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By Kaitlin Mulhere
Updated: May 22, 2018 10:55 AM ET
Illustration by Studio Moross for Money

Extra-long mattress? Check. Econ textbook? Check. Bank account? For many students, college means using a bank other than their parents’ for the first time. For up to 30% of students, it’s the first time they’ll have a checking account.

The good news is that many banks offer special terms for young people. The tricky part is finding the most competitive ones, especially since colleges muddy the waters with marketing deals.

To help, Money polled 16 of the nation’s largest banks to find which offer the best terms for college students.

We always name our Best Banks with an eye toward low fees so you can keep more of your cash. But for the college population, we doubled down: We considered only accounts with no monthly service fee and paid close attention to overdraft policies, since college students— often living on tight budgets—overdraw their accounts more frequently than other bank customers. (We’ll also show you how to avoid these fees completely.)

Finally, because college students are often anchored to a small area around campus yet still need access to their bank when they head home, we prioritized accounts with wide ATM networks or free withdrawals.

Of course, our list isn’t for everybody. If you have access to a great local credit union or are willing to go completely online, you may be able to find better deals. (For instance, all the national accounts we assessed carry an overdraft fee, and most charge at least $2 for out-of-network ATM activity. Both are fees you may be able to avoid at a credit union or online.)

That said, if you’re looking for a bank with low fees, a wide footprint, and top-notch mobile offerings, here are your best options.

The Winners

Many banks offer special terms for students, but few have a truly national footprint. Check your region and state for the best options for you.

The West: U.S. Bank

Why it wins: With 4,700 free ATMs in 25 states, U.S. Bank spans a huge geographic area. The bank also refunds four out-of-network withdrawals a month. If you like old-fashioned paper checks, your first box is free. Plus, the mobile app gets above-average ratings.

Caveat: There’s no free savings account offered.

Branches: Ariz., Ark., Calif., Colo, Idaho, Ill., Ind., Iowa, Kans., Ky., Minn., Mo., Mont., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.D., Ohio, Ore., S.D., Tenn., Utah, Wash., Wis., Wyo.

Key Terms:

Account: Student Checking

  • Monthly fee: $0, with e-statements
  • Out-of-network ATM fee: $2.50
  • Overdraft fee: $36

Midwest: Huntington Bank

Why it wins: A consistent high performer in J.D. Power’s annual Retail Banking Satisfaction Study, Huntington’s overdraft policy is generous: You have a 24-hour grace period to deposit more money, and you can set up a free transfer from a savings account to cover overdrafts. Plus, the account is always free, even after you graduate.

Caveat: The out-of-network ATM fee is a high $3.

Branches: Ill., Ind., Ky., Mich., Ohio, Pa., W.Va., Wis.

Key Terms:

Account: Asterisk-Free Checking

  • Monthly fee: $0
  • Out-of-network ATM fee: $3
  • Overdraft fee: $37.50

Northeast: Citizens Bank

Why it wins: This brand-new account doesn’t charge out-of-network ATM fees, and Citizens Bank scores above most other banks in our universe for customer service in its region, according to J.D. Power. Plus the account lasts until age 25, a year longer than many others do.

Caveat: You could be hit with up to seven overdraft fees in one day. Other banks in Money’s survey limited it to fewer than five.

Branches: Conn., Del., Mass., Mich., N.H., N.J., N.Y., Ohio, Pa., R.I., Vt.

Key Terms:

Account: Student Checking

  • Monthly fee: $3.99, waived until age 25
  • Out-of-network ATM fee: $0
  • Overdraft fee: $35

Southeast: PNC

Why it wins: The unique account includes one checking and two savings accounts—one short-term and one longer-term—all in one. PNC allows one free overdraft in the first year and two out-of-network ATM withdrawals a month.

Caveat: The out-of-network ATM fee is a high $3, so stick to one of 9,000 free ATMs (450 on college campuses).

Branches: Ala., Del., D.C., Fla., Ga., Ill., Ind., Ky., Md., Mich., Mo., N.J., N.Y., N.C., Ohio, Pa., S.C., Va., W.Va., Wis.

Key Terms:

Account: Virtual Student Wallet

  • Monthly fee: $7, waived for up to six years as a student
  • Out-of-network ATM fee: $3
  • Overdraft fee: $36

Methodology

Money evaluated the 16 largest U.S. banks by reach—those that have at least 1,000 branches or a presence in at least 12 states. These were Bank of America, Bank of the West, BB&T Bank, Chase, Citibank, Citizens Bank, Fifth Third Bank, First Citizens, Huntington, KeyBank, PNC, Regions, SunTrust, TD Bank, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo. Account data was collected in March and fact-checked with each bank in April. Citibank did not respond to attempts to verify account information. To determine winners, Money considered minimum-balance requirements, monthly fees, overdraft policies, ATM fees, savings account offerings, and customer service scores from J.D. Power’s 2018 U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction Study.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the number of free ATMs offered by PNC. There are 9,000 free ATMs, not 19,000.

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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