If you are looking to break into the world of stock market investing or are an old school investor who still deals with a broker over the phone it is high time to start thinking about opening an account with a company that provides an online trading platform. The advent of online trading has lowered the entry barrier for investing in the markets and obviated the need to make rushed calls to a broker. Don't think loud, aggressive trading floors, but rather picture yourself calmly playing the markets from the comfort of your living room using your new iPad. Whether you are a new or experienced investor you will soon be left behind if you don't start taking advantage of the online trading platforms that are out there. Here are some of the things to look out for when you choose your first one.
As with traditional brokers, online brokers have to charge a fee for making trades in order to make a living. If you are used to the fees that traditional brokers charge there is some good news though as online fees tend to be a lot cheaper. Generally you are charged a set fee per trade, but some companies do offer your first trades for free as an introductory offer. The fee depends on the type of investment you want to trade and for options trading there is usually an extra fee per contract.
The fees vary quite widely between different companies, but don't fall into the trap of thinking the cheapest is necessarily the best. In general the more a company charges per trade the more extra services you are getting in background, such as more advanced tools or better quality research. However, always check the fee schedule carefully as there may be other charges built into your account which aren't advertised up front. Some schedules can be extremely confusing but that's why you have our reviews to help!
Along with the fees an online trading platform charges, the tools are probably the most important aspect to consider when choosing a broker to open an account with. Some offerings can be extremely complex with lots of features that only professional level traders will want to take advantage of while others are so simple you could find yourself losing an awful lot of money in very few clicks!
For this reason it's important to realise what kind of investor you are before jumping in to open an account. If you are just investing casually then simpler tools are probably best, but if you are going to be making a lot of trades every day then you might need some of the advanced features. In our opinion the best trading platforms offer different levels of tools so that, as you become more experienced, you can upgrade the tools you are using to add more functionality.
The tools an online broker offers can be web based and accessible through a web browser or downloadable and runnable directly from your computer. Each has its own merit so luckily most platforms offer both types so that you can trade in the most convenient way. Web based tools have the advantage that you can log in from anywhere to make trades and check your portfolio while desktop tools tend to run a lot faster. Many online trading platforms also offer mobile apps for placing trades so check that your mobile device is supported.
Research and Advice
Whatever type of investor you are you will more than likely require access to some kind of market research in order to make decisions on your next investment. While you may have your own methods for this sort of analysis many online trading platforms offer access to good quality stock reports and research included with an account. The quality does vary though and at the lower end you might not find much useful information, if any at all.
Broadly speaking online trading platforms fall into two categories when it comes to financial advice. There are purely online based companies who may provide some research, but not much in the way of personal advice, and there are more traditional investment companies who tend to have a bricks and mortar presence and offer an online platform as an extra way of managing your portfolio. Generally the online only companies are cheaper when it comes to trading, but if you are looking for sound financial advice thrown into the bargain you should really look for a well known and respected name even if you have to pay a bit more.
All of the online trading platforms we looked at offer basic stock trading as standard, but over and above that it varies as to what types of investments you can trade on a particular platform. The bigger companies offer a wide range of types over a range of different markets and exchanges and if you are serious about investing, this could be what you are looking for.
However, some of the smaller companies will only offer a smaller selection which can make things slightly easier to manage if you are new to investing. We won't go into the details of the individual investment types here, but if you are new to the game make sure to do your research and figure out if the platform offers the investment products you are interested in.
The Bottom Line
Online investing is big business and is heavily regulated so you don't need to worry too much about dodgy business practices or online scams. However, the choice you make can significantly affect the profit you make from trades due to the fees and charges on different accounts. It's important to try and figure out what kind of investing and trading you will be doing and choose an account that offers good value for it. The tools on offer will also make a big difference and if possible you should try them out with a test account before making real trades. There is plenty of choice out there so have a look at our top ten list for some examples of the best services on the market.