If you like the idea of customer-owned financial institutions, a credit union might be right for you. But credit unions require "eligibility," which might sound intimidating. Fear not, you can probably find a credit union that you’re eligible to join (and that has the products and services you need) relatively easily.
If you’re having trouble finding a local credit union, several online credit unions allow you to join from anywhere.
Use Your Network, or Join Online
Start by asking people you know if they use a credit union, and if they’re happy with their banking experience. You probably share a common bond with the people around you—and that’s typically all it takes to join a credit union. Yes, credit unions limit their services to people in the “field of membership,” but it’s typically easy to qualify. For example, you might be eligible to join multiple credit unions already based on:
- The organization you work for
- The industry you work in
- The town you live or work in
- Membership in groups you’re already part of
The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), the agency that oversees federal credit unions, provides a credit union locator online. Start by searching within your local area, and then check eligibility requirements.
Online and National Credit Unions
At some credit unions, almost everybody is eligible. You typically need to join a group or make a small donation to be eligible for membership (it’s usually a good cause). Examples include:
- Alliant Credit Union: Donate at least $5 to Alliant’s partner charity, Foster Care to Success (FC2S) to be eligible. Alliant offers free online banking and high-yield savings accounts.
- NASA Federal Credit Union: Join one of several science-related organizations to be eligible. NASA FCU provides the banking services you’d expect, including free checking and savings accounts.
- Lake Michigan Credit Union: Donate at least $5 to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, a group that fights ALS—also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. LMCU offers rewards checking accounts for those who want a high rate on checking balances.
Make sure any credit union you open an account with is insured, preferably by the U.S. government. NCUSIF-insured institutions are safest, and most credit unions are insured, but it’s worth double-checking before you open an account. If your credit union suffers financial difficulties, you need your money to be protected.
Some credit unions are privately insured, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they are not as safe as federally-insured credit unions.
What You Need to Join
Before joining a credit union, verify that it will actually meet your needs. The fact that you’re eligible to join doesn’t mean it's the best fit. A few ideas to get you started:
- Review the product and service offerings (do they even have what you need?).
- Compare interest rates to local banks and other institutions.
- Try a demo of online banking capabilities.
- Talk with staff—do you get the sense that they’re competent, helpful, and that you’ll enjoy working with them?
- Read fee disclosures and understand fee waivers.
Try to find the best credit union—not the most convenient one. You can perform most transactions yourself online or over the phone, so branch locations and hours may not matter. Plus, credit unions often participate in shared branching, allowing you to visit thousands of other credit unions nationwide for essential transactions. You may need to visit a branch for complicated matters or to resolve problems, but that should be a rare occurrence.
Your First Account
Once you find the right credit union, it’s time to open an account. As with any other account, it’s simply a matter of filling out forms, signing documents, and funding the account. Ask the customer service staff what you need—it should be relatively easy to open personal checking or savings accounts.
You typically need to provide identification or information that the credit union can use to verify your identity. You also submit personal details, like your Social Security Number, date of birth, and physical address. Then, you fund the account with a modest deposit (typically $25 or $100, although smaller deposits might be fine), and you can start using your account.
Once your account is open, make a plan for moving your bills and direct deposit to your new account. Make a list of every payment you make, run the two accounts in parallel temporarily, and close your old account after you switch everything to the new account.
It’s smart to use a checklist when you change banks. If you don’t, you risk missing payments, which can lead to penalty fees and other complications.