Bank On is a pretty simple concept that now has over 3.8 million accounts across the US It offers certified bank or credit union accounts which have none of the fees that have driven many people away from bank accounts.

Bank On accounts feature low costs, no overdraft fees, robust transaction capabilities such as a debit or prepaid card, and online bill pay. The program is sponsored by the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE Fund) which helps cities and mayors to deliver large-scale, high-quality financial empowerment services, often by providing government payments through bank accounts, so recipients have to open an account to receive the payment.

“Let’s get people into the banking system because it offers fundamentally stabilizing financial tools,” said Jonathan Mintz, president and CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. “So many of our other efforts to stabilize are hamstrung if people are outside the financial system.”

Bank On grew out of an FDIC pilot program to get more of the country’s estimated 36 million unbanked to open and use bank accounts. The CFE Fund realized that an effective program needed to work with banks and credit unions and develop a single nation-wide standard for a safe bank account.

It’s been successful with financial institutions — Bank On certified accounts are available through more than 200 financial institutions and just under half the branches in the country, said Mintz, and the financial institutions offering them make up 56% of US market share.

Getting unbanked people to open an account can be very direct — simply require them to have a bank account to receive government funds.

“At the local level, in summer youth employment or other work programs where the government is paying people salaries and the population has a high degree of unbanked, as they sign up for the programs and salary you tell them direct deposit is how they get paid and give them a list of approved accounts. People say yes,” Mintz explained.

Some states are starting to require direct deposit into a bank account for unemployment benefits, instead of sending checks or cards to recipients. For stimulus payments during the pandemic, the IRS said it could pay into bank accounts quickly, but checks could take several months to print and mail, another incentive to open an account.