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How Nearly Anyone Can Join a Federal Credit Union to get the Lowest Credit Card Rates and Mortgage Rates Available

Updated on August 26, 2012

Credit Unions Versus Banks on ``The Early Show"

The Top 12 Credit Unions Make it Easier Than You Think to Join.

Credit unions typically have the best credit card offers, with more favorable rates and terms than any offered by a commercial bank. A 2009 report by the Pew Health Group that compared the practices of the top 12 banks and top 12 credit unions concluded cards issued by the non-profit entities generally “offered prices that were generally lower compared to those of the largest banks.” They also carried lower and less frequent penalty charges.

Credit unions are member-owned financial service entities. Historically they served narrowly defined populations, such as employees of a particular company or residents of a specific city. Eligibility criteria has gradually expanded for many credit unions over the last decade. In some cases, membership is effectively open to anyone who wants it. Last year, for example, I joined the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which has astronomically low rates on mortgages, car loans, and credit cards, even though I have no connection to the military. I was able to transfer a high-rate credit card balance to a card with a 3.9 percent rate that was fixed for two years. As a bonus, I paid no transfer fees; most banks these days will charge you 4 percent of any balance transferred.

This Hub examines the membership criteria for the Top 12 credit unions identified in the Pew report. Where applicable, it emphasizes ways for ordinary people to gain membership to them – in three cases, they are basically open to anyone willing to join a charity. Keep in mind credit unions have their own underwriters who will review your credit scores before issuing you credit. This Hub is concerned only with pointing out ways to apply for memberships, not with improving your FICO scores.

A couple of general things to keep in mind: Once you’re a member of a credit union, you’re always a member, even if the circumstances that made you eligible in the first place change (for example, you change careers). Also, it’s almost always possible to gain membership if someone in your family already has a membership. In a world where we’re all within seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, the odds are high that someone in your extended family belongs to a credit union. Finally, credit unions aren’t for everyone. They often have fewer branch locations, and their ATMs can be harder to find, for example. But if your financial services needs are primarily linked to borrowing, they beat banks, hands down.

Top 12 Credit Unions, According to Pew Health Report:

EASIEST TO JOIN

Pentagon Federal Credit Union . The Pentagon Federal Credit Union is probably the most wide-open credit union nationally in terms of membership. It is, of course, open to all uniformed military personnel. It’s also open to all employees of the federal government and members of military-oriented associations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars. Employees of the American Red Cross are eligible. But anyone in America can also join the credit union simply by joining two (noble) charities: the National Military Family Association or Voices for America’s Troops. Those organizations charge dues of $20 annually and $15 annually, respectively. But they provide the pathway necessary to access the Pentagon Federal Credit Union’s favorable rates.

Digital FCU . This Massachusetts Credit Union serves hundreds of employers. Like the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, it is open to any American who simply joins and pays nominal dues to one of half a dozen charities.

Patelco FCU . This is another California-based credit union that is essentially open to anyone. Not only are the employees of 1,100 companies including AT&T and Walgreens eligible for membership, one only has to join a charity called the Community Association for Engaging Youth (CAFE-Y) to open an account.

EASY TO JOIN (FOR MOST)

Navy Federal Credit Union . The Navy Federal Credit Union also is open to all active duty service members of all branches and their families. It’s also open to reservists and members of the Army and Air National Guard, as well as students at the service academies and civilian employees and retirees of the Department of Defense. The extension of membership benefits to families creates enough of a market in financial services that the Navy Federal Credit Union advertises nationally.

Boeing Employees Credit Union . This credit union is open not only to employees of Boeing Co. or one of its dozens of subsidiaries, anyone who lives, works, or even belongs to a church in the state of Washington may join.

America First Credit Union. The America First Credit Union serves people who live and work in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Las Vegas, Nevada. The small print makes residents of Utah County and Juab County in Utah eligible, as well as pretty much anyone working in the food industry in the state. Employees of nine companies, including Raytheon Aircraft, also are eligible, as are members of a handful of labor unions.

Golden 1 FCU . The Golden 1 Federal Credit Union serves 25 California counties. It also serves employees of hundreds of companies, including many who live outside the state.

Pennsylvania State Employees FCU. The motto of this Pennsylvania entity is “you’re probably eligible to join and don’t even know it.” That said, it does look to be limited to account holders with ties to Pennsylvania and their families.

Suncoast Schools FCU . The largest credit union in Florida and the 8th largest in the United States is open not only to school employees but also to parents of public school children and anyone over the age of 55 who joins something called the SSFCU Retirement Association.

HARD TO JOIN

Schools First FCU . This Southern California credit union is still largely limited to school employees and students.

VyStar FCU . Membership in this Florida credit union is largely restricted to residents of certain counties and their families.

Wescom FCU . This Southern California credit union largely limits memberships to area residents.

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