How Do Prepaid Debit Cards Work and Are They Right For You?
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A prepaid debit card is an alternative to a bank account, and only lets you spend the money you load onto the card. Like debit cards, prepaid cards work at any merchant that accepts its payment network, such as Visa or Mastercard. They’re safer and more convenient than using cash.
Many prepaid debit cards don't require credit checks, so they're easy to get. If you're in one of the roughly 7 million U.S. households without access to a bank account, prepaid cards can be a solution to safely spending money without having to use a bank. Here's how you can get a prepaid debit card and how they work.
How do I buy a prepaid debit card?
You can buy a prepaid debit card from a retailer, bank, credit card company or other financial services provider. When you purchase one, your card funds are usually part of an account held by a bank or credit union. Note that they can also be called stored-value cards, pay-as-you-go cards or, more formally, general-purpose reloadable prepaid cards.
» Want to compare prepaid cards? See our list of the best prepaid debit cards
If you need to build credit or have been denied a bank account, a prepaid debit card might not be the best option: Secured credit cards help build credit, and if you can't get a regular checking account, try second chance checking. These accounts provide another shot at mainstream banking and its perks.
How prepaid debit cards work
Prepaid cards vary widely, but they tend to have these features in common:
Fees: You might have to pay for activating or getting a card, making deposits and using out-of-network ATMs. There’s often a monthly fee, which sometimes can be waived — by having direct deposits, for example. Some cards charge a fee for every purchase and ATM transaction.
Reload options: You can usually add money to a card in multiple ways, such as setting up direct deposits, loading cash at participating retailers and depositing checks at ATMs. Some cards also let you make online transfers or mobile check deposits from a smartphone.
ATM access: Some prepaid cards have access to free nationwide ATM networks, such as MoneyPass and Allpoint, or to branded bank networks for cards issued by banks.
Amount limits: Some cards restrict how much you can withdraw, reload or spend during a certain period, such as a day or month.
Protections: Reloadable prepaid cards have the liability and fraud protections required of debit cards by federal law. Some cards offer purchase protections, but it can be difficult to dispute unauthorized transactions or correct errors. One safeguard many cards have is federal deposit insurance, meaning your money is covered if an issuer becomes bankrupt.
Expiration dates: Prepaid cards have expiration dates. Funds on the cards shouldn’t expire but you’ll need to be reissued a card before it expires so you can continue using it. In a 2016 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, some consumers complained that they had money on their cards when they expired, but the issuer didn’t reissue cards that included those balances. If that happens to you, reach out to the prepaid card company to see if it can be resolved. If not, you can submit a complaint on the CFPB website.
Other features: Some prepaid cards offer check writing, online bill pay and multiple copies of a card for family members. A rare few even offer rewards such as cash back on purchases, similar to what rewards credit cards do.
» Think a debit card might be what you need? Read more about the basics of debit cards
Limitations of prepaid debit cards
Prepaid debit cards have major limitations compared with banking accounts and credit cards. Although they typically have online services, many prepaid cards lack standard banking services, such as a way to withdraw or reload cash for free. The money you load on a card probably won't earn interest, either.
If you only want to load cash for safekeeping, and don't plan to make many withdrawals, it may be better to find a high-rate savings account for your funds. Prepaid debit cards don’t affect your credit, so they won’t help build it, either.
No effect on credit: Because prepaid debit cards aren’t credit cards, you can’t build credit with them. For that, you’d want to consider a secured credit card.
Lack of bank services: Prepaid cards also don’t automatically have all the features you’d expect with a checking account, including access to an ATM or branch network, online or mobile banking, or bank services such as wire transfers and the ability to stop payments.
Past horror stories: Several prepaid cards have been affected by technological outages that lasted days or weeks. When RushCard’s parent company switched its payment processor to Mastercard in 2015, a technological glitch locked tens of thousands of users out of their RushCard accounts for days. The Walmart MoneyCard experienced an outage in 2016. Netspend settled with a federal regulator over claims that customers were blocked from accessing their accounts, providing refunds to those who were eligible.
If you want a checking account without monthly fees, consider our list of the best free checking accounts. There are also second chance checking accounts for people with bad credit or banking histories.
Whether used as a budgeting tool or as an alternative way to bank, prepaid debit cards can help you store and spend money.
Prepaid debit cards vs. credit and debit cards
Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences:
Prepaid debit cards — pay before: You load money onto the card via cash, checks, direct deposit or a transfer from another account before paying for transactions. No checking account is required.
Debit cards — pay now: You use money directly from a checking account when paying for purchases or withdrawing money from an ATM.
Credit cards — pay later: You borrow money from a bank when you use the card and pay the money back later.
» Ready to see your options? Check out our picks for the best prepaid debit cards
Prepaid debit card alternatives
If a prepaid debit card isn’t quite right for you, you can find a good alternative with a no-fee checking account. Though some checking accounts come with monthly costs, a growing number of online institutions offer accounts without monthly fees or minimum balance requirements, and there are options if you’ve had problems with bank accounts in the past. Check out these three accounts, including one that doesn’t require your ChexSystems record (ChexSystems is the reporting agency banks use to track customers who have mishandled previous bank accounts).
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