The Best Online Stock Trading Sites of 2017 - Reviews.com
If you’re new to the stock market, it’s intimidating — one wrong click, you fear, and your money’s all gone. So we went on the hunt for the best online stock trading sites with beginners in mind. Our top pick, Fidelity, earned a perfect score in customer support and investment education, and once we got in there and started trading, we found the interface to be everything we wanted: We could tailor the dashboard to fit our needs; find the most important information we needed to make decisions; and search its extensive learning center by topic, media, and skill level.
The slightly more expensive TD Ameritrade was a close runner-up. The gamification of its educational tools was the most innovative out of every platform we looked at, and the intermediate Trade Architect and advanced-level thinkorswim platforms mean it’s pretty much impossible to outgrow.
Not in the US? Many firms aren't available to people living abroad, but a few do. OptionsHouse offers services to China, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. optionsXpress signs people up from Australia and Singapore. Questtrade is one popular option for Canadian citizens looking to invest in US markets.
This review isn’t for day traders or high rollers who would be able to take a $10,000 minimum in stride. We’re talking to the people starting with a humble sum and the same smarts as the millions of others trading online. We began with a list of 37 stock trading sites currently operating and available for US markets and measured how they stacked up on everything from classes to calculators to blogs. We also poked around their online reputations (what were other people saying?) and consulted with financial experts on what really mattered for new traders.
One thing to note: While the cost of commissions — the amount a site charges when you make a trade — factored into our choices, it didn’t lead our decision-making. With the lowest commissions, we often ended up sacrificing more of the learning and service perks, which is okay if you know what you’re doing (and doing a lot of it), but not so great if you’re just starting out. If you’re not trading constantly, a $5 or even $9 stock trade shouldn’t kill your dreams of retirement.
We don’t know many new investors with a Nissan’s worth of cash lying around, so we skipped any site that required you to have more than $2,500 to get started, about the amount of a decent tax return or annual bonus. This meant we had to cut some of the big boys here, like Interactive Brokers, a site for active traders which has received a 4-star rating out of 5 from Barron’s for the last six years. It requires a $10,000 minimum investment (or, interestingly, $3,000 if you’re under 25). We also left behind TradeStation, which has a reputation for being one of the best for active, sophisticated traders, but requires a minimum of $5,000 to get in.
If you’re starting with just a few bucks, three of our top picks had no minimum to invest: TD Ameritrade, Merrill Edge, and TradeKing.
Cobra Trading, Interactive Brokers, Lightspeed Trading, PlaceTrade, SpeedTrader, TradeStation, WellsTrade
Chances are you’ll start simple: a few stocks, and perhaps a bond or a mutual fund. But as you learn, and save more money, you’ll want more choices because the more types of investments you have, the more diversified your portfolio will be. Diversification is key to facing one of the realities of investing: risk. Specifically, the risk that you could lose your money.
Platforms matter. This review explores each site's basic, web-based platform that's best suited for beginners, but many of our top picks also offer advanced platforms for active and/or professional traders. We didn't test those, but we did note when they were available; access to more robust tools mean you can grow your stock trading skills without switching sites.
Balancing your portfolio means spreading your money out among multiple opportunities in case one turns out to be the next Enron and not the next Apple. “Diversification is the best way to protect yourself against risk,” says Jane Barratt, founder and CEO of Goldbean, and a registered investment advisor. “The most important area of diversification is by asset class. When you invest, you can buy stocks, bonds, funds, or just hold cash. It’s always a good idea to have a mix of all of these.”
Since diversification is such an important aspect of risk mitigation, we wanted investors to have a variety of options. These include — incidentally —options , bonds, forex, futures, and ETFs.
The average number of investment products available on each site came out to about four, so we used that as our mark to cut the less-than-average contenders. This meant a platform could have had any combination of at least four investment products, not just the ones listed above, but had to have at least stocks and bonds, which experts agree are best for beginning investors.
We lost Robinhood in this cut, which has an impressive reputation for its commission-free trades, but it only offers stocks and ETFs.
BUYandHOLD, Global Futures, Just2Trade, Kapitall, MB Trading, Ninja Trader, Open E Cry, Robinhood, Sogotrade, SureTrader, TradingBlock, USAA
We evaluated each platform through a beginner’s lens, giving points in three areas: education (including articles, videos, and courses); tools and resources (like calculators, reports, and FAQs); and support (such as live chat, 24/7 service, and email).
We found that some companies, such as ChoiceTrade, Capital One Investing, and Merrill Edge, outsourced to the same third-party platforms for at least some tools and training. Providers of these materials include Morningstar, an investment research and management firm, and the Options Industry Council, an industry cooperative that provides education regarding options. Both of these organizations have been around since the ‘80s and are respected by the investing community. However, we didn’t want a company that relied solely on them and didn’t produce its own resources — that’s like a teacher telling you to just read the textbook (even if it’s a pretty good textbook).
Capital One Investing, ChoiceTrade, Eoption, Firstrade, Investrade, SiebertNet, Trading Direct, Vanguard, Zions Direct
We played in the financial sandbox at sites you’ve probably heard of: Scottrade, TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Merrill Edge, optionsXpress, E*TRADE, TradeKing, and Charles Schwab. Our plan was to take the remaining eight sites and make fake trades using demo accounts. Our starting scenario: a new investor with about $2,500 from a tax return ready to get in the investing game.
We had read that LinkedIn was a hot stock, so we definitely wanted to put down about $1,000 there. This would be the first test: How easy is it to simply buy a stock you know you want?
Wanting to buy $1,000 in LinkedIn takes more than clicking one button. You have to buy shares, which are sold in share prices (as opposed to $1 increments) — to get the number of shares you want, you have to divide the amount you’re willing to invest by their price.
To get started executing the trade, it’s pretty similar across every site: When you click on “Trade,” you’re taken to an order window to enter which stock you want to trade and how many shares you want to buy. You can’t just put in the stock’s name either; you need the symbol instead, so we appreciated when there was a link to a symbol-lookup tool. We also liked when there was a calculator — at the time of our testing, LinkedIn’s stock was at about $135, and it took some quick math to figure out how many shares equaled $1,000. (Points to Merrill Edge for having both the symbol lookup and a slick calculator built in to the order window.)
For the remaining $1,500, we knew we wanted a safe investment in order to diversify and minimize the risk. Classic advice (think: from your grandpa) is to go with AAA-rated bonds. This was the second test: How easy would it be to research and find a safe bond based on each website’s filters and suggestions? If it made it easy to find bonds, chances are it’d be able to help you find any kind of investments you’d be looking for in the future. Here, TD Ameritrade was the standout: Its Bond Wizard guided us through all the research with velvet ropes and made it painless to purchase.
Almost every site has a section titled “Education” or “Guidance and Advice,” but once you clicked within them, the differences became apparent. Some sites gave us drop-down menus of articles about various topics, while others got us excited with learning paths, creative videos, and filtering options. We also wanted to dive into each site’s resources, including calculators, courses, and alerts to see which company impressed us most.
Let’s point out now: All eight of the sites we explored are absolutely worthy of your money. They have top-notch educational materials, tools, and support, and they also allwork . Our picks are based off our experiences, but no matter which you choose, you’ll be in good hands.
- TD Ameritrade
Fidelity Clean design we love looking at, plus schooling to get us started and platforms to help us grow.
If you’re a new investor with at least $2,500, Fidelity is the best site to get you in the game — and to keep you there long term.
As of 2013, Fidelity had a terrible reputation for being difficult to use, and it obviously took that feedback seriously — in 2015, Fidelity revamped everything from technology to infrastructure to design. We found that its updated site strikes a perfect balance, giving us enough information to understand the bigger picture without overwhelming us with data.
From when we first logged in, it scored points on design. Boom: There’s your account balance, in big numbers on the top left. That’s the question we all want to know most, right: “How much money do I have?” Also, displayed front-and-center are the day’s gains or losses. Within this summary page you can minimize and expand modules, such as balance history, asset allocation, and market graphs. When we logged out and logged back in, it had remembered our preferences.
In the Guided Portfolio Summary, Fidelity shows you an easy-to-understand ring chart of your asset allocation, so you can make sure you’re diversified. Better yet, it marks the areas with symbols: An orange, triangular caution sign suggests you pay closer attention; a yellow light bulb tells you it has an idea for you to investigate; and a green circle with a checkmark means you’re on track. For users who need guidance to know where they might need to adjust, this is a welcome help.
Fidelity has thought of things you didn’t even know you wanted. The “News About Your Investments” section offers articles filtered to funds you’ve purchased, so you can keep up on news that might affect the value of companies you’re invested in — we didn’t see this so readily available elsewhere. It even provides an online notebook where you can organize ideas to come back to. Somehow, Fidelity managed to add in all these extras without cluttering the site.
The Planning and Guidance Center, which the company also overhauled in 2015, provides hundreds of articles, webcasts, and courses you can filter by media, topic, and experience level, making it easy to find what you need to learn right when you need to learn it. We chatted with Rob Beauregard, director of public relations at Fidelity, who explained, “The P&G Center integrates both retirement planning and investment guidance into one resource to help investors develop a plan, track progress over time, and easily evaluate ‘what if’ scenarios.” This education forum isn’t the most innovative we found — TD Ameritrade stands out there — but it is extremely robust, well thought out, and smartly executed.
The thing Fidelity really does best is research. Barron’s gave it a 4.9 out of 5 for Research Amenities and a 4.8 for Portfolio Analysis and Reports — and we can back those scores up. Its reports were the best we found, with information from 19 firms, plus filters to find the best research firm for you based on your preferences. Each research firm is also rated for accuracy, so you can trust that the information you’re getting is valuable. To get a sense of social sentiment, Fidelity even synthesizes posts from social media and scores them ranging from minus 4.25 to 4.25, so you can get more than just the opinion of that one guy you follow on Twitter.
Not sure how to get your head wrapped around each report? Fidelity embeds links back to its Learning Center, which breaks it all down in articles and videos by experience level.
Fidelity’s ActiveTraderPro platform is designed for advanced traders, and while we didn’t spend much time testing it, it has impressive features that can compare to TD Ameritrade’s better-known thinkorswim platform. If you’re looking to stick with the same company as you grow your skills and potentially become more active, Fidelity can definitely accommodate — but beware you need to be making at least 36 trades per year to get access to ActiveTraderPro, and you won’t have any access to futures (Fidelity doesn’t offer that product). By comparison, TD Ameritrade lets anyone use thinkorswim, even if its capabilities far outmatch what most beginning traders will ever use, and gives up trading in international markets, which Fidelity offers, for futures. If you have big plans for becoming a day trader that dabbles in futures, we suggest skipping Fidelity and heading over to TD Ameritrade.
At $2,500, Fidelity is tied with Scottrade for the highest minimum balance of our final eight contenders — not a huge deal since $2,500 isn’t a huge amount, but it does stand out compared to TD Ameritrade’s $0 and E*TRADE’s $500 minimums. And while its site is customizable, it’s not to the degree we saw with E*TRADE. What you do get is a lot of help: On top of its fantastic resources, Fidelity has more than 190 offices all over the United States, as well as customer service reps ready to assist 24/7, a feature we loved — and one that TradeKing, Scottrade, and optionsXpress lack.
With a stock trading commission of $7.95, Fidelity is average on cost for our contenders. (Of our finalists, the cheapest commission for stock trades was $4.95 with TradeKing, and the highest was $9.99 for both E*TRADE and TD Ameritrade.) But when it comes to Fidelity, the support you get along the way is well worth paying a bit more.
TD Ameritrade was neck-and-neck with Fidelity the whole way, and in a few ways impressed us even more. Case in point: Its education resources, which TD Ameritrade essentially turned into games, something studies have shown makes it more likely you’ll actually stay engaged and learn more. The learning center includes 100 videos, nine courses, and regular webinars with levels and options suited to each user, from Rookie Essentials up to Guru Essentials. Recently updated in the last two years, this more than doubled the amount of videos the company previously had.
The courses are short, animated videos with great production quality and the best style we’ve seen. While other sites have videos that mostly look like PowerPoint presentations of talking heads, TD Ameritrade’s lessons are cartoony and fun, without being cheesy.
TD Ameritrade’s uses Samurai in one video to explain futures.
These interactive courses and assessments test your learning, including the Portfolio Rookie Assessment, which grades each response immediately and, when you answer incorrectly, helps you understand why. Also, each video you watch is awarded
a certain amount of points (these add up to Achievements), which you can win and show off on your virtual trophy shelf — from Stocks Rookie to Portfolio Management Guru.
In addition to its video lessons, TD Ameritrade offers live casts, which also earn you points. These include a daily morning huddle — 15 minutes of relevant news, announcements, events, and earnings. It also ends each week with a Wall Street Wrap-up, summarizing the market activity for the week. With all of these resources, you can carve out a learning path that works for you. Another thing to look forward to: In 2016, TD Ameritrade started the process for acquiring Scottrade. It’s going to take awhile — a press release says systems won’t converge until 2018 — but adding Scottrade’s top-tier customer service to an already robust arsenal of offerings will only make TD Ameritrade stronger.
That learning can take you as far as you want to go. TD Ameritrade has three platforms, and although each is available to everyone (no pre-reqs like with Fidelity’s ActiveTraderPro), they are designed to appeal to different levels of traders: the standard website, which works well for beginners; thinkorswim, for professional traders; and TradeArchitect, which hits the sweet spot between the other two. Like with Fidelity, there is no ceiling for your skills, but TD Ameritrade provides more concrete stepping stones to help you scale up and down. (And, if you like mobile trading, TD Ameritrade’s combined app ratings for its Android and iOS platforms trump all others.)
Pros can take advantage of TD Ameritrade’s thinkorswim (top), while TradeArchitect (bottom) is aimed toward mid-level users.
The one place TD Ameritrade lost points with us was on design. There is a “dock” on the right-hand side that you can customize and minimize, but the main dash isn’t as flexible as Fidelity’s or E*TRADE’s. There’s also a panel on the bottom that you can’t get rid of, which made us a little nuts because it followed us everywhere, taking up screen real estate when we would have preferred to minimize it.
The rest of TD Ameritrade’s features were on par with Fidelity’s, and similarly it offered every kind of product with the exception of international markets. That said, at $9.99, it ties with E*TRADE for highest commission out of all our contenders.
The ultimate goal of investing is to make money, and a big part of making money is saving money in the first place. With TradeKing, you’ll get stock trades for $4.95, the lowest of our top contenders by up to $5 per trade — even for broker-assisted trades. There’s no minimum to invest, but you have to have at least a $2,500 balance 12 months in to avoid a $50 annual inactivity fee.
With TradeKing, you’ll lose the 24/7 support you get with Fidelity and TD Ameritrade, but as far as service and usability, that’s the only place it lost points. It offers almost as many investing options as our other leading contenders — everything except futures and trading on international markets.
The design here isn’t going to wow you, but it’s not bad either. It’s simple, and simple is better than the cluttered craziness of some other sites. TradeKing offers two web-based platforms, one that works for beginners and TradeKing Live, a streaming service that you can grow into as you advance.
We found its educational materials to be adequate. You can learn a lot on this site, and it does a great job of organizing the articles by security type, market outlook, and experience level (rookies, veterans, or all-stars). The company also gets extra points for fast customer service and active user forums. However, you don’t get the same hand-holding we wanted and liked at other sites. AsKiplingersays, “TradeKing is built for serious traders who trade actively and in large volumes.” But if you’re looking for the cheapest option, give this site a go.
One thing to note: TradeKing was recently acquired by Ally Bank, but according to its site, the interface will stay the same, and “for the foreseeable future there’ll be no change in pricing for TradeKing clients, including Securities, Advisors, and Forex clients.”
While OptionsHouse has great prices and a low minimum, it is, as the name suggests, mostly for options traders — which most experts say aren’t a great starting choice for beginners. However, you can still buy stocks, bonds, and futures there, and it only charges $4.95 for commissions, so we didn’t want to leave it out entirely. Its educational resources are options-heavy, but it’s a popular platform and one worth considering if only for the savings. Another reason to keep it in your arsenal: In 2016, OptionsHouse was acquired by E*Trade, and we can anticipate both platforms integrating their tools and services to become a truly robust powerhouse.
For now, though, you lose 24/7 support like TradeKing, but OptionsHouse offers phone, email, and chat when it’s open. Before beginners immediately want to write it off: OptionsHouse stocks your account with $5,000 of fake money so you can practice without the risk of losing a penny. And, if you have questions about your portfolio, it has a unique feature where advanced trading specialists hold “office hours.”
Charles Schwab is a definite leader in the field, especially in the area of research, with reports from Morningstar, Argus, Ned Davis Research, Credit Suisse, Vickers, Reuters Research, and S&P. While this isn’t as many as Fidelity, it also provides its own proprietary reports, including Buy-Hold-Sell opinions, recommendations, and technical commentary on industries and specific investments. For all this information, its fees are high-ish, but not the highest, at $8.95 for stock trades.
We were excited by its avid trading community and the Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, a kind of robo-advisor that monitors and rebalances your portfolio, though you need to have accrued $5,000 in your account before you can use this feature.
It’s worth noting that Charles Schwab bought optionsXpress in 2011. Though it hasn’t integrated sites yet, the company said that’s the plan. For now, if a trader decides to use optionsXpress as well as Charles Schwab, their account information will be available jointly on the Schwab site.
If you’d like to do your banking alongside your trading, and especially if you’re a Bank of America customer already, Merrill Edge might be right for you. For Bank of America customers, the benefits include easy money transferring, one login for all your accounts on one screen, and bill pay. Most impressive was “My Financial Picture,” a budget tracker where you can label your transactions, similar to Mint.com.
If you’re not a Bank of America customer, you won’t benefit as much from this integration. However, BoA resources help beef up Merrill Edge’s education section, with additional research and data to help you invest smart, such as Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Global Research, an analysis service with information on more than 3,000 stocks. The “Portfolio Analysis X-Ray” evaluates your portfolio performance based on diversification, sector, and geographical distribution.
As soon as you log in, E*TRADE asks which page you’d like to use as your landing page, such as Portfolios or Accounts. The design for its 360 Dashboard isn’t as visually pleasing as Fidelity’s dashboard, but its customization can’t be beat. Each widget (watch lists, alerts, and balances) can be dragged and dropped in any order you want. You can even play with the widths of how panels are displayed and customize the view.
It also offers a customizable alerts module, where you can choose a stock and get alerted on any number of events: high target, low target, daily percentage up or down, PE high or low target, and volume. The news alerts let you know if a stock upgrades or downgrades, is in play, or has earnings or a split notice. And, while it may look like you can only send the alerts to your email, it has a workaround to send them as texts as well.
To find a bond, E*TRADE appears to outsource this information, as we got sent to www.bonddesk.com/etrade, which is another company: Tradeweb. It looks just like E*TRADE’s dashboard, but you lose any of the customizable functionality.
If individualized service is important to you, then Scottrade is going to be your best choice. Signing up is simple, and once you do, you’ll get a call welcoming you to the firm and letting you know where your nearest branch among its 500 is located. It hosts in-person seminars with titles ranging from “Strengthen Your Stock Analysis with Fundamentals” to “Recognize Chart Patterns to Spot Opportunities.” If you have questions, more than 1,500 investment consultants stand ready to assist you. Its pricing is also lower than average among our top picks, with stock commissions at $7 flat.
Online, the site is adequate. We weren’t impressed with the design (are those tab headers pixelated?) But its homepage has great customization capabilities, and we could find everything we needed when we needed it. Stay tuned for this player to become a true top contender, though. In 2016, TD Ameritrade made moves to acquire Scottrade, and the deal is expected to close by fall 2017, with “an anticipated clearing conversion to TD Ameritrade systems in 2018,” according to a press release. With Scottrade’s killer customer service and TD Ameritrade’s incredible service offerings, it’s going to be a hard pair to beat.
Not all investments are good for beginners and you should get a bit more experience before dipping your toes. As Barratt says, “New investors should keep far away from more complex vehicles like options and futures. A mix of funds and stocks is good for beginners.”
- Stocks: a portion of a company ownership. Imagine the company is like a cake, and you get a slice. If the cake grows, your slice grows. So the more valuable the company, the more valuable the stock you bought. Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. Level: beginner
- Option: a contract between a buyer and a seller to buy or sell something at a specified price at a specified time, basically as a way to bet on the future price of an investment. Level: advanced
- Bonds: a loan you make to a company or government in exchange for interest and the return of principle at some future date. If your city wants a new stadium, for example, it might issue a bond to pay for it. These investments are rated for safety by third-party companies, with AAA being the least risky. Level: beginner
- Forex: short for foreign exchange, the ability to trade currencies on this market, which is the largest in the world, and speculate on what today’s yen, for example, will cost tomorrow. Level: advanced
- Futures: short for futures contract. This is an agreement to buy or sell assets, such as commodities or shares, at a fixed price to be delivered and paid for at a later date. If you think you can speculate on next year’s price of gold, this fund is for you. Level: advanced
- ETFs: short for exchange traded fund. These are investment funds that trade like a stock on a stock exchange, but their performance tracks an underlying basket of stocks. They provide diversification within one investment product, so they present lower risk than futures. Level: beginner
Investing is above all a discipline, so come up with an investing strategy and stick with it. If any promise of riches comes with an expensive price tag for classes or seminars, it’s definitely too good to be true. The average long-term return on a stock is about 7 percent, so if you’re hovering around that on your accounts, you’re doing well.
“The most common mistake a new trader makes is they open a trade bigger than they should. They get all caught up in the idea that the stock market is the pot of gold. A new trader needs to trade with even a smaller size than they think and be happy with accumulating small wins.”
Unscrupulous trading firms are also a reality, so if you choose to go with a company that’s not on this list, make sure you spend at least 20-30 minutes researching it. Run from anyone who tells you they have insider information on a trade, or you might get the same rap sheet as Martha Stewart. Also be wary of anyone who is pressuring you or making you feel like this is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. Overall, be very skeptical, do your research, and remember there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
“It’s an age-related question,” says Randy Cameron, a portfolio manager and investment advisor with 35 years of experience. “For a younger person, I’d be very aggressive on exposure to stocks, both large-, mid-, and small-cap stocks.” (Here, ‘cap’ stands for ‘capitalization.’ This just means how large or small a company is.) “I’d weight them at 85-90 percent of a portfolio,” says Cameron, “with the balance going to a bond, ETFs, and some cash.”
Younger investors, or investors without the financial responsibility of children, can handle more risk, Cameron explains. But as you get older or have children, you want to balance your portfolio with lower-risk investments, as you won’t have as much flexibility or time to make up for losses.
There’s a risk in investing, but don’t forget there’s also a risk in not investing — missing out on the power of compound interest. Use a site that has great learning tools and resources, diversify your portfolio, and stay disciplined and you’ll be one step closer to securing your future.
Play with your own fake money. Give yourself a few thousand in fake money and play investor for a bit while you get the hang of it. “Just start. Even with just a virtual portfolio. Start and then commit to building over time,” says Barratt. “Don’t expect anything major to happen in a short time — build your money muscles by taking risks in a virtual portfolio.” TD Ameritrade offers paperMoney, its virtual trading platform. If you open an account, OptionsHouse offers its paperTRADE account to test your strategies. Outside of actual trading sites, MarketWatch and Investopedia offer simulators to get you started.
Buy what you know. Our experts suggest you begin by looking at your own life. “Buy what you know, where you are. If you can, identify good companies locally,” says Cameron. “Look for companies you and your friends are talking about, ones with plans to go national.” As for how much time and money you need, “start with what you have,” says Cameron. There is literally no minimum to get started. You can buy one share of a company if you like.
Don’t check your account too often. The best investors are in it for the long haul. Checking your account too often might make you react to the fluctuations in the market too quickly. Personal finance expert Ramit Sethi has written that you should check your investments, “probably every few months, with a major review every year.” On many sites, you can also set an alert if a stock dives. Other than that, just set a quarterly recurring appointment so you know you’ll handle it at the right time.
If you’re saving for retirement, a recent John Oliver skit suggests you invest in low-cost index funds, “and leave it alone. You should check on it about as often as you Google whether or not Gene Hackman is still alive — about once a year.”
We’ve been looking into online stock trading sites for a few years now, and you can check out some of our other reviews. They aren’t consistent with our latest round of research (yet!) so be on the lookout for updates in the coming weeks: