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The 9 Best Banks and Credit Unions for College Students

Casey Bond

Of everyone who attended college, few likely think back to those first glorious years of independence with fond memories of their finances. Rather, college is notorious for introducing new adults to -- among other things -- the realities of overdraft fees and insufficient funds notices.

Those realities may never disappear, but students who choose the right bank early on will find that confusing bank fees and uncharted financial waters are much easier to navigate.

Not all financial institutions are focused on meeting the needs of young adults pursuing higher education, but several are. GOBankingRates recently investigated the banking needs of college students and identified the top banks and credit unions meeting them.

3 Biggest Banking Needs of College Students

1. Fee-free products

No one should ever have to choose between a breakfast burrito or a checking account. While some banks waive account fees for maintaining a minimum deposit or having a certain amount of money direct deposited each month, college students traditionally operate on a tight budget. There is no room for excessive banking fees like monthly maintenance or ATM charges -- and no need to pay them.

Fee-free bank accounts, like free checking accounts, have become somewhat rare in recent years. Even so, plenty of institutions still offer banking services without these fees, especially local and online banks, credit unions and national institutions with accounts designed specifically with students in mind.

2. Accessibility

Between spending endless hours on campus and frequent travel for extracurricular activities, it's important that students be able to access their banks from just about anywhere.

"College students may not have a car to get to brick-and-mortar banks, so if there isn't a branch on campus they may be out of luck," says Thomas Nitzsche, spokesman for the credit counseling nonprofit ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. He adds that mobile banking technology -- for instance, the ability to scan checks with a smartphone -- is extremely useful to students.

In fact, the best banks for college students don't have to have thousands of branches across the United States -- many don't have any branches at all. Seventh-ranked Bank X, for example, is an online bank that operates solely online and allows customers to perform all their banking transactions over a computer or smartphone. Whether it's a brick-and-mortar national institution or online bank, the key feature of any student-friendly bank is the ability for students to access their money 24/7, from wherever they might be.

3. Helpful money management tools

The newfound independence that accompanies college life can be overwhelming, especially as students face managing their money for the first time. The best banks and credit unions are not only affordable and accessible, but supportive of this time in young adults' lives when they could use all the guidance they can get.

"Students or young adults who are taking control of their finances for the first time should pick an account that helps them manage their money and takes the thinking out of banking," says PNC Bank spokesman Timothy Stokes. "Their account should be one that helps them make smart choices."

He adds that their banks should have the technology to not only support their saving and spending needs, but educate and guide account holders in their financial decisions.

Many institutions are doing this by developing online money management tools, much like Mint or Manilla, but specific to their customers and products. Others have developed websites dedicated to providing resources and walking students and their parents through the major financial milestones college students face.

9 Best Banks and Credit Unions for College Students in 2014

Chosen for their wide accessibly, student-friendly bank accounts and helpful online and mobile tools, GOBankingRates selected the following nine financial institutions as the best banks and credit unions for colleges students this year:

1. Bank of America -- Charlotte, N.C.

2. Citibank -- New York City

3. Navy Federal Credit Union -- Vienna, Va.

4. Wells Fargo -- San Francisco

5. U.S. Bank -- Minneapolis

6. PNC Bank -- Pittsburgh

7. Bank X -- San Diego

8. Mountain America Credit Union -- West Jordan, Utah

9. TD Bank -- Cherry Hill, N.J.

Casey Bond is the managing editor of gobankingrates.com, a source for the best savings account rates, CD rates, personal finance news and more.

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