Note: This article is part of our Basic Banking series, designed to provide new savers with the key skills to save smarter.
Many customers prefer to maintain accounts with credit unions, because they like the not-for-profit ethos or want a great yield on a deposit account product, or both. But some readers may wonder if you need to give up convenient branch access with a local credit union, which may have a limited number of locations.
The CO-OP Financial Services shared branch network was created to address this concern. When credit unions participate in the CO-OP shared branch network, their customers get access to the second-largest branch network in the country — after Wells Fargo’s network — counting more than 5,600 credit union branches in all 50 states.
What is a shared branch?
Credit unions that belong to the CO-OP shared branch network let customers of other member credit unions handle basic banking tasks at their branches. In addition, customers of member credit unions get access to fee-free ATMs at partner credit unions nationwide. Currently, about 3,500 credit unions participate in the CO-OP shared branch network, with a combined 30,000 CO-OP ATMs at more than 5,000 branches across the country. In addition, the network includes bank branches and ATMs in 13 countries outside of the United States.
The roots of the shared branch network reach back to the early 1980s. At that time, the big nationwide banks were adopting ATM technology for the first time, and building extensive ATM networks. The smaller credit unions, with fewer branches and resources, worried about their ability to compete with the big banks.
A group of California-based credit unions founded CO-OP Financial Services in 1981. These pioneering credit unions decided to join forces to offer a larger network of ATMs. Soon, the CO-OP network began offering more services, including shared branches.
What you can and can’t do at a shared branch
The CO-OP shared branch network provides members with useful banking service options, but there are some limitations:
What you can do at a shared branch
- Deposit and withdraw funds at branches and ATMs
- Check your balance and transfer funds between accounts
- Make loan payments
What you can’t do at a shared branch
- Withdraw an unlimited amount of money at a branch or ATM
- Access deposited funds immediately
- Receive notary services for free
How to find a shared branch
To check if your credit union is a member, call your local branch or search the CO-OP Financial Services website. You can find participating ATMs and branches on the CO-OP Financial Services website. You can also find a local participating credit union by texting a zip code to 91989, downloading the CO-OP ATM/Shared Branch Locator app on your iPhone or Android devices, or by calling 1-888-748-3266.
To use the services of a shared branch, you simply need to be a member at a participating credit union and make your transaction at another member credit union. You’ll need your account number and photo ID. Some credit unions allow shared services within the branch while others offer transactions only through their ATMs.
Benefits and drawbacks of a shared branch
The biggest benefit of a credit union shared branch is that you’ll have access to thousands of participating branches across the country. This is especially helpful if your home credit union only has a couple branches that aren’t close to where you live or work, or if you move and haven’t had a chance to establish a banking relationship in your new area. Another benefit of being a member at a participating credit union is that you can gain access to special promotions available at other credit unions.
“A lot of my readers use the shared branch as an effective way to fund a CD or a new account,” says DepositAccounts founder and editor Ken Tumin. “They might come across a credit union that doesn't have any branches near where they live. You can go to a local shared branch credit union and make a deposit there, and then have that money transferred immediately into a new credit union that's offering the special accounts, like a special CD.”
The shared branch network does have some drawbacks, including limitations and fees that aren’t well advertised, and credit union members should be aware, says Tumin.
“The credit unions have to pay to join the network,” he says. “To offset those costs, they often will actually charge users to make a transaction at another credit union that's part of this network. It depends on the credit union.”
For example, a member may be charged $3 by their home credit union to withdraw funds from another institution, says Tumin. Those charges may be waived if you have a certain type of account with the credit union, but if you don’t you could be surprised to see a fee on your account, especially because the CO-OP Financial Services website lists the ATMs as being surcharge-free. While the shared branch or ATM may not tack on charges, it's important to check with your credit union to confirm whether or not they charge any fees when you use a shared branch location.
Besides the fees, you also have to be aware of potential limitations on withdrawals. You don’t want to visit a branch and find out you can’t get the amount of money you need.
“Withdrawals are often limited to $500 a day,” says Tumin. “If you go to your own branch, you might be able to withdraw $1,000 without any problem, but you go to a shared branch and try to do a withdrawal it could max out at $500.”
Finally, when you make a deposit, there can be additional hold times, says Tumin. Your money might not be available for immediate withdrawal, and it could take more time to clear than if you deposited it at your home credit union.
The bottom line
Customers often choose credit unions because of their higher earning rates and personalized service. The credit union shared branch network also gives members the access and convenience that customers get when they have accounts at large banks, while preserving the advantages of a smaller institution. In fact, by banding credit unions across the country together, CO-OP Financial Services is considered the second largest branch network in the country.
Before you use a shared branch, make sure you understand the potential fees and limitations. When it comes to your credit union, it’s important to research and understand the policies of your branch — regardless of whether it’s part of a shared network. Make sure you pick the best institution for your needs so you can access your money when circumstances arise.