/Deagreez

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