NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — Free checking accounts are still readily available at most credit unions with 72% of America's 50 largest credit unions still offering standalone accounts without fees, according to a Bankrate.com report.

This is almost double the rate at the nation's largest banks and thrifts with only 38% of them offering standalone free checking accounts or those with zero monthly service fees or point-of-sale transaction fees regardless of the balance.

Financial institutions across the board have been reducing the number of free checking accounts.

Since 2010, the availability of standalone free checking at credit unions has modestly declined from 78% to 72%. The availability at banks has plummeted from 65% to 38%, said Bankrate.com.

"Free checking remains well within reach of most Americans and often means looking no further than their credit union," said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's chief financial analyst. "Very attainable minimum opening deposits are another hallmark of credit union checking accounts."

Credit unions have expanded their eligibility and many now allow individuals to become members if they work, live, attend school or a religious institution in the community, he said. In the past, credit unions only accepted members if they were affiliated with a specific employer or were the alumni of a specific university.

"People have the mistaken notion that they are not eligible for credit unions," McBride said. "Credit union memberships have expanded in the last decade, so many people are eligible now and they do not realize it."

In addition to the 72% of credit union checking accounts that are always free, another 24% (for a grand total of 96%) can become free if certain requirements are met such as receiving e-statements and/or direct deposit.

Credit unions can be a very cost effective alternative for many consumers who do not have sophisticated financial needs, he said.

"As far as a finding a low cost of free checking account, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not include credit unions in your search," McBride said. "It isn't all or nothing. You can have a checking account at credit union and other accounts elsewhere."

More than half of the credit union checking accounts that Bankrate.com surveyed do not have a minimum opening deposit requirement and no account requires more than $100.

"Today fewer and fewer banks are offering free checking accounts, while many credit unions are maintaining and even expanding them," said Michael Poulos, CEO of Michigan First Credit Union in Lathrup Village, Mich. "Since credit unions are owned by our members and operate as not-for-profit financial institutions, it's in our best interest to focus on great service and provide the tools like free checking that customers want."

Since credit unions are owned by their members, they allocate a portion of their profits back to their members in the form of dividends, said Douglas Robinson, spokesperson for NeighborWorks America, which offers financial education and counseling services through a network of 240 affiliate non-profit groups.