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5 Tips for Picking the Best Student Checking Account

Simon Zhen

For high school graduates, summer is in full swing. But the first college semester is approaching quickly and soon-to-be college freshmen should prepare their finances before arriving on campus.

One major item on the to-do list is to set up a student checking account, which will be the center of a college student's financial life.

Here are some things to consider when students and parents are shopping for a student checking account:

ATM presence. As a college student, it's important to keep cash on hand for emergencies. Therefore, decent access to ATMs to withdraw cash should be a priority when looking for a student checking account.

It's good to research bank and ATM locations on and around campus. Then, see if the same banks have a presence close to home, so parents can deposit cash at a moment's notice. Sure, bank transfers and checks can work, but they usually take several days to post to accounts.

If a college student picks a bank that is on campus and near home, it is less likely he or she will use an out-of-network ATM. Most banks impose a fee for using out-of-network ATMs, and the ATM operator will also add a surcharge. A cash withdrawal at one of these ATMs may cost about $5 in total fees.

Monthly fees. Most checking accounts come with monthly fees that can typically be waived when certain requirements (e.g., direct deposit and/or minimum balances) are met. Many student checking accounts carry monthly fees too.

Luckily, it is rather easy to avoid this fee. At seven of the top 10 U.S. banks, monthly fees on select checking accounts are waived with proof of enrollment in college. Smaller banks may not charge any monthly fees on student checking accounts.

In the event that a preferred bank doesn't offer a student checking account, students may have to go with a regular checking account. In this case, parents and students should evaluate their ability to meet fee-waiver requirements.

Online and mobile banking. It's no surprise that students are among the most receptive consumers of technology, including online and mobile banking. So, feature-packed online and mobile banking platforms will be in high demand for this group of bank customers.

Features such as free online bill pay, mobile check deposit and branch/ATM locators will be very useful for college students. Simply being able to check account balances at a moment's notice will help students manage their money.

While bigger banks already offer comprehensive mobile banking applications, smaller banks may not. A lack of a mobile banking app may prove to be an inconvenience for college students who prefer to access their accounts through their smartphones.

Student account perks.To differentiate a regular checking account from a student checking account, banks often provide special perks that cater to the lifestyles of a college student.

For example, Citibank's student checking account doesn't impose a fee for using a non-Citi ATM. TD Bank will waive the fee for overdraft protection transfers.

Since college students tend to be spontaneous and less mindful of their finances, these benefits can come in handy.

Don't forget online banks. Because they don't have to deal with the costs of operating physical branches, online banks can offer checking accounts that have absolutely no fees. So, there's no need to label them as "student" checking accounts, but these online checking accounts are great for students too.

Online banks tend to have lenient ATM withdrawal policies. Some will reimburse ATM fees, while others offer free ATM access to large ATM networks. One caveat is that there is no way to deposit cash, which prevents parents from easily assisting college students who are in a financial pinch.

Simon Zhen is a columnist and staff writer for MyBankTracker.com, where he covers banking, financial technology and savings rates.

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