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How to Choose an Online Brokerage

Blain Reinkensmeyer

The StockBrokers.com annual review (9 years running) takes six months to complete and produces over 30,000 words of research each year. Here's how we test.

When looking for a new online broker, make sure you meet your most important needs as an investor. Are low-cost trade commissions most important? What about customer service, the trade platform, mobile trading, active trading, or a community to trade alongside? With many brokers specializing in different areas, it is vital to evaluate and compare all the possibilities.

Here is a list of the most important factors to remember when selecting an online brokerage.

How to Choose an Online Brokerage

Trading Costs - When trading stocks online, it is important to understand what the costs are to place buy or sell orders. Most online brokers charge a flat rate to buy and sell. That said, other miscellaneous day trading costs can be incurred for direct routing fees or accessing market data. If you are investing in a IRA account, it is important to avoid choosing a broker that charges annual IRA fees.

Trading Tools - One of the most common misconceptions newer investors have is that low trading costs are the most important consideration. This couldn't be further from the truth. Having access to a fully featured desktop-based or web-based trading platform can make a big difference, especially when conducting technical analysis.

Investment Products - Are you only trading stocks online, or are you interested in ETFs, mutual funds, options, futures, and forex too? In the United States, different regulations are required for brokers who support more complex asset classes. Beyond trading different assets classes, having access to online banking and advanced order types, such as conditional orders, are also considerations.

Mobile Trading - Managing a stock brokerage account on the go is certainly important for traders who travel and frequently use their smartphones. While nearly all online brokerages offer mobile trading apps, not all are created equal. Features can vary dramatically.

Customer Service - 24/7 support is important to some investors, while others may just want to use online chat during regular market hours or receive an email back within one business day. Having access to quality customer support can really be the cherry on the top of a great client experience, especially during market crises like a flash crash.

Stock Analysis - Conducting fundamental research is critical to successful long-term investing. SEC filings, short interest, corporate debt levels, earnings growth, and more are all examples of important criteria to be investigated during fundamental investment research.

Regulation - Stock brokers based in the United States and governed by US law will be regulated by the SEC and must be members of FINRA and SIPC. The easiest way to verify whether your online brokerage is regulated is to scroll to the footer of their homepage and read their disclosures. Using the FINRA broker check tool is another easy way to verify proper compliance.

Banking Services - Online brokerage accounts are not limited to just stock trading. Instead, customers can take advantage of banking services offered by full-service brokerages (this is where Merrill Edge shines). Some online brokers offer checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, and more with deposits of up to $250,000 backed by the FDIC.

Account Security - Fortunately, today’s investors don’t have much to worry about when it comes to account security as long they choose a brokerage that is large, well known, and properly regulated. Reference our list above or below for a sampling. Every website should be secured with SSL encryption, and client data should be stored in secure servers. Dual-factor authentication and Touch ID are other security protocols quickly growing in popularity.

Order Execution - It is important to understand how your order is routed and executed. Make no mistake, there is a wide variation between quality execution and poor execution. Unfortunately, most online stock traders can't tell the difference.

International Trading - The US stock market is the most respected in the world. If you are living in the US and want to trade internationally, or are living abroad and want to trade stocks online with a US-regulated brokerage, you must do your research beforehand and find a broker that supports your requirements.

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Blain Reinkensmeyer

About the author: Blain Reinkensmeyer As Head of Research at StockBrokers.com, Blain Reinkensmeyer has 18 years of trading experience with over 1,000 trades placed during that time. Referenced as a leading expert on the US online brokerage industry, Blain has been quoted in The New York Times, Forbes, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.


All pricing data was obtained from a published web site as of 02/18/2019 and is believed to be accurate, but is not guaranteed. For stock trade rates, advertised pricing is for a standard order size of 500 shares of stock priced at $30 per share. For options orders, an options regulatory fee per contract may apply.

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