Choosing the right credit union

By Doresa Banning

With 7,485 credit unions in the United States, and many cities having anywhere from 20 to 70 of them (Houston has 79!), choosing one to join can be daunting. But it doesn't have to be.

Joining a credit union is a step-by-step process. The first thing you should know about credit unions is that each of them has a field of membership, meaning its members must belong to one or more specific groups. To be eligible to join a credit union, you or a relative must belong to one of its groups.

Luckily, due to significant growth in the credit union movement over the past 20 years, just about everyone can join a credit union through a connection. Credit union groups include employers, military or government branches, associations, residential areas, religious or fraternal affiliations, and university students and alumni.

Here are the steps to identify which credit union will best suit your needs.

Step 1: Identify possibilities

Obtain a list of credit unions in your area. It could be short or long, depending on where you live. If you're in a small town, include on the list those in neighboring cities or towns. You don't want to rule out a potentially better credit union because it's a 15-minute drive away.

To get a list of credit unions in your area, try these resources:

  • Visit Select your state and city to view nearby credit unions.
  • Call the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), 800-356-9655, for your state's credit union league phone number. Then call and ask the league.

Step 2: Determine eligibility

With each credit union on your list, visit its website or call to ask about its membership field. On the site, click on the credit union name. You may find the membership information there or on the credit union's website via the provided link.

As you find the information for each potential credit union, determine whether you qualify. If not, eliminate it from your prospects.

After this step, you may be left with one or multiple choices. If you're left with one, your research is done, and you can skip to Step 5. If you have options, do a little more list-whittling with Steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Consider services

In this step, you'll determine what services each credit union on your list provides and match those to your needs. For example, not all credit unions offer Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).

As a rule, the smaller the credit union, the fewer the services. Based on a credit union's total assets, you can often determine its size and range of offerings.

Here's an asset size and services overview, per CUNA:

  • $1 to $2 million: Shares (saving accounts and checking accounts), loans
  • $5 to $10 million: Shares, IRAs, larger consumer loans (33 percent hold credit card loans, 43 percent offer ATM access)
  • $50 to $100 million: Shares, IRAs, loans (96 percent offer ATM access, 53 percent have multiple offices)
  • $500 to $1 billion: Shares, IRAs, loans (99 percent offer ATM access, 96 percent have multiple offices)

On the page for each credit union at, you'll find its total assets and membership. If you're using the phone, call the credit union and ask about their assets and services.

Eliminate those from your list that don't offer the services you need.

Step 4: Investigate security

All federal and most state-chartered credit unions have deposit insurance via the National Credit Union Association (NCUA), which the federal government backs. Others, however, are insured by private companies.

If you prefer one insurer over the other, call or check the credit unions' websites for their carrier. Then modify your list accordingly.

If, after these steps, you're left with equal choices, then consider branch and ATM locations. Select the credit union where they're most convenient.

Step 5: Apply to join

Fill out and submit an application (most are available online.) To prove eligibility, you'll need to supply the name of the qualifying group you belong to or the name of your relative who belongs to that group. Also, generally, you'll need $25 to open your account.

Once you're in, enjoy the benefits. And happily remove that "pick credit union" chore from your to-do list.