There’s never been a better time to be an investor: Competition among online brokers is fierce, which means costs are coming down and services are being ramped up.
But picking the right brokerage account comes down to your individual priorities. Some investors are willing to pay higher trade commissions for a state-of-the-art platform; others count costs above all else. Here’s how to find the best online broker for you.
Choosing the best online broker
To evaluate brokers, you should look at the following factors:
- Account minimum
- Account fees
- Your trading style and tech needs
Look at commissions on the investments you’ll use most
Brokers generally offer a similar menu of investment options: individual stocks, options, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and bonds. Some will also offer access to futures trading and forex (currency) trading.
The investments offered by the broker will dictate two things: whether your investment needs will be satisfied, and how much you’ll pay in commissions. Pay careful attention to the commissions associated with your preferred investments:
- Individual stocks: Some brokers still charge a commission to buy and sell stocks, either per trade or per share. However, there are several brokers that now charge no commission, including TD Ameritrade, E-Trade and Interactive Brokers.
- Options: Options trades often incur the stock trade commission plus a per-contract fee, which usually runs $0.15 to $1.50. Some brokers charge only a commission or only a contract fee.
- Mutual funds: Some brokers charge a fee to purchase mutual funds. You can limit mutual fund transaction costs or avoid them completely by selecting a broker that offers no-transaction-fee mutual funds. (Mutual funds also carry internal fees called expense ratios. These are charged not by the broker, but by the fund itself.)
- ETFs: ETFs trade like a stock and are purchased for a share price, so they are often subject to the broker’s stock trade commission. But many brokers also offer a list of commission-free ETFs. If you plan to invest in ETFs, you should look for one of these brokers.
- Bonds: You can purchase bond mutual funds and ETFs at no charge by using no-transaction-fee mutual funds and commission-free ETFs. Brokers may charge a fee to purchase individual bonds, with a minimum and maximum charge.
Pay attention to account minimums
You can find highly ranked brokers with no account minimum, including TD Ameritrade, Merrill Edge and Ally Invest. All three are on NerdWallet’s list of the best brokers.
But some brokers do require a minimum initial investment, and it can skew toward $500 or more. Many mutual funds also require similar minimum investments, which means even if you’re able to open a brokerage account with a small amount of money, it could be a struggle to actually invest it.
Watch out for account fees
You may not be able to avoid account fees completely, but you can certainly minimize them. Most brokers will charge a fee for transferring out funds or closing your account. If you’re transferring to another broker, that new company may offer to reimburse your transfer fees, at least up to a limit.
Most other fees can be sidestepped by simply choosing a broker that doesn’t charge them, or by opting out of services that cost extra. Common fees to watch out for include annual fees, inactivity fees, trading platform subscriptions and extra charges for research or data.
Consider your trading style and tech needs
If you’re a beginner investor, you probably won’t need extras, like an advanced trading platform. But you may want an education and a little hand-holding. This could include videos and tutorials on the broker’s website, or in-person seminars at branches. Many brokers offer these services free to account holders.
Many brokers offer educational resources for new investors.
Active traders, on the other hand, will want to look for a brokerage that supports that kind of frequency. That includes weighing a broker’s trading platforms, analysis tools, research and data offerings in addition to commissions — including discounts for high-volume traders — and fees.
Plenty of high-quality online brokers offer access to trading platforms, tools and research for free, so beware of brokers that nickel and dime each feature; those costs can add up quickly.
Take advantage of promotions
Online brokers, like many companies, frequently entice new customers with deals, offering a number of commission-free trades or a cash bonus on certain deposit amounts. It isn’t wise to choose a broker solely on its promotional offer — a high commission over the long term could easily wipe out any initial bonus or savings — but if you’re stuck between two options, a promotion may sway you one way or the other.