How to Open a Credit Union Account
Joining Is Easy
Credit unions are a great place to keep your money and get loans. They’re usually a safe bet for finding free checking, and rates on savings accounts and loans are 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 complicated – but it’s really quite easy. To open an account at a credit union, you’ll need to:
- Meet the eligibility requirement (this is usually easier than it sounds).
- Make a small deposit (often $5 to $25 or so) to become a member-owner.
- Start using your account.
We’ll review each of those steps in more detail below. If you’re still not quite sure how these customer-owned financial institutions work, read an overview of credit union services and structure.
Step 1: Play the Field
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. Some potential factors that might allow you to qualify include:
- Your employer has established a relationship with a credit union, and all employees are allowed to join.
- Community-based credit unions allow anybody who lives in a certain community (a city, state, or another geographic region) to join.
- Family members can open the doors. You may be able to join a credit union based on a relative’s ability to meet membership requirements (even if that person isn’t a member).
- Your occupation, regardless of your employer, might help you qualify.
Joining an organization may also make you eligible for certain credit unions, which makes some credit unions open to just about anybody. You might need to make a modest donation, but you may be able to just 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).
How to find a credit union: 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.
According to Kari Wilfong, CFO/CAO at CO-OP Financial Services, "Everyone has the ability to be a member of a credit union — but find one that meets your needs."
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 as small as $5 to $25. Note that 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 those funds, so keep that in mind as you plan your budget).
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, including:
- 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.
If you're opening business accounts, you'll need additional documentation. Bring your employer identification number (EIN) and any documents showing that your business organization exists (if you're incorporated in any way). Ask the credit union for full details, and get signatures from all required partners.
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.
- Set up direct deposit with your employer so that your earnings go directly to the credit union.
- Use online bill pay at your credit union to make payments electronically and keep a record of all transactions.
- Get your credit union’s app so that you can quickly check your balance and (if possible) make mobile check deposits.
- Set up alerts in your account (text or email) so that you know about any large withdrawals or low-balance situations.
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 an FDIC-insured bank account. However, other types 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).