Why Online Options Trading?
The top performers in our review are OptionsHouse, the Gold Award winner; TradeKing, the Silver Award winner; and Fidelity, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 companies.
Online Options Trading Sites
If you are familiar with the stock market and trading simple stocks, you may find yourself wanting to branch out into higher-risk ventures, which also come with potentially higher payoffs. An option contract represents 100 underlying shares of a stock. You can buy or sell either call or put options depending on your particular preference. Option strategies, which many services have built into their platforms, can assist you when trading options. To learn more about the basics of options trading, you can read our articles on options trading and option strategies.
If you are ready to trade options, we assume you have a solid working foundation of the stock market and are comfortable trading stocks. If you are newer to the stock market and are looking for basic stock trading platforms, you can check out either our Online Stock Trading site or Online Stock Trading for Beginners. If you are looking for even riskier ventures, you may be interested in our Forex trading site.
The risks involved with options trading come from the fact that you can never be exactly sure of how a stock will perform. With an option contract, you choose an expiration date and speculate at what price the stock will be by that date. If the stock does not perform how you expect, you will lose money. Certain analytic and risk-assessment tools and reports can help you research and track the performance of a stock so you can make a more educated estimate of how a stock will perform, but the stock market is always fluctuating and outside variables affect individual stocks or the entire market. We recommend that you become familiar with the market before venturing into options trading and that you perform thorough research of a stock before buying or selling option contracts.
Online Options Brokers: Choose the Right Platform for You
The best brokers for options trading provide a solid platform with features and tools to assist you in options trading. A feature you should expect from every trading platform is the ability to create watchlists and option chains, which allow you to see the call and put prices for numerous contracts for a single stock. Screeners and scanners allow you to track the performance of a stock and look into its history to speculate on its potential future performance. Most services we reviewed also offer an option calculator, which estimates the performance of an investment based on its history and the price and strike point of a contract.
One of the best features that certain platforms offer is preprogrammed option strategies, such as bull or bear spreads, butterflies, diagonal, and combinations. Different strategies work with different situations, depending on if buying, if selling, expectation that the stock will rise or fall, or the complexity of the contract. TradeKing provides especially helpful resources for options with its Options Playbook, which covers the basics, offers beginner advice and explains the most popular option strategies.
You have the choice between online and desktop platforms. Desktop platforms tend to be more customizable, which you may find to be more beneficial if you want to view multiple watchlists and option chains at one time. Desktop apps, such as TD Ameritrade's thinkorswim platform, allow for complete customization. Online platforms, such as the ones offered by E*TRADE and Fidelity, are often easier to navigate and are more intuitive because their layouts are typically just the company's website. However, they aren't always as customizable. All of the services on our lineup offer mobile trading either via an app or with a mobile-optimized browser.
Trading Options: Fees & Commissions
When choosing an online options trading service, you need to consider the price per contract. Most services charge a base rate per trade, but that single price is not as important as the per-contract fee if you will be trading a large number of contracts. For example, when comparing a service that charges $0.50 per contract versus $0.75, there is a $25 difference when trading 100 contracts. OptionsHouse has some the lowest per-contract fees. Most services have base fees between $5 and $10, though other services have a minimum order amount around $12 rather than a base fee. TradeStation and optionsXpress offer a tiered fee model, where the amount you pay decreases as you trade more in a single quarter.
If your contract is fulfilled, you will execute the order with either an exercise or assignment, depending on if you are the option holder or not. This officially exchanges the stocks between the two parties. You will not pay these fees if the terms of the contract are not met, but when needed, the fee of an exercise or assignment varies greatly between services, some charging as low as $5 and others over $30, which can add up.
How We Evaluated Options Trading Services
When evaluating each online trading service, we considered a number of elements. As mentioned above, two of the biggest considerations were the fees and the features of the platform. Many features you should expect to be standard with the best platforms, but additional features, such as portfolio risk evaluators, probability calculators and volatility reports, are tools not every service offers but are useful when deciding call, put and strike prices for options.
Beyond the list of features is the actual functionality of those features and the ease with which you can use those features and complete tasks in the platform. We explored each platform, created watchlists and options chains, experimented with option strategies, and ran analytic and diagnostic reports. We customized each platform as much as possible and navigated all available tools and features. The best online options platforms are intuitive and easy to understand while still offering powerful tools and control over their features.
Our Verdict & Recommendation
When choosing an online broker for options trading, you should choose a platform that you feel comfortable using, with tools and features that complement your trading style, and that offers low commission fees and rates so you save your money for investing rather than the actual trading process. OptionsHouse combines the best of the two worlds, with a powerful and customizable online platform and some of the lowest rates and fees of any service we reviewed. Firstrade is another service with low commission fees, or you can choose TradeStation with its tiered fee model.
If your platform is more important than your bottom line, TD Ameritrade may be a good choice with its powerful thinkorswim platform, which you can also use on your mobile iPhone or Android device. If a simplistic online platform is what you're looking for, TradeKing is a solid choice, though its platform is not customizable. However, it also offers low fees comparable to OptionsHouse. The top services we include on our online options trading comparison all have much to offer, and in the end, your own personal preferences and trading strategies determine which one is best for you.