Update: 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 participating 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 value in the discount brokerage space and 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 of each of these online brokerage firms.
Hopefully, you can use this information to find the best online discount brokerage for your needs.
Best Online Discount Brokerages
|Discount Brokerage Firm||Our Review||Cost Per|
|Ally Invest||Our Ally Invest Review||$0.00||$0.00 + $0.50|
|TD Ameritrade||Our TD Ameritrade Review||$0.00||$0.00 + $0.65|
|Firstrade||Our Firstrade Review||$0.00||$0.00 + $0.00|
|E*TRADE||Our E*TRADE Review||$0.00||$0.00 + $0.65|
($0.00 + $0.50 for active traders)
|Betterment||Our Betterment Review||$0.00||NA|
|M1 Finance||Our M1 Finance Review||$0.00||NA|
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 over ten years ago!
Thankfully, they transitioned into good hands. Ally Bank brings a tradition of excellence to 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 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 these 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 its brokerage services and online savings accounts. They also offer many 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, no account minimums exist when you open an account with E*TRADE.
$0 Commissions for online stock, ETF & options trades plus get up to $2,500 at E*TRADE today
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 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 create your portfolio, selecting 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, excitingly melding conventional brokerages and robo-advisors.
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, 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 merger was approved in late 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 consider opening an IRA.
How Do Online Brokerages Work?
A brokerage account is a financial account similar to the accounts you have with a bank. With a brokerage account, you deposit funds with an investment firm, usually by a transfer from your existing bank account.
Once funds are added to your brokerage account, you can put the money to work using the brokerage’s trading platform to invest those funds in the market.
The assets you buy with your cash can be anything brokerage offers, including stocks, bonds, ETFs, and even cryptocurrency.
Your online brokerage account will display your holdings (the assets you’ve purchased) and your cash balance (your buying power).
If you invest in something that gains value, you can sell it, and the profits will be deposited in your online brokerage account.
How Much Money Do You Need To Start Investing?
Many brokers offer accounts with no minimums and access to fractional shares, so you can start investing with any amount of money. However, it will influence how you approach the market if you don’t have a lot of money to invest.
You could also consider using options to leverage your dollars with a directional bet on the market or a specific stock. Still, this strategy is best reserved for a small portion of your risk capital.
When investing with small sums, consistency is the key to building wealth. If you can regularly put a set amount of money into the market, it will smooth market effects because you’ll be buying dips and peaks as the market goes up and down.
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 website 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.
Some Brokerages Do Both
A lot of traditional brokerages have 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 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 analyze, re-balance, and shape your portfolio.
For this post, we’ll lump robo-advisors and online brokerages together to keep things simple.
No matter your needs, you have a lot of options.
Do Brokers Offer Mobile Platforms?
Some online brokers have incredible mobile apps delivering nearly all the same features as their desktop counterparts.
For example, TD Ameritrade customers can pick between the more robust thinkorswim mobile app aimed at traders or the standard TD Ameritrade app for less active investors, with the features of each adjusted for the intended user.
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 on fact. So here’s what matters to us as we start naming our best brokerages:
- Ease of Use: If you have to explain how a system works, you usually need a new one. Traders, especially beginners, have enough to worry about without dealing with a clunky interface or a confusing website. Also, consider the brokerage’s technology offered and if it fits your investing style as a long-term investor or an active trader.
- Research and Education: Look for a broker that can assist you with quality research and educational tools to help you develop as an investor and help you make winning decisions in the markets.
- Transparency: How much will you pay per trade? If you’re unsure, 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 excellent investment platforms charge a lot or require a considerable opening balance. Though they offer quality products, we won’t include them on these lists because we’re focusing more on beginning investors.
- Access to Live Customer Support: Some brokers have excellent live support, often available by phone and chat 24/7. Others focus more on technology and have minimal customer service available via email or text chat.
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 critical factor if you are not a frequent trader. Saving $1 per trade on less than ten trades per year won’t significantly impact 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.
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 I prefer to avoid brokerages that nickel and dime customers with these 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 common for accounts that maintain a certain minimum account balance or 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 in the major US markets. But there are 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 major mutual fund and ETF families are widely available but check with your brokerage before assuming you have access to everything.
Dividend Reinvestment Plans. Many investors prefer to automatically reinvest their dividends to continue having their money work for them without thinking about it.
However, not all brokerages make it easy to do this.
If you want to reinvest your dividends automatically, look for brokerage companies offering free Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPS). These plans allow investors to reinvest their dividends automatically without being charged with another commission.
Be sure to look for brokers that will enable 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 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, a 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, 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. Many brokerage firms are willing to give new customers a 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 they remove barriers to moving funds to a new brokerage.
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 service forms.
Individual reviews are also critical. We do our best to review various 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 familiarize yourself 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 essential to you.
Use your personal feature list to narrow 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, linking your investment and other financial accounts to an account aggregator is highly recommended. These software programs will automatically link all your assets to show you your net worth and other valuable information.
Some will even show you your asset allocation and recommend how and where to rebalance your portfolio.
We have a list of free online tools to help you do this. But I’ll skip to the punch line and recommend the one I use – Personal Capital.
Personal Capital is free, easy to use. It 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.
Can I Buy Stocks Without a Broker?
Yes, but it is not a common approach these days.
A few companies still offer direct stock purchase plans that allow you to buy shares directly from the company. Companies administer these plans according to internal rules, and some are only open to company employees.
These plans initially helped investors avoid brokerage fees, but the rise of online discount brokers with zero fees has removed this barrier, making the direct stock purchase plan somewhat archaic.