USAA said Monday that it has expanded its membership criteria, potentially doubling its customer base, and made its life insurance and investment products available to members' extended families.
The San Antonio mutual insurance company, which often outranks banks in mortgage, home-equity and credit-card customer satisfaction surveys, said it will accept military retirees, regardless of when they retire, as members. Military personnel who were honorably discharged beginning in 1996 and widows or widowers of service members who have been killed in action are eligible to become members under the new requirements, which took effect Monday.
Previously the company had required that military personnel wait about a year after leaving the military before joining USAA, and it offered the investment and life insurance products to members only.
Robie Cline, a spokeswoman for USAA, said the relaxed requirements will open the door to 3 million military personnel and an estimated 3.5 million spouses and family members. USAA has 6.4 million customers.
Beverly Rodriguez, USAA's vice president of new member solutions, said the company expects 100,000 families to join as members by yearend.
For several years USAA's $31.9 billion-asset USAA Federal Savings Bank has been pushing to make its operations and technology more efficient. Last year USAA Federal became the first bank to offer remote capture to commercial customers, allowing members to deposit checks with only a personal computer, scanner, and secure Internet connection. Its military members, who are scattered all over the world, have signed up for the service in droves.
Thad Peterson, the vice president of strategy and solutions for financial services at the St. Louis market research firm Maritz Inc., said that because USAA has only one banking branch, it does remote banking and customer service, largely through its call centers, "better than everybody else."
"They've never really had a branch banking operation, and banks should view them as a serious player regardless of geography," Mr. Peterson said.
Opening the membership further "will increase their reach and their potential market share," he said.
Ms. Cline said USAA Federal is so small it is "not on the radar screen" of major banking companies.
"I don't think B of A or Citi would see this as a threat," she said of the new membership criteria.
Military personnel move every two to three years, and they need a bank that understands their circumstances, Ms. Cline said.
"If you're going to be deployed, you want your bank to know that you get a lower interest rate on your credit card, and that when you move you're covered for basic protection under your homeowners insurance no matter what state you're in," she said.
Though federal regulations require that military members receive lower interest rates on their credit cards, a member of the military has to call his or her bank to request the change, whereas USAA Federal makes the update automatically, Ms. Cline said.
USAA membership can be passed on to children and grandchildren. "There's a whole group of people who've served in the military that we haven't been able to help," she said. "So as we've grown, we're making changes to our eligibility and one day we would love to be able to serve anyone who ever served in the military."
USAA, which began as an officer-only association in 1992, opened to enlisted personnel in 1996.