Before joining a credit union, many on-the-go people worry about hunting down the right ATM. After all, how many Citibank signs do you see in the average city, compared to signs for Navy Federal Credit Union? By signage alone, military credit unions would seem to stick you with scarce ATMs. However, signs are a bad indicator. Large credit unions usually forge networking deals with other credit unions and banks, so that many thousands of ATMs -- while marked with another institution's sign -- are available to you without fees [source: Block].
ATM scarcity still poses a valid issue, though. For instance, you'll find 4 fee-free ATMs in the Citibank network within 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) of London, England, but none in the Pentagon Federal Credit Union network within 300 miles (483 kilometers) [sources: Penfed, Citibank]. It's best to check the credit union's Web site or call to find out about ATMs.
ATMs aren't the only services that may require long-distance driving. If you like visiting the credit union in person to meet the people involved in managing your money, you may be disappointed to learn that branch locations are often only near military bases [source: Penfed]. Air Force Federal Credit Unions are near Air Force bases; Department of Veterans Affairs Federal Credit Unions are near military hospitals and so on. If you don't need to talk to a representative in person, you can, of course, use online banking or the phone.
Another factor to think about is leadership. At credit unions, the board of directors is made of elected credit union members -- in other words, you. The board sets the policies that, within the limits of the charter and NCUA rules, affect your money. At a credit union, a less experienced person may be on the board than at a bank. However, we can't say whether the experience gap makes a difference.
The last concern is size. The largest banks are much bigger than the largest credit unions, and people are inclined to think that the institution with the most members, or the one that holds the most cash is the best. The size gap doesn't seem to make a difference for your money. At Bank of America, presently the strongest U.S. bank, membership and total assets are many times higher than at Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the world [source: BOA, Reuters, Navy Federal, DeDona]. However, the rates -- which are what help you to make or lose money -- are still slightly better at the credit union.
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