Best online stock trading 2019: a beginners guide to the stock market

A hand holding a smartphone with an online stock trading app open
(Image credit: Getty / Witthaya Prasongsin / EyeEm)

Online stock trading companies are an ideal way to dip your toe into the stock market with minimal investment. When you are just beginning to trade stocks online, it can be a confusing and daunting area to understand, with different online stock brokers offering a range of different fees and services.

This beginners guide for online stock trading is designed to break down the jargon surrounding the issue and ease you into the online stock market gently. Learn how to conquer the stock market with the minimum for investment. 

We also list the 10 best online stock broker platforms that let you research, monitor and order trades without the need of a personal broker. Each of these brokers offers low commissions on trades and has useful tools like stock screeners, analytic charts and robo-advisors.

Best for Self-Directed Traders

Ally Invest

Reasons to Buy
Customizable platform
Reasons to Avoid
Education tools lacking

Ally Invest makes no bones about the fact that it’s geared to the trader who doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding.

You can either manage your own accounts (there’s not much investment education to get you grounded) or put your portfolio in the hands of its robo-advisor. If you want to actively manage your investments, Ally Invest offers two different platforms: The Classic (formerly known as TradeKing) and Ally Invest Live. The Classic is a simple platform that includes all the basic charting and analysis tools to help you find securities to invest in.

New customers are defaulted to the Ally Invest Live platform, which is more versatile. You can customize the platform to your liking, adding and removing modules from the main page. It has stronger charting tools with more indicators, and you can add alerts using interactive charts for prices and studies. Another main difference between the Classic platform and the newer Ally Invest Live is that quotes stream live on the new platform. Quotes are delayed on the Classic; you need to keep refreshing the page to get the latest.

Best for Experienced Traders

E*TRADE

Reasons to Buy
More than 250 commission free ETFs
Multiple platform options
Reasons to Avoid
Minimum investment of $500
Discount pricing for high volume investors

Long-time traders will find a lot to like at E*TRADE, thanks to its wide variety of useful tools and features that help you track and monitor your trades.

In addition, E*TRADE’s tiered pricing structure makes it stand out from its competition. If you make more than 30 trades a quarter, you pay $4.95 to trade stocks, ETFs and options. However, if you don’t make 30 trades a quarter, commissions are $6.95 for those types of securities. 

This service has multiple platforms, each geared toward a different type of investor. E*TRADE is the most basic and includes a wide variety of screening tools to find investments that match your criteria. Power E*TRADE is more advanced and includes historical charting tools, real-time data and risk analysis tools that help you better understand your trading strategies. 

If you want help from the service’s professionals, you can sign up for a managed portfolio or a Core Portfolio, which is E*TRADE’s automated robo-advisor. To sign up for these, you need at least $5,000.

Best for Simulated Trades

TD Ameritrade

Reasons to Buy
Social media integration
Reasons to Avoid
Its broker-assisted trade fee is high

TD Ameritrade has some of the most comprehensive tools we tested, and it continues to add to its technological toolbox.

Social media addicts can use the brokerage’s chatbot to execute trades and access market news on Twitter or friend the bot on Facebook Messenger to perform a range of functions, from looking up stock quotes to placing trades and chatting with a live agent.

Thinkorswim, TD Ameritrade’s powerful trading platform, can be customized for novice and advanced traders alike. The command center screen brings all your important information together in one place, and you can create alerts, access research from over 400 technical studies, search for stocks based on your criteria and engage with real traders. 

It’s also the go-to destination for practicing simulated trades with paperMoney. Comprehensive educational offerings include videos, webcasts and tutorials aimed at both novice traders and experienced investors who want to deepen their knowledge and fine-tune their skills.

The brokerage doesn’t have the lowest per-trade fee on the list, and its broker-assisted trade fee is a high $44.99, but it’s other features can make it worth the added cost.

Best For Beginners

Fidelity

Reasons to Buy
Fidelity has low pricing
There's no minimum to open a brokerage account to buy stocks or shares in an ETF
Manage your account with Fidelity's mobile app
Reasons to Avoid
Mutual funds require an initial $2,500 investment

We recommend Fidelity to beginning investors. This trading service combines a wide range of investment choices along with advanced analytical research from some 20 providers, including Argus – a new research provider who adds increased diversity in analyzing stocks. 

Plus, Fidelity has low pricing. If you’d rather not do your own stock-picking, you can choose from over 10,000 mutual funds rated by Morningstar and 93 commission-free exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The brokerage continues to enhance its platform with two new screeners: one that enables you to tailor your screen with up to 140 criteria for stocks, and an ETF research tool and screener. 

Also new is Trade Armor, a tool that allows you to visually explore profit and loss scenarios using charts, news, alerts and research for potential or existing stock positions. Fidelity’s Learning Center offers a deep bench of topics categorized by skill level. 

While there’s no minimum to open a brokerage account to buy stocks or shares in an ETF, most mutual funds require an initial $2,500 investment. The mobile app features all the tools you need to manage your accounts. Among other things, you can view your balances, account positions and watch lists; get research information and real-time quotes for placing trades; and set up customizable push alerts.

Best Value

Firstrade

Reasons to Buy
No minimum investment
Open account at no cost
Reasons to Avoid
Training platform has limited tools
Customer Service hours are limited

Firstrade is well-known for keeping costs down. There are no commissions – and it has the largest selection of commission-free ETFs. Screeners make it easy to scope out new opportunities, with research provided by Morningstar. You just choose the asset you want and set your criteria, and the tool does the searching for you.

Investor education doesn’t run deep here, but what content there is, is useful, such as videos that show you how to place a trade and explain the different types of analysis used for picking stocks. 

You can open an account for free to test the platform. Questions are welcome, but customer service hours are limited to business days from 8am to 6pm EST.

How we compared online brokers

We spent over 80 hours testing 10 different stock trading platforms, focusing on fees and commissions; platform and tools; educational offerings and resources; and platform training and mobile trading apps.

We researched the fee structure and commission of each stock trading platform placing an emphasis on companies that traded stocks for a low cost for the service and insight they provide. 

When evaluating how easy a platform is to use, we considered several questions. How easy is it to make watchlists? Could we set up alerts and customize them? What kinds of screening tools are available to help find potential investments? How well do the charting tools work and what technical indicators can you use?

We prefer platforms that are intuitive, with a customizable layout that lets you control which tools are front and center each time you open the program. One of the most vital things is a quick and easily accessible order process. Markets change quickly and being able to execute an order as soon as you can is an important part of maximizing your investments.

Finally, we checked out the mobile apps for each broker. The best apps provide an experience that is very close to the desktop versions, giving you the same tools to monitor securities and to place trades.

Other online stock brokers to consider

Here are the other brokers we reviewed. Each have different pricing, platform and tools that make them suited for different types of investors.

Charles Schwab is another good choice if you’re just starting. It has an easy-to-use trading platform and over 1,000 commission-free ETFs. You need at least $1,000 before opening an account with Charles Schwab.

TD Ameritrade has one of the most impressive platforms, with more than 400 technical studies and a wide variety of advanced options-trading strategies. You don’t need a minimum investment to join, so if you’re an analytically minded investor, this is a good choice for you, though its commissions are on the high side.

Merrill Edge has some of the best research and screening tools. With this broker, you can look at volatility, potential return and other technical analysis. However, other brokers may be more attractive if you want to trade ETFs – Merrill Edge doesn’t offer commission-free ETFs.

TradeStation is an option worth exploring if you trade at high volumes. It offers trading for as low as 1 cent per share. If you trade frequently and at high volumes, this could save you significantly. TradeStation’s per-trade commissions are decent, but its unremarkable trading platform makes it less suitable for casual investors.

SpeedTrader’s platform is rather bare-bones, with few technical indicators or options strategies. Commissions for most trades are $6.95, which is among the highest we saw, though if you keep more than $25,000 in your account, the fee drops to $4.49.

Interactive Brokers is well suited to experienced, high-volume day traders. Unlike most brokers, you pay only half a cent per share to trade, with a minimum of $1. You need to maintain a balance of $100,000 to avoid paying an inactivity fee. With no robo-advisors and few commission-free ETFs, Interactive Brokers is mostly for traders interested in futures, forex and other riskier investments.

What is an online stock trading broker?

A stock broker is a person or company that has the license to buy and sell stocks through the market exchanges. Stock trading used to be hard for individuals to do due to the long telephone calls to a busy stock broker and the high investment cost. However, online stock broking means it is easier for an individual to manage their own stock portfolio at a lower cost. When choosing a stock broker, there are generally two choices:

  • A full service stock broker: These are the more traditional stock brokers that have physical offices. They offer a range of services beyond the ability to trade stocks on the exchange, such as retirement planning help, tax tips, and guidance on what stock to buy and sell.
  • An online stock broker: These online stock broking websites exist to give you a discounted experience of trading stocks on the market exchange. The stock exchange companies do not offer the range of services of a traditional firms, and have a more do it yourself approach to investing in stocks. The best online stock brokers offer a range of extras like research or provide class on how to learn to invest in stocks. 

How to buy stock online

Online stock trading companies make trading stock a very simple process. The first step is setting an online brokerage account on the platform or website you are going to use to trade stocks. After your account has been set up, you trade stock by placing the stock’s ticker code into the platform. A ticker code is a one to five digits in length and is used to identify stocks. 

Most online stock traders will allow you to trade stock in two methods:

  • Market Order: This type of stock order is immediate, and placed at the current market value. If you enter that you want to buy ten shares, you’ll exchange shares with someone selling shares in the company. This type of stock exchange is filled quickly, and usually at an extra cost. 
  • Limit Order: A limit order will allow you to place a set amount on the trade of shares, so they’ll only be exchanged at the price you’ve set. These are ideal ways to buy stocks that are not often traded. It is also an easy way for a casual investor to manage their profile, you can set the exchange up and just forget it about it until it is filled.

Online stock broker platforms for beginners

When you are first starting to learn how to buy and sell stocks on the market, it is usually best to look for a platform that will support beginners. 

A low commission price is essential for people just learning to exchange goods. This means that you can exchange stock with low investment losses. When you are just learning to it is best to do so at a minimal cost. 

Also look for a trader with a low minimum investment amount. This way, if you discover exchanging stocks is not the investment method for you, you can stop easily with minimum losses. 

The lowest cost way is to use a virtual stock simulator where you can trade stock with fake money. Once you figure out the ins and outs of the market, then start investing with real money.

Another good indication that the stock broker website supports beginners is the wealth of educational material they have to offer. Look for a platform that wants to help you grow as an investor. 

How to start online stock trading

A lot of novice stock traders worry they have neither the time or money to start investing. They are also daunted by the stock market and feel they don’t have the time or knowledge to immerse themselves into the market. Don’t worry, there are many ways to invest that require only very basic knowledge and a relatively small amount of money. If you have $500, here are some ways to invest your money:

  • ETFs: Exchange traded funds, or ETFs, are mutual or index funds that are traded like stocks. They have some benefits over direct investing in a mutual or index fund. For example, you only pay capital gains taxes if you trade your ETF shares. ETFs tend to have a solid rate of return, rather than the volatility of an individual stock. Many brokers also offer commission-free ETFs, so you don’t pay anything to buy the shares.
  • Mutual Funds: If you feel like taking more risk, buying into an actively managed index fund can give you a chance at higher returns. You can buy into some mutual funds with $500 or less. Keep in mind that you pay commissions and fees, so you may be better off with a more passively managed index fund, which has lower fees.

Robo-Advisors: Robo-advisors are automatic investment programs that use algorithms to trade a portfolio based on your risk tolerance and investment goals. They are a hands-off way to manage your assets when you don’t have time or don’t want the pressure of doing it yourself. Most robo-advisors don’t have minimum investments, but for those that do, $500 is enough to start an account. Most brokers have their own robo-advisor offerings, or you can use robo-advisors like Wealthfront or Betterment.

Online stock trading vs stock brokers

Fees and commissions are a top concern for any investor. Over time, trading expenses can add up, meaning less money in your account. In the last year, the online stock trading brokers we reviewed have reduced their commissions to between $2.95 and $6.95 per trade. A regular broker’s commission can range from $19.99 to $44.99 per transaction, and it’s easy to see why online trading has become so popular. At 20 trades per year, broker-assisted trading alone can add up to about $400 to $900 per year. So, online stock broking is a lower investment. However, engaging a regular stock broker will give you access to expert advice and years of experience. 

What are robo-advisors?

Robo-advisors are automatic investment programs that use algorithms to trade a portfolio based on your risk tolerance and investment goals. They are a hands-off way to manage your assets when you don’t have time or don’t want the pressure of doing it yourself. Most robo-advisors don’t have minimum investments, but for those that do, $500 is enough to start an account. Most brokers have their own robo-advisor offerings, or you can use robo-advisors like Wealthfront or Betterment.

How do robo-advisors work?

A robo advisor will ask you a set of questions about your income, risk tolerance, and investment goals. Based on your answers, the robo-advisor uses an algorithm to suggest investments, create a diversified portfolio and manage it. Some of these automated stock trading platforms also rebalance your portfolio and use tax harvesting to lower your liability to the IRS. 

Why use a robo-investor? 

The advantages of a robo investor include: 

  • Low Fee Stock Trading: The automated approach allows for a more competitive cost as all the work is done by software. 
  • Conflict Free: Human stock brokers sometimes feel pressured to sell a specific product to clients as they have financial deals with companies. A robo-investor will not act in it’s own best interest over yours. 
  • Lower Minimum Investment: The minimum investment needed for a robo-investor is as low as $500. This means it is a lower commitment to invest than conventional financial advisors. 
  • Always Available: Robo-investors are always there when you need them, and you don’t have to wait on line listening to hold music to get the help you need.

What to look for in an online stock-trading platform

To ensure you online stock broker is safe and trustworthy there are a number of official and professional regulations and trust that they should belong to.  When searching for a stock exchange platform, the professional bodies they belong to should be noted very clearly in an easy to find location. Ensure that they are members of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority

If the broker is offering additional services such as a checking or savings accounts they should also be fully covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)