What Is a Checking Account?

Checking Accounts Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Definition

A checking account is a bank account that allows easy access to your money. You can make purchases by using your debit card, checks, or account information.

Consumer looking at phone with debit card in hand. An open laptop is in front.
Photo: Carlina Teteris / Getty Images

Definition and Examples of a Checking Account

A checking account is a deposit account—a bank account you can use to hold and withdraw money. It allows you to access your funds in several ways. You can access the funds you place in your account by withdrawing cash at an ATM or branch, writing a check, sending an e-check, setting up an automatic transfer, or using your debit card. This type of account is typically used for day-to-day spending.

There are a few types of checking accounts to choose from. For example, you can open a personal checking account, a student account for your young adult at college, or a joint checking account with your partner or spouse.

How a Checking Account Works

Checking accounts have very few limitations when it comes to accessing your funds. You can make purchases and payments using your checking account as long as you have enough money in your account to cover them. However, you may have a daily ATM withdrawal limit, and your debit card may limit the amount you can debit from your account on a given day.

Note

Banks generally provide you with your first book of checks free of charge when you open a checking account. If you need more, typically you'll have to buy them.

As a trade-off for this availability, checking accounts typically don't pay much in interest, if they pay any at all. In addition, many banks offer checking accounts with monthly service fees but waive them if you meet specific requirements like maintaining your minimum balance or using direct deposits to avoid service fees.

Opening a Checking Account

You can open a checking account by going to a bank or credit union branch or signing up online. There are a few items you'll need to bring or provide:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Personal information like your address and date of birth
  • A valid form of identification to open an account
  • You may also need to make a minimum opening deposit.

When you open up a checking account, the bank will run a quick background check using a service like ChexSystems, which maintains information about closed bank accounts. If you have been reported to ChexSystems or a similar company for having an account with a long-term negative balance, you might not be allowed to open an account until you resolve the negative balance.

Note

Most banks will not open a checking account for a minor without an adult. However, if you're younger than 18 years old, you can ask your parent or guardian to open the account.

Overdraft Options

If you write a check for more than you have in your account, it's called an "overdraft." Your bank may offer overdraft protection, which covers these transactions for you, but they generally charge you a fee for the protection.

If you choose overdraft protection, you may be able to link another account to your checking account and automatically transfer money over if you have a negative balance. Some institutions will allow you to overdraw up to a specific limit, after which they begin returning checks and declining transactions.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the average overdraft fee is $34. Any transactions that could exceed your checking account balance will be rejected if you decline overdraft protection. This prevents you from being charged overdraft fees, but it could mean not being able to complete purchases if you don't keep an eye on your balance.

Note

Banks sometimes offer cash bonuses as incentives for opening a checking account, so that's something to look for when shopping for a new checking account. You typically have to meet requirements like maintaining a minimum balance.

Checking Account vs. Savings Account

Checking Account Savings Account
Few limits on withdrawals Limited number of withdrawals per month
Pays little or no interest Pays a low interest rate
Able to make direct payments with checks, debit cards, and account information Able to make direct payments with your account information, subject to your withdrawal limits

Savings accounts are designed to hold your money. They typically pay a low-interest rate, but it's generally more than what you see offered for a checking account.

Savings accounts typically limit the number of "convenient" transactions you can make in a given month. Convenient transactions include automatic transfers from savings accounts to other accounts and online and phone transfers out of your savings account. Financial institutions may also limit the number of withdrawals you can make from a savings account at an ATM or in person.

Savings accounts also limit direct purchases. You may be able to pay bills online using your savings account information, but you can't use a debit card or a check to make purchases using funds directly from a savings account. You would need to transfer the money to a checking account first.

Key Takeaways

  • A checking account is a bank account that allows easy access to your money. You can make purchases using your debit card, checks, or account information.
  • Checking accounts typically offer low or no interest. They may have service fees, but they can often be waived by meeting balance or direct deposit requirements. 
  • You can choose whether to opt in for overdraft protection. If you opt in, the bank will cover charges that exceed your available funds, but it will also charge fees for this service. 
  • Open an account online or by visiting a branch. You'll need your Social Security number and government-issued identification.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "CFPB Finds Small Debit Purchases Lead to Expensive Overdraft Charges."

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