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Guide to Brokerage Accounts

By Samuel Becker · July 07, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Guide to Brokerage Accounts

What Is a Brokerage Account?

A brokerage account is a type of investment account typically opened with a brokerage firm. Brokerage accounts allow owners to invest their money, and buy, sell, or trade stocks, bonds, and other types of financial securities. There are different types of brokerage accounts, and they’re offered by a range of financial firms.

For prospective investors, knowing what a brokerage account is and how they work is important. For seasoned investors, learning even more about them can help deepen their knowledge, too.

How Does a Brokerage Account Work?

As noted, brokerage accounts allow owners to invest in stocks and other financial securities. They’re offered by different types of financial firms, too. In fact, there are many brokerage firms that investors can choose from. While all offer brokerage accounts, they usually come with different fees and services:

•   A full-service brokerage firm usually provides a variety of financial services, including allowing you to trade securities. Full-service firms will sometimes provide financial advice and automated investing to customers.

•   A discount brokerage firm doesn’t usually provide any additional financial consulting or planning services. Thanks to their pared down services, a discount brokerage firm often offers lower fees than a full-service firm.

•   Online brokerage firms provide brokerage accounts via the internet, although some also have brick and mortar locations. Online brokers often offer the lowest fees and give investors freedom to trade online with ease. They also tend to make information and research available to consumers.

Opening a brokerage account generally starts out as a similar experience to opening any other type of cash account. Consumers can simply start an account either online or in person.

💡 Quick Tip: Look for an online brokerage with low trading commissions as well as no account minimum. Higher fees can cut into investment returns over time.

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Some brokerage firms require investors to use cash to open their accounts and to have enough funding in their account to cover the cost of stocks or bonds, as well as any commission fees. There are some however, that don’t require any initial deposit.

In order to make their first investment however, consumers usually need to deposit money. They can do this by moving money from another account, such as from their checking or savings accounts. From then on, the brokerage firm can help individuals execute buy or sell orders on stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), bonds, or mutual funds.

Unlike a retirement account, there are generally no restrictions on how much money a consumer can put in. There are also typically no restrictions on when individuals can withdraw their cash from brokerage accounts. Investors do need to claim any profits — or “capital gains” — as taxable income.

Here’s a closer look at how brokerage firms differ from other types of money accounts.

Brokerage Accounts vs Retirement Accounts

The primary difference between a retirement account and a brokerage account is if there’s any tax advantage at play.

For stocks, bonds, exchange traded funds, mutual funds, options etc, brokerage account holders are liable to pay capital gains taxes on most of their profits from trading these securities. That’s why brokerage accounts are also known in the industry as “taxable accounts.”

Retirement accounts are set up with money that has some kind of tax advantage and can be used to buy securities. For example, 401(k)s are set up by an employer and funded with money that comes from an employee’s paycheck before taxes and can be matched by an employer.

These accounts, which also include traditional and Roth IRAs, have specific rules about the amount that can be contributed and when money can be withdrawn. Meanwhile, with brokerage accounts, there are few limits on funding or withdrawals.

Brokerage Accounts vs Checking Accounts

Brokerage accounts and checking accounts have one important thing in common: they can both have cash in them. Sometimes brokerage accounts will “sweep” your cash into a money market fund managed by that same brokerage, allowing you to earn interest. Meanwhile, in a traditional bank checking account, you don’t earn any interest but you do have easy access to your cash.

An important distinction between brokerage and checking accounts is the level of protection you get from them. A checking account offered by a bank will typically have insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which protects the first $250,000 deposited at a bank that has a charter from the FDIC. This means that $250,000 deposited can be withdrawn even if the bank itself goes out of business.

Brokerage accounts, on the other hand, typically have insurance provided by the Securities Investors Protection Corporation (SPIC), which unlike the FDIC, is not a government agency. What SIPC insurance does is protect the custody of stocks, bonds, and other securities as well as cash in a brokerage account, not their value.

This means that if a brokerage fails, the SIPC insurance will protect cash deposited in a brokerage account up to $250,000 and securities and cash combined up to $500,000.

This simply means you get your cash deposited in the account and the securities back, not that you have insurance from the value of those securities going down.

Brokerage Accounts vs Checking and Savings Accounts

Cash management accounts are something of a hybrid between checking and brokerage accounts.

They are not offered by banks but can, on a case by case basis, partner with banks and other financial service providers to give clients access to ATMs and even FDIC insurance.

Pros and Cons of Opening a Brokerage Account

Brokerage accounts can be powerful financial tools, but they can have their advantages and drawbacks, too.

Pros of Brokerage Accounts

The most obvious advantage of a brokerage account is that it allows its owner to trade financial securities and invest their money. They tend to have a high degree of liquidity, too, meaning that it’s relatively easy to buy and sell securities. There are also no general requirements for contributions or withdrawals.

Cons of Brokerage Accounts

Cons of brokerage accounts include the fact that they can’t be used for traditional transactions, like, say, a checking account. While your account may have a cash balance, you can’t use it to purchase a soda from the corner store.

Further, getting your money in and out of a brokerage account may take some time. There are often fraud checks and other elements at play when transacting a cash balance in or out of an account, and it may take a couple of days. There are also no tax advantages — something that may be present for certain retirement accounts.

Pros and Cons of Brokerage Accounts

Pros

Cons

Ability to trade securities Can’t be used for transactions
High liquidity Slow transaction times
No limits on contributions and withdrawals No tax advantages

A couple of other things that may be worth considering, especially if you’re interested in investing for beginners.

Before you consider opening a brokerage account, make sure you have sufficient money set aside for an emergency fund. Common financial advice recommends setting aside three to 12 times your streamlined monthly expenses. It’s also good practice to contribute to your 401(k) or IRA before opening a brokerage account.

If you have an emergency fund stashed away and are making regular contributions to a retirement account, think about what types of assets you plan on investing in. A brokerage account would only be required if you plan to buy stocks, bonds, or other securities. If you only plan on investing in mutual funds, you might not need a brokerage account.

4 Types of Brokerage Accounts

There are also a few distinct types of brokerage accounts, though they all work in a similar fashion — trading securities, after all, is what brokers do. They are cash brokerage accounts, margin accounts, joint brokerage accounts, and discretionary accounts.

1. Cash Brokerage Accounts

A cash brokerage account is the “vanilla” option. If you open a cash brokerage account, you deposit money and start trading securities.

2. Margin Brokerage Accounts

A margin brokerage account may require approval from a brokerage. These types of accounts let owners use “margin” when trading. That means that they can effectively borrow money to trade with from the brokerage. These obviously come with a higher degree of risk, too.

3. Joint Brokerage Accounts

Joint brokerage accounts are more or less cash brokerage accounts that are opened by more than one person. It’s like a joint bank account, in many respects.

4. Discretionary Accounts

Another type of account that some brokerage firms offer is a discretionary account. This type of brokerage account, sometimes referred to as a managed account, allows an authorized broker to make trades on behalf of the client. The client usually must sign a discretionary disclosure with the broker. Many brokerage firms require account minimums for this type of account.

💡 Quick Tip: Are self directed brokerage accounts cost efficient? They can be, because they offer the convenience of being able to buy stocks online without using a traditional full-service broker (and the typical broker fees).

How To Open a Brokerage Account

Most firms allow you to set up a new account online. You’ll need to provide basic personal information, and most firms will ask about your net worth, your employment status, what assets you currently own, and what you have defined as your investment goals.

Requirements for Opening a Brokerage Account

There may be some requirements for opening a brokerage account.

Initial Investments

Depending on the type of brokerage account you are opening, most firms let you open an account with about $1,000 but some require an initial investment of $2,500 or more.

Account Minimums

You will need to have enough money in your account to pay for one or more shares of the stock you want to buy plus the commission fee (if applicable). Each account and brokerage firm is different, so check with your preferred company to determine what the account minimums are.

Agreeing to Terms and Conditions

You’ll need to play by the rules, and a brokerage firm will likely have you agree to certain terms and conditions for using your account. That may include agreeing to certain fee schedules, too.

Funding a Brokerage Account

There are at least five ways to transfer money from your bank account into your brokerage account:

•   Electronic funds or wire transfers involve moving money electronically from one’s bank account into another account. Individuals typically have to go to their bank and fill out the required information and direct where the money should be transferred.

•   Deposit a check: Customers can withdraw money via a paper check from their checking, savings, or another existing brokerage account. They can then mail the check to the brokerage account they’d like to deposit the funds at.

•   Transfer an existing investment from another broker. Customers can typically transfer funds between brokerage accounts through an automated process known as the Automated Customer Account Transfer Service (ACATS). Customers usually fill out a form. Transfers involve assets such as cash, stocks, bonds, or listed options.

•   Deposit an existing paper stock certificate: Paper stock certificates are much rarer today in the age of electronic trading, but if a customer does have one, they can mail it to their broker to be deposited. Inheriting a certificate may require additional verification and paperwork, and in general, mailing with insurance is recommended.

Brokerage Account Taxes

Another important thing to remember is that there are taxes associated with brokerage accounts. Specifically, any interest or dividends earned from your brokerage account will be taxable.

If you sell an investment and earn a profit, you will have to pay a capital gains tax. However, if you sell a stock at a loss, that becomes a capital loss and you could get a tax break from that sale which could lower your taxable income.

Investing with SoFi

Brokerage accounts allow owners to buy and sell investments and financial securities. They are offered by a number of financial institutions, and come in a few different types. By and large, though, they’re a very popular choice for investors looking to get their money in the markets.

They do have their pros and cons and associated risks, however. It may be beneficial to speak with a financial professional to learn more about how you can use a brokerage account to your advantage in pursuit of your financial goals.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

FAQ

How do I open a brokerage account?

Most brokerage firms allow prospective customers to open an account online or in person. Opening a brokerage account generally requires some personal information related to identity and financials, and some money to make an initial deposit.

Is there a minimum deposit to open a brokerage account?

Different brokerage firms will have different rules regarding minimum deposits, but there are many that don’t require a minimum deposit. Again, it’ll depend on the specific firm.

Do brokerage accounts have fees?

Yes, most brokerage accounts have some sort of associated fees. There may be commission fees involved, though they’re less common today than they once were, but there can be other types of fees to be aware of, too.


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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $10 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

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