Get Up to Speed on the Most Common Types of Banks

What are the Different Types of Banks?

Man using roof of bank as laptop
Banks provide a variety of services, and many of them don't have branch locations. Tim Ellis / Getty Images

When you think of a bank, the first thing that comes to mind might be the place that holds your checking or savings account. But there are several different types of banks, all serving different types of needs.

You might not have heard of all of these banks, but each institution probably plays some part in your everyday life. Different banks specialize in different areas, which makes sense – you want your local bank to put everything they can into serving you and your community (and online banks can do their thing without the overhead of managing multiple branch locations).

Types of Banks

Some of the most common banks are listed below, but the dividing lines are not always clean cut. Some banks work in multiple areas (for example, a bank might offer personal accounts, business accounts, and even help large enterprises raise money in the financial markets).

  • Retail banks are probably the banks you’re most familiar with: Your checking and savings accounts are held at a retail bank, which focuses on consumers (or the general public) as customers. These banks give you credit cards, offer loans, and they’re the ones with numerous branch locations in populated areas. Learn more about retail banks.
  • Commercial banks focus on business customers. Businesses need checking and savings accounts just like individuals do. But they also need more complex services, and the dollar amounts (or ​the number of transactions) can be much larger. They might need to accept payments from customers, rely heavily on lines of credit to manage cash flow, and they might use letters of credit to do business overseas. Learn more about commercial banking.
  • Investment banks help businesses work in financial markets. If a business wants to go public or sell debt to investors, they’ll often use an investment bank. Learn more about investment banks.
  • Central banks manage the monetary system for a government. For example, the Federal Reserve Bank is the US central bank responsible for managing economic activity and supervising banks. Learn more about central banks.
  • Credit unions are similar to banks, but they are not-for-profit organizations owned by their customers (most banks are owned by investors). Credit unions offer products and services more or less identical to most retail and commercial banks. The main difference is that credit union members share some characteristic in common (where they live, their occupation, or organizations they belong to, for example). Learn more about credit unions.
  • Online banks operate entirely online – there are no physical branch locations available to visit with a teller or personal banker. Many brick-and-mortar banks also offer online services, such as the ability to view accounts and pay bills online, but internet-only banks are different: they often offer competitive rates on savings accounts and they’re especially likely to offer free checking. Learn more about internet-only banking.
  • Mutual banks are similar to credit unions because they are owned by members (or customers) instead of outside investors.
  • Savings and loans are less prevalent than they used to be, but they are still important. This type of bank was important in making home ownership mainstream, using deposits from customers to fund home loans. The name savings and loan refers to the core activity they perform: take savings from one customer and make loans to another. Learn more about savings and loans.

    Non-Bank Lenders

    Non-bank lenders are increasingly popular sources for loans. Technically, they’re not banks, but your experience as a borrower might be similar: you’d apply for a loan and repay as if you were working with a bank.

    These institutions specialize in lending, and they are not interested in all of the other activities and regulations that apply to traditional banks. Sometimes known as marketplace lenders, non-bank lenders get funding from investors (both individual investors and larger organizations).

    For consumers shopping for loans, non-bank lenders are often attractive – they may use different approval criteria than traditional banks, and rates are often competitive.

    Bank Changes Since the Financial Crisis

    The financial crisis of 2008 changed the banking world dramatically. Before the crisis, banks enjoyed some good times, but the chickens came home to roost.

    Banks were lending money to borrowers who could not afford to repay and getting away with it because home prices kept rising (among other things). They were also investing aggressively to increase profits, but the risks became reality during the Great Recession.

    New regulations: The Dodd-Frank Act changed much of that by making broad changes to financial regulation. Retail banking – along with other markets – is now regulated by a new, additional watchdog: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This entity gives consumers a centralized place to lodge complaints, learn about their rights, and get help. Moreover, the Volcker Rule makes retail banks behave more like they did before the housing bubble – they take deposits from customers and invest conservatively, and there are limits on the type of speculative trading banks can engage in.

    Consolidation: There are fewer banks – especially investment banks – since the financial crisis. Big name investment banks failed (Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in particular) while others reinvented themselves. The FDIC reports that there were 414 bank failures between 2008 and 2011, compared to three in 2007 and zero in 2006. In most cases, a failed bank is simply taken over by another bank (and customers are not inconvenienced as long as they stay below FDIC insurance limits). The result is that weaker banks were absorbed by larger banks, and you don’t have as many names to choose from.