CO-OP Shared Branching: A Credit Union Perk

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Updated on Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Credit unions offer tangible advantages over for-profit financial institutions. They reinvest their earnings where it matters most: lower costs and higher rates for their members.

A perceived downside of credit unions can be their limited service areas. If you’re a member of a credit union in southern California, for example, what do you do if you need to visit a branch while traveling to New York on business? The CO-OP shared branch network was designed to address this deficiency.

Customers of CO-OP member credit unions can visit the branches of any other member credit union to conduct business. Even better, they have access to thousands of fee-free ATMs nationwide.

If you’re interested in joining a credit union but still have reservations about branch or ATM access, find one that’s a member of the CO-OP network, and you’ll rarely be far from a branch or a fee-free ATM you can use thanks to shared branching.

What is CO-OP shared branching?

Back in the early 1980s, credit unions faced a new threat to their business model. The big for-profit banks were building out their ATM networks, and credit unions with few branches felt they couldn’t offer a similar level of access to their members.

In 1981, a group of credit unions in California founded CO-OP Financial Services, figuring that joining forces to offer a big network of ATMs would effectively meet the challenge. Over time, CO-OP evolved to offer even more services, including shared branching.

Today, CO-OP has evolved into an organization that boasts one of the largest networks of bank branches in the United States, second only to Wells Fargo. Over 1,800 individual credit unions belong to CO-OP, with 5,641 shared branches and 30,000 ATMs.

With CO-OP’s shared branching service, you can walk into any partner credit union branch around the country and conduct your banking business in person just as if it were your home branch.

Banking services available with shared branching

  • Surcharge-free ATMs
  • Deposits
  • Withdrawals
  • Loan payments
  • Account inquiries
  • Transfers
  • Cash advances, if you have a line of credit

“It’s extremely unique to the credit union industry,” said Kathy Snider, group owner of Engage Products at the CO-OP Financial Services. “It’s a huge valuable asset, because think about it: big banks really don’t go ‘Hey, I’ll let you use my branches.’ It just doesn’t happen.”

You should do some quick research before you join a credit union. Many — but not all — credit unions belong to the CO-OP shared branch network. Some credit unions can be located in difficult-to-access spots, such as inside of job site, warehouse or factory, for example.

“The fact of the matter is, and the research backs this up, people still like to have the option of going to a branch,” said Snider. “Shared branching helps support that need for a credit union being able to say, ‘Sure, you can do digital, you can go to your home branch or you go into a shared branching location.’”

Financial institutions with the most bank branches in the U.S.
OrganizationNumber of branches
Wells Fargo5,872
CO-OP Financial Services5,641
JPMorgan Chase5,144
Bank of America4,474
U.S. Bank3,131
PNC Bank2,481

How does shared branching compare to the big banks?

The biggest benefit of shared branching is that it allows credit unions to compete on an even footing with big nationwide banks, but still offer the same small-town service that has become the hallmark of credit unions.

“We do business with primarily tech companies. Some of our largest customers, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel have employees all over the country, and all over the world for that matter,” said Ed Powers, vice president of membership and business development at First Tech Federal Credit Union. “We have over 40 branches, so we’re not a small credit union by any means. But we’re currently centered on the West Coast. So, when we need new members that are East Coast centric, we’re able to help them, at least in the United States, through the CO-OP network.”

Similarly, many credit unions find that the CO-OP ATM network has been very useful. “We have over 250 ATMs,” said Kim Lybecker, director of Retail Delivery Market Expansion at BECU. “But in the CO-OP network, there’s over 30,000 [ATMs] nationwide and that’s one of the things that helps us compete with the larger banks and the larger financial institutions with much larger networks.”

Shared branching customer benefits

There are a lot of times when CO-OP shared branching and its ATM network may come in handy:

  • Travel: If you’re on vacation in the U.S. and you need some more cash, you can easily get it.
  • Moving: Even if you move clear across the country from your regional credit union, you can still access your account at any number of partner credit unions in your new location.
  • Emergencies: If you have to evacuate your home because of a disaster or natural emergency, you can get easy access to your cash to tide you over at a partner credit union or ATM
  • Convenience: Even if you’re just around your home town or city, the CO-OP service makes more fee-free ATMs available to you.

Why you should consider credit unions

Credit unions have a lot of advantages over traditional banks beyond CO-OP network access to branches and ATMs.

If you have poor credit, you may find that credit unions are more willing to work with you to get a loan or a line of credit. Many credit unions even offer financial checkups or financial education to help you learn more.

If you’re looking to join a credit union that is a member of the CO-OP network, it’s a good idea to do your research ahead of time. You can find member credit unions on the CO-OP website.

It’s important to know that not all credit unions are open to everyone. Most credit unions serve a defined group of people. You may need to live in a certain geographic area, be employed with a given employer or meet other criteria to join. Some credit unions allow you to join by becoming a member of a partner nonprofit organization for a small fee. If you qualify for a CO-OP network member credit union, you’ll never be far from shared branching services.