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What Is a Cash Advance?

A cash advance is a short-term cash loan — an expensive one — taken against the credit line on your credit card.
Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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What Is a Cash Advance?-story

A cash advance allows you to use your credit card to get a short-term cash loan at a bank or ATM. Unlike a cash withdrawal from a bank account, a cash advance has to be paid back — just like anything else you put on your credit card. Think of it as using your credit card to “buy” cash rather than goods or services.

It’s convenient, but it’s quite expensive.

How (and why) do you get a cash advance?

If you carry only credit cards for day-to-day spending, you could find yourself in a pinch when confronted with a cash-only situation, such as buying lunch from a street vendor, veggies at a farmers market or a sandwich at a mom-and-pop deli. In that case, a cash advance might be tempting. Some people also turn to credit card cash advances when they need paper money but don’t have enough in their bank account.

If your credit card has a PIN, you can get cash advances directly from an ATM. Otherwise, you can take your card to a bank that offers advances through your card’s payment network, such as Mastercard or Visa. You’ll have to show ID.

Be aware that most credit card companies won’t allow you to take your entire credit line in the form of a cash advance. For most people, cash advances are capped at a few hundred dollars. This means that you can’t rely on your credit card to provide you with very much cash in the event of an emergency.

Why cash advances are expensive

Getting a cash advance is easy, but it’s one the costliest ways to get your hands on some cash. This is because cash advances can come with a variety of expenses:

Getting a cash advance is easy, but it’s one of the costliest ways to get your hands on some cash.

  • Cash advance fees. These are imposed by your card issuer. Some cards charge a flat fee per cash advance, say $5 or $10. Others charge a percentage of the amount advanced — often as much as 5%. Sometimes it’s a percentage with a minimum dollar amount — such as 3% or $10, whichever is greater.
  • ATM or bank fees. These are imposed by the financial institution that handles the transaction — the owner of the ATM or the bank where you get your advance.
  • Interest. This can be costly in two ways. First, the interest rate that a credit card charges on cash advances is often much higher than the rate charged on purchases. Second, interest on cash advances usually starts accruing immediately. There’s no grace period like you can get with purchases.

» MORE: How to lower your credit card’s APR 

Given the costs associated with taking a cash advance, you should take it as a sign that you’re in dire financial straits if you’re considering one. Cash advances should be used only in extreme emergencies. If you find yourself relying on them, it’s time to take a hard look at your finances — and make some changes.

» MORE: Preventing a card from being used for cash advances

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Alternatives to cash advances

If you do find yourself facing a cash crisis and you’re not sure where to turn, consider the options below. None is ideal, but they may end up costing less than a cash advance in the long run:

Even a checking account overdraft might save you money over a cash advance in the long run.

  • A personal loan. This will be expensive if your credit isn’t great, but the interest charges and terms will still be more favorable than a cash advance. (Learn more about personal loans.)
  • Borrowing money from friends or family. This might be awkward, but the savings will be worth it.
  • Overdrawing your checking account. Instead of taking a cash advance at an ATM, consider overdrawing your checking account with your debit card. You’ll face a fee, but you won’t have to worry about paying interest.

In summary, taking a cash advance on your credit card means taking on a very expensive short-term loan. This is almost never a good idea, so consider all other options before using a cash advance. It’s also important to take the fact that you’re thinking about using a cash advance as a sign that your finances need some fine-tuning. You don’t want to end up in this situation again!

Updated Oct. 24, 2017.