Free Chequing Account Comparison

More and more, Canadians are exploring their options and seeking no-fee alternatives to traditional fee-based banking products.

Sure, you can get a free chequing account at one of the big banks, but you’ll need to carry a high minimum balance or limit your transactions in order to waive the monthly fees.

Related: Canadian Chequing Account Comparison

To avoid the fees, you’ll need to open up a free chequing account with an online bank or credit union.

PC Financial has dominated the free chequing account market for more than a decade.  The popular online bank has been around since 1998, and boasts more than one million no-fee chequing customers.

Then along came the Thrive account from ING Direct, followed by BMO’s Club Sobeys account, giving customers some much needed choice when it comes to free chequing account options.

The challenge is finding a free chequing account that can meet all your day-to-day financial needs.  They all have similar features, like free debit transactions and no minimum balances, so I took a closer look.

Free Chequing Account Comparison

Feature PC Financial ING Thrive BMO Club Sobeys
Monthly fee $0 $0 $0
Minimum balance None None None
# of Debits Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
ABM access PCF / CIBC ABM’s Exchange Network BMO ABM’s
Cheques Unlimited 50 free 25 free
Email Transfers $1.50 Free $1.50
Overdraft $4.97 Free $5
Interest 0.05% 0.25% None
Rewards PC Points None Club Sobeys
Sign-up bonus 10,000 PC Points $100 Apple gift card* Up to 3,000 Club Sobeys points

*gift card available when you switch your payroll deposit to Thrive

PC Financial stands out because they offer free unlimited cheques, plus the opportunity to earn free groceries in the form of PC Points.  10,000 points is worth $10.  You’ll get free access to 3,800 PC Financial and CIBC ABM’s.  The downside is you’ll pay a fee for email money transfers and for overdraft protection.

ING Thrive’s best features include free overdraft protection up to $250, and a generous $100 sign-up bonus (Apple gift card).  They offer free email money transfers, but those take 1-2 business days to get to the recipient.  ING is on the Exchange Network so you have free access to 2,500 ABM’s located near credit unions and banks like HSBC and National Bank.

One drawback to the Thrive account is once your free cheques run out, it’ll cost you $12.50 for another book of 50.

BMO’s Club Sobeys account is another decent option for no fee banking.  The account features are comparable to the two online banks, but you get the added benefit of a brick-and-mortar location in case you need a teller-assisted transaction like taking out a bank draft.

Though there are too many to compare, your local credit union is also worth a look.  More than 10 million Canadians belong to a credit union, where you’ll get the low fees and higher savings rates that online banks like ING Direct and PC Financial are known for, plus the benefit of having full service branches.

Related: Best High Interest Savings Accounts In Canada

Future of Online Banks

While more Canadians eschew the big banks in favour of free chequing account alternatives, there’s been a bit of an upheaval among existing online bank customers.  That’s because ING Direct was recently purchased by Scotiabank, and Ally Financial was swallowed up by RBC.

As an ING Direct customer I’m not thrilled with the sale to Scotia, but I know it’s premature to bail on ING now before the sale is completed and we find out Scotia’s true intentions with this platform.

It’s hard to see Scotia veering too far off course with ING, but as we’ve seen with TD’s acquisition of MBNA, the big banks’ intentions are anything but benign.

Related: Changes To MBNA Smart Cash Rewards Explained

PC Financial has already noticed an uptick in new customers since the ING Direct sale, perhaps a sign that ING customers don’t want to stick around to see what Scotia has in store for them.

Still, many ING customers are hopeful that Scotia will operate ING separately and continue its tradition of no fee banking.  For the sake of competition in the no fee banking segment, let’s hope so.


19 Responses to Free Chequing Account Comparison

  1. How about checking accounts at credit unions? In US, many credit unions are offering free checking accounts with interest rates higher than savings account, if you meet certain requirements like 10 transactions per month and direct deposit.

    Any equivalents in Canada?

  2. Sally says:

    Rather than going to the trouble of switching banks, it doesn’t hurt to ask about waiving fees at your very own first. Many are willing to accomodate rather than lose business.

    We are young and of modest means, and have several products with our current “big 5″ bank (credit, chequing, some investments, and a very competitive offer with our last mortgage renewal). We commented our concern with ever-increasing fees, and asked if there were any other options, and our fees have been waived ever since…

    • Echo says:

      @Sally – In my experience, TD has waived fees for a limited time, sort of like your cable provider will do, and then resumed charging.

      But, if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. The best negotiations happen from simply asking for a better deal.

  3. We’ve been with PC for 4-5 years (excellent, no complaints at all, highly recommend it) and before that we were with Citizens Bank in Vancouver (it was a online retail bank, very good, no or minimal fees, but they killed it a few years ago). So I haven’t paid bank fees in over 10 years and it boggles my mind that there are millions of Canadians who still do.

    • Echo says:

      @Geoff – Some people believe it’s overly complicated to switch banks (it’s not). My advice is to open up a free chequing account with an online bank or credit union and use it for a while in tandem with your regular chequing account. Then you can slowly start transferring things over (payroll, bill payments, etc). A few minutes of your time is definitely worth the fees you’ll save.

  4. James says:

    I have banked at both a huge well-known bank as well as a local credit union. For the most part I am pleased with both. The credit union is straight up free checking/savings we primarily use them for our loans because the interest rates are generally 1-2% lower than our bank. We use our bank for everything else. We download to iBank, our financial software, use bill pay, and have three savings accounts, a checking account, and a credit account. We don’t pay any fees for anything. With the bank we are fee free because of loopholes. For example, we have to have an automatic transfer of at least $35 dollars going savings every month to avoid the fees for our savings accounts. But you can turn around and put it right back into checking the same day if you want. So if you are paying fees, looking for loopholes might be something to check into if you’re not ready to switch banks.

  5. Sara says:

    This breakdown and comparison was really helpful, thanks for the post. I’ve been considering switching to ING and getting rid of my expensive BMO account. I didn’t even know about the giftcard offer, which makes it even more attractive so close to Christmas (not that you can buy much from Apple with $100).

  6. Joe says:

    Ah, wish I’d read this post before tonight; I just spent my remaining 50,000 PC Points (all remaining from sign-up bonuses and a referral) on a $50 PetroCanada giftcard. I would have signed up for the chequing account just to get 10k more; but you have to spend a minimum of 20k points to use PC Points if I recall so it’s not worth signing up for chequing just to get 10k when I’m now out-of-points and never use the card. Although I am going to call up and cancel — if they offer me a bonus to upgrade to their newer 2% card, maybe I’ll stick around and sign up for banking lol.

  7. Thanks for this breakdown Echo. I’ve been considering switching over from RBC. I was partial to ING, but I’m waiting to see what Scotia does with the asset now. I think PC becomes the big winner when these acquisitions are all said and done.

  8. Katy says:

    (here via canajunfinances.com)

    Thanks for the breakdown…I’ve heard about the BMO/Club Sobeys, but haven’t done any research into it.

    We’ve been using PCF for day to day banking, and stick with RBC for investments & other stuff (getting foreign currency, etc). We get the monthly fee rebated due to the products we have. I did have some GICs with PCF, but am in the multi-year process of switching them to RBC (*really* like RBC’s direct investing). We had our mortgage with RBC as we liked the flexibility it offered.

    If I was just starting now, I might go with BMO/Club Sobeys instead of PCF, as we’ve been shopping at Sobeys more (we were having problems with the dairy products at Superstore — after the 3rd consecutive bad milk, I gave up). Don’t think I’d try ING….

  9. Dave says:

    What Sally said. I’ve seen this comparison on a number of financial blogs, and they’ve never mentioned that the big banks will often waive fees. At RBC, it is done automatically based on the number of accounts you have with them. Personally I like the customer service, flexibility, and availability of services available at a big bank.

    And those that are considering switching banks should be aware of the harm opening/closing accounts will do to their credit scores, especially as chequing accounts are among your oldest accounts on your credit record.

    • Echo says:

      @Dave – I mentioned up at the top of the article that you can get free banking from one of the big banks if you carry a high balance (up to $5k for unlimited accounts) or keep a smaller balance of $1,000 to $1,500 and limit your transactions to less than 10 to 15.

      You’re right that RBC offers multi-product discounts, but I believe you need to hold an investment, mortgage and a premium rewards card (with an annual fee).

      Many people would prefer to have a free chequing account with unlimited transactions and no minimum balance.

  10. Dale says:

    I have been able to get free chequing, but hate paying $40 to have 100 cheque blanks printed. Are there any other printers in Canada than Davis-Henderson?

  11. CS says:

    We are currently at RBC but now need to order paper cheques. RBC charges an arm and two legs for cheques. I found http://www.asap-cheques.com online and their prices seem almost too good to be true, which always ring an alarm bell. Has anyone ever done business with asap or know of another place to get reasonably priced cheques?

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