Market Order vs. Limit Order: An Overview

When an investor places an order to buy or sell a stock, there are two fundamental execution options:

  1. Place the order "at the market": Market orders are transactions meant to execute as quickly as possible at the current market price.
  2. Place the order "at the limit": Limit orders set the maximum or minimum price at which you are willing to buy or sell.

Buying stock is a bit like buying a car. With a car, you can pay the dealer’s sticker price and get the car. Or 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.
1:28

Understanding Market Orders And Limit Orders

Market Orders

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.

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.

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.

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.

Limit Orders

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.

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 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.

Let’s look at an 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. If at some point during the trading day, XYZ drops to the lower price or below, the order will be triggered and the investor will have bought XYZ at the specified preset limit order price or less. Of course, this also means that if, at the end of the trading day, XYZ doesn't go as low as the investor's set limit order, the order will be unfilled.

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.

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.

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.

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.