Many banks market their accounts as "free" but there might be a catch: You often still have to pay fees that can quickly add up.

Those fees can be imposed for a number of reasons—if you use an out-of-network ATM, if your bank balance falls below a certain level, or if you sign up for a service such as overdraft protection so that banks process payments for you even if you don't enough money in your account.

And these bank fees are rising. According to Bankrate’s 2018 checking account and ATM fee study, ATM fees have hit a record high for the 14th year in a row, up 55 percent over the past decade. And the average overdraft fee is close to the highest it has ever been.

More on Avoiding Fees

"Consumers need to pay close attention when signing up for bank accounts," says Anna Laitin, director of financial policy at Consumer Reports.  "A free account can, in fact, be expensive once you take into account the fees you may incur." 

As add-on fees become more prevalent across the marketplace, consumers are having a harder time finding the best deal to fit their needs, whether they're shopping for hotel rooms, airplane tickets, cable TV, or a bank account, Laitin says.

"This can be particularly tricky when shopping for bank accounts, where different banks may have very different fee structures," she says.

To highlight these kinds of high and hidden expenses and to help you avoid them, Consumer Reports has launched a program called “What the Fee?!”  (You can find out more about our efforts at 

The good news is that there are ways to avoid having to pay bank fees, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for 

Here are some common fees that you could be charged and ways to get around them.

Monthly Service Fee

Some banks charge monthly service fees when your checking account balance falls below a certain threshold. The fee, according to Bankrate, averages $14.35 for interest-bearing accounts and $5.57 for noninterest accounts.

Avoid the fee. Open an account with a bank that doesn't have a minimum balance requirement. Keep in mind that you're more likely to find truly free checking at a credit union or at primarily online banks such as USAA Bank, Discover Bank, and Ally Bank, according to Bankrate. Another option: Ask your bank whether it will waive the monthly service fee if you have your paycheck directly deposited into your account each pay period. Many banks will do so.


Failing to use your own bank for cash withdrawals can get expensive. According to Bankrate, the cost of using an out-of-network ATM has gone up 4.7 percent, on average, every year over the past 20 years. Today, out-of-network ATM fees average $4.68.

Avoid the fee. The best option is to choose a bank that reimburses you for out-of-network ATM charges, something about a third of the banks surveyed by Bankrate do. Another way is to open an account at a bank with nearby ATMs. If you’re away from home, use your bank’s app to find the closest in-network ATM, says Jason Reposa, co-founder and CEO of

Finally, keep in mind that there are other ways to quickly access money from your account. For instance, you can ask for cash back at a store when making a purchase with your debit card. 

Overdraft Protection Fee

Banks charge overdraft fees when you either take a withdrawal or make a payment for more than your account balance. That can be useful if you've set up automated bill payments. But if you go into overdraft, banks charge a hefty fee—on average, about $33, according to Bankrate.

Avoid the fee. You can opt out of overdraft protection. If you do, your bank will decline a purchase or withdrawal for an amount larger than your balance, but you won't get charged a fee. (Note that the bank can still charge you if you write a check that bounces.)

If you do elect overdraft protection, set up alerts so you're notified if your balance falls below a certain threshold, say $100. You can also link your checking and savings accounts, so that if you spend more than you have in checking, the money will be withdrawn from your savings.

If you're hit with an overdraft fee, you may be able to have the charge removed by calling your bank and asking for a refund. Unless you regularly rack up overdraft fees, there's a good chance your bank will reimburse you.

Wire Transfer Fee

If you need to send or receive money from one bank to another, you may need to use a wire transfer, which can be expensive. The average fee is $13 for incoming wire transfers, $25 for outgoing domestic, and $45 for outgoing international, according to NerdWallet.

Avoid the fee. If you don't need the money to clear immediately, consider transferring funds using an ACH (Automated Clearinghouse) transfer instead. Some banks offer it free while others charge a small fee. Be aware that ACH transfers can take two or three days to process while a wire transfer takes just a few hours. If you need to transfer money to a family member, you could use a payment app such as Apple Pay or Venmo, but there are limits on how much you can transfer at one time.

Foreign Transaction Fee

Even if your bank doesn’t charge out-of-network ATM fees in the U.S., you might get hit with charges for using an ATM or debit card when you're abroad. Foreign transaction fees range from 1 to 3 percent of the transaction, according to NerdWallet.

Avoid the fee. If you travel frequently, switch to a bank such as Capital One 360 that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. You might also consider using a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, says Arielle O’Shea, a banking and investment specialist with NerdWallet. Among them are cards from Discover, Capital One, and Barclaycard.