Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Online Trading Works


Making Trades

Once you've opened and funded your account, you can buy and sell stocks. But before you do that, you want to get a real-time stock quote to confirm the current price of the stock. Your brokerage may provide real-time quotes as part of your service. Many free financial news sites offer delayed quotes, which are at least twenty minutes behind the market. If the market is moving quickly, a delayed quote can be substantially different from the real trading price.

This content is not compatible on this device.

Once you've gotten your quote and decided you want to make a trade, you can choose to place a market order or a limit order. A market order executes at the current market price of the stock. A limit order, however, executes at or better than a price you specify. If the price doesn't reach the limit you set, your trade will not go through.

This content is not compatible on this device.

Some brokerages offer additional options, often used to prevent high losses when a stock price is falling. These include:

  • Stop order - A form of market order, this executes after the price falls through a point that you set. The order executes at market price, not at the stop point.
  • Stop limit order - These are like stop orders, but they execute at a price you set rather than market price. In rapidly moving markets, the broker may not be able to execute your order at your set price, meaning that the stock you own may continue to fall in value.
  • Trailing stop order - Like a stop order, a trailing stop executes when the price falls through a point you set. However, its selling price is moving instead of fixed. You set a parameter in points or as a percentage, and the sale executes when the price falls by that amount. If the price increases, though, the parameter moves upward with it. So, if a stock is trading at $20 per share, and you set a trailing stop order with a three-point parameter, your initial selling price would be $17 per share. But if the price then increases to $25 per share, your new selling price would be $22 per share.

This content is not compatible on this device.

You must also select whether your order stays active until the end of the day, until a specific date or until you cancel it. Some brokerages allow you to place "all or none" or "fill or kill" orders, which prevent a partial rather than complete exchange of the stocks you want to trade.

Contrary to many people's perceptions, making trades online is not instantaneous, even if you're placing a market order. It can take time to find a buyer or seller and to electronically process the trade. Also, even though you can access your account and place buy and sell orders twenty-four hours a day, your trades execute only when the markets are open. An exception is if your firm allows after-hours trading, which is riskier due to the reduced number of trades taking place.