Checking Account Definition and Explanation

By Sarah Li Cain · May 20, 2024 · 12 minute read

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Checking Account Definition and Explanation

A checking account is a secure place to deposit money and then withdraw funds, say, when it’s time to pay bills. This type of deposit account — either at a bank or credit union — allows you to move funds in and out using different methods. It’s typically considered the hub of a person’s daily financial life, and it’s usually much more flexible compared to other types of bank accounts.

Key Points

•   A checking account is designed for frequent transactions, allowing easy deposit and withdrawal of funds.

•   Various types of checking accounts cater to different needs, including student, senior, and second chance accounts.

•   Features of checking accounts can include direct deposits, ATM access, and the ability to issue checks.

•   Pros of checking accounts include flexible access to funds and direct deposit options; cons include potential monthly fees and low interest on balances.

•   Opening a checking account typically involves selecting a suitable option, providing necessary documentation, and making an initial deposit.

What Is a Checking Account?

The meaning of a checking account is a bank account that’s designed to be used for frequent transactions. FDIC- or NCUA-insured checking accounts are considered safe, and you store your cash in the account and withdraw as needed.

The main goal of a checking account is for you to have a place to put your cash temporarily until needed. The bank expects this money to be moved into and out of your account regularly, which is why these accounts typically don’t pay interest, unlike savings accounts, where the money tends to stay put.

That said, some checking accounts may earn a modest amount of interest, especially those held at online vs. traditional banks.

You can use a checking account to deposit and withdraw funds in a variety of ways, depending on your institution (more details in a minute).

You will also likely find that there are a variety of options available: There are personal, small business, and commercial checking accounts. You can also open one in your name or with someone else as a joint account or authorized user.

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How Do Checking Accounts Work?

Now that you know the meaning of a check account, consider how they operate. Checking accounts allow you to deposit and withdraw or spend your money. Depending on your bank and type of bank account, you can deposit in a variety of ways, including:

•   ATM deposit

•   Direct deposit

•   Incoming wire transfer

•   Mobile check deposit

•   ACH deposits (which can include those with PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, and other services).

•   Depositing funds at a brick and mortar location.

These methods can also be used to withdraw or send money to others. For example, if you want to pay for a subscription service using your checking account, you can sign up for automatic withdrawals each month. Or you might be able to send an outgoing wire transfer for your down payment for your home during closing.

5 Types of Checking Accounts

There are several different kinds of checking accounts, each one offering different features.

Traditional Checking

This is a basic checking account you can use for your day-to-day transactions like paying bills or making purchases with your debit card. There aren’t many extra features, though you’ll most likely get unlimited transactions, a debit card, checks, and access to an online or mobile banking portal as well as certain ATMs without a fee. You may need to pay an annual bank fee, maintain a minimum balance, and make a minimum initial deposit.

Interest Checking

An interest-bearing checking account is similar to a basic or traditional checking account except you’ll earn interest. The amount of interest you can earn will vary from bank to bank, but it is typically significantly less than funds in a savings account will earn.

Student or Teen Checking

These accounts are specifically geared towards students or teenagers and may earn interest. In some cases, parents or guardians will also need to have their name on the account and may monitor transactions. One perk to be aware of: These bank accounts may not charge fees.

Senior Checking

Senior checking accounts will offer features similar to basic checking accounts, except you may have more perks such as free checks and other benefits geared towards the senior population, including those on a fixed income.

Second Chance Checking

If you’ve been denied a checking account, you can try applying for a second chance account. These accounts are geared towards those who tend to have negative ChexSystems reports, which can track a person’s banking history. Keep in mind that some may charge fees and have fewer features than other types of accounts.

If you manage this kind of somewhat limited account well, your bank may upgrade you to a standard checking account down the line.

Pros and Cons of a Checking Account

If you’re considering whether a checking account is right for you and how to manage it, take a look at these benefits and downsides of checking accounts.

Pros

Cons

More flexible access to cash Little or no interest earned on deposits
Ability to set up direct deposit You may be subject to monthly fees
Access to a debit card May need to maintain a minimum balance in your account

Checking Accounts vs. Debit Cards

You may wonder exactly how a checking account and a debit card are connected. A debit card is a feature you can get with your checking account that allows you to make withdrawals and deposits at an ATM machine. You can also use it to make purchases at retailers — you may see a Visa or Mastercard symbol on your card. Typically, you can tap or swipe a debit card as you go through your day, whether paying for some groceries or snapping up some new clothes on sale.

The money you spend or deposit will be linked to your checking account. Purchases you make will be deducted typically in real-time. In many cases, your bank or credit union may have limits as to how much you can spend daily, weekly, or monthly when using your debit card.

However, here’s a distinction to note: There are also prepaid debit cards that aren’t part of a checking account. In this case, you can buy one at many major retailers. The purchase price is part of the amount you have on the card.

Using a Checking Account

There are several features that you need to be aware of when you use a checking account; these can make your financial life easier or, in some cases, could literally cost you.

Overdraft Fees

Whenever you make a withdrawal and there isn’t enough money on deposit, you are in what’s known as overdraft (a negative balance). Your bank may choose to deny the transaction (due to non-sufficient funds) or cover the difference. In either case, you are charged a fee — NSF fee or overdraft fee. The amount you’ll be charged will depend on your bank, though you can expect to pay around $35 per overdraft on average.

Some banks may forgive your first overdraft fee (meaning your don’t pay the extra charge) or allow you to link your savings account from the same institution as a form of overdraft protection. That way, if you don’t have enough money in your checking account, your bank will automatically transfer the difference from your savings account.

Autopay

With autopay, you can set up automatic withdrawals from your checking account in regular intervals and in amounts you choose to other accounts. For example, you can use the autopay feature to deposit money into a savings account for your emergency fund or to pay rent every month. Setting up these seamless recurring payments can be part of what people refer to as automating your finances.

Direct Deposit

You can receive deposits automatically into your check account through direct deposit. This is a very popular way for companies to pay their employees, and it eliminates the need for you to have to deposit a paycheck. What your employer or another payor would need to do this: your banking details, such as your routing number, account number, account name, and sometimes the bank’s address and phone number. (You may need to provide a voided check as well.)

Service Charges

Aside from overdraft and NSF fees, you may be charged monthly maintenance fees to have a checking account at a financial institution. In some cases, this fee may only be assessed if you don’t meet the minimum balance requirements. These bank fees are meant to help cover the expenses required to maintain a bank account.

You can avoid fees by choosing a checking account with no monthly fees, or try calling customer service to waive fees, like an overdraft charge if it’s your first time doing so.

ATMs

You can use your debit cards at ATM machines to make deposits or withdrawals. Some bank accounts may charge fees if you’re using one that’s out of network and/or when you’re making withdrawals abroad. It can be wise to read the fine print on your agreement with your bank about your account so you understand what charges may be assessed. Also, you may want to check if fee-free ATMs are conveniently located near where you live and work.

Interest

Not all checking accounts earn you interest, but some do. Granted, they’re probably not as high as compared to savings accounts, but earning some money is better than none. Just be sure to check if minimum balance requirements exist in order for you to reap that interest.

4 Steps to Opening a Checking Account

Though opening a checking account is generally the same across all financial institutions, the specifics may differ. Here, the four basic steps:

1. Review Your Options

Before signing up for an account, shop around to find one that offers the best fit for your needs. Review such features such as fees, interest rates, minimum balance requirements (if any), ATM network accessibility, and whether you want a brick-and-mortar location. Some banks may offer signing bonuses and the like to get your business.

2. Gather Relevant Documentation

Once you’ve chosen your bank and the kind of checking account you want to open, you’ll need to make sure you have the right information available to sign up. This includes your address, name, and Social Security number. You may need to have a government-issued photo ID (like your driver’s license) available. If you’re opening a joint account or adding an additional user, you’ll need that person’s information as well.

3. Fill out the Application

Go to the bank’s website and fill out an application form. In some cases, you may be asked to create an online account before you can complete your checking account application. Another option is likely to go to a bank branch, if you’re applying at a traditional bank, and fill out forms there.

4. Make Your First Deposit

Once your application is approved, you’ll be asked to make your first deposit. Depending on the bank, you can do this in different ways, from mailing in a check to transferring funds online. You may also need to wait several days to allow for the account to be fully opened and your new debit card to arrive in the mail.

Can You Be Denied a Checking Account?

Your application for a checking account may be denied in some cases. Your ChexSystems report — similar to a credit report, but for banking — could show negative remarks that could result in the bank not approving your application.

•   Some of these reasons could include:

•   Too many overdrafts

•   Unpaid banking fees

•   Negative balances

•   Suspected identity theft or fraud.

If you are denied, you can ask the bank for the reason and ask them to reconsider. Otherwise, you can apply for a different type of checking account to see if that works.

In addition, some banks might deny you an account because you lack the requested forms of identification. In that case, you may want to look into other banks that accept alternate forms of ID.

Recommended: Opening a Bank Account as a Non-US Citizen

Checking vs Savings Accounts

Though checking and savings accounts are both types of deposit accounts held at a financial institution, there are some critical differences between the two.

Unlimited Withdrawals

Checking accounts generally provide more flexibility in terms of how many withdrawals you can make. You should be able to take money out as often as you want as long as you have the funds to do so.

Savings accounts used to be limited to six withdrawals per month as mandated by Regulation D, but the regulation has since been dropped during the pandemic. Some financial institutions may still impose this limit — check with your bank to make sure.

Use of Debit Cards

Savings accounts usually don’t provide debit cards, whereas checking accounts do. Having one can make it more convenient to spend your money, since you can use it to make purchases at most retailers.

Interest Rates

Interest rates for savings accounts tend to be higher (often, considerably so) compared to those for checking accounts. That’s why it’s usually recommended that if you’re holding on to your cash, you may be better off depositing it in a savings account. Banks pay you higher interest for the privilege of having that money on deposit and being able to lend some of it out for other purposes.

Creating a Checking Account With SoFi

Interested in opening an online bank account? When you sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, you’ll get a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), pay zero account fees, and enjoy an array of rewards, such as access to the Allpoint Network of 55,000+ fee-free ATMs globally. Qualifying accounts can even access their paycheck up to two days early.


Better banking is here with SoFi, NerdWallet’s 2024 winner for Best Checking Account Overall.* Enjoy up to 4.60% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.

FAQ

WWhat is the difference between a savings and checking account?

The definition for a checking account is that it offers flexible ways to deposit and then withdraw your money, allowing you to make frequent additions and subtractions to your account with a minimum of fees. A savings account, however, is meant to store your cash for longer periods of time. Another key difference: Many checking accounts earn no interest, unlike savings accounts, where interest does accrue.

Is a debit card a checking account?

A debit card is not a checking account, but a feature that may come with your checking account. A debit card allows you to transfer funds from your checking account to a merchant, but it is not the account that actually holds your funds.

Is it OK to save money in a checking account?

You can save money in a checking account and it will likely be FDIC- or NCUA-insured, but you may not earn as much interest (if any) as you would with a savings account.

Is there a minimum credit score for a checking account?

A bank most likely won’t check your credit score when reviewing your application for an account. However, it will often look at your ChexSystems report. If you have any past negative behavior such as a large number of overdrafts or negative balances, it could cause your application to be denied.

What is the difference between a checking account and current account?

A checking account is a secure place to deposit and withdraw money for daily use; it tends to earn little or no interest. A current account is either a similar account but used for business purposes or, in macroeconomics, a record of a nation’s financial transactions with the rest of the world.


Photo credit: iStock/Delmaine Donson

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SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a recurring deposit of regular income to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government benefit payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, or are non-recurring in nature (e.g., IRS tax refunds), do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.

As an alternative to direct deposit, SoFi members with Qualifying Deposits can earn 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Qualifying Deposits means one or more deposits that, in the aggregate, are equal to or greater than $5,000 to an account holder’s SoFi Checking and Savings account (“Qualifying Deposits”) during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Qualifying Deposits only include those deposits from the following eligible sources: (i) ACH transfers, (ii) inbound wire transfers, (iii) peer-to-peer transfers (i.e., external transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc. and internal peer-to-peer transfers from a SoFi account belonging to another account holder), (iv) check deposits, (v) instant funding to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, (vi) push payments to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, and (vii) cash deposits. Qualifying Deposits do not include: (i) transfers between an account holder’s Checking account, Savings account, and/or Vaults; (ii) interest payments; (iii) bonuses issued by SoFi Bank or its affiliates; or (iv) credits, reversals, and refunds from SoFi Bank, N.A. (“SoFi Bank”) or from a merchant.

SoFi Bank shall, in its sole discretion, assess each account holder’s Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits throughout each 30-Day Evaluation Period to determine the applicability of rates and may request additional documentation for verification of eligibility. The 30-Day Evaluation Period refers to the “Start Date” and “End Date” set forth on the APY Details page of your account, which comprises a period of 30 calendar days (the “30-Day Evaluation Period”). You can access the APY Details page at any time by logging into your SoFi account on the SoFi mobile app or SoFi website and selecting either (i) Banking > Savings > Current APY or (ii) Banking > Checking > Current APY. Upon receiving a Direct Deposit or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits to your account, you will begin earning 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% on checking balances on or before the following calendar day. You will continue to earn these APYs for (i) the remainder of the current 30-Day Evaluation Period and through the end of the subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period and (ii) any following 30-day Evaluation Periods during which SoFi Bank determines you to have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits without interruption.

SoFi Bank reserves the right to grant a grace period to account holders following a change in Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits activity before adjusting rates. If SoFi Bank grants you a grace period, the dates for such grace period will be reflected on the APY Details page of your account. If SoFi Bank determines that you did not have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits during the current 30-day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, then you will begin earning the rates earned by account holders without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits until you have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits in a subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period. For the avoidance of doubt, an account holder with both Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits will earn the rates earned by account holders with Direct Deposit.

Members without either Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits, as determined by SoFi Bank, during a 30-Day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances.

Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 10/24/2023. There is no minimum balance requirement. Additional information can be found at https://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet.


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