Credit unions seems to be having a moment. The number of credit union customers was up 6.35% this year, while the rest of the banking industry grew by just 1.86%, according to credit research firm TransUnion.
“Since the financial crisis, many consumers have fled Wall Street banks’ high fees and antics for Main Street credit unions,” says Dan Berger, president and CEO of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions. Berger and Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst, say credit unions are luring customers with lower fees, competitive rates—on a range of products, including car loans, credit cards, home equity, and even mortgages—and higher levels of customer satisfaction.
Finding a credit union has historically been a challenge, however—because the institutions operate a little differently than banks. Walk into a JPMorgan Chase Bank branch in New York with some identification and some money, and you can open an account. But since credit unions are membership organizations and nonprofits, the rules are different. Most credit unions restrict membership to people who live, work, or worship within a specific region, or if whose employer is a participating organization. (To find one, you can check out the NAFCU’s site, www.CULookup.com.)
There is another set of credit unions, however, that will allow you to join if you make a one-time donation to a nationally accessible charity or nonprofit group. On these, Money has done some of the legwork for you. Here are 14 of the largest credit unions you can join without having to adhere to specific geographic or employment criteria. —Megan Leonhardt
Alliant Credit Union
Branches: 12 in five states (Calif., Colo., Ill., Texas, Va.)
How to Join: Make a one-time $10 gift to the charity Foster Care to Success.
Key Fact: Its High-Rate Checking account doesn’t charge monthly maintenance or out-of-network ATM fees, and reimburses up to $20 in ATM machine surcharges.
For more info: alliantcreditunion.org/
Branches: 28 in Michigan
How to Join: Make a one-time $60 donation to the Henry Ford Museum.
Key Fact: Offers a 0.25-point discount on auto loan rates—which are already as low as 2.74%—if you choose to make automatic payments from any of the credit union’s checking or savings accounts.
For more info: dfcufinancial.com/
Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU)
Branches: 22 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire
How to Join: Join one of eight participating organizations, including Reach Out for Schools, which requires a $10 membership fee.
Key Fact: The Dividend Checking account pays 0.05% interest, and has no maintenance fee if you maintain a $2,500 monthly balance. (Otherwise you'll pay $10 a month.)
For more info: dcu.org
ESL Federal Credit Union
Branches: 20 in New York
How to Join: Purchase a one-time membership with the George Eastman Museum, which starts at $55 for the basic level.
Key Fact: ESL will reimburse the Eastman Museum membership fee if you open a checking account, money market account, or CD with at least $2,500, or a checking account with direct deposit set up.
For more info: esl.org
First Tech Federal Credit Union
Branches: 40 in eight states and Puerto Rico (Calif., Colo., Ga., Idaho, Mass., Ore., Texas, Wash.)
How to Join: Pay a one-time $8 donation to the Financial Fitness Association, or a $15 gift to the Computer History Museum.
Key Fact: First Tech won Money’s Best Credit Union for Everyone with the impressive 1.57% interest offered on its Dividend Rewards Checking accounts, as well as its big network of credit union partners that offer in-branch service and fee-free ATM access.
For more info: firsttechfed.com
Golden 1 Credit Union
Branches: 78 in California
How to Join: Make a one-time, $8 donation to join the Financial Fitness Association.
Key Fact: If you maintain a $1,000 daily balance in its Premium Checking, Golden 1 will waive the $5 maintenance fee and pay a 0.05% yield.
For more info: golden1.com
Kinecta Federal Credit Union
Branches: 23 in California
How to Join: Become a member of the Consumers Cooperative Society of Santa Monica, for as little as $10.
Key Fact: The credit union was founded in 1940 as a convenience for employees of Hughes Aircraft, so they would not have to spend their lunchtime driving downtown to handle their finances.
For more info: kinecta.org
Lake Michigan Federal Credit Union
Michigan State University Federal Credit Union
Branches: 17 in Michigan
How to Join: Qualify through a Select Employee Group (SEG), or qualify for membership by donating $35 to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Donors of MSU are also eligible for membership.
Key Fact: We are the largest university-based credit union in the world, serving nearly 230,000 members.
For more info: msufcu.org
Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed)
Branches: 32 in 10 states (Fla., Ga., Va., N.C., Hawaii, Md., Texas, Tenn., N.Y., Neb.) plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, Japan and Portugal. Three more branches, including two in New Mexico, are set to open next month.
How to Join: Make a one-time $14 donation to Voices for America's Troops, or a $15 gift to the National Military Family Association.
Key Fact: With only $1,000, you can open a one-year CD that pays a relatively generous 1.21% yield.
For more info: penfed.org
Redstone Federal Credit Union
Branches: 24 in Alabama and Tennessee
How to Join: Donate to one of 15 participating organizations, such as a $5 gift to the Land Trust of North Alabama.
Key Fact: Earn cash back with the Extra Checking account: Starting with your ninth debit card purchase each month, you get a nickel back for each additional purchase during the period.
For more info: redfcu.org
San Diego County Credit Union
Branches: 39 in California
How to Join: Make a one-time, $8 donation to the Financial Fitness Association.
Key Fact: The credit union has partnered with restaurant rewards startup Mogl to offer debit and credit card customers 25% cash back when they dine out at participating eateries.
For more info: sdccu.com
United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU)
Branches: Three in D.C. and New York
How to Join: Become a member of Kilimanjaro Initiative USA for as little as $10 or join the United Nations Association of the United States of America for $25.
Key Fact: Members can get up a 1-point discount on auto loan rates for new vehicles.
For more info: unfcu.org
Wings Financial Credit Union
Branches: 23 in five states (Fla., Ga., Minn., Mich., Wash.)
How to Join: Make a one-time $5 donation to the Wings Financial Foundation
Key Fact: The credit union’s extensive ATM network includes over 60,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide.
For more info: wingsfinancial.com