Day trading has become incredibly competitive with the surge of high-speed trading and algorithmic trading taking place in the markets. The good news is that many online brokers have enabled paper trading accounts to help traders hone their skills before committing any real capital.

Key Takeaways

  • If you're thinking about becoming a day trader, it makes sense to get some realistic practice in first to test the waters.
  • Paper trading is a way to simulate trading strategies and see how they would have paid off, or not, in reality.
  • Online brokerage platforms increasingly allow sophisticated paper trading abilities through demo accounts or as a feature for its existing customers.

What Is Paper Trading?

Paper trading is another term for simulated trading, whereby individuals can buy and sell securities without risking real money. While it’s possible to backtest trading strategies, traders may be tempted to use past information to make current trades—known as the look-ahead bias—while the wrong backtesting dataset could involve a survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the tendency to view the performance of existing funds in the market as a representative sample.

Investors may be able to simulate trading with a simple spreadsheet or even pen-and-paper, but day traders would have quite a difficult time recording hundreds or thousands of transactions per day by hand and calculating their gains and losses. Fortunately, many online brokers and some financial publications offer paper trading accounts for individuals to practice with before committing real capital to the market. This allows them to test out strategies and practice using the software itself.

Setting Up a Day Trading Account

Day traders should ideally paper trade with the same day trading broker they plan to use for their live account since it will be as close to reality as possible.

As you look for the best place where to practice your trades, consider paper trading platforms that offer live market feeds before you start with real capital. This is important because you'll want to be able to trade without delayed feeds or processing orders.

Among the most popular brokers are Interactive Brokers and TradeStation, which both have fully-featured simulators that even work using their automated trading rules. Day traders using these platforms will need to open an account to use the simulator, which may mean depositing the minimum funding requirements. The good news is that traders can use the simulator before making live trades with their capital.

Online brokers such as Fidelity and TD Ameritrade also offer clients paper trade accounts. Investopedia provides a free stock simulator that can be used for paper trading and for those looking to get started with a day trading account, Investopedia compiled a list of the best stock brokers for day trading to make the process easier. 

It’s important to keep in mind there are still some differences between simulated and live trading. On a technical level, simulators may not account for slippage, spreads or commissions which can have a significant impact on day trading returns. On a psychological level, traders may have an easier time adhering to trading system rules without real money on the line—particularly when the trading system isn’t performing well.

Paper Trading Tips

Day trading practice depends largely on the strategy that’s being used to trade. For example, some day traders are focused on "feel" and must rely on paper trading accounts alone, while others use automated trading systems and may backtest hundreds of systems before paper trading only the most promising ones. Traders should choose the best broker platform for their needs based on their trading preferences and paper trade on those accounts.

When paper trading, it’s important to keep an accurate record of trading performance and track the strategy over a long enough time horizon. Some strategies may only work in bull markets, which means traders can be caught off-guard when a bear market comes along. It’s important to test enough securities in a variety of market conditions in order to ensure their strategies hold up successfully and generate the highest risk-adjusted returns.

Finally, paper trading isn’t a one-time-only endeavor. Day traders should regularly use paper trading features on their brokerage accounts to test new and experimental strategies to try their hand in trading markets. Simple mistakes can be incredibly costly for day traders who risk tens of thousands of dollars in hundreds of trades per day. This makes paper trading an integral part of long-term success.

Pros of Paper Trading

Starting out with a paper trading account can help shorten your learning curve. But there are other benefits beyond just educating yourself. First, you have no risk. Because you're not using real money, you don't lose anything. You can analyze what mistakes you've made and help create a winning strategy. This also helps you build your confidence, allows you to practice techniques and strategies needed to be a successful day trader including profit or loss taking and pre-market preparation. Finally, it takes the stress out of trading. You can concentrate on your strategies in a relaxed environment and take the emotion out of trading.

Cons of Paper Trading

While paper trading will help give you the practice you need, there are a few downfalls. Because it doesn't use real money, you don't get an idea of how fees and commissions factor into your trades. These simulators also don't accurately reflect the reality of the markets, with the lows and highs and the emotion that goes along with trading. Thus, it's important to remember that this is a simulated environment as you get your trading skills in check.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you're a first-time investor, take as much time as you can paper trading before you jump ship and begin live trading. Be sure to explore different strategies and new ideas so you can get comfortable. The idea behind using simulators is for you to get comfortable and cut down on your learning curve.

Once you feel as though you've mastered all that you can be using a simulator, try trading with a stock that has had a predictable run—with a lower price and a consistent response to market conditions. If you start trading with a highly volatile stock, it may be a challenge. But if you choose something safer, you can practice what you've learned without taking on too much risk.

The Bottom Line

Day traders face intense competition when it comes to successfully identifying and executing trade opportunities. Fortunately, most online brokers offer paper trading functionality that empowers day traders to practice their skills before committing real capital. Traders should take advantage of these features to prevent making costly mistakes and maximize their long-term risk-adjusted returns and performance.