Best Credit Unions of 2018
Like regular banks, credit unions give you access to deposit accounts, loans, and credit cards. While their rates and fees are more consumer-friendly, credit unions restrict their membership according to local or job-specific requirements. To help you find the best available credit union option, we reviewed dozens of credit unions that accept applications from anybody, anywhere in the country.
Best Credit Unions for Checking Accounts
Because the biggest advantage of credit union checking accounts are their strong average interest rates, we've built our list around accounts with the highest APY. These accounts often come with monthly activity requirements you need to meet in order to earn the maximum rate. Typical requirements include making a number of debit card purchases, receiving direct deposits and signing up for bill pay or online statements.
Highest Checking Account APY: Consumers Credit Union
With 3.09% APY on checking account balances up to $10,000, Consumers Credit Union (CCU) offers the highest checking interest rate we've found at any depository institution. However, you'll need to meet a number of activity requirements to keep that rate from dropping to 0.01% APY. In addition, the extremely weak 0.20% APY you earn on any amount over $10,000 means that those with higher balances might do better at other credit unions in our list. To earn the maximum APY, you'll need to meet the following monthly requirements:
- Make 12 debit/check card point-of-sale purchases with signature
- Make 1 direct deposit, ACH debit OR online bill payment
- Access Online Banking at least once
- Enroll in eDocuments for paperless statements
Fulfilling all of the above conditions each month ensures that you earn the full interest rate, but if you're truly determined to maximize, signing up for a Consumers Credit Union credit card can unlock even higher rates on Free Rewards Checking. Cardholders who spend $500 on the CCU Visa Credit Card receive 3.59% APY on their checking balance up to $15,000; those who spend $1,000 or more get 4.59% on up to $20,000. Any amount above those limits only earns 0.10% to 0.20% APY.
Although Consumers Credit Union only operates physical branches in Illinois, it's one of many smaller credit unions and banks that have expanded into online banking. This means that you can open an account regardless of where you live or work. While you may be too far to access a Consumers branch, you can manage your money through the credit union's website and mobile app. CCU's policy of unlimited ATM fee reimbursements also means that you'll have free access to ATMs regardless of where you are.
Lowest Activity Requirements: Lake Michigan Credit Union
The 3.00% interest on LMCU's Max Checking Account is slightly lower than the rate available at Consumers Credit Union, but allows you to earn that rate on up to $15,000 in your balance. If you're trying to decide between LMCU and CCU for interest checking, a quick calculation shows you'll start earning more interest with LMCU if your balance is above $10,330. While this means most people will do better banking with Consumers Credit Union, less active account-holders may prefer LMCU's lower activity requirements:
- Make 10 debit card purchases
- Make 1 direct deposit
- Access Online Banking at least 4 times
- Sign up for paperless eStatements
Like many other credit unions, LMCU relies on the Allpoint network to provide nationwide ATM access to its members. Allpoint includes over 55,000 ATMs in all 50 states, and LMCU's mobile app allows users to locate Allpoint ATMs nearby. The credit union also provides up to $15 a month in reimbursements for any fees you pay at ATMs, including surcharges from third-party operators. Combined with the lack of a monthly fee, this makes Lake Michigan Credit Union a solid alternative to Consumers Credit Union.
Best for High Balances: Bellco Credit Union
This Colorado-based credit union rounds out our list with the best credit union checking account for higher balances. With a strong 2.25% APY on up to $25,000 in the Bellco Boost Interest Checking Account, Bellco provides larger balances with greater room to grow. Members with over $20,000 in their checking account will actually earn more interest at Bellco than at LMCU, while balances over $14,000 earn more at Bellco than with CCU. While these tipping points aren't relevant for most people, it's a reminder that simply comparing the advertised APY isn't always the best way to choose bank accounts. You'll also need to consider Bellco's monthly activity requirements for the top rate of 2.25%.
- Make 15 debit card purchases
- Make 1 direct deposit
- Access Online Banking at least once
Like other high-yield credit union checking accounts, Bellco Boost Interest Checking demands a fairly high number of monthly debit card transactions to earn the top rate of 2.25%. Missing the activity requirement will drop your rate to 0.05% APY for the month. However, given that a 2016 study by Discover's PULSE Network found that the average debit card is used 22 times each month, Bellco's 15-purchase minimum shouldn't be a problem for most people.
Bellco also has more nationwide service coverage than you might expect from a smaller credit union. If you aren't located in Colorado, you can still get branch and ATM access through Bellco's participation in the Co-op network, a partnership of 3,500 different credit unions. Any Bellco member can access brick-and-mortar service through the local offices of another Co-op credit union. Combined with Bellco's web- and app-based banking, the Co-op network makes Bellco a competitive option for accessible checking, even compared to huge banks like Chase.
Best Credit Unions for Savings
Savings accounts at credit unions also yield higher-than-average rates compared to those at regular banks. However, some accounts work somewhat differently, with maximum limits on the part of your balance that actually earns interest at the advertised rate. This means that if your balance is particularly high, it may earn you more at a credit union with a higher maximum balance—even if its published APY isn't the highest available.
Best for Beginning Savers: Digital Credit Union
If you're just starting to save, it's hard to find a better interest rate than Digital Credit Union's (DCU) 5.12% APY. Although you'll only earn that rate on the first $750 in your DCU Primary Savings Account, the enormous head start makes up for the restriction. If you maintain a balance of $750 for one year, your account at DCU earns almost $40 in interest, while a typical online savings account at 1.00% APY would only earn about $7.50 on the same amount. Even if the account with 1.00% APY has no balance limit on its interest rate, it won't outperform DCU's savings account until you hit a balance over $4,000.
If you do have more than that amount to work with, DCU has other account options. DCU is based in Massachusetts with some branches in New Hampshire, but its membership is open to anyone who makes an online donation to one of the credit union's partner non-profit organizations. These include environmental and educational initiatives also based in New England. The minimum donation required to qualify for DCU membership is $10, which is fairly similar to requirements at other credit unions with nationwide availability.
Best for High Balances: Alliant Credit Union
Alliant's 1.50% APY High-Rate Savings Account may seem below-average after a look at DCU's 5.12% interest rate, but unlike DCU, Alliant imposes no maximum balance limit. This means that much larger savings account balances perform better at Alliant. According to our calculations, anyone with more than $3,770 to deposit will see higher overall earnings on an Alliant High-Rate Savings Account than with Digital Credit Union.
Comparing Alliant's rates with savings accounts at national banks is much easier. All three of the nation's largest banks—Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo—award just 0.01% APY on their standard savings options, making Alliant's 1.50% rate over one hundred times higher. This credit union is also a strong choice for interest checking accounts, with a High-Rate Checking Account that earns 0.65% APY on any balance. Other than enrolling in paperless eStatements, the only monthly requirement to earn that rate is to make a single electronic deposit. This includes any direct deposits, ATM deposits and transfers from another bank.
Summary of the Best Credit Unions
If you're trying to decide between the options we've covered, we've provided a side-by-side comparison of the best credit unions based on interest rates and the cost of fees.
|Best For…||Credit Union||Cost of Joining||Maximum APY|
|Interest Checking||Consumers Credit Union||$5||3.09%|
|Infrequent Debit Card Users||Lake Michigan Credit Union||$5||3.00%|
|Higher Checking Balances||Bellco Credit Union||$10||0.05%|
|Low-Balance Savings||Digital Credit Union||$10||5.12%|
|Higher Savings Balances||Alliant||$10||1.50%|
Finding Credit Unions Near You
All of the credit unions we evaluated for this article allow you to become a member regardless of where you live or work, but that isn't true of the typical credit union. If you're more interested in becoming part of a credit union that's truly based in your area, you should take the rates above as a guide to what you might encounter locally. You may find that some credit unions have closed fields of membership, which means that only members of a certain neighborhood or profession qualify to join.
Fortunately, plenty of credit unions open their doors to nearby residents. You can qualify at such credit unions just by proving that you work or live in a given city, county or state. If you're searching for a single place to manage all your finances, credit unions also provide their members with favorable terms on personal loans and credit card programs. While you'll most likely find that credit unions offer lower fees and higher rates than your old bank, it's important to consider how your various accounts will benefit or suffer from switching over.
Finally, joining an out-of-state credit union isn't always as impractical as you might think. With the development of nationwide partnerships like the Co-op network, thousands of smaller credit unions have formed cooperative associations that share the use of branch facilities and ATMs, so that members at one credit union can access their accounts through locations operated by any other credit union partner. Together with the growth of banking online and through apps, these partnerships make smaller institutions competitive, so it may be worth taking a second look at them if their rates are particularly attractive to you.