[Update on May 12, 2017: This method no longer works.]
Navy Federal Credit Union is the largest credit union in the U.S. It primarily serves members with military affiliations. It often has great rates on CDs and loans. I read on DepositAccounts.com that there was a way for the general public to join (see Little-Known Way to Qualify for Navy Federal Credit Union Membership). Because this opportunity for the general public can close at any time, I decided to join Navy Federal Credit Union now to get into the door.
Navy League San Diego Council
The first step is to become a member of the Navy League, San Diego council. The Navy League is a non-profit organization that supports America’s sea services — the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. A council is a local branch of the organization. I joined Navy League online as an “e-member” and I typed in San Diego as my chosen local council in the online application. After paying my $25 tax-deductible membership fee online, I received a confirmation email from the Navy League.
Paper Application By Mail
I then printed out the Navy Federal Credit Union membership application form and I filled it out by hand. I marked “Association/Community/Company” in Section B. I left Section C Affiliation blank. I checked Employed Outside the Government in Section D. The member savings account was required. I also opened an Everyday Checking account, which has no monthly fee and no minimum balance. According to comments on DepositAccounts.com, a checking account is needed for transferring money out of the credit union by ACH pulls because the Navy Federal member savings account does not accept ACH pulls.
I attached a printout of the receipt email from the Navy League, with an arrow drawn pointing to San Diego council. I also attached a check for $5 payable to Navy Federal Credit Union as the deposit to the member savings account. Although the application didn’t ask for it, I also included a copy of my driver’s license, because many other banks and credit unions want it as proof of identity.
I sent these by mail to the address on the bottom of the Navy Federal Credit Union membership application form.
Welcome Email and Debit Card
Within a week after I sent the paper application and the supporting documents by mail, I received a welcome email from Navy Federal Credit Union. Another few days later I received a debit card and a PIN mailer in separate mails. However, I wasn’t able to activate the debit card because the activation system asked for an Access Number, which I didn’t have.
The Access Number is similar to the membership number at other credit unions. The welcome email from Navy Federal showed a truncated Access Number. I could’ve called customer service to get my full Access Number but I deliberately avoided calling. I just wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t call.
Welcome Letter and Online Banking
After another week, I received in the mail a welcome letter and another letter about how to access online banking. The welcome letter had my full Access Number. I used it to activate the debit card. The online banking instructions letter told me how to get the user name and temporary password for online banking.
After I put in my user name and temporary password in online banking, I was asked to change the password and choose the answer to a security question (“your favorite …”). So far so good, but after I did all that I got an error saying the system could not proceed. I figured maybe the system was having a temporary problem. When I tried again the next day I still received the same error.
Calling Customer Service
I was forced to call customer service after all. The customer service rep was friendly but she couldn’t figure it out either. I went through a password reset process with her and I still got the same error. The customer service rep said she would call someone else for help. Meanwhile by trial and error I chose a different security question and a different answer. Then it worked! Apparently the system didn’t like the answer I gave to the security question but it didn’t tell me I had to give a different answer.
It was smoother after I got into online banking. I was able to change the user name under Settings. I added the Navy Federal checking account as a linked account in my primary checking account. I was able to verify the random deposit. I set up a once-a-year $10 transfer to it to keep it active, just in case.
It took 19 days from the day I sent the application by mail to the day I got into online banking, with some weekends and holidays in between. When I opened a checking account with a large national bank, it took maybe no more than 19 minutes. I’m writing down these detailed steps and bumps in the road to show that using a credit union requires some patience. Even the largest credit union in the country with geographically dispersed members is still quite some ways to become digital-first. I was determined to become a member because I believe patience will be rewarded in the end.