Market Order vs. Limit Order: What's the Difference?

Market Order vs. Limit Order: An Overview

Buying stock is a bit like buying a car. With a car, you can pay the dealer’s sticker price and get the car. On the other hand, you can negotiate a price and refuse to finalize the deal unless the dealer meets your valuation. The stock market works in a similar way.

A market order deals with the execution of the order. In other words, the price of the security is secondary to the speed of completing the trade. Limit orders, on the other hand, deal primarily with the price. So, if the security's value is currently resting outside of the parameters set in the limit order, the transaction does not occur.

Key Takeaways

  • Market orders are transactions meant to execute as quickly as possible at the current market price.
  • Limit orders set the maximum or minimum price at which you are willing to complete the transaction, whether it be a buy or sell.
  • Market orders offer a greater likelihood that an order will go through, but there are no guarantees, as orders are subject to availability.
  • Limit orders may never be filled if the limit order price is not met. In this case, the order expires based on the specified expiration date.
  • Limit orders are often used for more volatile investments, as investors may pay substantially more when there are large, material price swings in a short-amount of time and market orders are used.

Understanding Market Orders And Limit Orders

Market Orders

When an investor places an order to buy or sell a stock, there are two fundamental execution options. The first is to place an order "at the market" or "at market". Market orders are transactions meant to execute as quickly as possible at the current market price.

When a layperson imagines a typical stock market transaction, they think of market orders. These orders are the most basic buy and sell trades, where a broker receives a security trade order and then processes it at the current market price.

All orders are processed within present priority guidelines. Whenever a market order is placed, there is always the threat of market fluctuations occurring between the time the broker receives the order and the time the trade is executed. This is especially a concern for larger orders, which take longer to fill and, if large enough, can actually move the market on their own. Sometimes the trading of individual stocks may be halted or suspended, too.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that a market order that is placed after trading hours will be filled at the market price on open the next trading day.

Even though market orders offer a greater likelihood of a trade being executed, there is no guarantee that it will actually go through. All stock market transactions are subject to the availability of given stocks and can vary significantly based on the timing, the size of the order, and the liquidity of the stock.

Market Order Example

For example, an investor enters an order to purchase 100 shares of a company XYZ Inc. "at the market". Since the investor opts for whatever price XYZ shares are going for, the trade will be filled rather quickly at wherever the current price of that security is at. If the price per share is $10, the investor's order would be filled with securities costing $1,000.

When the order for XYZ was placed, the investor often does not know the exact price at which the shares would be purchased at. For instance, when the market order was placed, the broker might have quoted the shares at $9.80 each as this may have been the market price as the order was being prepared.

This highlights the importance of not using market orders for volatile investments. For example, consider if market order initially quoted at $5 per share. Because XYZ is a volatile investment, it is possible the investor will now need to pay much more than what the market price otherwise appear as.

Limit Orders

A second primary type of order that can be placed is set "at the limit" or "at a limit price". Limit orders set the maximum or minimum price at which you are willing to buy or sell.

Limit orders are designed to give investors more control over the buying and selling prices of their trades. Prior to placing a purchase order, a maximum acceptable purchase price amount must be selected. Minimum acceptable sales prices, meanwhile, are indicated on sales orders.

Limit orders can be of particular benefit when trading in a stock or other asset that is thinly traded, highly volatile, or has a wide bid-ask spread: the difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay for an asset in the market and the lowest price a seller is willing to accept. Placing a limit order puts a ceiling on the amount an investor is willing to pay.

Traders need to be aware of the effect of the bid-ask spread on limit orders. For a limit order to buy to be filled, the ask price—not just the bid price—must fall to the trader's specified price.

A limit order offers the advantage of being assured the market entry or exit point is at least as good as the specified price.

Limit Order Example

If an investor is worried about buying XYZ shares for a higher price and thinks it is possible to get them for a lower price instead, it might make sense to enter a limit order. For example, the current market price for XYZ is $9.80. An investor believes the equity will fluctuate between $9.50 and $10.10 this trading period.

In this example, the investor may place a limit order to purchase 100 shares of XYZ at $9.50 each. Because the market price is higher than the order price of $9.50, the order will not fill when it is placed.

Later in the day, the price of XYZ drops to $9.50. The limit order is filled, and the investor buys the securities for a total of $950. Because the order filled, it does not matter that the price of XYZ drops further to $9.

Last, let's imagine the shares did not drop to $9.50. Instead, the price of XYZ went from $9.80 to $11. In this example, the investor has missed out. Had they placed a market order, their order would have likely filled. Instead, they do not have any shares of XYZ because their specified price was never met.

It is common to allow limit orders to be placed outside of market hours. In these cases, the limit orders are placed into a queue for processing as soon as trading resumes.

Key Differences

Both types of orders may result in the acquisition of stock. However, each has different approaches, is set in different manners, and may result in a single share of stock being acquired at a different price.

Most often, market orders are easier to set. An investor does not need to specify their own price, whereas an investor does with a limit order. The limit order often usually has more specifications to the order such as when the order will expire. A market order does not expire as it is usually executed immediately (since the market price is the agreed-upon price).

Because a market order indicates a buyer is willing to buy the current market price, the order is almost always executed. On the other hand, a limit order is only trigger when the limit price meets the buyer specifications. If the market price does not drop far enough on a limit order, a buyer's order may not be filled.

Market Order
  • Easier to set up as no price is specified

  • Will almost always be filled as trade executes as current (market) price)

  • Does not have an expiration since it usually fills immediately

  • May be more suitable for stable investments

Limit Order
  • Investor must specify price at which order will trigger

  • May not get filled if limit order price is not met by market

  • Is often accompanied by an expiration date in which the order closes if not yet filled

  • May be more suitable for volatile, unpredictable investments

Special Considerations

The risk inherent to limit orders is that should the actual market price never fall within the limit order guidelines, the investor's order may fail to execute. Another possibility is that a target price may finally be reached, but there is not enough liquidity in the stock to fill the order when its turn comes.

A limit order may sometimes receive a partial fill or no fill at all due to its price restriction. In the example above, based on the liquidity of the shares trying to be bought, the investor may only acquire 30 shares of XYZ at their limit order price of $9.50. The rest of the order may expire if not triggered.

Limit orders are more complicated to execute than market orders and subsequently can result in higher brokerage fees. That said, for low volume stocks that are not listed on major exchanges, it may be difficult to find the actual price, making limit orders an attractive option.

Is a Market Order Better Than a Limit Order?

A market order is simply different and more useful in some situations compared to a limit order. For long-term hold investors who may not care about tiny fluctuations in price, a market order is often an easier, less expensive option. For investors looking to lock in a specific price,

Is a Limit Order Cheaper Than a Market Order?

A limit is a more specific type of order that often has more features, customizations, and options. For this reason, a limit order may be assessed higher fees compared to a market order. There are many online brokerages that offer free trading (based on restrictions or limitations) that offer both limit orders and market orders for free.

When Should You Use a Limit Order?

A limit order is often advised for highly volatile securities. Because you do not know the price at which you will pay at the market for securities that may leap or fall in price, a limit order gives investors greater control over dictating the price at which their order closes without fear of paying or selling at a price they do not feel comfortable at.

What Is a Stop Order?

A stop order is a special type of order designed to buy or sell a security at the market price once the market price has traded at or through a designated stop price. This type of order combines functions of both a market order and a limit order in that it only executes when a specified price is reached by the market but the security is often traded at an unknown price dictated by the market.

The Bottom Line

Investors may use two common types of orders to buy or sell stocks: market orders and limit orders. Market orders often execute right away at whatever price the market is charging. Limit orders won't trigger until the market price meets whatever price the investor wants. In some cases, limit orders won't fill because the market price may never meet the limit price specified.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Investor Bulletin: Understanding Order Types."

  2. "Types of Orders."

  3. Securities and Exchange Commission. "'Ask' Price."

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