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If you’d like to start investing in the stock market, the first thing you’ll need is a broker. A broker’s main job is to buy and sell stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and other securities that make up your investments. Think of a broker as your bridge to financial markets.
There are different kinds of brokers to help you achieve different goals: Some specialize in retirement investing over decades-long timeframes, others facilitate short-term day trading. Most offer services that reach beyond buying and selling securities, such as financial advice, investor education, bank accounts, and market research.
Before you choose an online stock broker, you need to set goals and understand your investing style. At the most basic level, every investor needs to consider how often they plan to make trades, how long they would like to hold their investments, and what securities they want to trade.
For beginning investors, the slightly higher fee per trade that large brokers charge can be worth paying for access to great customer service. Advanced investors will want to keep an eye out for the ability to trade more complicated securities, like options, and get price discounts for higher trading volumes.
In either case, reasonable management fees, solid market data and the ability to trade a wide variety of products are core aspects that all investors should look for in an online stock broker. At a minimum, investors should look at brokers with a solid selection of no-transaction-fee mutual funds and commission-free ETFs.
How we chose the best online stock brokers
We evaluated 20 different online stock brokers in our latest review, and we have listed our top seven choices below. All of these brokers are worth considering, with those at the top of each category scoring the best in our methodology.
For the best online brokers, top consideration was given to firms offering low trading fees, low account minimums and a good diversity of investment products.
We have grouped the top brokers into three categories, based on their features. These categories should be a useful starting point when making comparisons, although they are certainly not hard and fast divisions. Some brokers could fall into more than one category.
- Full-Featured Brokers: Good for broad investing needs. Offers a good variety of tools, securities to trade and account types.
- Discount Brokers: Best for investors needing little guidance and who care most about saving money on fees.
- Premium Brokers: Similar to full-featured brokers, but with more emphasis on retirement planning, high-net-worth individuals and personalized service.
Fee per trade
No-transaction-fee Mutual Funds
Full-featured brokers are equipped for many different types of clients, from absolute beginners to advanced traders, and tend to be a great choice for most investors. Fees have come down significantly, with many full-featured brokers now offering commission-free stock, ETF, and options trading, enabling access to better research, analysis tools and customer service.
The menu of investments at full-featured brokers is typically broader than what is offered by discount brokers, including a wider array of stocks, bonds, ETFs and mutual funds. Additional trading categories are usually available, including margin trading, options, commodities, foreign exchange and cryptocurrency. They also offer a plethora of additional services — for additional fees — from wealth advisors and tax advisors, to portfolio analysis and private client services.
Charles Schwab: Great overall offering
Charles Schwab is a great fit for beginner and advanced investors. This broker offers $0.00 per trade commissions for stocks and ETFs, requires no minimum balance to open an account, and lets you trade a wide variety of products, many of them fee-free. A Schwab account comes with tools to guide stock picking and portfolio construction, as well as 24/7 phone support and branch offices across the U.S. High fees for transfers out of your account and for international stock trades are gotchas to look out for.
- No minimum deposit and $0.00 per trade commissions on U.S. stocks and ETFs
- More than 3,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
- Extensive research and educational tools, including stock screeners and advanced charting
- Schwab’s robo-advisor product, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, is an option for folks looking to automate a portion of their investments
- High commissions and foreign transaction fees to purchase international stocks
- Schwab charges fees to transfer money out of Schwab account; $25 for a partial transfer or $50 for a full transfer
Fidelity: Strong mutual fund offerings
Fidelity’s $0 account minimum, rock-bottom $0.00 per trade commission, and big selection of no-fee mutual funds and ETFs make it a strong contender. Of special note is that Fidelity offers several proprietary mutual funds featuring 0% expense ratios, which are only available to Fidelity clients. The firm offers customer support with representatives available by phone 24/7, though reviews on their site suggest that response times can lag. They also have branch locations across the U.S. if you prefer assistance in-person. Portfolio analysis and allocation tools are basic but functional.
- $0.00 per trade commissions on U.S. stocks and ETFs
- 200-plus proprietary mutual funds, some with 0% expense ratios, and 3,600-plus no-transaction fee mutual funds
- No fees on transfers in our out of accounts
- Offers robo-advisor, Fidelity Go, for folks who want to automate investments
- High broker-assisted trade fee of $32.95
- Robo-advisor Fidelity Go’s management fee of 0.35% is higher than peers
Merrill Edge: Free trades with more than $50,000 invested
If you have over $50,000 to invest, Merrill Edge could be a good match, but if you don’t have access to this type of capital you might choose another broker. Maintaining an average balance of $50,000 between your Merrill Edge account and an account at Bank of America (see below; BoA is Merrill’s parent company) gets you 30 free stock or ETF trades per month. For those who do not qualify for free trades, the standard $0 per trade fee is high vs. peers. Those fees can add up quickly since Merrill Edge does not offer any commission-free ETFs and their selection of no-transaction-fee mutual funds is small compared to others.
- 30 free stock and ETF trades per month if you have an average balance over $50,000; 100 free trades per month if your average balance is over $100,000
- Bank of America clients can count checking, savings, IRA, CD, and money market deposits to meet the $50,000 or $100,000 Merrill Edge deposit thresholds
- In-person customer service appointments are available at many Bank of America branches
- $100 cash reward for $20,000 in qualifying net new assets deposited within 45 days of account opening, increasing to $600 cash bonus for balance of $200,000 or more in qualifying net new assets.
- Pricier than competitors if you have to pay commissions
- You must open a Bank of America account, if you do not already have one, to qualify for free trades.
- No commission-free ETFs
- Small selection of no-transaction-fee mutual funds (about 700, compared to peers with more than 3,000)
TD Ameritrade: Broad offering of investments
An expansive assortment of no-fee mutual funds and a respectable selection of commission-free ETFs, paired with strong customer support make TD Ameritrade a great choice for beginning investors. Existing TD Bank customers may want to give special consideration to opening an account with TD Ameritrade since Ameritrade offers special benefits to TD Bank customers including sign-up bonuses based on the amount deposited. $0.00 per trade commissions are another highlight at TD Ameritrade. Advanced investors will like the account’s professional-level thinkorswim trading software platform. If you’re looking full-service customer support and a respectable assortment of ETFs and mutual funds, TD Ameritrade is solid choice.
- $0.00 per trade commission on U.S. stocks and ETFs
- Special promotions available to existing TD Bank customers including account rebates based on amount deposited
- 24/7 phone support and 363 branch locations for in-person help
- $0 minimum balance to open an account
- $75 full outbound account transfer fee (partial transfers are free)
E-Trade: Great research options
E-Trade offers a competitive assortment of ETFs and mutual funds compared to its peers, but a $500 minimum to open an account may drive some beginner investors away. Investors who trade frequently will appreciate the $0.00 per trade commissions for stocks, ETFs, and options. For investors seeking to automate a portion of their portfolio, E-Trade also offers robo-advisor Core Portfolios, featuring a 0.30% management fee.
- $0.00 per trade commissions for U.S. stocks and ETFs
- Over 4,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
- Robust mobile and trading apps that offer access to charting tools and research materials
- No cash bonus is available for new accounts unless a minimum of $25,000 is deposited.
- The minimum deposit to open an account is $500.
Premium brokers’ offerings are usually similar to those of full-featured brokers, with additional tiers of service available for investors with more money to invest. Most premium brokers offer lots of commission-free products as well, making them worth it for investors with less money to consider opening an account, especially for retirement planning. Trading fees are usually on the higher end of the spectrum, over $7 per trade, however there are often steep discounts for investors with large deposits. Customized advice, private client services, tax optimization and estate planning are common features for premium brokers.
Vanguard: Best for long-term investors
Vanguard is a decent option for long-term investors who are focused on keeping fees low and have more money to invest. Vanguard’s proprietary ETFs and mutual funds have a long track record of success, and fees are extremely low. They have a broad selection of commission-free ETFs and mutual funds. Vanguard appears to discourage active trading, with a stiff $7 per trade commission for the first 25 trades in a year, increasing to $20 for subsequent trades. If you’re looking to buy and sell assets frequently, other brokers would be a better choice. One caveat is that trading fees decrease significantly for clients with over $500,000 invested, and can make Vanguard a much more attractive option.
- Vanguard offers around 1,800 commission-free ETFs and over 3,100 no-transaction fee mutual funds
- 84% of Vanguard funds outperformed their peers over a 10-year period ending in December of 2018
- Vanguard’s proprietary ETFs and mutual funds charge very low expense ratios
- An ETF expense ratio of 0.07% vs. the industry standard of 0.27%
- A mutual fund expense ratio of 0.10% vs. industry standard of 0.58%
- No fees on transfers in our out of accounts
- Active traders will be turned off by an overly simple trading platform and higher fees the more you trade
- Financial advisor services aren’t available unless you have at least $50,000 invested
Discount brokers usually offer the lowest fees to trade stocks, ETFs, and other securities. They are best suited for investors needing little guidance and who care most about saving money on fees. Discount brokers typically provide few, if any, research resources and may only allow trading in a limited set of securities. Some discount brokers, for example, allow trading in stocks and ETFs, but do not support mutual funds. For most investors, we would advise pairing the trading functionality of a discount broker together with analysis tools, potentially from a full-featured broker, in order to make well-informed investing decisions.
Ally Invest: Best for low-cost stock trading
Ally Invest shines as a low-cost broker for trading individual stocks, but offers little for investors looking to invest in commission-free ETFs or mutual funds for retirement. The $0.00 per trade commission is as low as it gets, and will be a big benefit to folks who trade frequently or have small account balances. Other services are bare-bones. Ally does not not offer any no-transaction-fee mutual funds, has a small selection of commission-free ETFs, and does not have physical branches. New clients should be careful when evaluating Ally’s current promotion, which offers free trades and cash bonuses for clients who deposit more than $10,000 to an account, since there are a number of conditions needed to comply with its terms.
- Low commissions of $0.00 per trade
- Ally will refund your account transfer fees from another broker up to $150
- Doesn’t offer no-transaction-fee mutual funds
- $9.95 transaction fees for no-load mutual funds
- Limited research options and difficult to use screening tools
Online Brokerage FAQs
What is a stock?
A stock represents ownership in a company. If you have a 401(k) or other investment account, you may already own stock, although this may be in the form of mutual funds. But when you buy stock directly — or get options through a company — you own a certain number of shares of that company that you can then sell or hold.
Stocks can be exciting — everyone wants to find the next Apple, Microsoft or Netflix — but buying stocks can also be risky. After all, your money is directly tied to the success (or failure) of a large corporation. Factors such as public relations scandals, technological innovation that renders their main products obsolete, or competing startup companies can all cause a stock’s price to fluctuate dramatically.
That’s why investors often research companies carefully, potentially consult with an advisor to determine the best course of action, and are very careful that the money they buy stocks with isn’t money they are dependent on to live or retire.
What kind of fees do brokers charge?
One point of comparison that’s important to many investors is a broker’s fee structure. Fees vary depending on the brokerage, and it’s important to consider how you may use the brokerage when assessing potential fees.
For example, if you’re not planning on actively trading, commissions and trading fees may matter less than account management charges. As you compare brokerages, you’ll likely see some common investment fees:
- Trade commission: A trade commission, which may also be called a stock trading fee, is the fee charged when buying or selling stocks, options, ETFs and other securities. This may be a flat fee, or it could be a fee charged per share being bought or sold.
- Mutual fund transaction fee: This is the fee charged for buying and selling mutual funds.
- Mutual fund sales load: A commission charged to an investor when they buy or sell a mutual fund. This is generally charged as a percentage of the price of the shares purchased. No-load mutual funds do not charge this type of commission.
- Account transfer fee: A fee that brokers charge to transfer your balance from their brokerage to another brokerage. Some brokers will charge only for transferring your full account balance, while others charge for transferring any portion of your account outbound to another broker. A number of brokers do not charge at all for this service, and some brokers will even reimburse the fees your old broker charges you if you deposit money at the new brokerage – just make sure to ask.
What should I look for when comparing online brokerages?
When comparing online brokerages, it’s smart to consider how you plan to use them. If you’re looking for in-depth research, models and the ability to seamlessly read investor reports, you’ll need to evaluate the research resources offered by each online stock broker. Are you looking to trade on your phone? Checking out the mobile platform is your first job. Do you plan to trade during market hours, or before and after market? Security is important as well. Knowing whether a brokerage is insured and how your personal and financial information is protected can give you peace of mind. Answer these questions to help choose the best online stock broker for your needs.
How can I learn more about trading?
Of course, investing in stock carries some amount of risk, so it’s important to do your due diligence before you purchase shares. But along with research, one of the best ways to understand the market is to invest.
While buying stock may seem intimidating — even to someone who may already invest in the form of a retirement account or education account — the process can be straightforward. Choose an online stock broker, open an online account and select the stock you wish to purchase.
Before you purchase any shares, understand why you’re buying that stock. Do you want to hold onto it, or is your plan to sell and buy more stock? This is the difference between stock investing and stock trading. There isn’t a right option, but stock trading requires regularly attending to your account, researching, and actively trading.
If you’re still considering whether or not stock trading is right for you, you may be interested in an online stock broker that offers paper trading. Some online brokers — as well as online tools — offer the opportunity to track a stock portfolio, without actually investing dollars.
What other services do brokers offer?
While a broker’s main job is to help you access financial markets, many offer services beyond filling buy and sell orders. Managing money can be complex, requiring additional services to help you simplify the task. Sometimes these services are generally free — automated portfolio analysis tools, for example — while others come with a fee.
- Banking services like checking, savings, money market accounts, CDs, debit cards and credit cards
- Retirement planning
- Managed investing or private client services that invest money on your behalf
- Portfolio analysis
- College planning
- Tax planning and advice
- Investing education
- Career advice
- Estate planning
About our ranking
Please see the full list of brokers below that were considered for this review. The ones that were included in this best-of ranking were those that received the highest overall score when considering all aspects of their offerings, with trading fees, account minimums, investment products and account fees weighed most heavily.
All brokers considered:
J.P. Morgan You Invest
T. Rowe Price