THE BLOG
09/30/2016 11:59 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

What Beginners Need to Know About Online Stock Brokers

By Kevin Voigt

With the proliferation of online stock brokers, people have never had more options to steer their own investing future. Yet in recent interviews NerdWallet conducted, here's what we heard again and again: The hardest thing about investing for retirement is getting started.

"You just don't know where to begin," said a 39-year-old California man who has never used an online stock broker.

The same lament was heard on the other side of the divide. "Really, the hard part was getting started, figuring it all out," said a 32-year-old Wisconsin woman who had been managing her investments online for the past seven years. Except for occasional rebalancing of her portfolio, "it's mainly autopilot."

Even with easier-to-use options, getting serious about online investing takes some homework, especially with the range of choices available. Here are some questions to keep in mind when choosing among online stock brokers.

Is a minimum deposit required?
Online stock brokers -- such as Merrill Edge, E-Trade, OptionsHouse and TD Ameritrade, which are among NerdWallet's top-rated brokers -- allow you to open an account with a $0 initial deposit. (Important note: At E-Trade this applies only to opening an individual retirement account; a $500 minimum is required for a regular taxable account.)

Are there resources to learn about investing?
Scottrade, Fidelity, OptionsHouse and TD Ameritrade have a strong lineup of classes and tutorials to walk you through an array of tools. Merrill Edge and Fidelity have a deep pool of free resources.

How much does it cost to trade?
Investing app Robinhood allows commission-free trading of over 5,000 equities and exchange-traded funds. However, you don't get access to research reports, analysis software and automatic reinvestment of dividends, and Robinhood doesn't support IRAs. OptionsHouse offers more investment choices, including IRAs.

What are the investment options?

If you want to build a diversified portfolio, the range of investment choices is important. Vanguard and Charles Schwab offer an extensive lineup of low-cost ETFs and no-transaction-fee mutual funds for beginning investors who want to build a diversified portfolio. At Vanguard, investors have access to more than 50 commission-free ETFs; Schwab offers over 200. E-Trade and OptionsXpress have a deep pool of asset types to choose from, including futures and foreign exchange.

A recent NerdWallet review found that TD Ameritrade and Charles Schwab have features for beginners -- low commissions, strong customer service and wide-ranging offerings of inexpensive investment options. Both brokers have a good selection of commission-free ETFs and no-transaction-fee mutual funds.

For more information, see NerdWallet's Best Online Stock Brokers for Beginners 2016.

Kevin Voigt is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: kevin@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @kevinvoigt.