Best Banks for Checking Accounts
A good checking account offers convenient access to ATMs and branches in your local area. The best also minimize account fees while providing competitive interest rates. We found several banks in California that stand out in one or more of these areas.
Best for Free Checking: BBVA Compass Bank
While Compass doesn't have nearly as many branches as Wells Fargo, it's one of the few banks in California that provides truly free checking. Customers aren't required to meet any balance or activity requirements with the BBVA Compass ClearChoice Free Checking account. With most other brick-and-mortar accounts costing $10 to $12 each month, Compass Bank claims to save customers up to $120 a year in bank fees.
Of course, it's easy for most people to avoid those fees, since many banks allow fee waivers like minimum balances or direct deposit requirements on their standard checking options. However, people who see their account total go up and down drastically during the month don't always manage to meet those requirements, so a no-strings free checking option like Compass can be extremely helpful in such situations.
Compass also provides a number of other interesting features to supplement its free checking account. The bank currently runs a strong promotion for high-balance savings customers in its ClearChoice Money Market Account, which earns 0.25% APY on balances of $10,000. This is an extremely high rate for any account held at a brick-and-mortar bank. Compass also provides several optional services for checking customers, such as unlimited non-network ATM use for $5 a month and even a 3x5 safe deposit box for $3 a month.
Best for Low Checking Balances: Tri Counties Bank
Tri Counties Bank is an ideal choice if you're located in Sacramento or farther north, where banking options are more limited than in Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Trico Connect Checking, the bank's standard-level account, comes free each month for anyone who makes at least 15 debit card purchases in a month. If that requirement seems excessive for you, keeping a $500 daily minimum or getting $750 in direct deposits will also waive the $5 monthly fee, making Tri Counties a cost-effective checking option for people with lower balances.
To keep fees at zero, you'll need to opt into paperless statements, which cancels a $2 monthly fee for mail delivery. Finally, Tri Counties offers a unique Cellular Telephone Protection feature on its checking accounts, which covers up to $300 in costs if you ever need to fix or replace your device. The only requirement for this benefit is to pay your monthly phone bill through a Tri Counties checking account. With a balance of branch services and mobile banking functions available, Tri Counties Bank should work well regardless of your banking preferences.
Best Branch and ATM Access in California: Wells Fargo
Among the biggest US banks, Wells Fargo is the most active retail bank in the state, with over a thousand locations in both Northern and Southern California. This makes it the best choice for people who want to have nearby ATMs and branch services wherever they go in the country.
While Wells Fargo's reputation with consumers has taken a serious blow from last year's fraudulent account scandal, it's difficult to ignore the fact that it maintains the most California branches and ATMs of any bank or credit union. Wells Fargo EveryDay Checking, the bank's standard option, also makes it simple to avoid monthly charges. To avoid the $10 fee, customers just need to use their debit card at least ten times each month. In addition, students can hold this checking account for free as long as they're enrolled.
Unfortunately, the bank fees and interest rates at big banks like Wells Fargo fall far behind the pack. The cost of maintaining branches and ATMs on a national scale means that Wells Fargo carries fairly high fees for incidental services, such as overdraft fees and wire transfers. In terms of rates, the savings interest rate of 0.01% APY on Way2Save and Opportunity Savings represents some of the lowest we've encountered among all banks. While Wells Fargo probably offers great access to checking account services in your area, we recommend taking your savings somewhere else.
Best for Savings Accounts: Bank of Hope
Bank of Hope's Reserve Account earns 0.75% APY on balances of $5,000 or more, by far the highest savings rate among California's brick-and-mortar banks. However, this rate comes with several caveats. First, Bank of Hope's branches are concentrated in LA, with just three locations in the rest of the state. This limited coverage is doubly important because the Reserve Account is only offered as part of the Checking Plus package, making Bank of Hope less than ideal for people who want just a savings account.
In total, you'll need $600 to open the two accounts in the Checking Plus package. Bank of Hope's monthly fees also appear fairly steep at first, but a minimum daily balance of $500 in Regular Checking is enough to keep both accounts fee-free. Dipping below that figure will cost you $7 in monthly maintenance charges, or $4 if you opt into paperless statements. Bank of Hope will be most useful to people who live in Los Angeles and those who prefer to keep their checking and savings accounts in one place.
Best for Small Business Banking in California: Citizens Business Bank
As the name suggests, Citizens Business Bank provides the widest range of services for small business owners operating in Southern and Central California. Its products include not only typical business checking, savings and loan accounts, but also a number of merchant services. These include security measures like Positive Pay, a service which allows you to filter and pre-approve checks and ACH transactions to limit the possibility of fraud.
The bank also offers a range of loans, some of which reflect a more local focus. For example, its agriculture and dairy loans specifically cater to farmers working in those industries. It's also listed as an SBA lender, which means it offers below-market rates and longer terms that can save you significant amounts as you repay the loan. If you run a business in Central California, we recommend at least considering Citizens Business for its combination of local knowledge and government-backed loan options.
Summary of the Top Banks in California
We've put together a line-by-line comparison of the top Golden State banks reviewed above to help you break down their similarities and differences in specific categories.
|Best For…||Bank Name||Monthly Fee||Savings APY|
|Branch/ATM Access||Wells Fargo||$10||0.01%|
|Free Checking||BBVA Compass||$0||0.05%|
|Low Balances||Tri Counties Bank||$7||0.01%|
|Savings Accounts||Bank of Hope||$17||0.25%|
|Small Business||Citizens Business Bank||$18||-|
Finding the Best Bank for You
If you're used to making trips to the bank rather than using online and mobile tools, choosing the right bank depends mostly on where you live and work. The banks we've selected carry some outstanding rates, fees and policies, but only a few can be found in every part of California. While people located in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area have a wealth of banking choices, the question gets trickier if you need a good bank that serves less-populated areas of the state.
People who don't see what they need in this article should also consider how much they really need to visit the bank. As mobile banking improves, more and more consumers are turning to online-only banks, which have lower operating costs than traditional institutions. These newer banks pass those savings on to their customers in the form of highly competitive rates and minimized fees. If you're interested, you can also read our review of online banks as a place to start your search.