A prepaid debit card can take the place of a bank account or credit card if you don’t have one. Even people with bank accounts have started using these reloadable cards as budgeting tools.
The cards got negative attention last month when hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons’ RushCard left thousands of customers unable to use their accounts for more than a week. The fact is, as helpful as they can be, prepaid debit cards tend to have more fees than bank debit or credit cards, and their issuers don’t face the same strict federal regulations.
When looking for the best one, consider a card’s protections along with its fees, features and availability. Here are the prepaid debit cards that top our list in various categories.
Best overall prepaid card: Bluebird by American Express and Wal-Mart
Bluebird, a prepaid account offered through American Express and Wal-Mart, carries minimal fees while offering features suitable for banked and unbanked customers alike. You can use this card for free in stores and at over 24,000 MoneyPass ATMs; there is a $2.50 fee for using an out-of-network ATM. There are six ways to load money onto the card, including depositing cash at Wal-Mart stores and using a mobile check deposit service through the Bluebird app. This prepaid card also has a few other perks, such as free bill pay, check writing, purchase and fraud protections and the ability to have a master account linked to four “family” accounts.
The Bluebird card typically works where merchants accept American Express, which has a smaller network than Visa and MasterCard. To get the card, register for a Bluebird account free online or by mobile, or buy a setup kit at a local Wal-Mart store for $5. No credit check is required to apply, and there’s no monthly fee.
Best prepaid card for cash reloading: American Express Serve Free Reloads
Although similar in its features and protections to the Bluebird, the American Express Serve Free Reloads prepaid card stands out as more cash-friendly. You can load your card with cash for free at over 45,000 locations nationwide, including Rite Aid, Wal-Mart and participating 7-Eleven stores. The trade-off is a $4.95 monthly fee, except in Texas, New York and Vermont, where there is no fee. This prepaid card also has mobile check deposit and bill pay capabilities, and allows for up to four “subaccounts” linked to a master account. You can buy this card at select retailers for up to $3.95 or order it online for free. Like other American Express prepaid cards, no credit check is required.
Best prepaid cards for ATMs
Wal-Mart MoneyCard Preferred
Because of its ATM network availability and low fees, the Wal-Mart MoneyCard is especially good for customers who rely on ATMs. The card lets you use any of the 24,000 or more MoneyPass ATM locations nationwide for free. If you use an ATM outside that network, you must pay $2 for a withdrawal, which is slightly cheaper than what many other prepaid cards charge.
Of the four types of Wal-Mart MoneyCard, the preferred plan costs $4 to buy but provides free cash reloads in Wal-Mart stores as well as free reloads by check and direct deposit. You can get its $3 monthly service fee waived by enrolling in direct deposit for payroll or government benefits or by loading up to $500 each month. No credit check is necessary.
American Express Serve
The other standout card in this category is American Express’s basic Serve card, which also has low fees and offers free use of the MoneyPass ATM network. It costs $2.50 to withdraw or check a balance at a non-MoneyPass ATM. There’s a $1 monthly service charge, which can be waived by having a direct deposit of $500 or more each month, like Wal-Mart’s card. Despite this cheaper monthly fee, cash reloading costs up to $3.95 at participating stores. Fraud and purchase protection come with this card, and no credit check is required.
Best prepaid cards for banked customers
While the prepaid debit cards above are great for both banked and unbanked customers, banked customers have more resources. They can make online transfers from bank accounts, relying less on cash reloading and thus avoiding those fees. Because banked prepaid customers tend to be in a higher income bracket, according to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts report, they may also be in a better position to consider rewards in addition to basic features and fees.
Chase’s prepaid card can be a great spending and budgeting tool because there are no overdraft fees. Plus, if you try spending more than you have in your account, the purchase won’t go through. This card carries no purchase fees or Chase ATM fees, lets you spend up to $3,000 daily and works virtually wherever Visa is accepted. It also provides multiple ways to load money, including direct deposit, cash, checks and transfers from another Chase account. When you make purchases, the card protects you from fraud. Although you can deposit checks, you can’t write them. But if you’re comfortable online, the card will let you use online bill pay and transfer funds to other Chase accounts, starting mid-November.
Despite its perks, the card may not be best for everyone. For one, there is a monthly service fee of $4.95. Plus, if you’re not near one of the bank’s 5,300 branches or 15,500 ATMs, it may be difficult to avoid ATM fees. You also need to visit a Chase branch to open this card, and there is a credit check when you apply, meaning that approval is not guaranteed. Because of this, the Chase Liquid may be easier to get if you have a stable financial history.
American Express Serve Cash Back
This American Express Serve card lets you earn 1% cash back when you make purchases online or in stores, making it one of the first prepaid cards with such an offer. Coupled with the protections and features it shares with other Serve cards, such as online bill pay and mobile check deposits, the Cash Back can be a good choice for someone who wants a bit more out of a prepaid card.
The rewards might not always outweigh the costs, though. There is a monthly fee of $5.95 in most states, which comes to $71.40 per year. Plus, if you need to deposit cash and don’t have a checking account, putting cash on this card can cost you up to $3.95 each time. Banked customers can link the Cash Back card to a bank account and transfer money for free. To see how this card compares to the Wal-Mart MoneyCard Preferred, check out this review.
What about the others?
As you consider the best prepaid card for you, some factors may be more important than others. Our list excludes some popular prepaid cards such as ACE Elite, Mango, RushCard and some Green Dot prepaid cards. Although these cards generally have nationwide availability and don’t require credit checks, they tend to offer fewer reload options and protections. They also generally charge at least one regular transaction fee that cannot be avoided, such as fees for ATM withdrawals or cash reloads.
We looked at over 40 reloadable prepaid debit cards offered by some of the biggest banks, credit unions and credit card and prepaid debit card issuers. The cards that made this list had the best combination of features, protections, nationwide availability, flexibility in reloading methods, and low fees, especially for purchase and ATM transactions. All card issuers in this roundup either insure customers’ money through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. or partner with a bank that does.
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