More and more, Canadians are exploring their options and seeking no-fee alternatives to traditional fee-based banking products.

Sure, you can get a free chequing account at one of the big banks, but you’ll need to carry a high minimum balance or limit your transactions in order to waive the monthly fees.

Related: Canadian Chequing Account Comparison

To avoid the fees, you’ll need to open up a free chequing account with an online bank or credit union.

PC Financial has dominated the free chequing account market for more than a decade.  The popular online bank has been around since 1998, and boasts more than one million no-fee chequing customers.

Then along came the Thrive account from ING Direct, followed by BMO’s Club Sobeys account, giving customers some much needed choice when it comes to free chequing account options.

The challenge is finding a free chequing account that can meet all your day-to-day financial needs.  They all have similar features, like free debit transactions and no minimum balances, so I took a closer look.

Free Chequing Account Comparison

Feature PC Financial ING Thrive BMO Club Sobeys
Monthly fee $0 $0 $0
Minimum balance None None None
# of Debits Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
ABM access PCF / CIBC ABM’s Exchange Network BMO ABM’s
Cheques Unlimited 50 free 25 free
Email Transfers $1.50 Free $1.50
Overdraft $4.97 Free $5
Interest 0.05% 0.25% None
Rewards PC Points None Club Sobeys
Sign-up bonus 10,000 PC Points $100 Apple gift card* Up to 3,000 Club Sobeys points

*gift card available when you switch your payroll deposit to Thrive

PC Financial stands out because they offer free unlimited cheques, plus the opportunity to earn free groceries in the form of PC Points.  10,000 points is worth $10.  You’ll get free access to 3,800 PC Financial and CIBC ABM’s.  The downside is you’ll pay a fee for email money transfers and for overdraft protection.

ING Thrive’s best features include free overdraft protection up to $250, and a generous $100 sign-up bonus (Apple gift card).  They offer free email money transfers, but those take 1-2 business days to get to the recipient.  ING is on the Exchange Network so you have free access to 2,500 ABM’s located near credit unions and banks like HSBC and National Bank.

One drawback to the Thrive account is once your free cheques run out, it’ll cost you $12.50 for another book of 50.

BMO’s Club Sobeys account is another decent option for no fee banking.  The account features are comparable to the two online banks, but you get the added benefit of a brick-and-mortar location in case you need a teller-assisted transaction like taking out a bank draft.

Though there are too many to compare, your local credit union is also worth a look.  More than 10 million Canadians belong to a credit union, where you’ll get the low fees and higher savings rates that online banks like ING Direct and PC Financial are known for, plus the benefit of having full service branches.

Related: Best High Interest Savings Accounts In Canada

Future of Online Banks

While more Canadians eschew the big banks in favour of free chequing account alternatives, there’s been a bit of an upheaval among existing online bank customers.  That’s because ING Direct was recently purchased by Scotiabank, and Ally Financial was swallowed up by RBC.

As an ING Direct customer I’m not thrilled with the sale to Scotia, but I know it’s premature to bail on ING now before the sale is completed and we find out Scotia’s true intentions with this platform.

It’s hard to see Scotia veering too far off course with ING, but as we’ve seen with TD’s acquisition of MBNA, the big banks’ intentions are anything but benign.

Related: Changes To MBNA Smart Cash Rewards Explained

PC Financial has already noticed an uptick in new customers since the ING Direct sale, perhaps a sign that ING customers don’t want to stick around to see what Scotia has in store for them.

Still, many ING customers are hopeful that Scotia will operate ING separately and continue its tradition of no fee banking.  For the sake of competition in the no fee banking segment, let’s hope so.

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