A credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative, controlled by its members and operated on the principle of people helping people, providing its members credit at competitive rates as well as other financial services.
Worldwide, credit union systems vary significantly in terms of total assets and average institution asset size, ranging from volunteer operations with a handful of members to institutions with assets worth several billion U.S. dollars and hundreds of thousands of members. Credit unions operate alongside other mutuals and cooperatives engaging in cooperative banking, such as building societies.
“Natural-person credit unions” (also called “retail credit unions” or “consumer credit unions”) serve individuals, as distinguished from “corporate credit unions“, which serve other credit unions.
Differences from other financial institutions
Credit unions differ from banks and other financial institutions in that those who have accounts in the credit union are its members and owners, and they elect their board of directors in a one-person-one-vote system regardless of their amount invested. Credit unions see themselves as different from mainstream banks, with a mission to be “community-oriented” and “serve people, not profit”.
Credit unions offer many of the same financial services as banks, but often using a different terminology; common services include share accounts (savings accounts), share draft accounts (checking accounts), credit cards, share term certificates (certificates of deposit), and online banking. Normally, only a member of a credit union may deposit or borrow money. Surveys of customers at banks and credit unions have consistently shown a significantly higher customer satisfaction rate with the quality of service at credit unions. Credit unions have historically claimed to provide superior member service and to be committed to helping members improve their financial situation. In the context of financial inclusion credit unions claim to provide a broader range of loan and savings products at a much cheaper cost to their members than do most microfinance institutions.