How to find the best bank checking account
Figure out what you need. If all you need from a bank checking account is simple checking, ATM or debit card access and bill pay, you can probably just get a free bank checking account. Basically, a free checking account won't charge you if you go below a minimum balance and won't charge a per item fee, such as a fee for each check you've written over a certain number of checks.
Shop around online. Go to the websites of several different banks to see what types of bank checking accounts they provide. Compare not only banks, but what they offer as far as free bank checking accounts vs. an interest bearing bank checking account. Also shop around for the bank checking account that offers the most options you need; for example, if you pay most of your bills online, look for that instead of a bank checking account that offers free paper checks.
Consider high yield checking accounts. Many interest bearing bank checking accounts charge you a fee if you don't maintain a certain balance, which in some cases can be rather hefty. Meanwhile, these checking accounts tend to pay out minimal interest. Instead, look into high yield bank checking accounts, which let you keep a fairly low balance but impose other requirements, such as using direct deposit or automatic bill payment, signing up for electronic statements or using your debit card for 10 to 15 transactions each month.
Don't let your bank checking account get overdrawn. Bouncing a check can lead to significant bank checking fees, especially with fees for nonsufficient funds (NSF) on the rise. Make sure you keep track of your bank checking records, especially if you share your account with someone, or if you're accessing your bank checking through various ways, such as ATM withdrawals, debit card charges, checks and automatic bill payment. Reconcile your receipts with your account, and track your bank checking account balance online and with a paper check register. And make sure to keep a cash cushion in your bank checking account at all times.
Set up overdraft protection. If you can't avoid overdrawing your bank checking account, set up this service with your bank. You have to link your bank checking account to a savings account, credit card or home equity line of credit, to be debited if your bank checking account is overdrawn. This service is not automatic -- you have to ask for it and sign up for it before you bounce a check, not after. The bank will charge you a fee for this protection, but it might be worth it if you are constantly getting charged more expensive overdrawn fees.
Find a bank that has convenient ATM access. As you probably know, most banks will charge fees if you use an ATM from a different bank. That fee rose 22% recently, to an average fee of $2.22. You can either look for a bank checking account that waives out-of-network ATM fees, or just plan your ATM withdrawal needs ahead of time, and make sure you withdraw that amount from your ATM at once, weekly, so you don't have to turn to another ATM for cash out of necessity.
Know your bank checking fees. Ask your bank for a schedule of its bank checking account fees. Some other common hidden fees could include fees for duplicate statements, for cashier's checks or money orders, for abandoning the account (not using it for an extended period of time, usually three to five years), account maintenance (just another way of saying a monthly fee no matter what your balance), closing your account early, check printing, credit reference, debit card fees (some banks charge per debit card use), deposited item returned (when you deposit a check, and it bounces), return of checks with statement and teller fees.