06/29/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2012

TCF Bank Brings Back Free Checking, Without Free Checks

One midwestern bank is returning free checking to the menu.

TCF Bank, which has 430 branches in eight states, announced this week that free checking is back on its list of personal banking services, after discontinuing it last year.

The bare-bones account has no monthly fee, does not require a minimum balance or direct deposit and has no fees for online bill payment. A debit card comes gratis; but if you want checks, a box of 120 costs $9.95. Money orders, withdrawals from out-of-network ATMs and bounced payments do have fees. Unlike TCF's other checking accounts, deposits don't earn interest (not that it matters much these days anyway with interest rates so low.)

The news comes as many of the big banks add more fees and eliminate free checking altogether.

TCF joins several other renegade banks in offering free checking including PNC, TIAA Direct, Ally and ING, which has the Electric Orange Account. It's not uncommon for free accounts to charge for paper checks--ING started offering paper checks last August to customers, charging $5 for 50 checks.

TCF's president told the New York Times' Bucks blog the free checking account was aimed at "Joe Lunchbox" customers who cannot afford a more expansive set of banking services.

Big banks, like Bank of America and Chase, charge monthly fees for basic checking accounts--or have substantial minimum balance requirements--but they also have giant ATM networks all over the country for fee-free cash withdrawls. Chase said earlier this year that it would launch a prepaid card this summer as an alternative to checking for low-income customers. The Liquid prepaid card has a flat fee of $4.95 per month.

The rising cost of checking accounts has shut an increasing number of Americans out of banks, according to study published earlier this year by Javelin Research & Strategy, a market research firm. Prepaid card programs have been ramping up their products with accounts that function much like checking to attract Americans that are not using banks.

Regions Bank, which has branches in 16 states, has strategized to keep lower income customers. The bank has launched a savings program that is linked to its prepaid card--which essentially allows a customer to have a similar set of transactional and deposit services a regular checking account offers.