Limit Order vs. Stop Order: An Overview

Different types of orders allow you to be more specific about how you'd like your broker to fill your trades. When you place a limit order or stop order, you tell your broker you don't want the market price (the current price at which a stock is trading); instead, you want your order to be executed when the stock price moves in a certain direction.

A limit order can be seen by the market; a stop order can't until it is triggered. If you want to buy an $80 stock at $79 per share, then your limit order can be seen by the market and filled when sellers are willing to meet that price. A stop order is a two-part order and will only turn into an actual limit order seen by the market once the stop price has been met or exceeded. The limit order is conditional on the stop price being triggered.

Key Takeaways

  • A limit order is visible to the market and instructs your broker to fill your buy or sell order at a specific price or better.
  • A stop order isn't visible to the market and will activate a limit order once a stop price has been met.
  • A stop order avoids the risks of no fills or partial fills, but because it is a market order, you may have your order filled at a price much worse than what you were expecting.

Limit Order

A limit order is an order to buy or sell a stock for a specific price. For example, if you wanted to purchase shares of a $100 stock at $100 or less, you can set a limit order that won't be filled unless the price you specified becomes available. However, you cannot set a plain limit order to buy a stock above the market price because a better price is already available.

Similarly, you can set a limit order to sell a stock once a specific price is available. Imagine that you own stock worth $75 per share and you want to sell if the price gets to $80 per share. A limit order can be set at $80 that will only be filled at that price or better. You cannot set a limit order to sell below the current market price because there are better prices available.

Stop Order

A stop order comes in a few different variations, but they are all considered conditional based on a price that is not yet available in the market when the order is originally placed. Once the future price is available, a stop order will be triggered, but depending on its type, the broker will execute them differently.

Many brokers now add the term "stop on quote" to their order types to make it clear that the stop order will only be triggered once a valid quoted price in the market has been met. For example, if you set a stop order with a stop price of $100, it will be triggered only if a valid quote at $100 or better is met.

A stop order will turn into a traditional market order once your stop price is met or exceeded. A stop order can be set as an entry order as well. If you wanted to open a position once the price of a stock is rising, a stop market order could be set above the current market price, which turns into a regular market order once your stop price has been met.

Many brokers now add the term "stop on quote" to their order types to make it clear that the stop order will only be triggered once a valid quoted price in the market has been met.

Example: Amazon

A trader purchased Amazon.com, Inc., (AMZN) for $1,900 per share on October 5, 2018. She is concerned that the price might fall and sets a stop-limit order to sell the stock with a stop price at $1,750 and a limit price of $1,800 per share. As you can see in the following chart, the original purchase could have been filled on October 5, and the stop price was triggered when the stock dropped to $1,750 on October 11. However, the limit price of $1,800 wasn't available until the stock rose on October 12.

The trader in this example could have used a stop order that was activated once the stock price reached $1,750 or less. If the investor had used a stop market order, it would have triggered on October 11 and could have been filled right away at the open price at $1,724, which would have resulted in a deeper loss than with the stop-limit order.

Special Considerations

A stop-limit order consists of two prices: a stop price and a limit price. This order type can be used to activate a limit order to buy or sell a security once a specific stop price has been met. For example, imagine you purchase shares at $100 and expect the stock to rise. You could place a stop-limit order to sell the shares if your forecast was wrong. If you set the stop price at $90 and the limit price as $90.50, the order will be activated if the stock trades at $90 or worse. However, a limit order will be filled only if the limit price you selected is available in the market. If the stock drops overnight to $89 per share, that is below your stop price so that the order will be activated, but it will not be filled immediately because there are no buyers at your limit price of $90.50 per share. The stop price and the limit price can be the same with this order type.

A stop-limit order has two primary risks: no fills or partial fills. It is possible for your stop price to be triggered and your limit price to remain unavailable. If you used a stop-limit order as a stop loss to exit a long position once the stock started to drop, it might not close your trade.

Even if the limit price is available after a stop price has been triggered, your entire order may not be executed if there wasn't enough liquidity at that price. For example, if you wanted to sell 500 shares at a limit price of $75, but only 300 were filled, then you may suffer further losses on the remaining 200 shares.

A stop order avoids the risks of no fills or partial fills, but because it is a market order, you may have your order filled at a price much worse than what you were expecting. For example, imagine that you have set a stop order at $70 on a stock that you bought for $75 per share. The company reports earnings after the market closes and opens the next day at $60 per share after disappointing investors. Your order will be activated, and you could be out of the trade at $60, far below your stop price of $70.