At first glance, a credit union appears to be the same as a bank, but there are some key differences which can impact whether it is the right choice for you. Credit unions are non profit financial institutions that are owned by their members.
As a credit union member, you can access many of the same products and services offered by a traditional bank, such as checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and loans.
Unlike banks, which aim to produce profits for their shareholders, credit unions offer competitive products for their members, reinvesting profits into their product line to further enhance their services.
However, in order to access these services, you do need to become a member and this means that you’ll need to meet the eligibility requirements for the specific credit union, which we will discuss in more detail.
What’s Generally Needed for Credit Union Membership?
The members of a credit union must have something in common to join. You’ll need to meet the specific eligibility requirements to open an account, which can differ across different credit unions. However, some of the common requirements include:
- Employees of an Organization or Group: Many credit unions are designed for employees of a specific organization or a group of organizations. For example, there are credit unions that are only open to federal employees and their immediate family members.
- Industry or Field: This is a little different from the above point, as you can qualify for some credit unions by working in a particular field or industry.
- Special Common Background: There are credit unions that are for groups with a common, special background. For example, the Navy Federal Credit Union is open to active and retired U.S Defense Department and Military personnel and their families.
- Geographical Location: This is one of the most common membership requirements for credit unions. You’ll need to live, work or worship in a specific community or area.
However, even if you meet the specific membership criteria, credit unions are still financial institutions. This means that you will also need the same documents that you typically need to open a bank account. This includes a government issued ID to confirm your identity, proof of address, such as a utility bill and your Social Security Number.
Credit Unions (Almost) Anyone Can Join
If you don’t meet the requirements of group specific credit unions above, there are still some options that could be available to you. There are some popular credit unions that open to almost anyone. These include:
1. Alliant Credit Union
Alliant Credit Union offers a wide variety of financial products including:
- Interest bearing checking accounts
- High interest savings accounts
- Home loans
- Personal loans
- Vehicle loans
Alliant is available to current or retired employees of Alliant partners, or their immediate family members. The Alliant Credit Union is also open to those who live or work in one of the communities near its Chicago Corporate Headquarters. However, if you are not eligible through these options, you can still join Alliant by becoming a member of Foster Care to Success or FC2S.
FC2S serves U.S foster teens with a focus on those who are aging out of the system. It awards grants and scholarships with care packages, internships, and mentoring. There is a one time $5 membership fee to join FC2S, but Alliance may cover this on your behalf.
Those who live outside the United States can also become a member if they hold a Social Security Number or have an unexpired ITIN.
Alliant Credit Union Pros & Cons
Interest Bearing Checking
Age Restrictions for Kids Savings Accounts
Large ATM Network
Paper Statement Fee
ATM Fee Rebates
With a traditional bank, it is quite unusual to get an interest bearing checking account unless you carry a high balance.
However, the Alliant checking account offers a decent rate with no minimum balance requirements or monthly service fees. You simply need to make one or more electronic deposits into the account each month to earn dividends on your balance.
Alliant offers high yield savings and other saving account options that offer highly competitive rates.
Members can access over 80,000 fee free ATM locations. Participating ATMs are available at some banks, grocery stores, and convenience stores. However, deposits are not accepted at all locations.
If you don’t have access to a fee free ATM, you can receive up to $20 per month in fee rebates. These can be applied to withdrawals, deposits, balance inquiries, and transfers.
Alliant does not have a physical branch network. So, you will need to be prepared to conduct all your banking activity by phone, online or using the mobile app.
If you opt for a paper statement, there is a fee of $1 per month.
If you want to open a kids savings account for your child, it must be opened before they turn 12.
2. NASA Federal
NASA Federal offers a variety of checking and savings accounts, along with a limited selection of credit card options. You can access the NASA Federal credit union if:
- You’re a current or retired NASA employee
- You're married to or a relative of a NASA credit union member
- You’re a member of one of the the NASA credit union associations
- You’re a member of the National Space Society.
This last member requirement is likely to be the easiest route of entry for most people as anyone can join the National Space Society. Membership starts at $25 and you can also support advances in space development.
The great thing about NASA Federal is that it makes it simple to complete the entire application online. It takes less than one hour to complete the application form and become a member.
NASA Federal Pros & Cons
Impressive Selection of Products
Superb CD Selection
Lack of Locations
Low Loan Rates
Reward Credit Card
NASA Federal aism to offer products and services that fit your specific financial goals to help you achieve your financial aspirations
You can select a CD term of six months to 60 months, with rates tiered to incentivize taking on a longer term. This allows you to earn far more than is typically available with traditional banks.
NASA Federal offers a variety of loan products with low rates, particularly on the auto loans. This could make the difference between struggling to qualify and driving away in your dream car
NASA Federal has a selection of credit cards including a reward card that offers points towards cash back and gift cards for everyday purchases
There are some customer complaints about fee and charge errors on consumer review sites.
While complaints about financial institutions are commonplace, there is an apparent pattern of random charges, which could suggest an underlying issue
This is fairly common with many credit unions, but NASA Federal has limited locations, so you will need to conduct your business online or via phone.
3. Consumer Credit Union
Consumer Credit Union is a well established credit union dating back to 1930. This credit union is based in Illinois and has a number of branches throughout the Chicago suburbs. It offers a wide variety of consumer products including saving accounts, checking accounts, home loans, auto loans, CDs, IRAs and credit cards.
While you can access these banking services if you live near a branch in Illinois, the Consumer Credit Union is available nationwide. All you need to do is become a member of the Consumers Cooperative Association. This membership is available for a modest $5 fee and it allows you to perform some banking activities through partner organizations.
Consumer Credit Union Pros & Cons
Rewards Checking is a Little Confusing
Vast ATM Network
Low Savings APY
High APY Checking Account
Low Minimum Balance Requirements
Consumer Credit Union is available to anyone in the U.S provided you pay the $5 Consumer Cooperative Association membership fee.
As part of the Consumer Cooperative Association, members of the Consumer Credit Union can access a network of over 30,000 ATMs.
Likewise, while the official Consumer Credit Union branches are all in Illinois, you can access over 5,000 shared credit union branches
One of the main draws of the Consumer Credit Union is its Rewards Checking account. This is a tiered reward account that allows you to earn more on your balance if you meet the various tier requirements.
You need to maintain a balance of just $5+ in your savings account to maintain membership status.
While it can be rewarding, the Rewards Checking is a little complicated. You need to meet various requirements to qualify for each tier and thereby a bump in the APY rate
If you’re looking for money market accounts, you may find that the minimum requirements are higher than comparable products with other financial institutions.
While the checking account does give you access to a variety of financial products, the Consumer Credit Union savings rate is abysmally low, particularly when compared to the rates offered with online banks.
4. Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union
Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union is one of the 100 largest credit unions in the US. It has been operating since 1934, and has grown to 28 locations with over 230,000 members. Affinity Plus offers checking, savings, money market and CD accounts. The credit union also offers IRAs and lending products.
Membership is open to:
- Those who live, work or worship in Arden Hills, New Brighton, Mounds View, Roseville, Shoreview, St Anthony and downtown Minneapolis/St Paul.
- Employees of the State of Minnesota, any organization receiving funding from the State of Minnesota or University of Minnesota students, alumni and employees.
However, even if you’re not in the Minnesota area, you can become a member of Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union if you make a one time lifetime dues payment to the Affinity Plus Foundation. This is currently a reasonable $25.
Affinity Plus Federal Pros & Cons
Low Account Minimums
Checks Not Available With All Checking Accounts
No Loan Origination Fees
Higher Associated Membership Fee
You can maintain a savings account with just $0.01, while you can access CDs with an initial deposit of $500+.
Even if you’re taking out student loans, there are no origination fees or admin fees.
All members are automatically enrolled in the MyPlus Rewards program where you can earn points towards gift cards and other rewards with everyday banking activity.
While it is possible to speak to an agent if you want to apply for a loan, you can complete the entire process online, which makes it very convenient.
While other credit unions offer access to their membership with a fee of $5, the $25 dues required for Affinity Plus are significantly higher.
While some of the checking account options have no minimums or fees, they may not offer checks.
5. First Tech Credit Union
First Tech Credit Union may not have been operating as long as some of the others on our list, but it has developed into an impressive organization. First Tech has been operating since 1952, but its aim was to be integrated with technological innovations. They were using computers and ATMs in the 1970s, had a 24 hour helpline in 1985 and was one of the first credit unions to offer mobile banking.
First Tech offers a variety of checking and savings accounts, IRAs, auto loans, home loans, and CDs. The requirements to join include:
- Working for one of the First Tech company sponsors
- Working for the state of Oregon
- Living or working in Lane County, Oregon
- Have a family member who is a First Tech member
- Have membership to the Computer History Museum
- Be a member of the Financial Fitness Association.
These last two requirements make this credit union open to practically anyone.
First Tech Credit Union Pros & Cons
Low Minimum Opening Deposits
You Need a Membership Savings Account First
Access to 30,000+ ATMs
Costly Overdraft Fees
Partner Credit Union Branches
Online Virtual Appointments
You can open a checking account with just $0.01, and the Rewards Checking account has no minimum deposit. Additionally, there are no monthly fees.
Due to the shared network, First Tech members can access over 30,000 fee free ATMs.
There are over 5,000 partner credit union branches, where you can walk in to make a deposit or withdrawal.
If you can’t get to a branch, you can organize a virtual appointment online.
Before you can access any of the other First Tech products, you need to open a membership savings account. This may slow down organizing your banking.
While the standard overdraft fee is not that different to many standard banks, First Tech can charge an overdraft fee up to five times in a day.
This can add up to $165 in charges in one day for slipping into unauthorized borrowing.
6. Connexus Credit Union
Connexus Credit Union is based in Wisconsin and offers a variety of banking products and services including checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home loans, and retirement accounts.
Membership is available to employees, family members, students, retirees and student alumni of participating groups and residents of various counties and communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio.
However, you can also become a member if you make a one time $5 donation to Connexus Association, which provides financial literacy education and scholarships.
Connexus Pros & Cons
Interest Bearing Checking Account
Low Basic Savings Rate
No Monthly Fees
Large ATM Network
If you fulfill a couple of requirements, you can earn an impressive rate on your checking account balance.
There are no monthly fees on Connexus checking or savings accounts.
Connexus members can access a large network of fee free ATMs. There are over 54,000 machines located around the country.
You can also access over 6,000 shared branches if you need to perform any transactions in person.
The basic savings rate is not particularly competitive and you can find higher savings rates with other banks.
If there is no activity on a checking or savings account over a set number of months and the balance is less than $100, you can incur a $5 inactivity fee.
7. Bethpage Federal Credit Union
Bethpage Federal Credit Union is a New York based full service credit union offering a variety of financial products and services. This includes checking accounts, saving accounts, CDs, money market accounts, home loans, auto loans, credit cards, IRAs, insurance and business accounts.
Bethpage Federal has more than 30 branch locations in New York City and across Long Island. However, membership is not exclusive to specific groups or individuals. You can become a member simply by opening a $5 savings account.
If you’re outside the New York area, you can use the CO-OP Shared Branch Network or use the Bethpage virtual visit feature.
Bethpage Federal Pros & Cons
Full Service Banking Options
Low Savings APY
No Monthly Service Fees
Limited Branch Access
No Membership Restrictions
Free Financial Education Resources
Bethpage Federal Credit Union has a comprehensive product line, which can cover almost all your anticipated banking needs, including some business banking options.
The Bethpage Federal accounts have no monthly service fees or charges.
Unlike many credit unions where you need to pay dues to join a partnership association, anyone can open up a $5 savings account with Bethpage.
Members can access these resources with no fees or charges to help you in reaching your financial goals.
While the deposit accounts have fairly competitive yields, it is easy to find other banks offering higher rates.
Outside of Long Island, you will be relying on the CO-OP shared branch network.
Where Can You Find A Credit Union In Your Area?
If you’re unsure if you have a credit union in your area, you can check the online locator provided by the National Credit Union Administration. This allows you to search in your local area and check the eligibility requirements.
What Exactly Is The Distinction Between A Credit Union And A Bank?
While they may appear to offer similar products and services, the key difference between a credit union and a bank is that credit unions are non for profit institutions, while banks aim to make profit for their shareholders.
What Are The Advantages Of Joining A Credit Union?
The main advantages of joining a credit union is that you can access highly competitive products and services. Since credit unions don’t make a profit for shareholders, any profits are funneled back into the credit union. This means that you can access higher rates on your funds and you could qualify for low rate loans
Do Credit Unions Help People Build Credit?
It is possible that joining a credit union could help you to build your credit. Credit unions report repayments to the major credit bureaus.
However, they also often offer financial education resources and credit counseling that could help you to get your finances back on track.
Is It Difficult To Join A Credit Union?
This depends on the credit union. You will need to meet the membership requirements, but as we’ve discussed, there are many credit unions with flexible requirements. However, credit unions are still financial institutions, so if you want to open an account you will still need to provide proof of your identity and home address.
Is It True That The Best Credit Unions Are Also The Largest?
Not necessarily. It is more important to find a credit union that has membership requirements that you can meet and that provides the products and services you’re looking for
Is It Possible To Join A Credit Union Online?
This depends on the credit union, but there are many credit unions that have a decent online portal that makes it easy to apply for membership and open an account without needing to phone or go into a branch.
Is The Money In Your Credit Union Account Secure?
Most deposits held in credit unions accounts have National Credit Union Administration insurance. This is backed by the federal government and offers individual customers up to $250,000 in coverage for their deposits.