I went to college in 1998, the literal Stone Ages of Banking when the best banks had marble facades, massive branches, and big minimum balance requirements.
My bank of choices was PNC Bank, one of the largest in the western Pennsylvania region, and I chose it because they had ATMs in our student union. That was the only criteria (and it's a good one!).
Fast forward twenty years and it's a whole new world. A less expensive one too.
It seems like every major bank has a bank account designed for students. They all feel very similar, but there are minor differences, and we'll briefly discuss them below.
Getting a bank account isn't the most important money step you'll take in college but it is one of the first.
CIT Bank – Premier High Yield Savings Account
CIT Bank is an online bank that won GoBankingRates' Best Banks Award last year with their Premier High Yield Savings Account, an online savings account with a 1.75% APY interest rate. It's one of the highest interest rates in the nation – the only downside, for students anyway, is that there's a $100 minimum. If you can keep that in there, you can open an account and get that juicy high interest rate.
They don't have a checking account, so this would be a great complementary account with one of the checking accounts below.
Chase Bank – Chase College Checking
Chase Bank offers a Chase College Checking Account for college students 17 – 24 with proof of student status. The fee is $0 for the 5 years while in college with a $25 minimum deposit. If you're in high school, students 13 – 17 will see a $0 fee if their parents have a linked account or they make a direct deposit or maintain a $5,000 balance.
Chase will also give students a $50 bonus if they open an account, deposit of $25 or more at account opening, enroll in paperless statements and complete 10 qualifying transactions within 60 days of account opening.
Chase is appealing because they have an enormous geographic footprint, which includes an extensive ATM network and brick and mortar branches.
Ally Bank – Online Checking & Savings
Ally Bank has a great online savings and checking account that isn't specifically for students but is perfect for them. As an online bank, they have no minimums and no maintenance fee for all customers. They also have partnered with Allpoint ATM network (43,000+ ATMs) and offer a $10 per statement cycle ATM fee reimbursement. All this on top of a very competitive interest rate, something you won't see at a traditional bank.
While Ally is not specifically targeting college students, it's one of the best online banks, because all of it's standard features are just so good.
The Ally CashBack Credit Card is a no-annual-fee card that offers 2% cash back at gas stations and grocery stores with 1% everywhere else. If you can spend $500 in eligible purchases in the first three months, you can get a $100 bonus. Finally, there's a 10% Ally Deposit Bonus if you deposit those rewards into an Ally Bank account.
USAA – Classic Checking for College Students
USAA has a College Checking account product that has no monthly service fee, no minimum balance requirements, and they don't charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals outside of their ATM network. They offer $15 in ATM reimbursements each statement cycle but their ATM network is 60,000+ ATMs. They also offer free direct deposits, transfers and bill payments but that's standard.
If you're a student and need to establish credit, the USAA Secured Card Platinum Visa is a good option because its $35 annual fee is reasonable. Many secured credit cards are more expensive.
Also, you set a credit limit ($250 – $5,000) and that money is put into an interest-earning CD. That's a nice little perk to help offset the cost.
Bank of America – Student Checking Account
If you are a student under 24 years old (high school, college, or vocational program), then you can get a Bank of America Student Checking Account with no monthly maintenance fee. You get all the perks of a non-student account (mobile banking, direct deposit, ATM cards) minus the minimum balance requirements to avoid a fee. The Bank of America's Core Checking product, which is what this product is when you're not a student, has a minimum balance of $1,500 to avoid the fee.
Bank of America also has a suite of student credit cards, such as the BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students, that offers 2% cashback at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 2% on gas for the first $2,500 in purchases each quarter. 1% on everything else.
U.S. Bank – Student Checking
U.S. Bank offers a basic Student Checking account for students that doesn't charge a monthly maintenance fee (if you want paper statements, it's $2/month). You get full access to online and mobile banking, all the apps and tools of a non-student account (bill pay, depositing checks, sending money) with a U.S. Bank Visa Debit Card for your spending. If you want checks, you get your first order free.
U.S. Bank also waives their fee on 4 ATM transactions when you use another ATM. There is no “other bank” ATM reimbursement though, U.S. Bank just won't charge you.
PNC Bank – Virtual Wallet Student
I had to include my old student account, PNC Bank offers a Virtual Wallet Student account that waives the monthly service charge for up to six years. It offers all the features of Virtual Wallet, from their calendar to “spending zone” and even parent alerts when the balance is low.
There is a fairly extensive ATM network (9,000 ATMs) plus a PNC Bank Visa Debit card. You get online and mobile banking, “international services” that include language interpretation and international wire transfers, plus some financial education if you're interested.
BB&T – Student Checking
BB&T offers a Student Checking account for students 23 years old and younger. There is no minimum balance requirement, no monthly maintenance fees, and there is no direct deposit requirement to get those fee waivers. They have a large ATM network (3,100 ATMs) but they will not charge you for two non-BB&T ATM transactions per statement cycle (they won't reimburse you for other banks' fees though).
Methodology: How We Decide the Best Banks for College
The difference between a student and a non-student is money – it's assumed students, with limited to no income, have very little money. Any money they do have comes from a low hourly wage job they do on the side, whether it's working in a part-time job on or off campus, or from outside support (scholarships, family, etc.).
Some banks realize that students, who may have little money now, will graduate and get good paying jobs. Over a lifetime, college graduates will out-earn their non-college graduate peers by over a million dollars (Pew Research Center). They are willing to offer no minimum, low fee bank accounts now and hope the relationship builds from there.
How did we decide who appears on this list?
First, all the rules for finding a good bank account apply (with one exception, paying interest – most on this list don't pay any appreciable interest). We also require that they don't charge a fee if you are a student, most have a cut off of six years or when you turn 24.
The banks on this list are solid, try to find one with a large ATM near where you go to school and you should be all set.