New American Express Serve: the Best Prepaid Debit Card Around?

amex serve

by on October 8, 2013

American Express announced new changes to its Serve prepaid card that make it one of the best options out there, period. We’ll break down the changes to the Amex Serve, compare it to other options and explain why the Serve might just be the best option for the underbanked.

What’s new with the Serve?

The new Amex Serve prepaid card cut its fees drastically. Most noticeably, they’ve removed many of the so-called hidden costs of prepaid cards: those not charged by the issuer, and therefore aren’t listed on fee schedules, but still substantially drive up the cost for consumers. The primary hidden fees are ATM surcharges and third-party cash load fees. Amex has nixed those charges by allowing surcharge-free withdrawals from the MoneyPass ATM network and free cash loads in CVS and 7-11 locations. This is key for the underbanked, who often struggle to find no-cost ways to load and access their cash.

Here’s the updated fee schedule for the Amex Serve:

  • $0 to purchase online or at select retailers through 2013, $2.95 after December 31st, 2013
  • $1 monthly fee, except in NY, TX and VT; waived if you direct deposit or load $500 in the previous month
  • $2 out-of-network ATM withdrawal fee
  • 2.7% foreign transaction fee

It will also boast a few new features:

  • Direct deposit
  • Mobile check deposit (available later this year)
  • FDIC insurance
  • A linked savings account, called Reserve (get it? Reserve? I thought it was cute) which allows you to set up one-time or recurring transfers from your Serve account and encourages saving
  • No-fee withdrawals from MoneyPass ATMs
  • No-fee cash loads at CVS and 7-11 locations, using the Vanilla Reload Network
  • Online or mobile bill payments

The new fee structure makes the Amex card much more consumer-friendly. I myself have the Bluebird (I mostly use it for mobile check deposits, because my credit union isn’t very tech-savvy), which comes with a $2 ATM withdrawal fee if you don’t use direct deposit. If I considered the Bluebird worthwhile, I’d say the Serve is even better.

The Serve isn’t perfect, and the primary reason is in its name. American Express isn’t as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard, so someone who relies on it for their one and only source of plastic may find themselves turned down every so often. Other than that, though, it’s a great option for prepaid.

The Serve compared

The fee schedule listed above doesn’t quite capture how the Serve compares to the rest of the market. Here’s a breakdown most-incurred fees, comparing the Serve to the average of the 58 cards in our database:

Fee Amex Serve Cards with Monthly Fee Cards with No Monthly Fee
Card purchase $0 online
$0 in stores through 2013
$2.95 after December 31st
$3.60 $3.02
Monthly fee $1, waived with direct deposit or $500 monthly load $6.16 $0
Cash reload (third-party fee) $0 $3.62 $3.35
ATM withdrawal* $0 $2.83 $2.88
ATM balance inquiry* $0 $1.84 $1.65
PIN purchase $0 $0.14 $0.50
Signature purchase $0 $0 $0.39
Foreign transaction fee 2.70% 2.26% 1.70%

*If the card does not have a surcharge-free ATM network, we added an estimated $2 surcharge to the cost of the withdrawal. This estimate better reflects how much it costs to the consumer, rather than reflecting how much the issuer charges.

I’m actually really impressed with American Express for taking aim at the shrouded third-party fees. Most of the time, when prepaid debit issuers complain that our fee estimates for their cards are wrong, they say that they don’t charge cash load or ATM surcharge fees. My argument to them is that it doesn’t matter who charges the fee – the consumer only cares about the cost to them. I’ll give them credit for addressing a fee that most consumers don’t see until after they purchase the card.

Based on our usage estimates, the Amex Serve is the cheapest prepaid card out there, even beating out the relatively affordable, $3-a-month US Bank Convenient Cash.

We have many complaints about the prepaid debit industry, but they typically boil down to this: They’re usually high-cost, and they often don’t encourage people to save in the same way a savings-checking account combo can. But the Amex Serve addresses both of those concerns, offering a linked savings account as well as a relatively affordable product.

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  • Don J.

    I got it from signing up for Isis at AT&T also got a free $50 to start. Not Bad so far, I use it for a budgeting tool. I load money through my debit card and it’s immediately accessible. No downsides as of yet.