Contributor, Benzinga
September 5, 2023

If you're considering trading the financial markets, you may have encountered two popular terms — CFD and forex. The main distinction is that a contract for difference (CFD) is a type of financial product, and forex can be an underlying asset. Both allow you to speculate on the price movements of different assets, though some notable differences exist between the two. 

This article compares CFD vs. forex trading along the lines of trading instruments, leverage, market access, fees, regulation and risk management. 

Disclosure: CFDs are complex instruments and come with a high risk of losing money rapidly due to leverage. 69% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you understand how CFDs work and whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.

What is CFD Trading?

A CFD is a derivative product that enables trading on underlying asset price movements without owning them. With CFD trading, a broker establishes a contract to exchange the price difference between opening and closing positions. Stocks, indices, commodities, cryptocurrencies and other assets are tradeable through CFDs. CFD trading offers low entry barriers to a diverse, global market. It also allows you to control larger positions with less capital, which is known as using leverage.

What is Forex Trading?

Forex trading is the swapping of one currency for another. The foreign exchange (forex) is a decentralized market for trading global currencies. Forex traders buy and sell currency pairs, such as GBP/JPY or EUR/USD, based on their exchange rates to profit from currency value fluctuations. Economic, political and social factors influence these fluctuations. Forex trading is available 24/5, thanks to overlapping trading sessions across different time zones, and offers high liquidity with buyers and sellers always present. Like with CFD trading, leverage is available, allowing traders to increase potential returns with a smaller investment.

Comparing CFDs vs. Forex

Having defined CFD and forex trading, here is a detailed comparison based on key aspects.

Trading Instruments

CFD and forex trading differ in the types of assets you can trade. CFDs offer many options, including stocks, indices, commodities and cryptocurrencies. This variety allows you to diversify your portfolio and gain access to different markets with unique features and opportunities. In contrast, forex focuses solely on currency pairs, categorized as majors (most traded and liquid), minors (less popular but still widely traded) and exotics (involving emerging or less developed economies). The choice of trading instruments depends on personal preference and strategy. Some traders prefer to specialize in one market or asset class, while others diversify to explore different opportunities.

Leverage and Margin Requirements

Leverage refers to the ratio between the size of your position and the amount of capital required to open it. It allows you to control a larger position with a smaller capital. However, it also increases your risk exposure and can lead to considerable losses if the market moves against you. Therefore, it's important to carefully manage your leverage and employ risk management tools such as stop-loss orders. 

Margin is the percentage of your position value you must deposit as collateral with your broker.

Leverage and margin requirements vary depending on the broker, market and regulatory environment. Generally, CFD trading offers higher leverage than forex trading because of the higher risk and volatility of CFDs. This disparity also means that the margin requirements for CFDs are higher, as you need to deposit more money to open and maintain your positions. 

Market Access and Liquidity

Market access refers to the ease of entering and exiting the market, while liquidity pertains to the activity of buyers and sellers in the market. Forex trading boasts high market access and liquidity, as it operates 24/5 across multiple time zones and can be accessed with an internet connection and a broker account. This market also has low barriers to entry, requiring only a small amount of capital and basic knowledge of currency pairs. 

CFD trading also has high market access and liquidity, allowing trading on numerous global markets with different trading hours. This diversity opens up a wide range of opportunities and assets for traders, although it also comes with challenges, such as dealing with varying regulations, fees, spreads and commissions. 

Fees, Spreads and Commissions

Trading fees can impact your profitability. One of the most common fees in CFD and forex trading is the spread, which is the difference between the buy and sell price quoted by your broker. This fee represents the cost of entering and exiting the market, as well as your broker's profit margin. The spread varies depending on the asset, broker, market conditions and liquidity. 

Forex trading offers lower spreads than CFDs because of currency liquidity and competitiveness.

In some forex trades and CFD trades, you may encounter commission fees. These charges can be fixed or percentage-based and are applied to your trades on top of or instead of the spread. Commission fees differ depending on the broker, asset, volume and account type. They are more common in CFD trading, particularly for stocks and indices.

Other fees may include overnight, conversion, withdrawal and inactivity fees. Overnight fees are charged when you hold positions overnight or over the weekend. Conversion fees apply when you trade in a currency different from your account currency. Brokers charge withdrawal fees when you withdraw funds from your account and inactivity fees when you do not trade for a specific period.

While lower fees and tighter spreads are preferable, some traders may opt for higher fees and wider spreads if they offer better execution or customer service. Understanding the fees you may incur while trading can help you make calculated decisions that improve your profitability.

Regulatory Environment and Investor Protection

Regulation refers to the rules and standards that govern the trading activities and practices of brokers and traders, while investor protection pertains to the measures and mechanisms that protect traders from fraudulent activity, manipulation or insolvency.

When choosing a CFD or a forex trading broker, consider the regulation and investor protection in place, as these factors can impact your rights, obligations and security as a trader. The regulatory bodies supervising CFD and forex trading sometimes overlap, as some regulators may cover both markets. However, different rules and standards may apply to each market depending on the regulator and the jurisdiction.

Some of the major regulators around the world include the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the U.K., the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the National Futures Association (NFA) in the U.S., the Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission (CySEC) in Cyprus, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) in Australia and the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) in the EU.

These regulatory bodies set leverage limits, margin requirements, reporting obligations, capital adequacy and segregation of funds. These rules and standards aim to ensure fair, transparent and ethical trading practices while also protecting traders from potential risks and losses.

When you trade with a regulated broker, you benefit from investor protection measures, such as compensation schemes that provide financial compensation to traders in case of broker insolvency or default; negative balance protection that stops traders from losing more than their account balance in case of extreme market volatility; and customer support that provides assistance and guidance to traders in case of issues or queries.

Risk Management Strategies

Effective risk management is critical in CFD and forex trading, where high levels of risk are par for the course. To help minimize your potential losses and maximize your chances of success, you must have a clear risk management plan before trading. 

Strategies to manage risk include:

  • Diversifying your trading positions
  • Setting stop-loss orders
  • Managing leverage appropriately and conducting thorough research and analysis before making any trading decisions

You can tailor these techniques to your specific trading goals and strategy, with conservative and aggressive risk management approaches available. A well-crafted risk management plan can protect your capital and enhance your returns in the volatile CFD and forex trading world.

Compare Forex Brokers

To find your ideal broker, here's a table comparing the key features and benefits of some of the top brokers in the market. 

  • Plus500 Forex
    Best For:
    Forex and CFD Trading for Mobile Users
    securely through Plus500 Forex's website
  • Forex.com
    Best For:
    U.S. and Global Forex Traders
    securely through Forex.com's website

    CFDs are complex instruments and come with a high risk of losing money rapidly due to leverage. 69% to 77.7% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you understand how CFDs work, and whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.

    The products and services available to you at FOREX.com will depend on your location and on which of its regulated entities holds your account

  • IG Markets
    Best For:
    Forex Execution for U.S. and Global Traders
    securely through IG Markets's website

    Spread bets and CFDs are complex instruments and come with a high risk of losing money rapidly due to leverage. 71% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading spread bets and CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you understand how spread bets and CFDs work, and whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.

  • City Index
    Best For:
    International Forex and CFD Traders
    securely through City Index's website

    CFDs are complex instruments and come with a high risk of losing money rapidly due to leverage. 69% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you understand how CFDs work, and whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.

  • AvaTrade
    Best For:
    Non U.S. Forex & CFD Traders
    securely through AvaTrade's website

CFD vs. Forex — Which One is Right for You?

CFDs are products that you can trade on the forex markets. While both offer profitable opportunities, they also come with high levels of risk and complexity. Ultimately, the market you choose should align with your personal goals, preferences and expectations, as well as your trading interests, skills, budget and risk tolerance. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q

Are CFDs better than forex?

A

CFDs are not really directly comparable to forex because CFDs can also be used to trade forex.  CFDs can be traded on many different assets.

Q

Are CFDs legal in the U.S.?

A

No, CFDs are not legal in the U.S. because of the strict regulations imposed by the CFTC and the NFA, prohibiting U.S. residents from trading CFDs.

Q

Can you trade forex without a CFD?

A

Yes, you can trade forex without a CFD if you trade directly in the spot forex market. This approach means that you buy and sell actual currencies at their current market prices without using derivative contracts or leverage.

Get a Forex Pro on Your Side

FOREX.com, registered with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), lets you trade a wide range of forex markets with low pricing and fast, quality execution on every trade. 

You can also tap into:

  • EUR/USD as low as 0.2 with fixed $5 commissions per 100,000
  • Powerful, purpose-built currency trading platforms
  • Monthly cash rebates of up to $9 per million dollars traded with FOREX.com’s Active Trader Program

Learn more about FOREX.com’s low pricing and how you can get started trading with FOREX.com.