How to Start Trading Stocks

Finding Digital Solutions
••• Pekic / Getty Images

Whether you want to start trading stocks actively or just want to invest for the long-term, there are things you need to know before starting. Knowing what to expect and what tools you need improves your chances of success. Here's how to start trading stocks.

Key Takeaways

  • Before you get started with trading stocks, it's helpful to understand important terms and concepts.
  • Consider what type of trader you want to be, your finances, and which trading platform you'll use.
  • While it may take some time, trial, and error, you'll eventually learn what works for you, your goals, and your financial situation.

Get to Know the Stock Market

Before you get started trading stocks, it's important to know how the market works. Here are some key terms to know.

  • Stocks: These are the format of ownership stakes in companies.
  • Shares: These are units of stock.
  • Stock price: The price reflects the value of a company and its outlook, as determined by those trading the stock (traders and investors). Stocks don't have set prices. They continually fluctuate as they're bought and sold.
  • Exchange: Stocks trade on exchanges, which have set hours. Most buying and selling of stocks takes place during these hours, although some trading does occur outside these hours. Trading outside of hours is called "pre-market" or "after-hours trading."
  • NYSE: The New York Stock Exchange is the largest stock exchange in the world. Seventy of the biggest corporations in the world are traded on the NYSE, along with thousands of other stocks. Its hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.
  • Nasdaq: The Nasdaq is another stock exchange. All of its trades are done electronically, and its hours are also 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.
  • Ticker symbol: These are one- to five-letter codes used to trade stocks. For example, the ticker symbol for Amazon is AMZN.
  • Bid-ask spread: The price to buy a security is the "ask price." The price to sell a security is the "bid price." The difference between these two is the "bid-ask spread." It's a measure of supply and demand for a given stock as well as a measure of liquidity. A tight bid-ask spread indicates that a stock has good liquidity.
  • Market liquidity: Liquidity means that the stock can be bought or sold quickly at a stable price.
  • Short selling: While many investors buy a stock and sell it later for a profit, it's also possible to sell first, then buy the stock at a lower price. That's called "short selling." Investors can sell first by borrowing the stock.

Decide What Kind of Trader You Are

As you consider how to get started in the stock market, you also need to decide what kind of trader you will be. Do you see yourself trading every day? Do you want to trade a couple of times per week? Or do you want to buy stocks and hold them for the long term?

While there's no right or wrong way to trade, there are risks and rewards to different approaches. Common approaches include:

  • Day trading: Day traders buy and sell stocks throughout the day. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defines pattern day traders as those who execute four or more day trades within five business days. Day traders often use borrowed money, which can lead to debt if the day trading isn't profitable. It has the potential for quick returns.
  • Swing trading: This is a longer-term approach than day trading. Swing traders take trades that last from a day to several weeks. This practice offers relatively quick rewards and less potential for loss than day trading, but it's still a labor-intensive approach.
  • Investing: This is the buying and holding of stocks for the long term, which could be months or even years.

Day trading is a stressful, risky approach to stock trading.

Consider Your Finances

If you want to day trade stocks in the U.S., you need to maintain a balance of at least $25,000 in your account. If that's not possible, it rules out day trading.

Swing trading doesn't have a minimum capital requirement, but to be able to trade stocks of varying prices as opportunities become available, you may want at least $10,000 committed to the endeavor. That helps keep your account balance from being whittled away by broker commissions and fees, which are what a broker charges for trading.

Investing requires less capital. Since trades are held for a long period of time, commissions aren't as much of a factor. Some brokers allow you to buy fractional shares, so you could get started with a relatively small balance.

Save money on commissions by making one trade instead of multiple trades. For example, instead of buying 100 shares every week, save the money for a month and make one large purchase. 

Find a Broker and Trading Platform

A broker facilitates trading between market participants, allowing you to buy stocks from sellers and sell stock to buyers. (There is a buyer and seller for every transaction.) As a trader, you want a broker that is:

  • Low cost: Low commissions and fees
  • Reliable: One that can trade when you want with minimal system outages
  • Honest: Won't steal your money or engage in risky behaviors with it
  • Useful with tools for research: Least important, since there are many free tools available online

If you want to day trade, you may want a few more things in a broker.

  • The broker should execute orders instantly with no intervention on their part. Even a one-second delay is too much.
  • "Trade from chart" capabilities, and/or the ability to rapidly place, adjust, and cancel orders.

There are many brokers, some of which are better for investors, and some which are better for day traders or swing traders. Spend time researching the above factors before choosing a broker.

Each broker offers a trading platform, which is the technology that allows you to view stock quotes, see charts, do research, and, most importantly, place orders. Test out various platforms by opening demo accounts with various brokers. Stock trading has become relatively easy now with trading apps. You can just pick up your iPhone or iPad, log into your brokerage account, and place your trades.

Practice Before You Start Trading

One way to test-drive potential brokers and practice your trading skills is to use a demo or virtual trading account. A virtual trading account simulates trading, but you're not actually spending any money. TD Ameritrade and TradeStation both offer virtual trading accounts.

While making a profit on a virtual platform doesn't necessarily mean that real money profits will come just as easily, it's a valuable tool for learning how trading works and what style fits you the best.

The Bottom Line

Trading stocks is exciting, because it involves risk and reward. Starting to trade is the easy part, though. Be prepared for losses, and don't trade more than you can afford to lose. Over time, you'll learn what works for you, your goals, and your financial situation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you start trading stock options?

Stock options are derivatives, a financial instrument whose performance is based on another investment. For example, Apple options will move according to how Apple stock shares move. Options are high risk/high reward products, and some options expire worthless, so a brokerage probably won't let a beginner stock trader immediately trade options. Brokerages set their own standards, and they'll approve your account when they feel you can handle the risk. In general, having a large account balance and many years of stock trading will help convince brokerages to let you trade options.

When do stock futures start trading?

Stock futures are another derivative product, like options, that allow you to make complex trades on stock indexes. Unlike options, they trade nearly 24 hours per day from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. The futures market opens Sunday at 6 p.m. EST. It trades around the clock except for an hour break every day at 5 p.m. On Friday, that break lasts through Saturday until trading restarts on Sunday. While beginners shouldn't trade futures, anyone can benefit from the extra hours of trading data. Watching what happens overnight can give you a sense of what to expect the next day.