Best Credit Unions of 2021: Offering Advantages Unique From Larger Banks

Credit unions are a bit of a different breed when it comes to financial services companies. Unlike major banks, which you can seemingly find on any street corner, credit unions are localized, generally serving particular communities or employers. In the past, they offered special rates or terms for customers who meet certain qualifications – such as being members in a specific union, employed in a certain industry, or even being military members.

However, today, many credit unions have broadened their membership requirements to allow more customers to join. GOBankingRates analyzed the Best Credit Unions of 2021 to help customers find the best options. Evaluation criteria included the following:

  • Minimum deposits required
  • Monthly maintenance fees
  • Minimum balances required to avoid fees
  • Annual percentage yield (APY)
  • Availability and diversity of banking services
  • Customer service, including 24/7 and live chat availability

Here are GOBankingRates’ Best Credit Unions of 2021:

Best Credit Unions of 2021

Credit Union Next Steps

Navy Federal Credit Union

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Alliant

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Delta Community

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State Employees’

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Eastman

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Lake Michigan

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Wright-Patt Credit Union

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Wings Financial

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The Golden 1

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America First

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United Nations

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Hudson Valley

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Digital

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Patelco

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Bellco

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Ent Credit Union

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Randolph-Brooks

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BECU

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Space Coast

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American Airlines Credit Union

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All of the Best Credit Unions of 2021 have at least a few standout features. Read on for details to see which ones might best suit you.

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Navy Federal: Best Credit Union

Why we like it: Navy Federal is a great choice for members of the armed forces, who enjoy no-fee accounts and a generous 12-month CD rate.

Benefits

  • No-fee checking and savings accounts
  • High-APY 12-month CD

Drawbacks

  • High CD minimum

Branch Locations

344  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.25%  

1 Year CD APY

0.80%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Alliant

Why we like it: Alliant Credit Union impresses with over 80,000 surcharge-free ATMs, no-fee accounts and high APYs, particularly on its savings and CDs.

Benefits

  • Low- or no-minimum accounts
  • No-fee accounts
  • High savings and CD APYs
  • 80,000-plus surcharge-free ATMs
  • $20 in out-of-network ATM fee rebates

Drawbacks

  • High minimum for CD accounts
 

Branch Locations

7  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.65%

1 Year CD APY

0.55%  

Bauer Rating

5      

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Delta Community

Why we like it: The standout product at Delta Community Credit Union is the 12-month CD, with a rate of 1.99% and no fees. The credit union also shines when it comes to its mobile app and customer service.

Benefits

  • High 12-month CD rate
  • No-fee accounts
  • Low minimums

Drawbacks

  • High overdraft fee of $35 per instance, plus a $5/month inactivity fee if your account is dormant for at least six months and your combined balance is below $60

Branch Locations

28  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.10%  

1 Year CD APY

0.80%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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State Employees'

Why we like it: The State Employees Credit Union has super-low maintenance fees for checking and NSFs, free online bill pay, and also provides services like tax prep to members.

Benefits

  • Low- or no-minimum accounts
  • No-fee accounts
  • High savings and CD APYs
  • Online bill pay
  • 273 branches across North Carolina

Drawbacks

  • Only available in North Carolina
 

Branch Locations

261  

Checking Account Fee

$1  

Savings Account APY

0.20%  

1 Year CD APY

0.45%  

Bauer Rating

4    

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Eastman

Why we like it: Checking with no monthly fees and no minimum balance, plus competitive interest rates, makes Eastman Credit Union a top choice for many consumers in Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. 

Benefits

  • Free checking
  • No minimum balance requirements for checking or savings
  • Dividend program
  • Network of 55,000 no-fee ATMs
  • No ECU surcharge at foreign ATMs
  • Free checks for every box you order
  • High APYs on checking, savings, and CDs

Drawbacks

  • Only available in Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas

Branch Locations

25  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.30%  

1 Year CD APY

0.75%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Lake Michigan

Why we like it: High-yield checking, no minimum balance requirement, and no monthly fees, plus a network of 30,000 fee-free ATMs put ENT on our list of best credit unions for 2021.

Benefits

  • Checking with ultra-high 3.0% APY
  • No fee accounts
  • Accounts with no minimum balance requirements
  • 3-month CDs available

Drawbacks

  • Locations only in Michigan and Florida
  • Interest on checking only available for up to $15,000 balance

Branch Locations

54  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.25%  

1 Year CD APY

0.50%  

Bauer Rating

5    

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Wright-Patt

Why we like it: Wright-Patt Federal Credit Union has no fees on most accounts and a high savings APY. 

Benefits

  • Account minimums are low, even for CDs
  • Savings APY is high

Drawbacks

  • Wright-Patt has a convoluted ATM fee schedule for non-WPCU ATMs

Branch Locations

33  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.15%  

1 Year CD APY

0.90%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Wings Financial

Why we like it: Wings Financial has one of the top-yielding checking accounts available, although it carries direct deposit and debit card activity requirements.

Benefits

Drawbacks

  • Best yields are only achieved with high balances (savings) or activity requirements (checking)

Branch Locations

29  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.15%  

1 Year CD APY

0.70%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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The Golden 1

Why we like it: With free checking with no minimum deposit, high-yield savings and CDs, and dividends for members who meet minimum balance requirements, The Golden 1 credit union gives you more for your money.

Benefits

  • P2P payments through MoneyPop
  • Low or no checking account fees, with multiple ways to waive fees
  • Wide range of checking accounts for students
  • Free access to a network of more than 30,000 ATMS
  • Award-winning services

Drawbacks

  • Only available in California

Branch Locations

69  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.05%  

1 Year CD APY

0.55%  

Bauer Rating

5    

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America First

Why we like it: With no-fee checking, no minimum balance, and free online bill pay, plus a host of other benefits and freebies, America First provides everything members need to manage their money.

Benefits

  • P2P payments with Zelle
  • Dividends
  • Fee-free checking
  • Free access to a network of more than 30,000 ATMS
  • Award-winning services

Drawbacks

  • Branch locations only in Utah

Branch Locations

102  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.05%  

1 Year CD APY

0.35%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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United Nations

Why we like it: With no-fee checking, no minimum balance and free online bill pay — plus a host of other benefits and freebies — United Nations provides everything members need to manage their money.

Benefits

  • Member referral program can earn members $125 per year
  • Dividends
  • Fee-free checking
  • Free personalized checks
  • No minimum balance for checking
  • Unlimited transactions
  • High APY for checking, savings and certificates

Drawbacks

  • You may be unable to join if you aren't directly affiliated with the UN, one of their membership associations or a partner organization listed on their online application

Branch Locations

3  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.13%  

1 Year CD APY

0.25%  

Bauer Rating

5    

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Hudson Valley

Why we like it: A network of 85,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the country, plus free checking, mobile banking, and a rewards debit card set this New York-based credit union apart. (https://www.hvcu.org/Personal/Accounts/Checking)

Benefits

  • Free paper checks and up to 25 free paper statements a year
  • Fee-free checking
  • Rewards debit program
  • 12 free non-HVCU network ATM transactions
  • Network of 85,000 fee-free ATMs

Drawbacks

  • Only available to residents of the Hudson Valley, NY

Branch Locations

21  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.03%  

1 Year CD APY

0.55%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Digital

Why we like it: No-fee accounts and a sky-high 6.17% savings APY (on the first $1,000) make Digital Credit Union a standout.

Benefits

  • Ultra-high 6.17% savings APY on the first $1,000
  • No-fee accounts
  • Decent 12-month CD APY

Drawbacks

  • No APY on checking account
  • Savings APY drops dramatically after the first $1,000

Branch Locations

22  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.25%  

1 Year CD APY

0.30%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Patelco

Why we like it: Patelco’s checking account offers a round-up savings services that matches 10% of your transfer, and a host of free benefits you’d normally receive with top-tier credit cards, like credit monitoring, roadside assistance, and cell phone protection.

Benefits

  • .05% savings on checking
  • No-fee accounts
  • Two ATM fee reimbursements per month
  • Decent APY on CDs
  • Low minimum deposit of $250 on CDs

Drawbacks

  • Branches only available in Northern California

Branch Locations

38  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.05%  

1 Year CD APY

0.50%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Bellco

Why we like it: Ultra-high interest on Boost Interest checking account, round-up savings program, and no monthly maintenance fees are just some of the stand-out features at Bellco.

Benefits

  • 2.25% APY on checking
  • No fee accounts
  • Accounts with no minimum balance requirements
  • Network of more than 30,000 fee-free ATMs
  • P2P payments through Zelle

Drawbacks

  • Branches only in the Denver region of Colorado

Branch Locations

25  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.10%  

1 Year CD APY

0.55%  

Bauer Rating

5  

Other Products

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Ent

Why we like it: High-yield checking, no minimum balance requirement, and no monthly fees, plus a network of 30,000 fee-free ATMs put ENT on our list of best credit unions for 2021.

Benefits

  • Ultra-high 4.0% APY on your first $500 average daily checking balance
  • No fee accounts
  • Accounts with no minimum balance requirements
  • Network of more than 30,000 fee-free ATMs
  • Earns dividends
  • Ultra-low $25 minimum deposit for CDs

Drawbacks

  • Only open to select people who live or work in the Denver area, as well as some members of the military and Colorado National Guard.

Branch Locations

38  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.10%  

1 Year CD APY

0.64%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Randolph-Brooks

Why we like it: Fee-free checking with no minimum deposit, free checks, and an intuitive mobile app makes Randolph-Brooks a top choice for Texas residents.

Benefits

  • Earn interest on checking
  • Fee-free checking and savings
  • No minimum deposit for checking
  • Low minimum deposit for savings
  • Early access to direct deposit funds
  • Ultra-low $25 minimum deposit for CDs

Drawbacks

  • Physical locations only in Texas

Branch Locations

62  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.20%  

1 Year CD APY

0.60%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Boeing Employees

Why we like it: Customized debit cards, free checking with no minimum balance, and nationwide access to 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide sets BECU apart.

Benefits

  • Earn 1.00% APY on the first $500 in your checking account
  • Refunds (up to $6 per month) for out-of-network ATM use
  • Accounts with no minimum balance requirements
  • Free online and mobile banking
  • 50+ locations across Washington and South Carolina

Drawbacks

  • Must live or work in Washington, or parts of Oregon or Idaho, or be a Boeing employee, retiree, or family member of Boeing employee or retiree
  • Cannot apply online for a youth savings account
 

Branch Locations

61  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.02%  

1 Year CD APY

0.30%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Space Coast

Why we like it:  Free checking with no minimum balance and no monthly maintenance fees make SCEU a good choice for many Florida residents.

Benefits

  • Earn 1.00% APY on the first $500 in your checking account
  • Refunds (up to $6 per month) for out-of-network ATM use
  • Accounts with no minimum balance requirements
  • Free online and mobile banking
  • 50+ locations across Washington and South Carolina

Drawbacks

  • Must live or work in select regions of Florida

Branch Locations

60  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.05%  

1 Year CD APY

0.35%  

Bauer Rating

5

Other Products

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American Airlines

Why we like it: Checking and savings accounts with high APYs, potential bonus dividends, and a network of 30,000 ATMs are just a few of the great perks American Airlines Federal Credit Union members get.

Benefits

  • Checking accounts with interest
  • High APY on savings and CDs
  • Loan discounts
  • Fund-matching up to $25 when you open an Emergency Funds Savings Account
  • Network of 30,000 ATMs and 34 branches
  • Low monthly maintenance fee
  • A variety of checking account options to meet your needs and budget

Drawbacks

  • Only open to employees or retirees of AA or the air transportation industry and their family or household members

Branch Locations

38  

Checking Account Fee

$0  

Savings Account APY

0.50%  

1 Year CD APY

0.95%  

Bauer Rating

5    

Other Products

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Tips for Choosing the Best Credit Union

Credit unions have advantages and disadvantages compared with traditional banks, but the methods you should use to evaluate them are similar. Here are some of the factors you should consider when trying to pick a credit union.

Know What Kind of Fees the Credit Union Charges

High fees can counteract any benefits you get from banking with a particular credit union. Even accounts with no monthly fee can prove costly if they carry high overdraft, transfer or other fees.

Read the Fine Print

Some accounts that may seem attractive on the surface may be less appealing in the fine print. A credit union may offer an enticing savings rate on an initial deposit but a less-satisfying rate on subsequent deposits. Make sure you read over the details and requirements for every account you sign up for.

Check APY

In the competitive world of financial services, many credit unions now offer no-fee and no-minimum checking and savings accounts. In this environment, APY becomes king. Check to see if the high APY you see is variable or promotional.

Browse the Website and Mobile App

Most credit unions now offer mobile and web access to accounts. If you’re a customer that values the ability to check your accounts or move money on the go — rather than having to visit a branch — electronic access is an important feature to check.

Look for National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) Insurance

Most legitimate credit unions have NCUA insurance, which is somewhat akin to the FDIC insurance carried by major banks. If a credit union doesn’t prominently display its NCUA insurance, look for one that does.

Credit Unions vs. Traditional Banks

The most noteworthy distinction between credit unions and banks is that credit unions are not-for-profit institutions. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be charged any fees or interest at a credit union. Here’s a breakdown of the main characteristics that distinguish credit unions and banks.

Advantages of a Credit Union

  • Low- or no-fee accounts: Credit unions often try to pass along their reduced costs in the form of low- or no-fee accounts.
  • Personal touch: Credit unions are locally focused and strive to build personal and business relationships within a community. You likely won’t be a faceless member at most credit unions, unless you choose to be.
  • NCUA insurance: Credit unions don’t carry FDIC insurance, but NCUA insurance still works to cover customer accounts up to $250,000.

Disadvantages of a Credit Union

  • Membership requirements: Credit unions only offer services to members, although membership requirements for some can be lax.
  • Limited geographic reach: Credit unions are nearly always limited to a few states or regions.
  • Limited services: Although most credit unions offer basic products like checking accounts, savings accounts, CDsmoney market accounts and loans, many can’t compete with large international banks in terms of more complex product types or services.
  • Technology may be behind the times: Without the massive financial backing of its larger competitors, some credit unions aren’t as technologically advanced in terms of mobile apps or web-based services.
  • Customer service hours may be limited: Some credit unions don’t have the personnel or funding to man 24-hour support lines or live chat.

FAQ

Credit unions don’t have the massive marketing budgets of larger banks, so they remain a mystery to many customers. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding credit unions.
  • Can I Use Both a Credit Union and a Bank?
    • As a consumer, you’re free to use whichever type of financial institution you like, assuming you qualify for membership into a credit union. Sometimes using both institutions makes sense, as you can leverage the strengths of each type. For example, you may want to take out a loan with your local credit union, which may have easier qualification requirements and lower rates, while keeping some money at an international bank that may have more branches nationwide, and be better equipped for global ATM access or mobile account management.
  • Are Credit Unions Safe to Use?
    • Most credit unions are federally insured via NCUA insurance, which from the perspective of a customer is similar to the FDIC insurance at member banks. Credit unions with this federal insurance will prominently display the NCUA logo. Some credit unions may have private insurance, but to be extra safe, you may want to stick to NCUA-backed institutions. No federally insured credit union has ever lost even a penny of customer funds.
  • How Do You Join a Credit Union?
    • Most credit unions allow online applications for accounts, but not all. In some cases, you may have to visit a branch. Joining a credit union requires application for membership at the time you open an account.
  • Do All Credit Unions Have Membership Requirements?
    • All credit unions have membership requirements, but some are more lax than others.
  • Do Credit Unions Pay More Interest Than Banks?
    • Credit unions often pay higher interest rates than larger banks because they are nonprofit institutions. However, this is not always the case. Some large banks offer promotional rates on products that may top credit union rates, while others are moving into the high-yield savings battleground in an effort to keep customer assets.

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Methodology: To discover the Best Credit Unions, GOBankingRates looked at the top Credit Unions in terms of total assets size that had available published data. (1) total assets as sourced from the NCUA; (2) number of branch locations as sourced from the NCUA; (3) minimum deposit to open a checking account; (4) checking account fee; (5) minimum balance needed in checking account to avoid fee; (6) minimum deposit to open a savings account; (7) minimum balance needed to achieve savings APY; (8) savings APY; (9) minimum to open a 12-month CD account; (10) 12-month CD APY; (11) 60-month CD APY; (12) customer service products offered (24/7 customer service and live chat with a human); (13) Bauer rating (out of 5 stars); (14) products/services offered (auto loans, mortgage loans, credit cards, investment services, and insurance); and (15) the average mobile app rating between the android and apple stores. All factors were then scored and combined, with the lowest score being best. Factor (1) was weighted 1.5 times, factor (2) and (14) were weighted 2 times, and factor (12) was weighted 0.5 times. For all Savings and Checking Account data only the basic accounts/products offered at each institution was analyzed. All data is up to date as of November 4, 2020, rates and fees subject to change.

John Csiszar contributed to the reporting for this article.

Editorial Note: This content is not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the bank advertiser, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. This site may be compensated through the bank advertiser Affiliate Program.

About the Author

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and content marketing specialist who geeks out about finance, e-commerce, technology, and real estate. Her lengthy list of publishing credits include Bankrate, Lending Tree, and Chase Bank. She is the founder and owner of GeekTravelGuide.net, a travel, technology, and entertainment website. She lives on Long Island, New York, with a veritable menagerie that includes 2 cats, a rambunctious kitten, and three lizards of varying sizes and personalities – plus her two kids and husband. Find her on Twitter, @DawnAllcot.

Best Credit Unions of 2021: Offering Advantages Unique From Larger Banks
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