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How to Choose Between a Credit Union or Bank

Sarah Li Cain • June 2, 2023

They might seem similar, but there are some key differences between a credit union and a bank. Learn what a credit union is, its pros and cons, and what makes it different from a bank.

These days, you have many options for choosing a financial institution to help you manage and store your money. In addition to a traditional bank, you have two other alternatives: credit unions and online banks.

Choosing where you should stash your hard-earned cash is not a light decision to make. Read on to learn more about how credit unions, traditional banks, and online financial institutions differ.

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What is a credit union?

A credit union is a non-profit organization owned by the members of a particular community. Credit unions’ primary goal is to promote their members’ financial welfare and to return profits to them.

How do credit unions work?

Like banks, credit unions charge interest and account fees, but they reinvest those profits and use them to help members. Examples include low-interest loans and other financial services, whereas banks give these profits to their shareholders.

How credit unions differ from banks

While credit unions typically offer members the same products and services as a traditional bank, they tend to have lower fees and higher interest rates. Membership is required to join, and they’re often smaller in scale and have fewer in-person locations.

Eligibility requirements

Credit unions also have eligibility requirements for opening accounts, and these requirements differ across credit unions.

Each credit union has its requirements, but in general, you can become a credit union member if you live in a specific region, you’re a member of a certain faith, employee of a particular business, school district, or other organizations or groups.

What's the difference between credit unions and banks?

Now that you know what a credit union is and how they operate, let’s explore credit unions vs. banks.

Ownership

Banks: Banks are for-profit organizations owned and run by shareholders. The main goal of banks is to maximize profits for their shareholders.

Credit Unions: As member-owned non-profits, credit unions are technically financial cooperatives where members have voting rights.

Membership

Banks: Both individuals and companies can open an account with a bank.

Credit Unions: Some credit unions are very restrictive about who can join, while others are open to anyone willing to pay a membership fee.

Products and services

Banks: Banks offer an assortment of personal and commercial banking services. Some product offerings include loanscredit cards, and investment accounts like certificates of deposits (CDs) and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Credit Unions: Credit unions tend to offer fewer products than banks, especially when it comes to commercial banking products. Credit unions also typically offer fewer investment products, limited to checking and savings accounts and credit cards.

Rates and fees

Banks: Banks typically have higher interest rates on loans and lower interest rates on deposit and savings accounts. Traditional banks also tend to have more and higher fees on accounts and services than credit unions.

Credit Unions: Credit unions typically offer low- or no-fee banking accounts and services. Credit union-loan interest rates tend to be lower, yet their interest rates on savings products are typically higher than banks.

Deposit insurance

Banks: Banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which provides deposit insurance for up to $250,000 per depositor, per account.1

Credit Unions: Credit unions are insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Like FDIC insurance, NCUA insurance guarantees up to $250,000 per person, per account.2

Features of credit unions vs. banks vs. online banks

While an online bank shares many of the same features as a traditional bank, some key differences make online banks stand out. To fully understand how credit unions and banks differ from one another, we have to look at financial institutions through two distinct lenses: traditional banks and online banks.

This table provides a general comparison of credit unions, online banks, and traditional banks.

AspectsCredit UnionTraditional BankOnline Bank
Profit status Not-for-profit For-profitFor-profit
Branch network Typically, only a handful of branches in a limited areaLarge, sometimes national brick-and-mortar branches availableNo physical locations
Interest rates Higher rates on deposit and savings accounts; lower rates on loansHigher rates on loans; lower rates on deposit accountsHigher rates on savings accounts; sometimes on checking accounts
Fees Lower account fees Higher fees and additional fees Lower fees or no fees
Deposit insurance NCUA insuredFDIC insuredFDIC insured
OwnershipOwned by membersOwned by shareholders & investorsOwned by shareholders & investors
Online accessibility and tech servicesLimitedOffers the basicsWide variety

Advantages and disadvantages of credit unions vs. banks

Credit unions and banks each have their own set of pros and cons. Here’s what to consider when deciding on going with one over the other:

Credit unions: pros

  • Offers more personal and local customer service. Credit unions tend to provide more personalized customer service.
  • May be easier to obtain a loan than a large bank. Along the same lines, credit unions might offer less stringent lending criteria, such as a lower credit score, financial requirements, and higher debt-to-income ratio.

Credit unions: cons

  • Less access to online services and tools. Some credit unions might be a bit slower to adopt banking technology.
  • May have fewer branches and ATMs. While some credit unions are part of an extensive ATM network, they typically have fewer branches than larger banks because they’re regional.

Banks: pros

  • May have many branches and ATM networks. Big banks may have a vast ATM network and many branches across the U.S.
  • More robust websites and mobile apps. Banks (particularly online banks) tend to offer customers a more enhanced mobile app and computer dashboard experience.

Banks: cons

  • Higher fees. As banks are for-profit financial institutions, they tend to have more fees, monthly account minimum requirements, and higher rates than credit unions.
  • Less personalized service. Because banks have a more extensive customer base than credit unions, they might not be able to be as attentive to you as at your local credit union.

How to choose between a credit union or online bank

Before choosing one financial institution over the other, ask yourself the following questions:

• How many locations do they have? If you want to speak to a human in real life, focus your energy on institutions with local branches. If you just need to deposit and take out cash, many online banks offer customers access to a broad network of ATMs.

• Are their interest rates competitive? Compare interest rates between traditional banks, online banks, and credit unions. You will most likely find the best rates with credit unions and online banks.

• What fees do they charge, and how much are they? Research the fees a traditional bank, credit union, or online bank might charge you.

• What features and services matter the most to you? Make a note of what you want from a financial institution when it comes to services and simplicity. Consider things like mobile banking apps and automatic savings accounts when making your decision.

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The choice is yours

Ultimately, credit unions and online banks are solid options for your financial needs. Compare fees, rates, features, and available products. Then, ask yourself what you want in a provider before choosing a new financial institution.

FAQs

Are credit unions better than banks?

This depends on what you are looking for in a financial institution. Credit unions, traditional banks, and online banks have pros and cons.

Credit unions and online banks will likely offer lower-cost services and better interest rate options, while traditional banks will provide more commercial services and products. Consider all factors before deciding which type of institution is better for you.

Is your money safer in a credit union or a bank?

As long as a financial institution is backed by insurance, your money will generally be safe at either type of institution. Bank and credit union accounts are insured for up to $250,000 via the FDIC or the NCUA.3

What are the pros and cons of credit unions?

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of credit unions.

ProsCons
Lower feesEligibility requirements to become a member
Higher savings ratesFewer financial products available
Offers more local and personal customer serviceMay have fewer branches and ATMs
Lower interest rates on loansLess access to online technology and services
May be easier to obtain a loan with a credit union than with a large bank

What are 3 differences between a bank and a credit union?

A bank is a for-profit institution owned by shareholders, and credit unions are non-profit cooperatives owned by their members. Banks also tend to have more fees. Another difference between banks and credit unions is that banks may have more branches but less personalized customer service.

How do credit unions make money?

Credit unions make money like banks do: through fees, loans, and interest. And like banks, they invest or loan out the money their members deposit into financial markets. Because they’re non-profits that members own, credit unions are less interested in making money, so they might offer lower fees and higher interest rates.

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1 Information from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Deposit Insurance: Your Insured Deposits as of May 18, 2023: https://www.fdic.gov/resources/deposit-insurance/brochures/insured-deposits/

2 Information from the National Credit Union Administration Share Insurance Fund Overview as of May 18, 2023: https://ncua.gov/support-services/share-insurance-fund

3 Information from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Deposit Insurance: Your Insured Deposits as of May 18, 2023: https://www.fdic.gov/resources/deposit-insurance/brochures/insured-deposits/ and the National Credit Union Administration Share Insurance Fund Overview as of May 18, 2023: https://ncua.gov/support-services/share-insurance-fund

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