By Morgan Quinn
This was originally published on GOBankingRates.com as part of its third annual “Best Banks” series.
The men and women serving in the United States military have unique banking needs; they might travel for work, live overseas, move frequently or work unpredictable hours. Their financial circumstances change when they get deployed and everyday transactions like withdrawing money from an ATM, depositing checks, paying bills and sending money to family can become much more complicated.
Whether you are an active or retired service member, a veteran, or a family member, a military bank can offer full financial services that accommodate these special circumstances. That’s because military banks are unique; they’re dedicated to serving military members and their families, and meeting their very specific needs.
As part of its 2015 “Best Banks” series, GOBankingRates investigated more than 30 military banks and credit unions, evaluating each on a number of criteria that matter to military families:
Here is a list of the best military banks and credit unions of 2015.
Who can join: Despite its name, Navy Federal Credit Union serves a much wider field of membership than just members of the Navy, which includes the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense uniformed personnel, officer candidates and reservists, delayed entry program personnel, U.S. government employees and contractors assigned to DOD installations, DOD civilian employees, Coast Guard active duty and reservists, and National Guard personnel. Family and household members, like grandparents, parents, spouses, children and siblings, can also join this financial institution as long as a current member sponsors them during the application process.
Features: Navy Federal Credit Union provides comprehensive personal and business financial services to all its members, including savings and checking accounts, retirement planning, insurance coverage, loans and lines of credit. Navy Federal Credit Union’s rates also top other military fincial institutions; its 0.25% APY is the second-best savings rate and its 0.95% APY is the best one-year CD rate offered by these top 10. It also offers military member exclusives like up to $20 in ATM fee rebates, 100 percent VA financing on mortgages, APR discounts and competitive interest rates on a variety of products.
Navy Federal Credit Union is the largest financial institution on this list; military members can find easy access to branch locations, ATMs and 24-hour member service. Even if you leave the military, change employers, move, retire or get married, you don’t have to leave Navy Federal. As the site says, “Once a member, always a member.”
How to join: Accounts can be opened online, in a branch or over the phone. The online process takes only about 10 minutes, but you must be at least 18 years old to open an account. If you are under 18, you can visit a branch or call the member service number for assistance. You’ll need to provide a Social Security number, driver’s license or government ID, current home address (previous address is required if you’ve lived there less than two years), a credit card or bank account routing number to fund your account, and an email address. Joint account owners also need to provide a Social Security number, driver’s license or government ID, and current home address.
Who can join: Arkansas Federal Credit Union is headquartered in Jacksonville, Ark., and eligibility for membership is extended to employees of Little Rock Air Force Base, Camp Pike, Camp Robinson, Fort Chaffee, employees of the state of Arkansas, federal employees in Arkansas and over 500 other select employee groups.
Features: This bank also offers various personal and business products, including interest-bearing checking and savings accounts, Health Savings Accounts (which reduce taxable income), CDs, and IRAs. A unique offering at AFCU is the Member Freedom Money Fund, which is a high-yield liquid investment account that offers tiered rates and has no minimum balance requirement.
Members of AFCU aren’t restricted to banking in the state of Arkansas; the bank offers a “shared branch” service, which allows members from national participating credit unions to perform transactions at their branches. Service members and their families who move away or temporarily go out of town have the convenience of performing transactions at participating credit unions as if they were at their home branch.
How to join: Accounts can be opened online, in person at an Arkansas Federal Service Center or by calling customer service. Anyone opening an account is required to provide a Social Security number, valid driver’s license, state ID or government-issued photo ID, and the routing and account number of the product you will use to fund your new membership.
Who can join: Membership includes Washington, D.C. residents, civilian and military personnel of Andrews Air Force Base, McGuire Air Force Base and military installations in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as over 200 employer groups throughout Maryland and New Jersey. Some consumers are also eligible through the American Consumer Council — visit americanconsumercouncil.org for more information.
Features: Andrews Federal Credit Union is one of the banks on our list that offers numerous specific services just for service members working overseas. The credit union has a worldwide network of ATMs and branches, as well as catered services like SmartConnect online banking, SmartPay, SmartMobile with remote deposit and SmartCall, allowing members to have complete control over their accounts online or by phone. AFCU also has branches in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as toll-free customer service numbers in over 30 countries.
One of the challenges service members living in Europe face is paying bills from their U.S. bank accounts. Andrews Federal Credit Union offers Online Euro Bill Pay, so all bills can be paid from members’ U.S. accounts in the same currency as the country they are stationed in, which removes the need to have both a U.S. and foreign bank account. AFCU also offers legal consultation for military members who want more information about power of attorney, wills, insurance coverage or any other financial concerns they have while serving overseas.
If you work in the United States, Andrews Federal Credit Union also has a shared network of branches, so members can conduct in-person financial transactions if they can’t access their regular branch location. As with many other military financial institutions, your membership never expires, even if you retire or leave the military.
How to join: Eligible members can complete an application online or visit any Andrews Federal branch location to join.
Who can join: Membership at Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union is extended to active military, Texas homeowners, students of local schools, immediate family members of RBFCU customers, certain association members, worship groups and employees of select companies. There are more than 2,000 possible qualifiers to join, so it’s best to consult the credit union’s website to see if you are eligible.
Features: RBFCU offers a wide range of personal and business financial services to its members, including free checking accounts, cash-back credit and debit card rewards, free notary services, investment assistance and competitive rates on loans. Other branch benefits include local coin counters and even dental benefits plans.
RBFCU also offers services to help military members transition back into civilian life, including money and debt management resources, information on wills and power of attorney, life insurance, and credit reporting.
How to join: Members can fill out an application online, visit a RBFCU branch or call the member service center to join.
Who can join: Membership is extended to select employer groups, those who live, work, worship, attend school or regularly do business in certain service areas, active duty military, Reserve, Guard or civil service employees, retired military or civil service employees, contractors attached to the post, or relatives of eligible members. See the credit union’s website for a full list of eligibilities.
Features: Fort Knox Federal Credit Union has branch locations on and off base, including eight in Hardin and Meade counties and six in central Kentucky. But the credit union’s services aren’t limited to the state of Kentucky: There are more than 5,000 credit union service centers throughout the U.S., as well as over 130,000 surcharge-free ATMs worldwide, as well as ATM fee refunds. Additionally, members can access their accounts online 24/7 to transfer funds, check balances and conduct other transactions.
Fort Knox Federal Credit Union offers a variety of standard banking services, including checking and savings accounts, loans, and discounts to members, but what makes the credit union stand out on this list are its financial education tools. Members and their families (including children) can learn the fundamentals of money management, including budgeting, tracking, and setting benchmarks and goals.
How to join: There is a one-time only membership fee of $15. Accounts can be opened online, in a branch location or over the phone. You must be at least 18 years old to join online. You also need to provide a Social Security number, driver’s license or government ID, full name, home address, and date of birth.
Who can join: USAA Federal Savings Bank membership is open to active, retired and honorably discharged U.S. military service members, cadets and midshipmen at U.S. service academies, students in advanced ROTC or on ROTC scholarship, and officer candidates within 24 months of commissioning, as well as eligible family members, widows, widowers and former spouses who have not remarried. Some products and services are also available to consumers with no military affiliation.
Features: Members get access to a variety of basic financial services and products, including checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, and investment advice, but there are additional perks like free ATMs nationwide, low APRs, and competitive rates on loans and insurance. There are also a number of special offers for service members who are deployed, including discounted rates on loans and vehicle storage, free ADT home monitoring, and expedited policies to cover severe injury benefits during wartime.
Some other unique benefits you won’t find from other institutions on this list: savings on travel insurance and car rental, discounts on new or used cars, low rates on FedEx shipping, help finding childcare, and even services for fine jewelry custom design.
How to join: Members can join USAA by filing out an application online, calling customer service or visiting a branch location. You are required to provide a name, address, date of birth and other identifying information.
Who can join: Membership at Langley Federal Credit Union, a Virginia-based financial cooperative, is open to employees of certain local businesses, members of specific local organizations — like a church or Homeowner’s Association — as well as through sponsorship by a family or household member who is a current member. Additionally, those who live in certain “investment areas” are eligible. See the company’s website for full details.
Features: Langley Federal Credit Union offers both personal and business products catered to U.S. service members, like free interest-bearing checking accounts, discounts on loans, investment, insurance and tax services, and fraud and identity theft protection. Credit card customers can take advantage of rewards programs like CURewards, earning points that can be redeemed for merchandise online.
The credit union also offers multiple free financial resources, including rate calculators, financial seminars and money management games just for kids. Like other institutions on our list, branches are equipped with safe deposit boxes and coin counters.
How to join: Customers can open an account online, in a branch location or over the phone. You must provide a current federal, state or local government-issued ID card with a photograph and, depending on the type of account, a Social Security card, birth certificate, leave and earnings statement, or U.S. military orders. Service members not stationed overseas can provide documentation showing their unit assignments if they don’t receive mail where they live. They can also provide any mail addressed to them at an army or fleet post office.
Who can join: Membership eligibility and account access varies. For example, some accounts are only available to active-duty military personnel, full-time Reserve members and full-time Guard members, while other accounts are only open to officers. See the bank’s website for more information.
Features: First-Citizens Bank & Trust Company is more accessible than some of the other banks on our list, with over 570 branches in 18 states. The bank also provides military-specific benefits, including free checking and savings accounts with perks like with no balance requirements, unsecured installment loans of up to $1,000, car loans, special rates on savings accounts and CDs, credit card loyalty programs, and home financing offers. These features are not necessarily automatic, though, and you might have to meet certain requirements to qualify.
How to join: Accounts can be opened online, through the customer service phone number or in a branch location.
Who can join: Both service members and civilians could be eligible to open accounts with Tyndall Federal Credit Union. Even if a consumer does not meet any of the criteria, he could still gain membership if an immediate family or household member qualifies. You can visit the institution’s website for a list of categories and qualifiers, or call or stop by one of the branch locations for more information.
Features: Tyndall Federal Credit Union offers competitive loan and deposit rates and lower fees than many traditional financial institutions. Members can also take advantage of extended benefits from business partners like Sprint, home loan services, IRAs, youth accounts, free traveler’s checks, notary services and free educational seminars.
Branch locations are restricted to Panama City and surrounding areas of Florida, so customers who travel for work or live in other parts of the country might have limited access to physical locations. Still, Tyndall recently added Allpoint to its ATM network, meaning members have access to over 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs worldwide.
How to join: Accounts can be opened online, over the phone or in a branch location. The online application process takes about five to 10 minutes to complete, and new accounts are funded through direct deposit, credit card, debit card or check.
Who can join: Membership is limited to active and retired military and civilian personnel, U.S. government employees who are assigned to work at a Department of Defense installation (including offshore locations), midshipmen and cadets, some Reserve and Coast Guard members, immediate family members, some corporate or other legal entities, members of specific foundations, places of worship or organizations, and employees of participating companies. The list of qualifiers is quite expansive, so check the credit union’s website for more detailed information.
Features: Air Force Federal Credit Union members can take advantage of very competitive rates on auto and mortgage loans, CDs, and checking and savings accounts. The credit union also offers a wide variety of services to assist with tax preparation, debt management and financial planning. Members have access to other exclusive benefits, including discounts on Sea World and Schlitterbahn tickets, and special offers from Sprint and GM.
Members have access to over 30,000 fee-free ATMs and, like many other banks on our list, they can visit shared locations so they aren’t restricted to banking in one defined area. There are also local, toll-free and international customer service numbers for members stationed overseas in countries like Germany, South Korea and the United Kingdom. Membership at Air Force Federal Credit Union lasts a lifetime and won’t expire if a member moves, changes jobs or retires.
How to join: Consumers can apply for membership online, over the phone, in a branch or via fax. You will need to provide a valid driver’s license or state ID, social security number, date of birth, and current address. In some cases, you might be asked to provide additional identifying documents.
Institution selection: In order to determine its “Best Military Financial Institution” rankings, GOBankingRates examined 36 military financial institutions offering retail bank services, including credit unions and banks. To be considered for ranking, banks had to be members of the Association of Military Banks of America (AMBA) for banks, and credit unions had to be listed as serving a military membership by the NCUA; from those GOBankingRates selected the top military banks and credit unions for inclusion in our survey based on the following criteria.
Criteria for rankings: Financial institutions were scored from most to least favorable in the following categories. The categories given the most weight were (1) free checking account option and (2) low-fee or free ATM use, including reimbursing ATM fees. The next criteria were (3) savings account APY, (4) 12-month CD APY, (5) product and service offerings (including auto loans, VA mortgage loans, credit cards, insurance, and investment services), (6) a mobile app and remote deposit capability, and (7) financial education services. The criteria were rounded out by the financial institutions’ (8) BauerFinancial Star Ratings for overall financial strength, which were given a lesser weight.
GOBankingRates is a personal finance and consumer interest rate website owned by ConsumerTrack, Inc., an online marketing company serving top-tier banks, credit unions and other financial services organizations. Some banks mentioned in this ranking are clients of ConsumerTrack, Inc., which serves more than 100 national, local and online financial institutions. Rankings are 100 percent objective and no institution, client or otherwise, paid for inclusion or specific placement.