"The only difference between a campus account and a non-campus account is that the monthly fees are lower and they may pay less at an ATM," said Nessa Feddis, the ABA's senior counsel.
The U.S. Department of Education sees it differently. It found "excessive fees" and "troubling practices" on the nation's college campuses. In March, the department released proposed rules to regulate on-campus debit cards. Final rules should be announced this fall.
To get the best deal you need to shop around
Shopping for a checking account is like any other purchase. You need to see what's available and which financial institution offers the best deal for your needs.
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"Look everywhere, credit unions, community banks and online banks," advised Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com. "And don't feel locked into an account with the name 'student' on it."
When you compare checking accounts, look at the terms and conditions. Pay close attention to the fees:
- Is there a monthly fee if you don't maintain a minimum balance?
- What are the ATM fees?
- Is there a fee to use your debit card to make a purchase?
- How much are the overdraft fees?
"Don't be lured into accounts that are marketed as free or easy," cautioned the CFPB's Rich Williams. "It's very rare to have an account with no fees."
Such an account could have high overdraft or ATM fees that can be much more expensive than paying a couple of bucks each month, for example.
Overdraft fees can drain an account
Overdraft fees are a big problem for students. Many don't realize they can be hit with a steep fee for making purchases that overdraw their checking account.
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"Students do more and smaller debit card transactions, so that means the debit card overdraft fees are more likely to rack up more quickly for them," said the Center for Responsible Lending's Maura Dundon. "So there could be a $35 overdraft fee on that $2 cup of coffee. And they may have five or six of those small purchases a day."
Students need to understand how overdraft protection on a debit card works. They have to say "no" to this protection to avoid the fees - which is counterintuitive.
"Opt-in" or agree to overdraft protection: You'll be charged an overdraft fee if a point-of-sale purchase or ATM cash withdrawal overdraws the account.
Turn down this protection: Debit card purchases or cash withdrawals that would overdraw the account will be declined, but you won't be charged a fee.
The decision to opt-in or opt-out of overdraft protection can be changed at any time. The website NerdWallet has a list of checking accounts that have no or very low overdraft fees.
It's also a good idea to sign up for email or text alerts that flag when your balance gets below a certain level. And to avoid extra fees, cash withdrawals should only be done at ATMs that are part of the originating bank or credit union's network.