Guide to Commercial Banking

By Caroline Banton · June 17, 2022 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Commercial Banking

Commercial banks provide financial services for small and large businesses, including checking and savings accounts, loans, lines of credit, letters of credit, underwriting, and payment processing. These services enable businesses to operate in domestic and international markets. What’s more, financing from commercial banks enable businesses to grow and drive the domestic economy.

Commercial banks are focused on supporting business’ financial needs, but they may also offer services to individuals (this is usually called retail banking). Read on to learn more about what’s unique about commercial banking, including:

•   What is commercial banking?

•   How does commercial banking work?

•   What are commercial vs. investment banks?

•   What are commercial vs. retail banks?

•   What are the benefits of commercial banks?

What Is Commercial Banking: A Definition

Commercial banking is defined as a financial institution that is dedicated to serving businesses. This differs from retail banking, which provides personal banking services to individuals. Typically, a commercial bank offers businesses everything from deposit accounts, loans, and lines of credit to merchant services, payment processing, international trade services, and more. In these ways, a commercial bank can be a vital partner in helping a business succeed and grow.

While commercial banks offer a suite of services for medium and large businesses, small and new business owners can also take advantage of their offerings. Sometimes, people starting an enterprise use their personal accounts for banking. It is typically better to seek out commercial banking and open separate accounts for business vs. personal finances. This simplifies record keeping and the payment of taxes, and it also helps keep these two realms separate in case of any legal action.

How Commercial Banking Works

Commercial banks serve small- to large-sized businesses. You may be familiar with their names, as many of them also have retail banking divisions. Three examples of commercial banks in the United States are JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co. All are regulated by the United States Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

One very important function of commercial banks: providing financing to businesses. Before a commercial bank extends a loan to a business, it assesses the creditworthiness of the borrower by looking at its assets, profitability, and size.

In addition, commercial banks provide an array of services, supporting businesses with transfers from one account to another, lines of credit, lockbox services, payment processing, and foreign exchange services. Here, a closer look at what a commercial bank offers:

Deposit Accounts

Commercial bank deposit accounts function like retail bank checking and savings accounts. They enable businesses to pay suppliers and employees by holding cash and, in some cases, may earn interest on the balance.

There are three main types of deposit accounts: demand, fixed, and savings.

•   Account holders can use demand deposits or current account deposits for business transactions. They typically do not earn interest and are subject to service charges.

•   The bank holds fixed deposits for a specific term. Deposits likely earn interest, and the account holder can make withdrawals.

•   Savings deposits function as both fixed deposit and current accounts. Depositors can withdraw cash from these accounts, but the amount may be limited. Savings accounts earn interest but probably less than a fixed deposit.


Businesses need capital to thrive. Whether hiring staff, renting office or manufacturing space, or buying materials and supplies, operating a business and growing it takes cash. Commercial banks extend business loans vs. personal loans and charge interest on the loans. That’s one of the key income streams for banks, after all. The bank likely turns a profit on lending, and the business gets the funds it needs to launch their enterprise or to expand or buy real estate or new equipment.

Lines of Credit

Commercial banks usually provide businesses with lines of credit. A line of credit is short-term funding that can help a company manage its obligations while it waits for cash flow to improve. For example, a company may have to wait for receivables’ payment in order to meet this month’s payroll. A line of credit can help bridge that gap.

Letters of Credit

A business may need to request a letter of credit from a commercial bank to show their creditworthiness and to secure goods or services from an overseas trading partner. A letter of credit can serve as a guarantee from the issuing bank of payment for the goods once the letter’s requirements are met. The requirements might include the shipping date and the address the goods should be shipped to. In this way, a commercial bank can smooth international trade and help its clients’ business grow.

Lockbox Services

Lockboxes facilitate faster payments for businesses. Bank customers can send payments to a post office box near the bank, and the bank deposits the payments or funds to the customer’s account. This help expedite the receipt of deposits and subsequent payments from the client to its providers. It can be a very helpful cash flow tool for commercial enterprises.

Payment and Transaction Processing

Commercial banks typically facilitate the payments that businesses receive from their customers through electronic checks, paper checks, and credit card payments. Commercial banks may also provide services such as chargeback management fraud protection. All of these services can help keep a business humming along.

Foreign Exchange

Cross-border payments are complex because of exchange rates and the fact that each country has a different legal system. Commercial banks can provide foreign exchange services so that a company can do business overseas with a minimum of time and effort. This can really streamline operations for a business enterprise so they can focus their attention on other activities.

The Significance of Commercial Banks

Commercial banks play a vital role in the financial life of the U.S. They help support the country’s economy by providing capital and services to businesses. By providing loans, they likely allow businesses to increase production and potentially expand, which boosts the economy, lowers unemployment, and encourages consumer spending. In addition, commercial banks support cross-border trade and transactions (say, by issuing revolving letters of credit) so that businesses can operate in international markets.

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Commercial Banking vs Investment Banking

When considering the definition of commercial banking, it can be helpful to compare and contrast it to other kinds of banking. You’ve learned above what commercial banking is all about. Investment banking, on the other hand, is a subset of banking that is focused on creating capital for companies, governments, and other organizations.

While some financial institutions may combine commercial and investment banking, thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, the two kinds of banking serve different markets. Here’s more detail of what investment banks do:

•   Underwriting

•   Overseeing mergers and acquisitions and initial public offerings (IPOs)

•   Facilitating reorganizations

•   Aiding in the sale of securities

•   Brokering trades for institutions and private investors

Commercial Banks vs Retail Banks

Another important distinction is how commercial banks differ from retail ones. Some banks will offer both sets of services, but here’s what retail banks likely offer in terms of personal banking services:

•   Savings and checking accounts (you can often open these bank accounts online)

•   Mortgages

•   Personal loans

•   Debit cards

•   Certificates of deposit (CDs)

There are also alternatives to traditional banking that can assist with personal finance transactions.

Examples of Commercial Banks

It can be helpful to have specific examples of commercial banks to better understand what they do and how they work. There are three types of commercial banks: public sector banks, private banks, and foreign banks.

•   A public sector bank is one where the government owns a major share. Public banks provide funding for projects that benefit the local public and community, which could include infrastructure projects or affordable housing. The Bank of North Dakota (BND) is the only active public bank in the United States.

•   Most of the banks in the United States are private banks run by individuals or limited partners. Examples are JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co.

•   A foreign bank is any bank headquartered in another country but doing business in the United States. Two examples are Barclays Bank PLC, headquartered in the United Kingdom, and Bank of Bahrain & Kuwait BSC.

Benefits of a Commercial Bank Account

There are several reasons a business should consider opening a commercial bank account.

•   Your clients are likely to feel more confident making payments for services rendered to a business rather than an individual. Simply put, it’s more professional and may be perceived as more trustworthy.

•   Having separate bank accounts for your business and personal transactions can simplify accounting and taxes (business expenses are more easily deducted).

•   If you face legal or financial challenges with your business activity, your personal liability can be limited and protected.

•   Your business can apply for business loans from a commercial bank and finance expansion or costly equipment purchases with favorable lending terms.

•   Business accounts are FDIC-insured in the event the bank fails.

Is My Bank a Commercial Bank?

If your bank provides services to businesses, such as checking accounts, financing, lines of credit, and international trade services, it is likely a commercial bank. A retail bank, on the other hand, will provide services to individuals (joint vs. separate accounts, debit cards, personal loans, and more) and could be a department within a commercial bank.

The Takeaway

Commercial banking differs from retail banking in terms of the clientele it serves. Retail banks provide checking and savings accounts, loans, and other services to individuals to manage their day-to-day finances. Commercial banks, however, help businesses launch, operate, and grow with services like deposit accounts, loans, lines of credit, payment services, and more. They are critical to keeping our economy humming along.

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What is the difference between commercial banking and retail banking?

Retail and commercial banking serve different clients. Retail banking provides checking and savings accounts, financing, lines of credit, credit cards, and other services to individuals. Commercial banking usually provides checking and savings accounts, financing, underwriting, letters of credit, lines of credit, and other functions to businesses.

Is my money safe in a commercial bank?

Your money is as safe in a commercial bank as it can be. It is protected from loss due to bank failure by federal insurance up to $250,000 for checking and savings accounts, trusts, and IRAs or certificates of deposit, and stock investments.

What role does a commercial bank play in the economy?

Commercial banks support the economy by providing capital and services to organizations. These, in turn, can stimulate the economy by doing business, growing, and employing more workers. Commercial banks also facilitate cross-border payments so that businesses can move into international markets.

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