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.
What is the difference between a cash account and a margin account?
Cash accounts are used by customers who pay in full for the cost of the securities purchased. Margin accounts are used by customers who are authorized to borrow part of an investment's total purchase cost from their brokerage firm. This loan from the brokerage firm to the customer is secured by the value of the securities in the customer's account. Customers generally use margin to expand their purchasing power. However, customers who use margin also run the risk that if the value of the securities that secure the margin loan declines beyond a certain level, additional money or securities must be deposited to the account in order to make up the value. A brokerage firm may sell part or all of any securities held in the account, without prior notice to the customer, in order to make up the value and meet the margin limit requirements. These "margin calls" may occur suddenly and investors should take care to understand the financial impact that trading on margin can have on the value of their accounts.