American vs. European Options: What’s The Difference?

Person uses phone and multiple monitors to make options trades.
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American and European options describe different styles of exercising options. American options may be exercised anytime before expiration, while European options can only be exercised at expiration. The terms were coined by American economist Paul Samuelson to distinguish the two different option styles, and do not refer to geographic origins of the options.

The two styles are used for different underlying assets and trading strategies. They also have different tax implications.

What’s the Difference Between American and European Options?

While the primary difference between European and American options is when they can be exercised, its not the only way the two differ.

  American Style European Style
Underlying Asset Stocks and ETFs Most indexes
Exercise Anytime before expiration At expiration
Settlement Shares Cash
Tax Treatment Varies Varies

Underlying Asset

Options are contracts that give the buyer the right but not the obligation to buy or sell a financial product, such as a stock, at a specified time called the “expiration” for a specific price. Options to sell are called “puts,” while options to buy are termed “calls.”

Options are called “derivatives” because their value is based on another financial product or underlying asset, such as a stock or exchange-traded fund (ETF), or commodity such as gold. 

Typically, stock and ETF options are American-style options and far more common. Generally, though not all, index options are European-style options.

Exercise

The holders of American-style options can exercise their right to buy or sell a stock or ETF anytime before the expiration date of the contract. European contracts may only be exercised on the expiration date.

Settlement

When American options are exercised, the stock or ETF actually changes hands from the seller to the buyer. When European options are exercised, only cash changes hands, because the value of the option is based on the changes in a financial index rather than the price of a stock, ETF, or commodity.

Tax Treatment

American option and European option taxation can vary based on the holding period and the complexity of your transactions. In general, the options’ holding period determines whether the option receives short-term or long-term capital gains treatment.

Some European index options may qualify for more favorable tax treatment even if held for less than one year. Under Section 1256 of the U.S. tax code, some index options may be taxed at 60% long-term and 40% short-term capital gain rates.

American-Style Options vs. European-Style Example

Under most circumstances, investors don’t get to choose the option style. Individual stocks and ETFs are American style; indexes, with few exceptions, are European style. There is, however, one strategy where investors can decide which style is most attractive to them.

Investors who want to buy or sell options based on the S&P 500 have two choices: They can buy options on Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) that own all of the individual securities in the index, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (symbol SPY); or they can invest in something such as the S&P 500 Index Options (symbol SPX) on the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE).

Here’s a quick comparison of the two styles:

SPDR Options S&P 500 Index Options
Underlying Asset ETF S&P 500 Index
Style American European
Dividend Potential Yes No

SPX comes in a variety of products. Some allow global trading hours (S&P 500 Index Options do not), and there’s a product offering minis, or 1/10th the size.

The Standard & Poor's 100 Index Options (OEX) offers both American-style and European-style options.

The Bottom Line

The difference between American-style and European-style options is when they can be exercised, the underlying assets they are used for, and their tax treatment. Most of the time, the option style is predetermined. Options can be very rewarding, but they also have a high level of risk. Be sure you understand how they work before you invest.

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