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Which features should you look for in a chequing account?

When looking for and comparing chequing accounts, one of the first things you should do is determine your everyday banking needs. Based on your needs, different chequing account features will be more or less important.

Here are seven chequing account features to consider:

1. Included transactions

First, you’ll want to consider the total number and types of transactions included with the accounts you’re comparing.

Some chequing accounts offer unlimited transactions while others impose limits, usually around 12 or 25 transactions per month (which you can technically exceed but at a cost of a few extra dollars; typically around $1.25 per additional transaction). The fees for additional transactions can add up quick, so if you plan to use your debit card for the majority of your everyday purchases, you’ll want to be acutely aware of any associated limits or fees.

The types of transactions included can also differ depending on the account. Usually, debit purchases and ATM withdrawals are considered generic transactions while teller-assisted transactions completed at a physical bank branch or over the phone may be allocated separate limits.

Depending on the bank and the account, Interac e-transfers may also be considered a separate type of transaction and have their own designated monthly limits and fees.

The more variety and number of transactions included in an account typically results in an increased monthly fee (or conversely, a higher minimum balance if you’re trying to get the fee rebated).

Ideally, you’ll want an account that has the most number of included transactions for the lowest monthly cost. There are a number of chequing accounts that offer unlimited debit transactions for no monthly fees, though most are offered by online-only banks that don’t have dedicated bank branches, offer access to fewer ABM machines, and may impose additional fees for assisted transactions. Depending on your banking needs and habits, those limitations may or may not be a dealbreaker.

2. Monthly fees

Depending on the chequing account and bank in question, there may be an associated monthly account fee.

When it comes to the big banks, monthly fees usually range anywhere from $3.95 for basic bank accounts that offer a limited number of monthly transactions and few frills, to upwards of $30.95 for premium accounts which come with unlimited transactions and built-in side perks (like free cheque books, free money orders, a safety deposit box, and more).

You’ll want to strike the right balance between fees and number of included transactions. For instance, you may want to go for a basic account just for the low $3.95 monthly fee, but if you make over 35 debt transactions per month on average, you would exceed the allotted number of transactions and rack up over $30 in total fees at the end of the month.

As we cover in the section below, you can have these monthly fees completely rebated as long as you maintain a certain minimum balance.

Additionally, there are online-only banks and challenger brands that don’t charge any monthly account fees.

3. Fee rebates and minimum balance

As we touched on above, while many chequing accounts have a monthly fee (specifically, accounts offered by Canada’s big five banks), in most cases, you can have the fee completely rebated as long as you maintain a minimum balance.

For example, many premium accounts have a monthly fee of around $30.95 that can be completely rebated for each and every month you maintain a minimum balance of at least $5,000. If you drop below the $5,000 minimum balance (even if it’s just by $1), the fee will kick in for that one particular month.

If you have the cash on hand to maintain the required minimum balance, you can have the advantages offered by more premium accounts without paying anything extra out of pocket.

In some cases, you could also have the monthly account fee rebated if you have bundled multiple products with the provider (such as a mortgage or insurance product). You may also receive full or partial rebates on a chequing account if you’re a student or senior.

Instead of rebates, some providers may offer specialized accounts for youths, students or seniors that have no or low monthly fees. These accounts typically offer transactions that are of interest to certain groups of people, such as unlimited self-serve transactions for students or free paper statements for seniors.

4. ABM network and fees

ABMs (automated banking machines) are by far the easiest way to deposit and withdraw cash. And using an ABM from your own bank won’t result in fees - as long as you’re not exceeding any monthly transaction limits imposed by your account of course.

However, using an ABM which isn’t owned by your bank will cost you extra. To make things worse, fees are usually charged by both banks. For example, your bank may charge its own non-network fee while the bank the ABM belongs to will impose its own operator fee. Each provider will usually charge around $1.50 to $2, so fees can add up to between $3 or $4 each time you use an ABM from a different bank. It’s worth noting though, some premium chequing accounts do waive the non-network fee, so you would only owe $1.50 - $2.00 on one side of the transaction from the other bank.

Generally, when looking at a chequing account, you’ll want to take into consideration how large the ABM network is and whether there’s an ABM within your neighbourhood.

In the case of chequing accounts from online-only banks, you’ll usually have free access to ABMs under The Exchange Network - which represents a consolidated network of over 3,500 ABMs from dozens of digital banks and credit unions.

5. Other chequing account services

Beyond just debit transactions, e-transfers, and ABM access, there are other features you’ll want to look into that may influence your choice of account. Think services like requesting cheque books or money orders, opening a safety deposit box, and additional coverage in the form of overdraft protection.

Depending on the account, these services may either have their own associated fee (i.e. cheque books can easily cost $50 each) or they may be included for free. Usually, the more premium account, the more likely these features will be built in as complementary features. Something to consider.

While on the topic, virtually all of Canada’s big banks offer premium chequing accounts that will rebate the annual fee on one of their associated credit cards. For instance, if you open Ultimate Package from Scotiabank, you can get the annual fee waived for any one of the bank’s following four credit cards: Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite ($139 annual fee); Scotiabank Gold American Express ($120 annual fee), Scotiabank Momentum Visa Infinite ($120 annual fee), or the Scotiabank Value Visa ($29 annual fee).

It’s worth noting though, these premium accounts do have higher monthly fees (usually around $30.95) which can be fully rebated as long as you maintain a minimum balance (usually $5,000).

6. Interest and rewards

Still a relatively niche perk, a handful of chequing accounts do offer rewards - either in the form of interest on the balance held in the account or as points earned on debit transactions.

The interest rate or points offered by these chequing accounts usually pale in comparison to what you would earn from a high-interest savings account or rewards credit card, but still represents an added advantage that can help you earn a marginal amount of savings back every year.

We’re not saying your choice of account should ultimately hinge on these rewards-like features, but rather, they can help narrow down your choice between two otherwise very similar accounts.

7. Ways to bank

Having a chequing account that’s accessible via various devices or methods is another feature that should be looked into. Typical banking options include: in-branch transactions, telephone, ABM, online, and through an app. Some online chequing account providers don’t have branches and therefore in-branch teller-assisted transactions aren’t available.

If you require teller assistance, make sure teller-assisted transactions are included in your plan. Depending on the provider, some also offer the ability to deposit cheques on your phone by taking a picture. To determine which chequing account is right for you, try and pinpoint the most common methods you use to conduct banking transactions to find a provider who offers those services. If you rarely-ever step into a bank branch, then a no fee chequing account from an online-only bank could be the right fit. On the other hand, if you're looking to bundle multiple financial products with one provider and don't want to manage accounts from different banks at the same time, a chequing account from a big bank may be the better option.

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