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In the past year, Canadian investors have embraced online brokerage services at rates not seen since the early 2000s. The surge makes sense, given that COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have forced many of us to navigate life from behind a computer screen. If you’re working, socializing and shopping online, why not invest online, too? Fewer hours spent commuting and going out probably also played a part, since time—to increase knowledge and perform transactions—has always been the main barrier to self-directed investing. Then there’s the cost-savings angle, with the message that DIYers can save a bundle on fees finally going mainstream.

While pricier full-service investment options provided by financial advisors and bricks-and-mortar firms have their place—as do robo-advisors with their affordable hands-off portfolios—DIY investors who want the greatest selection of assets at rock-bottom fees can’t do better than online brokers. Of course, with a growing number of online brokerage services now available in Canada, it is hard to know which one is best for your needs.

That is where the annual MoneySense Best Online Brokers ranking comes in. Now in its ninth year, the ranking again relies on analysis provided by Surviscor, a leading Canadian research and consulting firm specializing in digital and direct financial services’ customer experiences. Customized for MoneySense to include hundreds of data points—including price, customer service, product offerings and mobile capabilities—Surviscor’s deep-dive into the Canadian online brokerage marketplace is second to none.

Click here to view our full comparison tool of 14 online brokers to see how they stack up.

Canada’s best online brokers

Rank Broker Total points Basic stock-trading commission Minimum non-registered account size for no annual/inactivity fees Mobile app/mobile responsive website
1 Questrade* 36 1 cent per share ($4.95 min/$9.95 max) None Yes
2 National Bank Direct Brokerage 31 $0 $20,000 across all accounts OR 5 trades per year Yes
3 TD Direct Investing 25 $9.99 No annual fees Yes
4 Qtrade Direct Investing 22 $8.75 $25,000 across all accounts OR 5 other conditions OR $50 per month deposit for Young Investors Yes
5 BMO InvestorLine 9 $9.99 $25,000 for RRSPs; $10,000 for non-registered Yes

Top 3 online brokers

Here’s a closer look at the top three overall winners.

1. Questrade*

Questrade, which slipped to No. 2 last year after placing first in 2019, has reclaimed the top spot with a score of 36 points. Why the move back to No. 1? There are several reasons, not the least of which is Questrade’s consistently high level of customer service, an area where it continues to outperform its industry peers. (Be sure to read the individual category reviews below.) In addition, Questrade maintains its top standing in the mobile experience category and leads our new customer onboarding category, which explores the overall process and experience of becoming a client. Having said that, even the top firms have holes in their offerings and Questrade is no different. As in previous years, it still lags in terms of the market data it provides, and loses marks for having commission fees that aren’t always as low as advertised. 

Learn more about Questrade Accounts* >

Things we like:

√ Industry-leading customer service responsiveness

√ Initial customer experience (transparency on offerings and fees, account opening experience, etc.)

√ Mobile experience is similar to online experience

√ Industry influencer (progressive; dedicated to improving the service for customers)

√ Commitment to financial literacy 

 Needs improvement:

x Charges electronic communication network (ECN) fees, an additional per-transaction fee that can considerably increase stated commission costs

x Charges commissions on ETF sell orders

x Depth and breadth of market information

2. National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage entered our top three for the first time in nine years with a score of 31 points. Then, after our initial June 2021 publication, it went one better in late August and reduced its commission fee for online trades of Canadian and U.S. stocks $0 from $6.95. ETF trading was already free for both buys and sells, with unlimited inventory availability. National Bank’s brokerage is one of Canada’s most well-rounded offerings, catering to both the novice and sophisticated DIY investor through multiple programs, with what we believe is the most competitive overall commission structure in Canada. That said, like all other firms, it’s not all roses; the process of becoming a customer is not as slick as with some competitors.

Things we like:

√ $0 commissions on Canadian and US equities, and ETFs

√ Overall equity investing process, including fees and market data

√ Overall ETF investing process, including unlimited inventory, no fees and depth of market data

√ Mobile experience is similar to online experience

√ Depth and breadth of market data provided to all customer segments

√ Educational material 

Needs improvement:

x Service responsiveness is amongst the worst in Canada

x Process of becoming a customer 

x Overall platform design and user experience 


3. TD Direct Investing

TD Direct Investing, the largest discount brokerage firm in Canada, rounds out the top three for the fourth straight year with a score of 25 points. (It narrowly edges out last year’s overall winner, Qtrade Direct Investing, which has an overall score of 22 points.) TD’s major strengths are its depth and availability of market data (including quotes, charts, technical analysis, research, and market notifications), its commitment to financial literacy and its overall equity investing experience, making it the winner in each of those categories. The troubling reality for TD Direct Investing is that the main areas where it misses the mark, namely customer service and fees, are critical to investor satisfaction.   

Things we like:

√ Initial impression (good integration of discount brokerage service within bank-based site)

√ Depth and breadth of market data

√ Commitment to financial literacy

√ Industry pioneer and influencer since the early days of self-directed investing 

Needs improvement:

x Unexplainable lack of commitment to customer service responsiveness

x Fees and commissions tend to be on the high side

x Confusing banking/brokerage integration (once user delves beyond the initial impression) 

Best online brokers by category

Some online brokers excel in areas that may be important to certain customers. Explore each category below:

Best online broker for fees

Much of the marketing you see for online brokerage firms tends to focus on fees—and with good reason. Given that most charge somewhere between $5 and $10 per trade, it is a massive savings over the $80 to $150 per trade that full-service brokers once charged their clients. 

Unfortunately, those advertised fees do not always tell the whole story. For example, many low-cost firms charge an ECN (Electronic Communication Network) fee that can double your commission costs, while others exclude some popular stocks from their investment offerings. Then there are platform fees for enhanced quote data, which can run investors an extra $30 per month, but may be worth it. The overall message is buyer beware.

To get a clearer picture on fees, we analyzed more than 13,000 individual trades using five different trade-volume related investor profiles. We compared fees for stock, options and ETF trades. (This year, for simplicity’s sake, we decided to ignore account interest rates and general account fees, as they tend to be insignificant factors when trying to differentiate between firms.) 

Of course, it’s important to understand that lowest is not always best when it comes to fees. You should also consider what you’re getting for your money. Even if you are a conservative or passive investor, paying a few extra dollars (or pennies, as the case may be) per trade is worth it if the service includes access to free tools and resources such as unlimited quotes and depth of data. Even at $10, an average trade of 500 shares of a bank stock could be hundreds of dollars cheaper than with a full-service advisor, so weighing your “extras” is the key. 

Don’t fall for shiny marketing messages. Do your homework and ask yourself: “Do I really believe that a firm is willing to pay for my fees and lose money doing so just so I can be a customer?” (See “What does $0 commission really mean?”in the “Online brokerage fast facts” section below.)

1. National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage is our fees winner, with zero commissions on all ETF buy and sell orders in both Canada and the U.S. (Other online brokers either charge commissions on ETF sales and/or have a limited number of ETFs to choose from.) In addition, in August 2021 it dropped its standard rate of $6.95 per trade on other equities to $0, and its active trader fee structure of $0.95 a trade is hard to beat.

2. Wealthsimple Trade*

How can the only firm in our ranking that has an advertised rate of $0 end up in second place for fees? The No. 2 spot is to drive home the point that there’s no free lunch in life—Wealthsimple Trade’s $0 commissions come with conditions and tradeoffs that should be noted. First off, many popular U.S. stocks are not available through the platform, most notably Disney. Second, while Wealthsimple Trade advertises that it has chosen the list of ETFs clients can invest in, online brokers are not qualified to dictate anyone’s investment journey. The whole point of an online broker is to let self-directed investors make their own decisions. Lastly, there is much industry debate as to whether a DIY investor is receiving the best available price when placing a trade with Wealthsimple Trade, as the limited and delayed market data provided—quotes can be delayed by as much as 15 minutes—may lead investors to act based on inaccurate price information. But $0 commissions should be attractive to those who understand the potential hidden implications of a no-fee trade.

Learn more about Wealthsimple Trade* >

Back to categories

Best online broker for customer service

If you ask me, customer service is the key differentiator between firms and should never be taken lightly. Our position over the past 20 years has always been to look at the way firms treat potential customers to evaluate how committed they are to service. The general pushback we get from lagging firms, most of which are banks, is that they treat existing customers better than potential customers. Assuming that’s true, what does it say about these banks? In today’s competitive times, each firm needs to put its best foot forward to gain a client’s initial trust. Don’t be fooled by big brand names and assume a firm is better because it’s big, or because it’s a bank.

In our analysis, we focused on firms’ average response time to service enquiries over the 12 months ending March 31, 2021, the various types of contact and hours of service provided, as well as service levels from individual days of the week. For the record, we did not evaluate the numerous system outages that plagued the industry in the last year because they affected all firms and are simply too hard to objectively evaluate. (While one could argue that COVID-19 has had a major impact on the current state of customer service, our research over the past two decades indicates that service levels were dropping well before the world stopped moving.)

1. Questrade*

In a repeat of last year’s results, Questrade is again our top choice for customer service. It has shown its commitment to clients with a consistent track record of responsive service (typically around four hours) even through the COVID-19 crisis to date. In addition, Questrade offers live chat and correspondence via social media for investors who prefer those channels. 

2. Canaccord Genuity Direct

Our runner-up is one of the new brands in town, Canaccord Genuity Direct, formerly known as Jitney Trade. While we do not see this online broker as a suitable choice for Canadian DIY investors (it appears the firm has re-branded using a stronger corporate name, but with no other differentiating factors) we must give Canaccord Genuity props on its service responsiveness. With a turnaround time of 10 hours, it pales in comparison to Questrade, but provides a far better first impression than the 75 hours at BMO InvestorLine, 96 hours at Scotia iTRADE and 108 hours at CIBC Investor’s Edge. (See our brokerage comparison table for each firm’s response times.)

Back to categories

Best online broker for ETF investing

For decades, Canadians turned to mutual funds for diversification. As regulations changed and fees became more transparent, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) became the security of choice. Like mutual funds, an ETF is a basket of investments, but one that tracks an entire market instead of relying on fund managers to select the assets they think will perform well. As a result, the fund management fees (called a management expense ratio, or MER) for ETFs are much lower than for mutual funds. 

Now, with several online brokers offering no-fee ETF purchases and/or trades, ETF investing is even more popular. The difficult part, of course, is choosing the right ETFs for your needs, since they range from broad index ETFs, tracking a market index such as the S&P 500; to more recent pandemic-recovery themed ETFs, which group together assets expected to perform well during the COVID-19 recovery, including airlines, cruise lines, resorts and gaming companies. (For a comprehensive guide to choosing ETFs, check out MoneySense’s Best ETFs in Canada.) 

For this category ranking, we looked at the overall experience of investing in an ETF, including the availability of commission-free products, research (such as screeners and market information) that can help investors make decisions and the general experience of placing a trade through any digital platform.

1. National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage, which placed second in the category last year, is this year’s most competitive firm for ETFs. It offers no-commission buying and selling on all available North American ETFs (with minor trading restrictions, including a minimum amount of 100 shares, placing non-phone trades, and subscribing to electronic statements). The drawbacks are its research tools and general trading experience. 

2. Qtrade Direct Investing

Qtrade Direct Investing swapped places with National Bank Direct Brokerage, slipping from the category’s top spot last year to current runner-up. The firm not only provides investors with a complete analysis of the ETF market so they can make more informed decisions, but also offers free purchases and sales on a list of 100 ETFs. Unfortunately, these tend to be some of the less-traded ETFs rather than the most popular ones, as is the case at a few firms that offer selected lists to market at a cost advantage.

Back to categories

Best online broker for stock investing

If we talk about ETFs, then we must also talk about stocks, which represent the core of self-directed investing. One could argue that our whole report is geared toward stock investing, but this new category will narrow in on the stock investing process, just as we’ve done with ETFs. 

For this category ranking, we looked at the overall experience of investing in a stock, including the availability of marketplaces, research (such as screeners and market information) that can help investors make decisions, and the general experience of placing a trade through any digital platform.

1. TD Direct Investing

TD Direct Investing is the inaugural winner in this new category, as it provides investors with a wide array of market analytic components used for evaluating the current, past, and future values of a stock. In addition, it also provides important supporting research, analyst views and a clean trading process for all levels of DIY investors.

2. National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage is the runner-up for stock investing, thanks to its strong fundamental and technical information, competitive commissions, and its ability to provide a seamless process and access to information regardless of the digital platform in play.

Back to categories

Best online broker for financial literacy

What does self-directed, do-it-yourself investing really mean? Choosing your own investments, of course, but also conducting research so you can make informed investment decisions. As mentioned in the introduction, time and knowledge have been the traditional roadblocks to DIY investing, so this new category is designed to demonstrate which firms support a client’s journey through investor education. 

For this ranking, we highlight areas where a firm is providing educational guidance to both potential and existing customers through all its digital platforms. The areas of support include instructional and educational videos on platform usage or general investing subjects, seminars, webinars and articles.

1. TD Direct Investing

TD Direct Investing is the inaugural winner for financial literacy, as it provides both seasoned and beginner investors with a large variety of educational materials on markets and products, as well as interactive help sections to educate DIY investors.

2. RBC Direct Investing

RBC Direct Investing is the runner-up in the financial literacy category, piggybacking on the strength of RBC Royal Bank to provide digital users with an abundance of educational material that supports the customer journey.  

Back to categories

Best online broker for user experience

User experience, also referred to as UX, covers a broad range of factors that influence how it feels for investors to use an online brokerage service. This includes website/app design, customization features, account information, account management, navigation, notifications, and placement of trade orders. 

We’ve found that independent firms, which have more autonomy in building and designing their sites, are typically leaders when it comes to UX. Bank-owned firms, on the other hand, tend to overlook the fact that paying a bill and placing a trade are quite different experiences. Moreover, their newest designs seem to be less intuitive and more directed at driving cross-sales, instead of improving overall account management, trading experiences and educational content for DIY investors.

1. Questrade*

Questrade, this year’s top firm for UX, has an intuitive online platform and corresponding mobile experience with industry-leading customization features and functionality. This means investors can tailor their experience to their personal preferences. Questrade is also a leader for transactional experiences, making it easy for investors to buy and trade equities, ETFs and options.

2. Qtrade Direct Investing

Despite an older design, Qtrade Direct Investing is a UX leader given its breadth of data, which is both easy to locate and to use. The firm also offers strong trading experiences, easy-to-find usage policies and exceptionally good account management tools such as its portfolio analytics lineup: Portfolio Score, Portfolio Simulator, and Portfolio Creator.   

Back to categories

Best online broker for market data

We are often asked why we place so much value on market data in our assessments of online brokers. The answer is simple: for DIY investors, everything starts with a quote. When an investor decides it’s time to buy or sell a security, its price determines the trade contract. In addition, understanding the price patterns and surrounding factors of a price quote are even more important. 

Our evaluation considers the overall experience of obtaining relevant market information, which includes the depth of a quote, general market information, analyst views, supporting charts, industry research as well as both fundamental and technical analysis through any digital platform.

1. TD Direct Investing

Market data has always been a strength at TD Direct Investing, as far back as the 1980s when it forged the path in Canada’s discount brokerage industry as TD GreenLine. Today, an investor can expect superior depth of information for quotes, charting and technical analysis, research, and industry-leading market notifications or alerting. The availability of market data for both individual securities and overall market analysis again makes TD our top choice in this category.

2. National Bank Direct Brokerage

Our market data runner-up, National Bank Direct Brokerage, provides investors with strong quote depth and fundamental stock information along with interactive charting, technical analysis, and equity research. Plus, for a nominal cost, investors can choose to use Market Q for an even more dynamic market data experience.

Back to categories

Best online broker for customer onboarding

We love the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Truth be told, it’s a sentiment we have used annually to identify how well online brokerage firms introduce their offerings. This year, we decided to instead narrow in on how easy it is to become a customer, and to expand into more accounts.

In other words, this revised category focuses on the process that online brokerage firms call onboarding. We did not discriminate between becoming a new customer or broadening an existing relationship, and we even looked at all the avenues and digital platforms available to a DIY investor to complete the process. What did we learn? That not all firms are alike—which should really come as no surprise.

1. Questrade*

Questrade is the inaugural winner in our new customer onboarding category, as it offers both potential and existing customers a clear, streamlined, and supported account opening process regardless of device preference. The main drawback with Questrade is that there are a lot of choices to make due to the availability of many different account structures. The good news is that an initial choice can always be altered.

2. Qtrade Direct Investing

Qtrade Direct Investing is a close second when it comes to customer onboarding. Like Questrade, the process is clear and supported to maximize the experience. That onboarding process, however, comes up short when an investor uses a mobile device.

Back to categories

Best online broker for mobile experience

Each year we say the same thing: The Canadian discount brokerage industry was late to the financial services mobile party, and it still lags both its Canadian banking counterparts and discount brokerage firms south of the border. 

With the current sophistication of mobile devices, investors expect to have the same experience on their phones as they would on a desktop or laptop. The days of satisfying mobile users with access to quotes, basic account information and trades are over. Some progressive online brokers do have a near-full account experience via mobile, offering all the same tools and analysis investors would find on their computers. But, in general, most Canadian firms are far from that level.

1. Questrade*

The seamless integration between its online and mobile platforms makes Questrade, last year’s category winner, our top choice again for mobile experience. This platform integration makes the service as robust on a smartphone as it is on a desktop, providing the transactional, account and market data tools and experiences that are  issing from most firms’ mobile offerings. 

2. National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage is our mobile experience runner-up with a new fresh and crisp design that allows for a seamless transition from online to mobile, coupled with in-depth market data and account information. The platform has room for improvement and will evolve but the new design is a great first step.

Back to categories

Online brokerage fast facts

What do online brokers do?

Online brokers allow self-directed investors to pick, buy and trade assets such as stocks, bonds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) on their own, without the guidance or assistance of an advisor or trading agent. Because online brokerages cut out the middleman, the trading fees do not have to account for a professional’s commission, so you save the difference. This significant cost savings is the reason why online brokers are also known as discount brokers. 

While all Canada’s dozen or so legitimate online brokers provide roughly the same basic DIY investing and trading services, the platforms, fees, and access to investing information can differ. 

How much do online brokers charge?

For everyday investors in Canada, the low (and sometimes $0) fees charged by online brokers have been a boon. Scroll down this table to see the commissions and fees charged by all 15 Canadian online brokerages. 

So, you may be wondering how online brokers make enough money to stay in business. As this article in Bloomberg Businessweek notes, “Brokerages can make money from simply lending out the cash you aren’t using. And once you sign up for free trades, they have a chance to sell you other services.” Other costs, such as foreign exchange fees, help to ensure that online brokerages stay profitable.

What does $0 commission really mean?

No doubt, $0 commissions are attractive. Who doesn’t want free transactions? But before you rush to move your money to a no-commission firm, ask yourself: “Why is this firm, which is clearly in the marketplace to make money, willing to absorb all of my costs?” After all, even a not-for-profit business still has operating costs to cover, including wages, systems upkeep and general operations. 

Simply put, if there are no commission charges, then the brokerage is earning fees elsewhere. Perhaps it’s through inflated foreign exchange rates, limited or delayed market data, or orderflow partners (where the firm gets paid for each order they send to a partner for processing). Take, for example, U.S. online investing platform Robinhood, which was recently called out for its trade routing and discretionary stock availability while receiving compensation for its order flow (industry talk for earning fees in exchange for directing clients’ orders for execution). 

Furthermore, a poor execution price due to delayed market data might make you wish you paid the $5 to $10 commission instead. For example, buying or selling GameStop over the past few months on a platform with delayed pricing (on average 15 minutes delayed) could have meant hundreds of dollars in price changes. Consider the math. Although rare, trading even one share when there was a price movement of $50 in that delayed period would have easily cost more than an average industry commission fee. (And in the case of GameStop there were actually swings of $100 to $200, during periods where investors flew blindly.)

Personally, I understand why a novice investor would consider a zero-commission platform but—and it is a rather larger but—the platform and the cost savings of a few dollars per trade, in my opinion, is not worth the lack of guidance, education and market depth required by a novice or average DIY investor. If anything, an experienced DIY investor is more suited to these missing elements, as they would typically locate key data points from other industry sources.

Are online brokers safe?

This is a good time to repeat that all investing comes with risk. Unlike deposits in banks and credit unions, which are protected, up to specified amounts, by the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (CDIC) or provincial deposit insurance organizations, there is no coverage for investment losses. 

As an example, let’s say you decided to sock away $50,000 in a high-interest savings account at a CDIC-protected bank. In that case, you are guaranteed to get your $50,000 back, even if the bank goes out of business. On the other hand, if you invest $50,000 in various stocks, and the market value of those stocks declines by 15% by the time you need access to that cash, you’ll get only $42,500 (minus any commissions or fees payable to the brokerage you used) when you sell. That is the reality of investing.

Having said that, there is some protection for the property you hold within an online brokerage, including securities you own (such as stocks or ETFs) and cash. The Canadian Investor Protection Fund (CIPF), which was created by the investment industry in 1969, exists to ensure your property is returned to you, at the current market value, should your investment dealer go under. 

What’s special about our ranking?

The scoring methodology and the depth of the analysis makes our review the most comprehensive and investor-relevant study in Canada. We tell it like it is, and do not suggest that only the top firms should be considered. 

On that front, you may notice a few new firms in the rankings. We listened and added Wealthsimple Trade, which now has an online platform to complement its basic-at-best mobile launch, and Canaccord Genuity Direct (formerly Jitney Trade), despite its non-differentiating business concept and lack of mobile capabilities. Once again, Interactive Brokers Canada has been left out due to its U.S.-centric platform that is designed more for traders than investors and the fact it does not appear to be fully committed to Canadian clients, as seen through its U.S.-focussed marketing messages; additional details can be found on the Surviscor website

Our goal is to provide you with the facts to help you make an informed choice of a potential discount brokerage. If you already use an online broker and have noticed a change in the relationship or longer wait times for service, don’t feel sorry for them. Instead, challenge yourself to explore other firms’ offerings, as there are many. 

Whether you’re new to self-directed investing or a seasoned veteran, the Best Online Brokers in Canada for 2021 will give you valuable insight into Canada’s ultra-competitive discount brokerage industry, and help you get the most out of DIY investing.

Wealthsimple Trade Review

Methodology

Surviscor representatives completed a features and functionality questionnaire of nearly 8,000 questions for each firm in the survey, covering both online and mobile platforms, while performing hundreds of typical investor tasks on each individual online platform. They also analyzed the firms’ cost of services over five trade-related investor profiles and reviewed 161 service interactions over a 12-month period ending March 31, 2021. 

Each firm was assigned a score based on its ranking within the seven sections of review (5 points for first; 4 for second; 3 for third; 2 for fourth; and 1 for fifth), and the overall score was the sum of the awarded sections. 

Glenn LaCoste, president and CEO of Surviscor Group, is considered a leading Canadian spokesperson and analyst in the online and mobile brokerage and banking industries in Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in financial services and has been actively involved in Canadian financial services ratings and ranking reviews since 2003. LaCoste is often quoted in Canadian financial services articles, and provides professional insight on brokerage and banking as an occasional television guest on the Business News Network (BNN). He has held executive positions at CT Securities and Datek Canada (formerly Ameritrade Canada). After starting his career at TD GreenLine and prior to founding Surviscor in 2006, he served as the primary consultant for Gomez Canada and subsequently Watchfire GomezPro Canada.

What does the * mean?

If a link has an asterisk (*) at the end of it, that means its an affiliate link and can sometimes result in a payment to MoneySense (owned by Ratehub Inc.) which helps our website stay free to our users. Its important to note that our editorial content will never be impacted by these links. We are committed to looking at all available products in the market, and where a product ranks in our article or whether or not its included in the first place is never driven by compensation. For more details read our MoneySense Monetization policy.

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