What is an Online Broker?

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Contributor, Benzinga
August 18, 2023

The definition of an online broker is an intermediary between a buyer and seller of a financial instrument. They facilitate the purchase/sale for a fee or commission. With the advancement of technology, traders and investors alike can transact online, courtesy of online brokers. Read on to learn more about online brokerage accounts and discover which one is right for you.

Overview of an Online Broker

By definition, an online broker is one which facilitates buying and selling of a security over an electronic network. The transaction is usually effected through the broker’s proprietary trading platforms. This is opposed to the traditional method of placing orders via phone call.

Online brokers began to gain in popularity in the mid-to-late 1990s, facilitated by the development of high-performance computers and faster Internet connections.

Advantages of Using an Online Broker

Online brokers take the personal bias out of the equation, while traditional brokerages are often said to promote a standard package of investments, with some of them even blamed with promoting their partnered mutual funds.

Online trading is convenient, as you can place orders, check quotes and make changes from anywhere. It also facilitates faster execution of traders, helping to take advantage of the volatility in a better manner. Above all else, online trading is more cost-effective compared to trading through a traditional broker.

Risks Associated with Online Brokers

The speed associated with trading online can work as a double-edged sword, as it can lead overenthusiastic traders to make costly mistakes. This risk can be mitigated to some extent by setting up safeguards, such as placing limit orders. The lack of handholding could spell trouble for some traders, especially when building a portfolio or rebalancing.

There are also concerns regarding security, as online transactions expose you to account hack risks. Technical glitches could also result in overpaying or clocking in excess losses.

How Does an Online Broker Work?

Once you key in your order with your online broker and the order is placed in the database, it checks the different markets, including the NYSE, NASDAQ and ECNs, or electronic communication networks, which connect buyers and sellers.

The market that successfully matches the buyer and seller sends a confirmation to the brokers of both parties. The order, and the price at which it is executed, is made available to regulators as well as market participants. Once an order is executed, the exchange sends a contract to the brokers of both the buyer and the seller.

The brokers then do a T+3 settlement, meaning they have 3 days to exchange the cash and the shares. The money due to a seller will automatically be credited to his or her account.

Online Broker Fees

Online brokers charge a fee for the services they render, including for their website and infrastructure, relaying orders to the market, settling orders, and more. The brokers may also be charged a fee by the exchanges to use their infrastructure and connect to them, while they may also have to pay for interfacing with the banks for monetary transactions.

  • Trading fees: This fee is charged on every trade you make.
  • Fee for broker-assisted trade: In case you need assistance from the broker in the form of advice etc., fee levied will be substantially higher than the regular trading fee for self-directed trades.
  • Account maintenance or inactivity fees: This is an annual fee charged for maintenance of your account and can range from $20 to $50. It is usually charged when your account balance falls below a minimum.
  • Margin: Sometimes the broker lends money to the clients for trading. You will be charged interest on the amount loaned by the broker.
  • Withdrawal fees: Some brokers levy withdrawal fees when you withdraw cash from your account.

Online Brokers Customer Service

With the pretext of cutting down on overheads, online brokers often offer limited customer service, relative to full-service brokers. Sometimes, customer service is compromised in favor of convenience and speed. It's crucial for you to determine how important that is when you make your online broker selection.

How to Open an Online Broker Account

In order to participate in online trading, you need to open an account with an online broker. The right choice is key here. Once you zero in on a broker, you need to fill an account opening application form and provide documents for identity proof. The various documents/details you may be required to submit at the time of opening an account are:

  • Personal information such as name, address and employment details
  • Social security number
  • Signature card
  • W-9 form
  • Two documents for proof of identity, including one photo ID

You also need to decide the method for funding your online account, which can be through electronic fund transfer, wire transfer, checks, stock certificates, etc.

Check our picks for the best online brokers for beginners. 

  • securely through Centerpoint Securities's website
    securely through Centerpoint Securities's website
    Best For:
    Momentum traders
    Read Review
  • Securely through Interactive Brokers’ website
    Securely through Interactive Brokers’ website
    Best For:
    Active and Global Traders
    Read Review
  • securely through Magnifi's website
    securely through Magnifi's website
    Best For:
    AI Investing
    Read Review
  • securely through Webull's app
    securely through Webull's app
    Best For:
    Intermediate Traders and Investors
    Read Review
  • securely through TD Ameritrade's website
    securely through TD Ameritrade's website
    Best For:
    Retirement Savers
    Read Review
  • securely through Plus500's website
    securely through Plus500's website
    Best For:
    Mobile Users
    Read Review

    86% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.

Types of Online Brokers

When it comes to a brokerage account, you have multiple options for the type of account you can open. Below you'll find popular account types that brokerage firms offer.

Full-Service Brokers

A full-service broker offers a range of services, including trading, investment advice, research, retirement planning, tax tips, etc. Given the wide range of services they offer, the fee involved is relatively high when compared to a discount broker.

However, they serve as one-stop shop for all investment-related services. This category of broker may be apt for a beginner who is just starting out and needs some hand holding and resources to help him make informed investment decisions. Some of the sought-after full-service brokers include Charles Schwab, and Fidelity Investments.

Discount Brokers

As the name suggests, these brokers service their clients at a discounted fee when compared to a full-service broker. However, their service is limited to just assisting in trading and does not include investment advice, research or retirement, estate or tax planning.

TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, Interactive Brokers and TradeStation are some of the popular discount brokers.


Robo-advisors are online platforms that offer algorithm-driven trading, with very little human element involved. These brokers operate by soliciting some basic information from their clients, including their present financial situation, investment goals, etc., and then use the information for advisory services or automatically invest client assets.

Cost-competitiveness, 24/7 availability, relatively small account balance requirement and efficiency are some of the advantages of using a robo-advisor. However, one may not be able to get personalized service from a robo-advisor.

FutureAdvisor and Personal Capital are some examples of robo-advisors.

Types of Investment Available in a Brokerage Account

Below you'll find popular investment options you have in a brokerage account.

  • Stocks: Online brokers allow individuals to invest in stocks of publicly traded companies. Investors can buy and sell shares of stocks through online trading platforms, giving them the opportunity to participate in the growth and success of these companies. Stock trades are the most common investment in brokerage accounts.
  • Bonds: Online brokers also provide access to bond markets, allowing investors to buy and sell government bonds, corporate bonds, and other fixed-income securities. Bonds are considered lower-risk investments compared to stocks and can provide a steady stream of income through interest payments.
  • Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs): ETFs are investment funds that are traded on stock exchanges, similar to individual stocks. Online brokers offer a wide range of ETFs, which provide diversification through exposure to a basket of different assets, such as stocks, bonds, or commodities. ETF trades are similar to stock trades.
  • Mutual Funds: Online brokers allow investors to invest in mutual funds, which pool money from multiple investors to invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other assets. Mutual funds are managed by professional fund managers and offer a convenient way for individuals to gain exposure to a variety of investments with different risk levels.
  • Options: Online brokers provide access to options trading, which allows investors to buy or sell options contracts based on the price movement of underlying assets, such as stocks or commodities. Options can be used for hedging, speculation, or income generation strategies.
  • Futures: Online brokers enable investors to trade futures contracts, which are agreements to buy or sell a specific asset at a predetermined price and date in the future. Futures contracts are commonly used for commodities, currencies, and financial instruments, and they provide opportunities for investors to profit from price fluctuations.
  • Cryptocurrencies: Some online brokers now offer the ability to invest in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others. Investors can buy and sell cryptocurrencies through these platforms, taking advantage of the potential growth and volatility in the cryptocurrency market.
  • Forex (Foreign Exchange): Online brokers also facilitate forex trading, allowing investors to trade currencies in the global foreign exchange market. Forex trading provides opportunities to profit from fluctuations in exchange rates between different currencies.

What to Consider when Choosing an Online Broker

Now that you understand what an online brokerage is and the types of investing accounts offered, here are factors to consider when choosing an online broker.

Minimum Account Balance

Most online brokers have a $1,000 or more minimum account balance requirement. If you'd like to start with less, you need to scout around for brokers which mandate very little or no account minimum. The more money you have at your disposal, the more diversification you can hope to achieve.

Investing Goals

Investment objectives of an average investor may range from safety to income growth to retirement savings to tax minimization. You need to decide on an online broker that suits your investing goals.

Trading Frequency

If you don’t plan to trade frequently, you should choose a broker who does not charge inactivity fees.

Guidance Needed

If you are a beginner, you might trade infrequently but need good educational resources to walk you through the maze of investing. A full-service broker may come in handy in such an instance. However, seasoned traders who are active investors could do well with a discount broker.

Execution Speed

Given the volatility and rapidity associated with stock moves, a platform that allows fast execution of trades is essential for making profits. It pays well to check out how fast a particular broker’s website launches, even during peak hours.

Commissions and Fees 

A careful analysis of commissions and other fees associated with brokers is very essential for cutting down on your trading costs. Often, brokers charge a low commission and advertise themselves to be the cheapest option available but load up all the charges onto other fees.

Therefore, a careful analysis of the commissions as well as the other fees is a must.

Customer Service

Discount brokers, in the name of cutting overheads, may not offer the best customer service. Look out for those online brokers that offer customer service around the clock and not just during business hours. Analyze the various forms of support available, such as live chat, telephone support, email, etc.  

Other Services Offered by Online Brokers

Some brokers offer other financial services such as checking accounts and credit cards.


Although promotions could make one sway toward a particular brokerage account, it's important to take a look at the bigger picture. The benefits of a big promotional offer may be completely offset by higher commissions and fees.

Range of Asset Classes 

An online broker offering a wide range of asset classes, including stocks, bonds, CDs, currencies, commodities, options, futures, ETFs and more is a better bet. All of these types of asset classes will come in handy in order to build a diversified portfolio (and mitigate risk).

Open a Brokerage Account and Start Investing Today

An online broker is a great way to start investing in your future. Whether you're casually investing to plan for retirement, or looking to get into advanced markets like forex, there is an brokerage account for you.

Frequently Asked Questions


What factors should you think about when choosing an online broker?


You need to consider the fees, customer service, speed of executions, tools, support and account minimums.


What are the fees for online brokers?


Online brokers have fees for margin accounts, broker-assisted trades, inactivity and withdrawals.


What does an online broker do?


An online broker is a financial intermediary that allows individuals to buy and sell various financial instruments, such as stocks, bonds, options, and mutual funds, through an online platform. They act as a middleman between the investor and the financial markets, providing access to trading platforms, research tools, and market data.