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With today’s digital innovations, investors are no longer limited to the brick-and-mortar brokerage firms that their parents used.
Instead, online brokers have enabled investors to go outside the boundaries of traditional trading institutions. By circumventing the proverbial middle man, individual investors can start investing in the stock market all on their own.
But how do you find the best online brokerage firm? And should you tackle investing alone?
They’re important questions, and the answers to them will determine which is the best online broker for you.
What Is a Brokerage Account and Can I Use It to Buy Stocks?
A brokerage account, including many of the apps that allow you to set up accounts, are investment accounts that allow you to invest in the stock market. The returns your investments generate are a form of taxable income. Yes, that’s right — you will be taxed on any income you earn from online stock trading.
The way it works is simple. Start by opening and funding an account with a cash deposit or ACH transfer. After your deposit funds clear, you can immediately begin purchasing stocks. Many online brokers will charge you a fee to make trades, even if you are purchasing for the first time.
You can then monitor the stocks you’ve purchased until you are ready to sell. If you choose to sell, you’ll have the option to keep the funds in your brokerage account [for future purchases], or you can transfer the balance back into your primary funding account.
How to Find the Best Online Broker for You
Learning how to start investing, especially if you’re a total beginner, can be overwhelming. Taking your money and investing it into the stock market is something a majority of people haven’t done on their own. Complicating things further is the fact that you’ll be responsible for preventing mistakes, doing your own research, and avoiding trading-oriented fees.
Then again, there’s the legitimate appeal of not having to pay a steep management fee for someone to invest your money.
For investors looking to buy and sell stocks, there are many online brokers to choose from. Depending on what your specific needs are, a broker that’s a great fit for someone else might not be the best choice for you.
The DollarSprout team has spent dozens of hours compiling research on all of the top brokers. We’ve sifted through each company’s pricing models, functionalities, online reviews, and more, and came up with a list of what we feel are the best online brokerages for stock trading.
Below are the highlights of our findings, along with links to more in-depth reviews and additional resources.
Comparing the Best Online Brokers
At a glance:
- Charles Schwab – Best overall broker
- Ally Invest – Great for new traders who want to be more active
- M1 Finance – $0 per trade, hands off investing
- Fidelity – Best overall broker
- Trade Station – Ideal for advanced level traders
- TD Ameritrade – Suitable for traders & long term investors
- Vanguard – Great for low cost, low maintenance index fund investing
- E*TRADE – 250+ commission free ETFs and an excellent mobile app
- FirsTrade – Ideal for international investors
- Motif Investing – Best for socially responsible investing
- Merrill Edge – Great for existing Bank of America customers
- Interactive Brokers – Frequent trading, advanced trading
Founded in 1971, Charles Schwab is a full service investment firm. They offer a suite of investment options as well as several different types of accounts. They are a trusted name in the brokerage industry with fees and pricing now competitive with Vanguard, Fidelity, and other low cost brokerage firms. Their customer service can't be beat.Show Hide more
- Long reputation of excellence
- No account minimums
- Many high performing Schwab ETF funds available that are free to trade
- Excellent customer service available 24 hours a day including live chat
- If your fund does have a transaction fee, it could be high
- No current promotions to open account at this time
Anyone who is looking for a low cost brokerage with great customer service.
Ally Invest is the investing portion of Ally Bank, an online only bank with no brick and mortar locations. Ally acquired Trade King in 2017 and now offers a suite of investment options. This platform is great for active day traders, but it's also easy for a beginner to get started. Ally is well regarded in the financial space, and they have a good reputation.Show Hide more
- No advisory fees.
- Automated investing.
- $100 account minimum.
- Interest-earning cash buffer.
- Commission-free trading on U.S. listed stocks and ETFs.
- Transfer fee reimbursement.
- $0 account minimum.
- Up to $3,500 cash bonus.
- No tax loss harvesting.
- No human advisor.
- No physical branch.
- No existing promotions.
- No automatic rebalancing.
- Mutual funds carry transaction fees.
- No human advisor.
- No physical branch.
- Managed accounts are best for beginners looking for low-fee, completely automated investing.
- Self-directed accounts are best for active traders, forex traders, day traders, and options traders.
M1 Finance is a combination online brokerage and robo advisor. It's very highly rated across the personal finance community for it's interface, fund availability, and low costs. They offer investment portfolio templates you can choose from, and you can invest completely free.Show Hide more
- Free to trade
- Offers fractional investing and no hidden fees
- You can borrow against your portfolio in some instances
- Automates investing and rebalancing
- They do not offer tax loss harvesting
- They only offer stocks and ETFs; no mutual funds
Hands off investors who want the benefit of a robo-advisor with $0 per trade. Also, it’s best for people who want to invest in stocks and ETFs, not mutual funds.
Fidelity is a well known, multinational financial services company that offers a variety of different types of financial products from credit cards to taxable investment accounts to retirement accounts. They are competitive with other low cost brokers like Charles Schwab and Vanguard.
- Did away with almost all account fees
- First broker to have mutual funds with no expense ratios
- Has significant research available to customers to learn from
- Great customer service and online tools
- Fees are higher if you need the help of a broker to make a trade
- Some tools/products are only for active traders or people with large amounts invested
People who want to invest for retirement and active investors as well. Also good for people looking for low cost funds.
Trade Station offers professional level trading for experienced investors, brokers, and day traders. They have a robust online platform with significant research and education available to their users.Show Hide more
- 35+ years of experience, with numerous awards
- Advanced level education and charting
- Comprehensive research available
- Not designed for beginners
- Does not offer commission free ETFs
- Be wary of service charges and other fees
Very experienced traders and investors.
TD Ameritrade is a large brokerage firm that offers many different types of accounts, stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, and more. They recently acquired Scottrade in 2017. They have brick and mortar offices but also many different online tools and educational resources. They are a well known brokerage firm with a wide array of offerings and generally have a positive reputation.Show Hide more
- Wide range of offerings
- Diverse trading platforms
- Lots of trading tools and education and access to research
- There are no maintenance fees
- Trades are more expensive than some other competitors
- They do have some short term trading fees, so pay attention to the fine print when selling
People looking for a robust array of offerings, trading tools and education. Not for those who want the cheapest option.
Vanguard is one of the longest standing brokerage firms. Created by Jack Bogle in 1975, Vanguard has always been known for its low cost investing options and has served as a model for other low cost brokerage firms.Show Hide more
- Great selection of funds
- Low costs & good customer service
- Long time positive reputation in the industry
- Geared more towards mutual funds, and you need anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for a fund minimum
- No checking or savings account offered
All types of investors who are looking for a low cost brokerage firm with a variety of account options.
Etrade is a brokerage firm with three different trading platforms, so there is something for beginning investors all the way to active investors. They were among the first online brokers and also have significant data available to their customers. Note: If you make more than 30 trades per quarter as an active investor, the cost per trade drops to $4.95.Show Hide more
- Good mobile apps
- More than 4,400 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
- Over 250 commission-free ETFs
- 3 trading platforms
- Not the lowest cost per trade
- Website can be hard to navigate
Beginning investors and active traders who prefer commission free ETFs and access to research and data.
Firstrade is a discount online brokerage firm that offers completely free trades with no account minimums. They have a powerful trading platform with no hidden fees. In addition to offering low cost investment options, they also offer educational resources, calculators, and more to their customers.Show Hide more
- Stocks, options, and mutual funds are all free to trade
- More than 700 ETF options
- Training tools
- No minimum deposits
- International accounts allowed
- Customers report customer service could use improvement
- No managed portfolios available
Investors who want free trades and prefer a hands-off approach. International investors.
Motif Investing is a very unique hybrid investment company that is part brokerage firm and part robo-advisor. It usus an interesting platform idea where you can purchase "motifs" or thematic based investment packages. The motifs feature 20-30 stocks or ETFs around a certain theme like "online gaming" or "biotech" which allows investors to be creative and learn more about the process.Show Hide more
- Unique idea with a sophisticated platform
- Powerful data and analytics
- Easy to use and free to trade if you wait until the market opens
- Low trade cost when buying a motif portfolio. $9.95 could purchase 20-30 stocks in a portfolio.
- Real time trade costs are high if you are buying single stocks
- Annual fees on Motif portfolios can be high; 0.25-0.50%
Any investor looking for a more unique investing experience or who wants to dabble in different types of investments.
Merrill Edge is a brokerage firm and a subsidiary of Bank of America, so it's helpful to people who are Bank of America customers who want to keep their accounts with the same bank. They do offer up to 100 free trades per month if you meet certain qualifications such as having a Merrill Edge balance of $25,000 or more or a BoA balance of $25,000 or more.Show Hide more
- Integrates with Bank of America and many online investing tools
- First 100 trades free if you meet certain account minimum requirements
- High margin fees
- Slow trading time
- it’s $29.95 to get a representative to assist you with a trade
Current Bank of America customers and customers who plan on having at least $25,000 in their account (to access up to 100 free trades.)
Interactive Brokers is a sophisticated trading platform which benefits those who are active traders. They offer lower commissions than other top brokerage firms, but their fee structures truly benefit those who are advanced traders.Show Hide more
- For high volume traders, the fees are low
- Good mobile app with solid education offerings
- Sophisticated trading platform
- Limited account type offerings
- Too many fees for less active traders
- Difficult to navigate for a new investor
Very frequent traders, advanced traders.
What should you look for in an online broker?
Here are some questions you should always ask before deciding on an online brokerage for investing:
What are the account minimums?
Most brokers will allow you to start small, but be sure to check the account minimums to ensure you qualify.
Do the tools fit my needs?
If you need access to high-end tools for research and active trading, a platform designed for beginners won’t be right for you.
How much do trades cost?
This is especially important for smaller accounts and for people who trade often. Fees will always eat into your returns, so this is an important consideration.
How is the customer service?
Helpful customer service will never go out of style.
What About Online Investment Apps?
If you want to go further than just exploring the best online brokerages, and would like to explore an area where younger investors are flocking to, check out our research on the best investment apps.
At a glance:
- Acorns – Best overall
- Stash – Best for values-based investing
- Betterment – Best investing app for long term investors
- M1 Finance – Best commission free investing app
- Ally Invest – Best app for do-it-yourself investors
- Fundrise – Best real estate investment app
- Stockpile – Best for buying fractional shares
- Robinhood – Best for options and crypto trading
Each of these apps and services are specialized and meet the needs of a different kind of trader.
To get started with one, you’ll need a well-balanced investing strategy; one that considers your entire financial outlook.
If you do not have a sound fiscal budget in place, an area where many younger, inexperienced investors struggle, you’ll end up pouring too much money into rigid investment accounts (with penalized withdrawals), instead of servicing high interest debt or paying essential bills.
Getting Started is the Most Important Step
If this is your first time investing, not to worry. With so many trading platforms available, including ones that require no minimum balance and no trading fees, you can learn on your own and use our resources to guide you every step of the way.
Investing with an online broker, even one of the best online brokers, doesn’t guarantee anything — the stock market is not an exact science. Instead, the stock market sways and shifts every single day and is deeply impacted by a myriad of factors that range from everything between politics, news, weather, and the actions of other traders.
The more time your investments must mature, the more money you will end up having in retirement. That means that the best time to start is now, even if you start small. The rise of mobile has made tracking and growing your money easier than ever.
With any one of the investment apps listed above, it’s easier than ever to get started with investing today.
How DollarSprout Rates Online Brokers
The Editorial Team at DollarSprout looks at multiple factors when determining a 1-5 star rating for online brokers. Here are the most important factors that weigh into our ratings:
- Cost per trade
- Availability of commission free ETFs
- Access to research
- Fees, and the likelihood that a user will incur them
- Account balance requirements
- Customer service
- Mobile app reviews
In addition to assigning a 1-5 star rating for each broker we research, we also aim to find the best broker for certain types of investors, such as:
- Best broker for beginner investors
- Best broker for active traders
- Best broker for index fund investors