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What is the Difference Between Credit Unions and Banks?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Credit unions and banks are more similar than they are different. Both are financial institutions which offer a variety of services to their depositors, ranging from savings accounts to home loans. The underlying philosophy behind banks and credit unions is different, however, with the key distinction being that banks are run for the purpose of generating profits, while credit unions are generally run as non-profit, community-based institutions.

The practice of banking is ancient; for almost as long as people have had money, bankers have been present to deal with it. Credit unions date to the 1900s, when they were initially established as workers cooperatives. In the 20th century, several industries began creating their own credit unions, allowing members of specific industries or employees of particular businesses to enjoy credit union membership, and credit unions were also opened more generally to the public.

In a credit union, people must be members in order to become depositors. Membership is usually as simple as opening up a new account with a minimum deposit. Members become part owners in the credit union, receiving shares which are based on how much they have on deposit. People with large amounts of funds get more shares, entitling them to a larger share of the credit union's profits from investing and lending.

The board of directors at a credit union is classically elected or comprised of volunteers, and members all participate in elections and major financial decisions. By contrast, a bank is owned by a private company, with a board appointed by the company or shareholders in the company. Depositors in the bank can receive interest on certain types of accounts, but not all.

Credit unions focus on promoting thrift, encouraging people to save and use their money wisely. In addition to offering conventional savings, credit unions usually offer share draft accounts, otherwise known as checking accounts, and they can provide loans and issue credit cards to their members, usually at low rates of interest. Many credit unions also promote community development, keeping money within a community and making it easy for members to invest in community projects. The credit union model is often promoted as a technique which could be used to promote sustainable development from the ground up, by encouraging individual communities to develop financial independence, rather than injecting capital into an area.

Banks can be locally based, but many have multiple branches across a large region. Some banks operate internationally, moving huge amounts of money on a daily basis. For customers, banks provide the convenience of international access, and they can sometimes offer high interest rates on deposits due to their involvement in high risk, high yield investments.

A credit union often prides itself on personalized, friendly service and the strength of its connection in a community. Some credit unions operate more like banks, and in some cases, a credit unions may even be run as for-profit institutions which operate along the credit union model. Banks, by contrast, tend to be highly standardized and focused on providing consistent, professional service, not necessarily customizing services to the needs of particular clients.

In nations where the government guarantees funds on deposit up to a certain amount, banks and credit unions are usually both covered, making them equally safe for depositors. People who want more information about whether or not their funds are insured should contact the agencies which handle deposit insurance to see if their financial institution is listed as a member.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon163414 — On Mar 27, 2011

I must say I enjoy the services of my credit union and my community bank with 12 branches in our area. I have only experienced consistent, superb customer service and have never incurred a fee.

They are older than my marriage and have always treated me the same as a college student, college grad, newly wed, and first time parent. As far as the credit union being inconvenient, small branches and locations. I keep my savings there and turn down the debit card, with no penalty.

Who wants to conveniently get their savings? I want to be discouraged to spend it. Works for me. I don't deal with these big box banks, they just don't care and are superb at trickery.

By cafe41 — On Nov 03, 2010

Icecream17-The best credit union is Dade County Federal Credit Union. They currently have a Money Maker checking account that offers over a 2% yield for deposits up to $20,000.

The only requirements involve using a debit card at least 12 times in a month, obtain bank statements electronically, and consider three ACH transactions a month like a direct bill payment. You will never find products like this offered in a traditional bank.

By icecream17 — On Nov 03, 2010

Cupcake15- The only downside with credit union remains that the usually have a few branches and often they are not accessible as traditional banks.

For example, Bank of America has thousands of branches across the country while a typical credit union many only have about 10 to 12 branches in a small geographic area.

Power Financial Credit Union has about twelve branches across South Florida and in order to be a member you have to live in that area which is another drawback associated with credit unions.

By cupcake15 — On Nov 03, 2010

The great thing about federal credit unions is that they are nonprofit organizations that have to reinvest their profits in the bank and give this to its members.

This is why a credit union loan such as a credit union mortgage or a credit union auto loan is typically better than a traditional bank.

They also offer car sales and provide an Auto Desk in which a representative can haggle the price of the car for you when you let them know the specifics about the car. There are fees that are eliminated such as dealer fees so you know you are getting a good deal.

In addition, the credit union CD rates are also more competitive as well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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