Banking fees can occur at unexpected times. You think you're just checking your balances and writing checks, until you see your account statement and find that you were charged $12 for managing your money. A balance inquiry fee is a fee levied by banks for checking balances at a different bank's ATM. The application of the fee differs depending on the bank.
Many banks charge their customers for using another bank's ATM, including if you check your balance. A balance inquiry fee is a common name for the charge, but it can also have the name ATM fee, and possibly others. Because the fee can be avoided, a checking account can still be billed as "free," but still have balance inquiry fees. Banks vary in how much they charge for the fee and under what circumstances. JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, for example, charge $2, as of 2011, for checking your account balance at another bank's ATM.
A free checking account means it does not charge an avoidable fee for having the account. However, all banks need to earn profits, and different bank activities have different levels of risk and cost, and will typically have to be paid for, even if you have a free checking account. Banks are required to hand out a list of their fees whenever you open an account, and all applicable fees must be listed there.
Not all banks charge balance inquiry or ATM fees. Online banks do not typically charge them. For example, ING Electric Orange checking and Ally Bank online checking charge no ATM fees, regardless of the ATM. Other banks might give fee waivers for certain account packages. For example, Chase Bank does not offer free usage of other bank ATM's with the JP Morgan Chase Total Checking, but the Premier Checking allows customers to make four transactions in a billing cycle, including checking balances.
Banks are required to give you disclosures outlining their account rules and regulations, as well as all fees associated with the account. Disclosures must be handed out by trained professionals, and they're legally obligated to be transparent about a financial product's costs. So if you have questions about fees on a bank account, do not hesitate to ask. In addition to ATM fees, banks can also charge fees for printing checks, wire transfers or making purchases with insufficient funds. Carefully review these costs and if they'll interfere with your use of the account.