How to Open a Credit Union Account

Teller Window
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Credit unions are a great place to keep your money (and to borrow money). They’re a pretty good bet for finding free checking, and rates on savings accounts and loans are usually competitive. What’s more, these institutions are typically local, so they keep money (and their attention) in the same community you live in.

For some, the prospect of opening an account at a credit union is intimidating. When “eligibility” and “membership” come up, they think that the process is complex – but it’s really quite easy.

To open an account at a credit union, you’ll need to:

  1. Meet the eligibility requirement (this is usually easier than it sounds)
  2. Make a small deposit (often $5 to $25 or so) to become a member-owner
  3. Start using your account

We’ll review each of those steps in more detail below. If you’re still not quite sure what a credit union is, read an overview of how they work.

Step 1: Playing the Field

In order to join a credit union, you have to be a part of that credit union’s field of membership. That means you have to have some kind of common bond with other members of the credit union.

It’s pretty easy to find a credit union that you’re eligible to join. In some cases, the fact that you work for a certain employer is good enough. “Community-based” credit unions allow anybody who lives in a certain community to join – that community might be the city or county you live in. If one of your family members meets the criteria for any credit union, you might also be able to join.

Some credit unions are open to more or less anybody. To open an account, you’ll generally need to make a modest donation or join a group (sometimes for free). For example, NASA Federal Credit union is obviously open to NASA employees and retirees – but anybody can join after getting a free membership to the National Space Society (NSS).

If you need to find a credit union that you’re eligible to join, ask your co-workers, neighbors, and friends where they go. The National Credit Union Administration, the government agency responsible for oversight of credit unions, also has a credit union search tool.

Step 2: $5 Please

Once you’ve picked a credit union, open an account by walking in and asking for an application (or do it all online, if possible).

To become a “member” of the credit union you’ll need to make a modest deposit, which represents your purchase of a share in the credit union. That deposit is often $5 to $25, and you’ll need to leave that money in your account at all times – so if your account balance is $10, you’ll really only have $5 available to spend (the credit union prevents you from spending the money).

You can make your deposit however you like:

  • Bring cash
  • Write a check to your new account
  • Use a debit card from another bank
  • Transfer funds from another bank by providing routing and account numbers

As with any financial account, you’ll need to provide details about yourself:

  • Social Security Number or Tax Identification Number
  • Your physical address (you can also provide a separate mailing address for correspondence)
  • Valid identification such as a driver’s license, passport, or other government-issued ID
  • A reason why you’re eligible to join the credit union (“I work for XYZ Company” or “my mom is a member here”)

Some credit unions check your credit (and other databases like ChexSystems, which tracks your history of bouncing checks) when opening an account. If you’ve had issues in the past, you can always save yourself some time and ask credit union staff about the requirements before you fill out an application. You might still be able to open an account that doesn’t come with a debit card or checks.

Step 3: Start Using the Account

That’s it – once you’re a member, you can use all of the services at the credit union.

Choosing a Credit Union

You’ll probably have several choices on where to open an account. Pick a credit union that offers the products, services, and rates that are best for you.

As you compare options, don’t get too hung up on branch locations and hours. As long as your credit union is part of the shared branching network, you’ll have access to ATMs and branches of other credit unions nationwide. Plus, you can do most of what you need online or with your mobile device.

Federally insured credit unions are the safest credit unions – your money is equally as safe as money in a FDIC insured bank account. However, other credit unions exist, and you might have a reason for choosing a less secure institution – just make sure you’re aware of your protection (and limits on that protection).