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To help readers, we've built a glossary page summarizing 21 of the most commonly requested features and fees. For a deeper dive, use the online broker comparison tool.
- Account Basics
- Stock Trading Fees
- Options Trading Fees
- Retirement Services Fees
- Banking Services
- Clearing Firms
Minimum Deposit: The minimum amount of money required to open a new online brokerage account. Many brokers require a minimum deposit to open a new online broker account. Minimum deposit fees can be as low as $500, to as high as $10,000, or more. It all depends on which broker you are selecting to open a new account with.
Virtual Trading: Not every investor is ready to jump right in the water and trade stocks and options with real money. Because of this, online brokers will often offer virtual trading so clients can practice trading first. With virtual trading, also known as simulated trading, investors are given a practice portfolio of fake money alongside access to the broker's trade platform. Using delayed quotes, clients can then trade both stocks, options, and even forex and futures if they're offered. Some investors use virtual trading to test new strategies out while trading with real capital.
Commission Free ETFs: Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are very popular for investors due to their low management fees, flexibility to be traded like equities, and their effectiveness in replicating the performance of a given index or sector. Thousands of ETFs exist in the ETF universe. Online brokers, in their effort to separate themselves from the competition, began offering commission-free ETFs. Traditional ETFs cost the standard equity trade rate for buys and sells. In most cases, commission free ETFs have no trading cost associated with buying or selling unless the investors sell them before a certain time period, typically within 30 - 60 days. This varies from broker to broker.
No-Load Mutual Funds: Mutual funds are either load or no load. Investopedia defines a load as, "A sales charge or commission charged to an investor when buying or redeeming shares in a mutual fund. The fee may be a one-time charge at the time the investor buys into the mutual fund (front-end load), when the investor redeems the mutual fund shares (back-end load), or on an annual basis as a 12b-1 fee." In simple terms, loads are marketing fees. In today's world of investing, loaded funds can be easily avoided thanks to no-load funds and ETFs. Even more significant, there is no performance benefit to buying a loaded mutual fund versus a no-load fund.
|Online Broker||Minimum Deposit||Paper Trading||Commission-Free ETFs||Mutual Funds (No Load)|
Stock Trading Fees
Stock Trade Fee (Flat): Flat fee trading means the broker charges a single rate no matter how many shares are purchased or what stock is purchased. This is the most common and what most brokerages use.
Stock Trade Fee (Per Share): A per share rate means that a price is charged for every share traded. Most active trading brokers use this commission structure. Since most brokers do not offer a per share commission plan, these brokers are listed with "N/A" throughout the site.
Broker Assisted Trade Fee: When clients do not have access to the internet, or are trying to trade a specialty security, a broker assisted trade can be placed via phone to execute the order. Broker assisted trades are different than Interactive Voice Response (IVR) trades. IVR trades allow clients to simply use their phone to place a trade without human assistance, whereas a broker assisted trade is placed by a licensed broker live.
Mutual Fund Trade Fee: Mutual fund trades can be placed via phone or online, or either method depending on the broker. Alternatively, some online brokerages do not offer mutual fund trading at all. The commission charged to place a mutual fund trade depends first on the type of fund you are trading. No Transaction Fee (NTF) mutual funds do not charge a trade fee, for example, but can charge an early redemption fee if you sell the fund too quickly (typically within 60 - 90 days). The online broker mutual fund trade costs listed below are the standard published rates listed by the brokers. These cover the majority of mutual funds including load and no-load funds.
|Online Broker||Stock Trade Fee (per trade)||Stock Trade Fee (per share)||Broker Assisted Trades Fee||Mutual Fund Trade Fee|
Options Trading Fees
See also: 5 Best Options Brokers.
Options Trading Base Fee: When trading options online through an online brokerage, most brokers will charge a base fee per trade + a per contract fee. Other brokers, specifically active trading brokers, typically charge only a per contract fee and no base fee. Brokers that do not charge a base rate are listed as "$0.00" throughout the site.
Options Trading Per Contract Fee: Most online brokers charge a base option fee and then a commission for each individual contract. Some brokers have multiple tiers or several different commission structures for options trading to give clients flexibility in their rates depending on how many contracts they trade.
Options Trading Exercise Fee: Online brokers charge an exercise fee to clients who decide to exercise an option instead of closing the option itself. The term exercise is defined as (source thinkorswim), "Exercise is the term used when the owner of a call or put (i.e. someone who has a long position in a call or put) uses his right to buy (in the case of a call) or sell (in the case of a put) the stock."
Options Trading Assignment Fees: Online brokers charge an assignment fee to clients who have the stock from an option automatically sold or bought due to the option they were holding being exercised. The term assignment is defined as (source thinkorswim), "Assignment is the term used when someone who is short a call or put is forced to sell (in the case of the call) or buy (in the case of a put) the stock. Remember, for every option trade there is a buyer and a seller, so if you are short an option, there is someone out there who is long that option and who could exercise."
|Online Broker||Options Base Fee||Options Per Contract Fee||Options Exercise Fee||Options Assignment Fee|
Retirement Services Fees
IRA Annual Fee: All online brokers offer IRA accounts as one of the many account types available for clients. When opening a new IRA account, it is important to check with the brokerage to make sure you understand if there is a yearly fee to keep the account opened. Most brokers do not charge an annual IRA fee to clients, but some do.
IRA Closure Fee: For any new IRA account, clients should understanding if there is a fee charged to close the account. Many brokers will not charge clients an IRA closure fee, but some do. Also note, if you are switching online brokers, brokers often reimburse you for the transfer fee as a new account promotion. The table below breaks down all online broker IRA closure fees.
No Fee IRAs: Online brokers that do not charge any annual maintenance fees for retirement accounts are considered brokers that offer no-fee IRAs.
|Online Broker||IRA Annual Fee||IRA Closure Fee||No Fee IRAs|
Checking & Savings Accounts: Being able to have a checking and savings account with your online broker is a nice convenience. Not only can you then trade stocks, options, etc but you can also write checks right out of the brokerage account.
Credit Cards & Debit Cards: The convenience of being able to have a debit or credit card alongside your online broker account is nice. While not many brokerages offer formal banking services such as these, there are some that do. The main reason this is possible is by the broker being a subsidiary of a larger organization. ShareBuilder and Merrill Edge, for example, are a part of Capital One and Bank of America, respectively.
Mortgages: There are not too many online brokers that also offer clients access to formal home loans and mortgage financing. This is because brokerages tend to stick to what they know best, online trading of stocks and options. That said, there are several US brokers that also offer formal mortgage services through their banking arm.
|Online Broker||Checking Accounts||Savings Accounts||Credit Cards||Debit Cards||Mortgage Loans|
All trades must be cleared by a clearing house or firm. Investopedia defines a clearing firm as, "An organization associated with an exchange to handle the confirmation, settlement and delivery of transactions, fulfilling the main obligation of ensuring transactions are made in a prompt and efficient manner."
There are a large number of clearing firms (see this list from the CME Group), and with online brokers, especially larger ones, it is very common for them to self-clear. By self-clearing trades, brokerages gain valuable control and operational synergies, all while cutting net costs and increasing their margins. The upfront costs are significant but the advantages are widespread.
Here is a list of the clearing firms used by the most common online stock and option brokers.
|Online Broker||Clearing Firm|
|Ally Invest||Apex Clearing|
|Cobra Trading||Wedbush Securities and Interactive Brokers|
|ChoiceTrade||Electronic Transaction Clearing|
|Fidelity||National Financial (Fidelity)|
|Just2Trade||COR Clearing LLC & Vision Financial Markets|
|Lightspeed||Wedbush and Interactive Brokers|
|Merrill Edge||Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith|
|SpeedTrader||ETC and COR Clearing|
|TD Ameritrade||TD Ameritrade Clearing Inc.|