Can I actually open an account online?
Yes, you can open an account with many brokerage firms online; however, in most instances your account will not be active until the brokerage firm receives and processes a signed application from you. Note that some firms allow for the use of electronic signatures, while others will require a manually (hand written) signed document. Some firms will gather basic information for your account over their Web Sites, then mail you the pre-completed application for you to sign and return. Please make sure to check with your brokerage firm for information on specific guidelines.
Is there still a brokerage firm involved or do I really bypass the broker completely?
All trades involve a brokerage firm even if a stockbroker is not used to help with the trade. Although customers may enter orders for trades via the Internet, customers do not have direct access to the securities markets and therefore must use a brokerage firm in order to execute their trades. Customers should also remember to do their homework where their investments are concerned.