Once you’re on campus or away from home, it’s time to start your financial life! That often means signing up for a checking account and getting a debit card.

A debit card is necessary for making basic purchases especially if you don’t have a credit card already. Everything from picking up take-out to paying your tuition will likely require a debit card.

But not all checking accounts are created equally! If you’re a college student, here are some things to consider when you’re choosing your first student checking account.

ATMs and Banking Availability

Before we dive into the details of the actual checking accounts, let’s talk about bank ATMs and banking locations.

It may feel like we live in a cashless society, but there are definitely going to be times that withdrawing cash will be helpful. In fact, huge portions of the population still rely on cash and cardless transactions.

Whatever checking account you look at, make sure there are ATMs on campus or near where you live. You never know when you’ll need to make a withdrawal or deposit cash!

Some college towns have locally owned restaurants that only take cash. Some servers prefer to get tipped in cash. Cash can also be a big help in an emergency if your card ever stops working.

Similarly, having a financial branch near your college is also a big deal. If you want to talk to someone about financial services or get help with your accounts, a physical location is always easier. We’ve all been on hold for 2 hours with a bank before, right?

Online-only banks may offer more perks. But if you’re the type that still prefers your finances in the physical world, take notes. Find out which banks offer ATMs and in-person services closest to you.

Minimum Monthly Balance

Next up on your list of considerations is minimum monthly balances. Your checking account will likely be in high gear when you’re in college. Nights out with friends, groceries, paying rent, and more will all come out of your account.

And if you’re like most college students, your finances won’t look like a high roller. You’ll be scraping by each month until you can get more money. There’s a reason the joke about eating ramen is so common!

For this reason, make sure the bank you choose doesn’t have a high minimum monthly balance.

Banks sometimes require you to maintain a minimum balance in the account to make it worth their time. But maybe you’re the type who thinks $8.65 in there at the end of the month is fine! It’s another burrito or two, right?

Well some banks don’t see it the same way. Find a bank that has a low or non-existent monthly balance requirement while you’re in school.

Not hitting the requirement could result in penalties that put you into overdraft.

Minimum Opening Balance

Similarly, minimum opening balances are how much money you need to actually open an account.

For graduates with a job, it’s easy to come up with a few hundred dollars to open a checking account.

But for college students the same isn’t true. Coming up with enough money to pay rent is hard enough. Let alone finding the cash to open a checking account.

If you’re low on funds but still want a college debit card, search for a bank that has no opening balance requirements.

Signing Bonuses

Who doesn’t love free money? Some college checking accounts know it’s a competitive landscape to get kids using their products.

That’s why there are often bonuses for simply opening an account and using it.

If you spend a certain amount in the first 45-60 days or even make a certain amount of deposits, you can earn rewards.

It’s not uncommon to get $200- $300 signing bonuses for simply opening an account.

Service Fees

Lastly, let’s talk about the fees associated with bank accounts. There are many to watch out for, so do your research before jumping into anything.

Overdraft Fees

The most common type of service fee is for overdrafts. This is when you accidentally spend more than is available in your account. Your bank will often front you the money to complete the payment. But not without a penalty.

Last year, the average overdraft fee was about $35. These fees can make it hard to dig out of a financial hole if you’re already struggling to keep up!

Maintenance Fees

Some banks charge a monthly service fee simply for maintaining a checking account. They may offer services in exchange for this fee. It could give you overdraft protection. Or it may provide helpful customer service features.

Depending on your needs, these monthly maintenance fees may or may not be a smart investment.

ATM Fees

Cash isn’t as common as it used to be. But some businesses insist on being cash only. In college towns, some night clubs insist on cash-only entrance fees. Don’t have cash? No problem! They’ve likely got an ATM inside the club that you can use. The catch? The ATM comes with a fee!

Don’t get caught paying service fees by not having access to a free ATM. Bigger bank networks have free ATMs all over. Whereas smaller local banks may not. Watch out for ATM service fees no matter who you bank with.

Minimum Balance Penalties

If you sign up for an account with a minimum monthly balance, watch your finances closely! If your minimum balance falls below their threshold, the bank could penalize you. If you’re already close to zero in your account, this penalty could even put you into overdraft! Another fee!

Mobile App

Finally, let’s talk about technology and mobile banking applications. Nearly every bank has a mobile app these days. That’s no surprise. But they’re not all created equally. Some apps give much better insights than others!

For starters, your bank’s mobile app should offer mobile check deposit capabilities. This means you can deposit your paychecks virtually without having to visit an ATM or branch location.

Your mobile app should also track your debit card purchases in real time. If something looks fishy, your bank can notify you and let you take action.

Similarly, by tracking your purchases your bank can give you recommendations on areas you’re overspending to help you wrangle your nights out on the town! It can even help you get started with your first budget.

Your college checking account is the first step on your financial journey. It gives you financial freedom to make your own purchasing decisions.

But before you sign up for a checking account on campus, do some research! Figure out what works best for your financial situation. And don’t worry if those needs change!

It’s easy to change banks later on if you find something that works better for your financial habits down the road.

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