Choosing a broker can be difficult due to the many different options available. While competition is forcing many brokers to offer their services for free for just sold properties, investors evaluating these platforms will still see significant differences in usability, trading technology, account features, etc. Going through all this can be a daunting task, so we’ve done a lot for you. We established these brokers in the USA. through a comprehensive review process that includes hands-on research to identify the industry’s best-selling trading platforms.
The Best Online Brokerage Accounts and Trading Platforms:
- Best Overall: Fidelity Investments
- Best Broker for Beginners: TD Ameritrade
- Best Broker for Mobile: TD Ameritrade
- Best Broker for Options: tastyworks
- Best Broker for Low Costs: Fidelity Investments
- Best Broker for Advanced Traders: Interactive Brokers
- Best Broker for International Trading: Interactive Brokers
- Best Broker for ETFs: Charles Schwab
How Should You Choose a Brokerage Account?
When choosing an online broker, you have to think about your immediate needs as an investor or trader. If you are a beginner, you may need a broker who has great educational material about the stock market and other financial markets. This is one of the key reasons TD Ameritrade is our top pick for beginners. A number of brokers also allow for paper trading prior to funding an account, giving you an opportunity to learn the platform, sample the available assets, and test out the trading experience without risking real capital.
A brokerage account is a financial account similar in function to the accounts you have with a bank. With a brokerage account, you deposit funds with an investment firm (the brokerage). This is usually done by a transfer from your existing bank account. Once funds are added to your brokerage account, you can put the money to work using the brokerage’s trading platform to invest those funds in the market. The assets you buy with your cash can be anything offered by that brokerage, including stocks, bonds, ETFs, and even cryptocurrency.
Your online brokerage account will display your holdings (the assets you’ve purchased) as well as your cash balance (your buying power). If you invest in something that gains in value, you can sell it and the profits will be deposited in your online brokerage account. From there, you can place another trade or even transfer the funds out to your regular bank account to use elsewhere. Some brokerage accounts even allow you to earn interest on your uninvested cash.
There is no longer a real minimum to start investing in the financial markets. With many brokers offering accounts with no required minimums and access to fractional shares, you can start investing with any amount of money. If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, however, it will influence how you approach the market. Although you could invest $1 in fractional shares of a specific stock, the better approach with limited capital is to use ETFs. Index tracking ETFs, for example, offer greater diversification for your dollar than a single company stock because every share (and fractional share) of the ETF replicates an index made up of many companies in many different industries. You could also consider using options to leverage your dollars with a directional bet on the market or a specific stock, but this is a strategy best reserved for risk capital—not the whole of your limited investment capital.
When investing with small sums, consistency is the key to building wealth. If you can regularly put a set amount of money into the market—even $10 a week—you will be surprised at how quickly it begins to grow. This consistency also helps to smooth market effects, as you will be buying dips and peaks as the market goes up and down.
Many online brokers allow for small minimum deposits which can be a great alternative for those with limited funds. Account minimums (if any) are displayed at the top of our reviews, as well as in our selection of the best platforms for different types of investors. If you are looking for more general guidance on investing with limited capital, check out our article on smart investing on a small budget.
Some online brokers have incredible mobile apps delivering nearly all the features that their desktop counterparts do. Options traders, for example, will find the tastyworks app to be a streamlined version of the tastyworks desktop platform. TD Ameritrade customers can pick between the more robust thinkorswim mobile app aimed at traders or the standard TD Ameritrade app for less active investors, with the features of each adjusted for the intended user.
Yes, you can. It is a reality of the market that no reward comes without risk. You can lose money buying a bad investment, but you can also lose by buying a good investment at the wrong time. When it comes to the financial markets, there are endless possibilities for making and losing money. Unless all the funds in your brokerage account are sitting in uninvested cash, there is a risk you will lose money. Another way of looking at that, however, is that a brokerage account sitting full of uninvested cash isn’t at risk of making any money either. You can use strategies like asset allocation and diversification to reduce the risk of you losing money, but you will never fully eliminate it without also eliminating your chances of making a decent return.
Yes, you can actually buy stocks without a broker, but it is not a common approach these days. Some companies still offer direct stock purchase plans that allow you to buy shares directly from the company. Companies administer these plans according to internal rules, and some are only open to company employees. You need to contact companies to find out whether they offer a direct stock purchase plan and what the terms and conditions are. These plans initially helped investors avoid brokerage fees, but the rise of online discount brokers with zero fees has removed this barrier, making the direct stock purchase plan somewhat of a relic.
The Difference Between Investing and Trading
Another important thing to consider is the distinction between investing and trading. When people talk about investing they generally mean buying assets to hold for a long period of time. The goal of investing is to gradually build wealth and reach your retirement goals. Conversely, trading involves short-term strategies that maximize returns on a short-term basis, such as daily or monthly. Trading is generally considered riskier than investing.
All these factors are worth considering before choosing an online broker. Do you want to trade or invest? Do you want a great mobile app to check your portfolio wherever you are? What types of assets are you looking to invest in? Answering these questions is not always easy. For more support on how to choose a broker, you can check out our guide to choosing a stock broker. Once you’ve made a decision on a broker, you can also check out our guide to opening a brokerage account.