Update for 2020: Several major brokerage firms have recently announced they will no longer be charging commissions for standard US-based stocks and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). We have updated our rankings based on this new information. It’s exciting to see how the online brokerage community has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. This innovation is great for investors who like to participate in online stock trading.
The competition has forced innovation, cheap online stock trades, and additional features to track gains, losses and more such as:
- Educational and Training Centers
- Free Webinars
- Chat Rooms and Forums
- Social Networking
- Free Tax Software
Not all of these features are available at all discount brokerage firms, and some stockbrokers offer better value than others.
Our goal is to show you some of the best values in the discount brokerage space and show you some of the top features they offer.
We have focused on the more popular firms that consistently appear in the industry awards reviews, including those by SmartMoney and Kiplinger’s.
This brokerage comparison chart will give you some basic information on pricing structures, and below the comparison chart are some unique features about each of these online brokerage firms.
Hopefully, you can use this information to find the discount online brokerage who is best for your needs.
Best Online Discount Brokerages
|Discount Brokerage Firm||Cost Per|
|$0.00||$0.00 + $0.50|
|$0.00||$0.00 + $0.65|
|$0.00||$0.00 + $0.00|
|$0.00||$0.00 + $0.65|
($0.00 + $0.50 for active traders)
Comparing Discount Brokerage Features
To determine which broker is right for you, we suggest evaluating your trading habits and needs and comparing various features such as:
- Available Investments
- Account Types (IRA, taxable accounts, 529 plans, trusts, banking services, and more)
- Commissions (cost per trade)
- Options Trading (availability, and cost per option)
- Online only vs. Brick & Mortar
- Availability of Broker Assisted Trades
- Maintenance Fees, if any (most investment providers on this list do not charge any additional fees)
- Education & Investment Training
- Tax Software for tracking investments, long term & short term capital gains, and tax-loss harvesting
- Customer Service
More in-depth information on these topics follows the overviews of our favorite discount brokerages.
Highest Rated Discount Brokerages
Each of these brokers has some features which set it apart from the others, but generally, our recommendations are as follows:
Ally Bank acquired TradeKing, which is a personal favorite of mine. I opened my TradeKing account almost 10 years ago!
Thankfully, they transitioned into good hands. Ally Bank brings a tradition of excellence in the banking industry, and I’m excited to see where they take this partnership.
Ally Invest offers the following features:
- a slick and easy to use interface
- cheap stock trades
- an exceptional learning center
- free webinars
- free access to Maxit Tax Manager to track your gains and losses
- and more
Ally Invest’s pricing structure is among the best in the business for discount stock trades, including for investors who prefer to trade options.
TD Ameritrade is among the top-ranked online brokers, according to third-party ratings by Barron’s and Kiplinger’s.
TD Ameritrade also joined the trend of brokerages offering commission-free equity trades by removing the commissions on all online stock trades. They also offer over 2,300 commission-free ETFs.
Not only do you get commission-free trades, but you get one of the industry’s top education and training platforms and one of the top-rated research platforms. (see our review here)
Add in no account minimums, no monthly maintenance fees, and the ability to make trades online, on your mobile phone, or at one of over 100 physical locations, and you have a winning combination.
For more information, or to open a TD Ameritrade account, visit https://www.tdameritrade.com/.
Founded in 1985, Firstrade.com has one of the longest legacies of the discount brokerage firms.
Firstrade gives stock traders and investors low commissions, low margin rates, and a three-second execution guarantee.
- regular brokerage accounts
- retirement accounts
- Education Savings Accounts
All of which come with no minimum initial deposit and no maintenance or inactivity fees.
Firstrade has access to over 11,000 mutual funds and offers new customers up to 100 free trades. Firstrade no longer charges commissions on standard stock trades, and their options contracts are among the least expensive among the brokerages reviewed by our site, coming in at $0.00 plus $0.00 per contract. You can’t beat free!
E*TRADE offers a full-service brokerage firm and an online bank which makes it easy to link accounts and transfer funds to and from. E*TRADE also recently introduced $0 Base Rate Commissions for Online Stock, ETF, and Options Trades.
You can’t beat the pricing on commission-free trades! Add this to its award-winning platform, and you have a recipe for success.
E*TRADE has won numerous awards for both its brokerage services and their online savings accounts. They also offer a wide array of services and features not found with many other online discount brokerages, including their E*TRADE Core Portfolios. New customers can get a cash bonus of up to $2,500 days when they open a new non-retirement brokerage account and fund it or transfer securities into it within 60 days. Finally, there are no account minimums when you open an account with E*TRADE. More info on the signup bonus.
Different than most of the brokerages on the list, Betterment is a full-fledged robo advisor. If you like that aspect of M1 but are comfortable with being even less involved in managing your investments, Betterment is ideal.
Rather than charging for individual trades, Betterment has no trading fees but instead charges an annual fee of .25%, which increases to .40% at the premium level and gives you unlimited access to Betterment’s CFPs.
Betterment invests your funds in stock ETFs and bond ETFs and offers tax-smart investments, automatic rebalancing, retirement planning, and advising.
M1 Finance is an up-and-coming platform making waves in the robo advising community, uniquely blending automated investing and self-managed accounts. With M1 you can choose from professionally crafted investment “pies” made of ETFs and stocks. Beyond those 60 templates, you can also create your own portfolio, choosing your investments to target your financial goals and interests.
Then M1 keeps your accounts balanced like a typical robo-advisor to keep you on track for your goals, free of fees. When you sign up for an account, there is no minimum deposit; however, you’ll need $100 to start investing or $500 with an IRA.
M1 gives you flexibility, free account management, and the opportunity to play a hand in your investments, melding conventional brokerages and robo-advisors in an exciting way.
Charles Schwab has combined the platform of OptionsXpress with their research and support to offer investors a comprehensive trading space. Like many other brokerage firms, Schwab offers commission-free trading for standard US-based stock trades. Options trades are commission-free with a $0.65 charge for each contract.
Schwab has no inactivity or maintenance fees regardless of how much you have in your account and does not charge for streaming quotes or standard withdrawals.
Schwab Investing offers:
- free webinars
- free trading tools
- free advanced research
- the option of a personal coaching program
For a limited time, you can also get a $100 sign up bonus when you open a new account and fund it with a minimum of $500 and make a minimum of 3 trades in the first 12 months of enrollment.
In Nov. 2019, Schwab agreed to purchase TD Ameritrade. The companies will continue to operate as separate entities until the merger is approved, which is expected to occur sometime in 2020.
Which Investment Firm is Best?
As you can see from the above comparison chart, there is a wide range of prices and features with these brokerages, which should cover just about anyone.
I recommend reading the section below to help you learn how to compare the different brokerages and determine which online discount brokerage is the best for your needs.
We also have a list of prominent IRA providers if you are considering opening an IRA.
How Do Online Brokerages Work?
Before getting to the “best of” lists, let’s consider how online brokerages work to make sure you’re looking for an online broker and not some other way to invest.
Years ago, someone who wanted to invest in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds needed to make an appointment with a broker in an office and open an account.
The broker often had an obligation to sell a specific kind of securities. He or she typically would have charged a fee per trade or a commission on products sold.
More Investment Options Now
You can still invest this way, and many people prefer the personal touch a one-on-one broker can offer compared to seeking advice and access to trades online.
However, visiting with an in-person broker may not be the best choice for beginners who have very little to invest or who aren’t serious enough about investing to start a personal relationship.
Online brokerages remove this middle man (or middle woman) from the equation for the most part. You’re still dealing with a web site or an algorithm, and you’ll still pay some fees and commissions in many cases.
But with so many online tools available, it’s much easier to experiment with different platforms and even invest with several different brokerages at once.
Some Brokerages Do Both
A lot of traditional brokerages have now joined the online investing community, combining the flexibility of online trading with the tradition of trust their brands represent.
Some of these big names won’t appear on the lists below because they may require a large initial deposit or because they charge more expensive fees.
Big investment names have gotten into robo-advising as well. Robo advisors can cost even less as they let computer algorithms do the work of analyzing, re-balancing, and shaping your portfolio.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll lump robo-advisors and online brokerages together, just to keep things simple.
No matter your needs, you have a lot of options.
What Makes a Broker the Best?
Naming the best of anything usually includes some opinions, and that’s certainly the case in this post.
Still, even opinions should be based in fact. So here’s what matters to us as we start naming our best brokerages:
- Ease of use: If you have to explain the way a system works, you usually need a new system. Traders, especially beginners, have enough to worry about without dealing with a clunky interface or a confusing web site.
- Transparency: How much will you pay per trade? if you’re not sure, or if you’ve been burned with surprise fees on your statement, you aren’t typically a happy trader. We considered only brokerages with easy-to-find fee structures.
- Access to Information: You also should have easy access to how a specific security has performed over the past couple of years. You shouldn’t have to leave your online trading platform to do research in another browser window or tab. And you certainly shouldn’t have to stop and make a phone call. If you choose to, that’s fine. But your platform shouldn’t require you to hunt for info.
- Affordability: Some very good investment platforms charge a lot or require a huge opening balance. Though they offer quality products, we won’t include them on these lists because we’re focusing more on beginning investors.
For the most part, every broker on our lists below met most or all minimum requirements from the criteria above. If you don’t see your favorite broker listed, it’s possible the platform didn’t meet one of our requirements.
So enough explaining — let’s get to the lists.
How to Compare Online Brokers
Not all online brokerages are created equal. Here are some of the major areas to consider when comparing online brokerages:
Commissions and Other Trading Related Expenses
One of the first features many investors look at first is cost.
While lower is generally better, the overall cost per trade may not be the most important factor if you are not a frequent trader. Saving a $1 per trade on less than 10 trades per year won’t have a major impact on your bottom line.
On the other hand, day traders and other high-volume investors will want to look for the lowest commission per trade, and will also want to compare other expenses, discounts for high volume traders, etc.
Here are some of the different factors to consider when comparing commission costs between online brokerages:
- Commissions for Market or Limit Trades
- Options Trades
- Automatic Investing or Reinvesting
- Cost of Buying No Load Mutual Funds
- ETF trade fees
- Cost of trading on margin
Other common costs to compare:
Assisted Trades. Some brokerages charge extra if you need personal assistance when making a trade. Most platforms are easy enough to manage without this added feature, so you won’t need it for every trade. Just be sure to understand what the trading fee will be so you don’t have any surprises (and be sure to check with the broker’s online knowledgebase or customer service before placing a broker-assisted trade – you can usually handle most trades on your own).
Account Minimums & Inactivity Fees. Some brokerages require customers to maintain a minimum balance to avoid fees, while others may charge customers for inactivity if they don’t make a certain number of trades within a set time frame. I am primarily a buy & hold investor, so my personal preference is to avoid brokerages that nickel and dime customers with these types of fees. Most discount brokerage firms don’t charge these fees, but be aware that some brokers do.
Differential Pricing for Commissions. Many brokerages charge a flat fee per trade, while others offer differential pricing. This is most common for accounts that maintain a certain minimum account balance, or for accounts that exceed a set number of trades per month, quarter, or year. For example, some companies may charge $6.95 per trade, or $4.95 when you make at least 30 trades per quarter.
Most brokerage firms allow investors to trade just about any stock held in the major US markets. But there are some different types of investments you may wish to trade that may or may not be available at every brokerage firm.
Good examples include certain mutual funds and ETFs. Here are some more factors to consider when comparing discount brokerages:
Mutual Fund and ETF Availability. Not all mutual funds and ETFs are available at all brokerages. Many of the major mutual fund and ETF families are widely available, but be sure to check with your brokerage before assuming you will have access to everything. Someone like Vanguard, for example, has some of the best mutual fund families and ETFs availability of anyone. They also have options for both a standard brokerage account of their new Personal Advisor Service, as well.
Dividend Reinvestment Plans. Many investors prefer to automatically reinvest their dividends so they can continue having their money work for them without having to think about it. However, not all brokerages make it easy to do this. If you want to automatically reinvest your dividends, then look for brokerage companies that offer free Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPS). These plans allow investors to automatically reinvest their dividends without being charged with another commission. Be sure to look for brokers that allow investors to purchase fractional shares of companies, otherwise, you won’t be able to put your entire dividend to use.
Automatic Investment Plans. Some investors prefer to automatically invest the same amount of money each month in the same stock, bond, or mutual fund. This is very similar to investing in your 401k at work. This works best for investors who regularly have a little extra cash to invest each month. This feature allows investors to create their own investment schedule and stick to it. Look for an investment firm that doesn’t charge for this feature.
Types of Investment Accounts Offered
Most brokerage firms offer some or all of the following types of investments:
- Taxable Investment Accounts (individual and joint)
- Individual Retirement Accounts – Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Rollover IRA, SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA
- Coverdell ESA
- Custodial Accounts
- and more
Be sure to check with the brokerage if you need a different type of account, such as an account for a minor, a charitable trust, small business retirement plan, Solo 401k, or another type of investment account.
Tools & Services
This is perhaps the most exciting area which separates the different online brokerages.
Many firms offer a variety of online tools and services, including educational and training resources, webinars, advanced stock filters, and research tools, real-time quotes, advanced analysis, cost-basis tracking for tax purposes, and much more.
Full Service, Banking, and Other Features. Some brokerage firms are willing to hold your hand, while others expect you to be able to handle everything more or less on your own. Some brokerages offer full-service banking. This can be convenient, as you can keep all your savings, checking, and investments under one roof.
Mobile Trading Platforms & Apps. Most brokerages now offer apps for your smartphone or tablet. Not everyone wants to trade on the go, but having that flexibility can help you avoid being trapped behind a desk and give you the ability to take advantage of market movements when you’re out and about.
Promotional Offers and Sign Up Bonuses
The brokerage community is very competitive, and many brokerage firms are willing to give new customers some form of bonus for opening a new brokerage account.
Common promotions include:
- Free stock trades – usually limited to a certain number or time frame,
- Cash bonus – often a flat rate for a new funded account, or a tiered bonus based on the amount of the initial deposit
- Other bonus – I’ve seen promotional offers that include free iPads or Kindles, free GPS units, computers, and computer monitors, and more.
- Transfer fee reimbursement – most brokerages charge an ACAT Transfer fee to transfer your assets out of their brokerage. ACAT transfer fee refunds are a popular signup bonus because it removes a barrier to moving funds to a new brokerage.
Here are some brokerage coupon and promo codes which can get you some free trades or free bonus money when you open a new account:
- E*TRADE – Free Stock Trades for 60 Days.
- Capital One Investing Promo Codes.
- TD Ameritrade.
- Ally Invest.
Customer Service and User Reviews
Don’t overlook customer service.
Many brokerage companies offer 24-7 customer service, while others may have more limited hours. You should also consider whether they offer phone support, chat, email, or other forms of service.
Individual reviews are also important. We do our best to review a variety of products and services on this website. But our use and needs may differ from yours. It’s generally a good idea to consider multiple sources.
And, if possible, give the brokerage a test drive before committing all your investments to their service. One way to do this is to see if the brokerage firm offers a “play” account, where you can open an account and make stock trades with play money while you learn how their platform operates. Many firms offer these types of accounts for free.
Another option is to open an account and test the waters before making actual live trades. Again, the purpose is to give yourself familiarity with the platform before moving the bulk of your investments to that company.
Choose Your Brokerage Based on Your Needs
Investing is personal. And every investor may have different needs.
The high volume trader may value certain features or commission structures, while the buy and hold investor may prefer a brokerage that offers other features, such as full-service banking. The above feature lists should give you a good starting point to consider which features are important to you.
Use your personal feature list to narrow down your choice to the best option for your needs. All the mentioned brokerage firms on this page should also be a good starting point, as they all offer something unique.
Best Brokerages For Low Starting Balances
When you’re just curious about investing, you shouldn’t have to come up with several thousand dollars to experiment.
The following platforms let you into the game without requiring a big up-front balance:
- Merrill Edge
Best Brokerages For Low Trading Fees
Some investment firms let you invest without a large opening balance, but they charge high per-trade fees or commissions. It’s tough to learn the ropes when each trade costs $10 or when you’re robo takes a noticeable cut from your account each month.
Consider these platforms to save money on fees:
- M1 Finance
- Ally Invest
- Charles Schwab
Best Brokerages For Beginners
Many new investors like to learn as they go, and nothing teaches quite like an expensive mistake. Still, it’s even better to learn lessons without losing money.
These brokers can help smooth out the learning curve:
- Zacks Trade
Best Brokers for Ease of Use
If you value an intuitive interface, consider these online brokers:
- TD Ameritrade
Do You Have More Than One Brokerage Account?
Many investors have more than one brokerage account.
There can be good reasons for this, including specialized trading needs, taking advantage of lower trading costs, utilizing premium features or services through a different broker, avoiding the expense or time involved with consolidating accounts, or other reasons.
Having multiple trading accounts can have benefits, but it can also complicate your finances.
For example, it’s one more account to look at when calculating your net worth, one more set of investments to deal with when re-balancing your assets, more sets of tax forms, etc. I can’t help you with the taxes, but I can help you with the first two problems.
If you are dealing with multiple accounts, then it’s highly recommended to link your investment and other financial accounts to an account aggregator. These software programs will link all your assets to automatically show you your net worth and other valuable information. Some of them will even show you your asset allocation and make recommendations on how and where to rebalance your portfolio.
We have a list of some free online tools to help you do this. But I’ll skip to the punch line and just recommend the one I use – Personal Capital.
Personal Capital is free, easy to use, and will help you understand your total financial picture, including your net worth, asset allocation, how much you pay in fees, and where you can rebalance to get your portfolio in shape. It’s 100% online and uses bank-level security features to track your investments.
Finally, Ask Questions!
Information changes all the time, so even something in our data above could have updated. Feel free to let me know about those, too, so we can all benefit from the latest bonuses and stay on top of any free trade offers.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below. Someone else may have the exact same question, so we can all benefit from the discussion.