There are benefits to banking in person at a branch. However, there also are a lot of benefits to banking digitally through your financial institution’s website or mobile app. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Americans—78%—prefer to do their banking online, according to an Ipsos-Forbes Advisor U.S. Weekly Consumer Confidence Survey.
If you haven’t yet signed up for online access to your bank account, now is a good time to consider using digital banking. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up in-person banking. It simply means that you’re giving yourself greater control over your account, as well as easier access.
Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of online banking and how to sign up for digital access to your account.
The benefits of online banking
Think of online banking as just another great perk offered by your bank or credit union. You can still go to your local bank branch any time you like. With digital access to your account, though, you can do all of these things from the comfort of your home.
- Transfer funds. With digital banking, you can move money from savings into checking (or vice versa) at any time of the day or on the weekend. You can send a cash gift to a relative, pay back a friend who bought theater tickets for you both and so on.
- Pay your bills. No more writing checks, buying stamps or worrying that payments won’t arrive in time. More to the point: No more worrying about some crook stealing the payment from your mailbox, changing the name on the check and stealing the money. With online banking, you can set up automatic bill payments.
- Deposit checks 24/7. Whether it’s your tax refund or a birthday present from your sister, no need to rush to the bank before it closes. Just snap a picture with your smartphone and use your bank’s “remote deposit” feature to deposit checks to your account from the comfort of your home.
- Check your account balance. If you’re wondering whether there’s enough cash in your account to cover upcoming bills or whether those checks you deposited have been posted to your account, you can find out quickly by logging onto your account online.
This sort of access can come in handy if you can’t get to the bank or if the bank is closed when you need to make a transaction. With digital access, you can log onto your bank account whenever you want.
Note: Some banks exist only online—virtual institutions with no physical locations at all. However, this article will focus only on “brick-and-mortar” banks that encourage their customers to access their services online as well as in person.
Here’s how to get started with online banking.
Step 1: Create an email account
You may already have one. If so, skip to Step 2.
If you’ve avoided email until now, it’s time to create an account because you need one to participate in online banking. There are a variety of free email account services you can choose from to create an account:
- Google’s free Gmail account at https://accounts.google.com/
- Microsoft’s free Outlook at https://outlook.live.com/
- Yahoo! Mail at https://login.yahoo.com/
- AOL Mail at https://login.aol.com/
Your Internet service provider might offer you a free email account. However, consider using one of the services listed above. That way, if you switch Internet providers, you won’t lose your email account and have to notify the bank (and everybody else) about your new email address.
Step 2: Enroll in online banking
Generally speaking, it’s pretty simple to sign up for online banking through your financial institution’s website. Bank websites vary, but here’s a basic overview of how to set yourself up:
Visit the bank’s website and look for “enroll in online banking.” You’ll want to choose “personal banking” when given the option (which may be a little bit later in the process).
Give the required information, such as your name, address, and phone and Social Security numbers.
Choose the kind of account you have, such as “checking or savings.”
Verify your identity. The bank might ask for your ATM or debit card number or your “customer number.” (Have the card and banking statement available before you start.)
Indicate consent. You’ll be asked to read and agree to the online banking terms and conditions.
Create your online banking identity. That means creating a username and a password (more on that below).
Set up security questions. As with a credit or debit card, the bank needs a way to verify that it’s really you if you call in the future with an issue.
Log in. Once you’ve finished the bank’s enrollment process, you can sign on and check your accounts.
If you have any problems, call your bank or credit union’s customer service and ask for help with the process. You could also stop in at the bank or credit union and ask for help setting up your account.
[ See: Why It's Safe for Seniors to Bank Online ]
Step 3: Download the banking app (if desired)
When you bank with a computer or tablet, you’ll be going to the bank’s website to conduct your transactions. But if you also want to bank via your smartphone, you’ll need to download a mobile app.
Click on the Apple App Store or Google Play Store icon on your phone, and search for the name of your bank or credit union. If it has a mobile app, it should appear in the search results. If you aren’t sure if it’s the right app, contact your bank’s customer service or visit a branch to ask for help.
Once you’ve downloaded the app, you can log in using the username and password you created to access your account through your financial institution’s website.
Online banking best practices
Your bank uses a lot of security precautions for its online presence. That doesn’t mean it won’t ever be hacked; cybercrooks are constantly on the prowl for weaknesses. If your financial institution were to be hacked, it is legally required to report this information immediately.
On your end, a few basic safety precautions will go a long way toward protecting your online banking account:
- Choose a strong password. It should have at least a dozen characters that include a mix of numbers, special characters (such as @) and letters. Don’t use the same password for your email that you use for other accounts. Because remembering them all can be challenging, consider using a password manager such as the one provided through the Carefull service.
- Use multi-factor authentication. Many accounts offer the option to enable multi-factor authentication. Every time you sign in to your account, the bank will text or call to provide you with a code that you need to enter in addition to your username and password. This might sound like a hassle, but it will quickly become second nature. And it will make it more difficult for hackers to access your account. Be aware that when the bank sends you this code, it won’t prompt you to click on a link in a text or provide that code over the phone to a bank representative (more on avoiding dangerous links below).
- Lock the virtual door. Check your computer’s settings to make sure that your firewall is set to “on” and that your antivirus software is up to date.
- Don’t bank over public wi-fi. Banks and credit unions use seriously strong encryption technology. However, if you log into your bank account using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, there’s the risk that hackers can gain access to that network and see your login credentials as you enter them. Save your banking and any other sensitive transactions for your secured home Internet.
- Don’t click on links in emails or text messages, even if those messages appear to come from your bank. If you get an email or text message warning you about an issue with our account and prompting you to click on a link or to provide your account login information, it likely is a scam. Instead, call your bank to find out if it’s trying to reach you.
- Sign up for account alerts. When you log onto your bank account online, there should be an “Alerts” tab. You can opt to receive email or text alerts when there are certain transactions on your account. If you receive an alert for a transaction you don’t recognize, you can get in touch with the bank immediately to report it as fraudulent. You also could use a more comprehensive account monitoring service such as Carefull, which will keep an eye on your bank, credit card and investment accounts 24/7 for unusual transactions, signs of fraud and money mistakes. It also included credit and identity monitoring.
A word about fraud
Online banking can be secure as long as you are taking steps to be safe. Make your online banking password strong (see above) and absolutely impossible to guess. For example, don’t use elements such as your birthday, your name, your pet’s name or your favorite sports team.
Don’t write your banking password down on the calendar, or inside a desk drawer. Don’t speak it out loud while logging in. And of course, don’t share the password with anyone except your spouse or partner.
FAQs about online banking
If you’re not entirely comfortable using the Internet, online banking might seem difficult or even dangerous. A bank manager should be able to explain any questions you have. But here are a few common topics, to get you started.
Will I be charged a fee to bank online?
Most physical banks and credit unions provide online banking services free of charge. You can check this through your bank’s website, or ask someone at the bank the next time you’re in there.
What if I need to deposit a check?
Sure, you could drive to your bank or credit union to deposit with a teller or through the ATM. However, if you have a smartphone, or even a scanner, many banks let you deposit checks electronically.
No more getting dressed and going out to do just one banking chore. In these days of high gas prices, every mile matters—especially if you live relatively far from your bank.
Could I be scammed?
Sadly, this is a possibility. A common scam is for cybercrooks to send emails or texts that look like they’re coming from your bank. These fake warnings tell customers that their bank accounts have been compromised and that they should click on the link to fix things.
That link will either infest your device with malware or take you to a site that will steal your banking and other personal information. You’ll be ripped off either way.
Never respond to an email or text from your bank; instead, call customer service or visit the bank website to ask for help. (The website may display current scams on its home page.)
And if a scam does get through? You can limit the damage by checking your bank account frequently, or signing up for transactional alerts and monitoring your email regularly.
However, this requires near-constant vigilance (and you have to sleep sometime!). Signing up for a service such as Carefull means 24/7 monitoring of your accounts for unusual activity, unfamiliar transactions or any other financial fraud signals.
The bottom line
Online banking has numerous benefits, and it’s really pretty simple. If you’re not the tech-savvy type, think of online banking as using a side door instead of the main entrance: You’re simply creating a new way to access the account you already own.
And remember: There were plenty of other things you once didn’t know how to do until you made it your business to learn. Online banking might sound scary, but very soon you won’t remember what it was like to not be able to bank that way.