Balance transfers are a somewhat controversial topic in the world of credit repair and debt payoff.
They can be a wonderful tool for helping consumers get out of credit card debt without being crushed by sky-high interest rates. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, they can also enable you to get yourself even deeper into debt than you were before.
If you’re interested in learning more about how balance transfers work, the pros and cons of balance transfers, and whether or not one could benefit your credit, then look no further: this article contains everything you need to know about balance transfers.
A balance transfer is exactly what it sounds like: it is the process of transferring a balance from one credit card to another, typically one with a lower interest rate. By transferring your balance from a higher-interest card to a lower-interest card, you can save money on interest while paying down your debt.
Essentially, it’s like using the lower-interest credit card to pay off the higher-interest card.
If you carry a credit card balance from time to time, you may have received balance transfer offers in the mail from various credit card issuers, eager for you to apply for their credit card and transfer your debt to it. And you may have wondered, what’s in it for the banks? Why do they want to take on debt that you have with another bank?
A balance transfer is a way for a bank to get you—and your debt—to switch over to them from a competitor. To incentivize you to do this, they may offer a great deal on your balance transfer, such as 0% interest on your balance for 18 months.
Of course, the bank doesn’t make any money when you are not paying interest, so what are they gaining from this?
Firstly, the banks charge a small fee for each balance transfer (typically around 3% – 5%; more on this below). They also earn money on transaction fees when you swipe your card if you make purchases with the new card.
In addition, the bank is hoping that they will eventually be able to make money off of you in one or more of these scenarios:
If you make any of the above mistakes, then your account suddenly becomes very profitable for the bank instead of interest-free credit for you.
The banks know that a certain percentage of customers will ultimately end up generating profit for them, which means that offering balance transfers is an effective marketing tool even if some customers “beat the system” by paying off their entire balance without paying a cent of interest.
If you’re smart about making a plan to avoid potential pitfalls, you may be able to save yourself a lot of money and pay down your debt faster by using a balance transfer to your advantage.
A balance transfer credit card is a credit card that has terms that were specifically designed to encourage customers to transfer a balance to the card. It can still be used for purchases, just like a normal credit card (although that’s usually not a good idea, as we’ll explain later on), but its primary purpose is for balance transfers.
A good balance transfer credit card is any card that offers a low balance transfer fee and an introductory period during which there is a low APR or, ideally, no interest charged at all.
In addition, in the interest of minimizing costs, you’ll probably want to look for cards that do not charge an annual fee.
To summarize, the perfect balance transfer credit card would ideally have the following three things:
However, it is more typical to find cards that have a combination of two out of the three. For example, you might apply for a balance transfer card that has a 0% APR for 18 months and no annual fee but a 3% balance transfer fee.
Some balance transfer credit cards may also double as reward cards that offer cash back or rewards points on purchases. While this might be a nice feature to have down the road, it’s best to avoid making purchases on your new balance transfer card while you pay off the balance. The promotional balance transfer APR usually doesn’t apply to purchases, which means they will begin to accumulate interest at the regular rate immediately.
Plus, the credit card company can choose to apply your payments first to the balance you transferred, instead of new purchases, so it’s possible that interest on those charges could keep racking up until you are finished paying off your entire balance transfer.
For specific credit cards that are good for balance transfers, you can browse online resources, such as Credit Karma’s list of the best balance transfer cards. Creditcards.com and NerdWallet have similar roundups of their favorite balance transfer cards.
Compare and contrast the terms for each card you are interested in to find the best balance transfer deal. Many resources also estimate what credit score range you may need in order to get approved for different cards.
You don’t necessarily have to apply for a new credit card in order to transfer a balance—you may already have a credit card that you could use for a balance transfer. Sometimes banks will offer balance transfer promotions with 0% APR to their existing customers, so keep an eye out for any balance transfer deals from your credit card issuers.
You could even consider potentially transferring a balance to another credit card without any sort of promotional offer if it already has a significantly lower interest rate.
When you apply for a new balance transfer credit card or accept a promotional balance transfer offer with an existing card, you provide information about the account you want to transfer a balance from.
Alternatively, if you are applying for a new card, you could wait and see what credit limit you are approved for first, and then contact the issuer of your new card to set up a balance transfer.
Once you have been approved for the new card (if applicable) and submitted your balance transfer information, the issuer of the card you are transferring a balance to will contact the other bank in order to pay your balance.
It may take a few weeks for the transfer to be completed. In the meantime, you will need to keep making payments on your existing account as usual so that you don’t miss a payment while waiting for the balance to be transferred. Once the transfer has gone through, then you can start making payments toward the new account.
Most credit card issuers will charge a fee for conducting a balance transfer. This fee is a certain percentage of the balance you are transferring. Typically, balance transfer fees range from 3% to 5%. They may also have a minimum fee of around $5 to $10 that is assessed for smaller balances.
For example, if you want to transfer $5,000 and the balance transfer fee is 5%, then you would be charged $250 for the balance transfer ($5,000 x 0.05 = $250).
You pay the balance transfer fee to the bank that provides the credit card that you are transferring the balance to. The bank will simply add the fee to your balance. In the above example, when your balance transfer is complete, you would end up with a balance of $5,250 on the account.
If you regularly carry a balance on your credit cards from month to month, then you may have seen balance transfer checks before. Credit card issuers often send them in the mail along with a promotional balance transfer offer.
Balance transfer checks are checks that the issuer of your balance transfer credit card may supply to you which you can then use to pay off the balance that you want to transfer from another card. To do so, you would simply make out the check to the credit card company you want to pay for the amount you want to transfer.
Some banks may allow you to write the checks to yourself and deposit the money directly into your bank account, which you can then use to pay another credit card company. If this option is available to you, before rushing out and cashing the checks in your name, first check to see whether the credit card issuer will consider it a cash advance, in which case you would likely get charged a cash advance fee as well as a higher interest rate on the balance.
While using balance transfer checks is one way to complete a balance transfer, it is often easier and faster to complete the process online or over the phone.
If you apply for a balance transfer card online, it is likely that you will have the chance to provide the account information for the account you’d like to transfer a balance from so that your new credit card company can make the payment for you.
Alternatively, you can call your new credit card issuer and provide the necessary information to complete the balance transfer over the phone.
You can usually transfer a balance between most banks, and you can sometimes even transfer other types of balances, such as installment loan debt, to a credit card.
Typically, however, credit card issuers will not allow you to transfer balances between different credit cards you have with the same issuer, including branded cards that are issued by the same bank.
For example, if you have two different credit cards with Chase, you likely wouldn’t be able to transfer a balance from one to the other. However, you could transfer your balance from your Chase card to, say, a Bank of America or Discover credit card.
The reason for this is that the banks are trying to use balance transfers as an incentive to gain new customers, which equate to new sources of revenue. An existing customer transferring a balance between two cards with the same bank doesn’t create any profit for the bank, so they have nothing to gain by offering balance transfers between their own credit cards held by current customers.
Other types of debt that you may be able to transfer to a balance transfer credit card include student loans, personal loans, home equity loans, and auto loans. NerdWallet has a detailed list of the types of transfers that are accepted by several major credit card issuers.
Since installment loans typically have significantly lower interest rates than credit cards, it usually only makes sense to transfer installment debt to a credit card if you are confident in your ability to pay it off while you still have 0% interest on balance transfers.
When you get approved for a balance transfer credit card, the card issuer will assign you a credit limit, which is the maximum amount of credit that you can carry on the card. Often, the amount that is available for balance transfers may either be the same as your total credit limit, meaning you can use your entire credit limit for balance transfers.
Other times, the credit card company may impose a separate balance transfer credit limit, which is the maximum amount of credit that you can use for balance transfers.
The balance transfer credit limit is not an additional amount that can be added on top of the total credit limit; rather, it is a specific portion of your total credit limit that can be used for transfers.
For example, if you get approved for a card that has a $5000 credit limit and a $4,000 credit limit, that means you can use $4,000 of the $5,000 of available credit for balance transfers. If you use the full balance transfer credit limit, after that, there will be $1,000 of your credit limit remaining, which will only be available for purchases.
It’s important to remember that balance transfer fees count toward your credit limit, so unless you find a card with no balance transfer fees, you won’t be able to transfer the full amount of your credit limit.
Therefore, you should calculate the total amount of the fees you will be charged before transferring to make sure you are staying below your credit limit. As an example, if your balance transfer credit limit is $10,000 and the balance transfer fee is 3%, that means you should transfer a balance of no more than $9,700 to leave room in your credit limit for the $300 fee ($10,000 x 0.03 = $300).
When it comes to the number of balance transfers allowed on one card, it depends on the policy of your balance transfer card issuer. For example, they may limit you to a maximum of three balance transfers when applying for the card, in addition to keeping the total amount transferred under your balance transfer credit limit.
More generally, in theory, you could do as many balance transfers as you like. In reality, of course, transferring a balance several times isn’t the best idea.
Having a lot of balance transfers on your record might lead creditors to assume that you don’t intend to or aren’t able to pay back your credit card debt quickly and that you are just transferring your debt between different credit cards to avoid paying interest, according to Discover.
Eventually, creditors might stop approving you for balance transfer cards, leaving you with a high interest rate when your promotional APR expires.
Plus, transferring a balance multiple times before paying it off might make you feel like you are making progress, when you are really just moving your debt around from one card to another without implementing an effective plan to pay it off.
Instead of falling into a cycle of endless balance transfers, which won’t help you pay off your debt, make sure you have stopped the cycle of spending that may have gotten you into debt in the first place and ask yourself whether you can create a plan to feasibly pay off your debt after your first balance transfer.
If you are wondering whether the account that you transferred a balance out of will be closed after the balance transfer is complete, rest assured that it will not. The only thing that will happen is the balance of that account will decrease by the amount of the transfer.
Closing your credit card account is up to you. If you would like to close your account once there is no longer a balance on it, then you can contact your credit card issuer and request for them to close your account. You may want to close the account if it has an annual fee or if you think that having no balance on the account might encourage you to max it out again.
However, unless you have a strong reason to close the account, such as the examples above, then it is typically recommended that you leave the account open.
As you may know from our article on how closed accounts affect your credit, the main reason that keeping accounts open is preferable is that they can only help your revolving credit utilization ratio when they are open. By closing an account, you take away the credit limit of that account from your utilization ratio, thus increasing your overall credit utilization.
So if you want to help out your credit score by maintaining a low credit utilization ratio, consider keeping the account open after the balance transfer. You don’t have to spend a lot on the card to keep it open.
Instead, you can charge something small every few months or use it for a recurring subscription service charge and simply pay it off when the bill is due. Even better, set up automatic bill pay so you don’t have to worry about remembering to pay the bill, which is a great credit hack!
To determine the cost of a balance transfer, all you have to do is simply multiply the amount of debt that you want to transfer by the balance transfer fee that your credit card issuer will charge.
For example, if you plan to transfer a balance of $8,000 and the balance transfer fee that will be assessed is 5%, then the fee associated with your balance transfer will cost you $400 ($8,000 x 0.05 = $400).
This amount would be added to the balance of the account that you are transferring to for a total new balance of $8,400.
However, the cost of a balance transfer may not be limited to the balance transfer fee. It is important to consider the interest that will be charged on your balance transfer as well.
If you can take advantage of a promotional 0% interest rate, then, obviously, you do not have to worry about interest charges as long as you pay off the balance by the end of the promotional period.
On the other hand, if you think you do not think that you will have finished paying off the balance by the end of the promotional period, then you should take into account the interest that will be applied once the time is up.
Some balance transfer deals may offer a low interest rate for a longer period of time rather than a 0% APR. If this is the case for you, then you might want to try out a credit card repayment calculator, such as this one from Credit Karma, to help you determine how much you could end up paying in interest.
A balance transfer may very well save you a significant amount of money, but it’s not necessarily a guarantee. As with most things in the world of credit, the potential costs and benefits depend on your individual situation and must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
If you are a typical consumer who has a few thousand dollars of credit card debt, then most of the time, it is probably fair to assume that a balance transfer could save you money if done correctly. That’s because many credit cards today have interest rates of 15%-20% and often even higher, up to nearly 25%!
If you are paying that much in interest on any significant amount of credit card debt, then you could almost certainly save money by finding a balance transfer deal with a low interest rate and a low balance transfer fee.
However, it’s still important to crunch the numbers to make sure that a balance transfer is an option that makes sense for you. In order to easily determine whether a balance transfer could save you some money, you can use a balance transfer calculator.
Alternatively, if you’d rather do the math yourself, you can again use the credit card repayment calculator. Follow the steps below:
One more important thing to consider when assessing the costs and benefits of a balance transfer is whether you will be charged retroactive interest if you cannot pay off the full balance by the end of the introductory low-interest period.
A retroactive interest rate increase means that you can be charged a higher interest rate on the balance you already transferred to the account in the past, back when you had a lower interest rate.
In other words, not only will you be charged interest on the balance that has not yet been paid, but you will also have to pay the higher interest rate “backdated” to the date you first transferred the balance—and on the original balance amount.
While it is rare for most major credit card issuers to charge retroactive interest, also called deferred interest, many retail store cards and some co-branded credit cards often do.
Although the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (also known as the CARD Act) of 2009 banned banks from arbitrarily increasing credit card interest rates, retroactive rate hikes are still allowed if the contract you signed with your bank permits it.
Make sure to check the terms of your balance transfer card carefully so that you don’t get hit with a ton of surprise interest charges down the road. In addition, be aware that the banks are legally required to give you a minimum of six months at the introductory rate before they are allowed to ramp up the interest rate on your account.
In most situations, it is likely that a balance transfer can be beneficial to your credit, especially if you go the route of opening a new credit card to which you can transfer your balance.
If you open a new balance transfer credit card, this can help your credit by adding available credit to your credit profile and thereby decreasing your overall utilization rate.
Opening a new account does have some drawbacks for your credit, such as the small negative impact of the hard inquiry and the reduction in your average age of accounts. These factors may hurt your score slightly. However, the benefit to your credit utilization will likely outweigh these factors, especially over time, as the impact of the inquiry diminishes and as you keep paying down your balance.
The other balance transfer scenario is when you do not open a new balance transfer credit card, but rather, you transfer a balance between credit cards that you already own.
In this case, there is not as much potential to boost your credit score because you are not adding any additional available credit, which means your overall utilization ratio will stay the same. However, you may still be able to benefit by manipulating your individual utilization ratios.
As you know from our article about the difference between individual and overall utilization ratios, your individual utilization ratios can often be even more important than your overall utilization ratio. For this reason, if you max out even one credit card, that can have a significant impact on your credit.
If you can use a balance transfer to adjust your individual utilization ratios to more ideal levels, then this could improve your credit score. Let’s consider an example to help illustrate how this would work.
Example: Credit Card A has a $1,000 credit limit and is maxed out with a $1,000 balance, so it has an individual utilization ratio of 100%. Credit Card B has a $5,000 limit and no balance, so its utilization ratio is 0%.
What happens if we transfer the $1,000 balance from Card A to Card B?
Card A will then have a $0 balance and 0% utilization ratio, while Card B will then have a $1,000 balance and a 20% utilization ratio ($1,000 balance / $5,000 credit limit x 100% = 20% utilization).
Before the balance transfer, one of the accounts had a $0 balance and the other was completely maxed out. After the balance transfer, one account again has a $0 balance, but the other is only at 20% utilization, which is certainly a lot better than 100% utilization!
This example shows how it’s possible to use a balance transfer to improve the credit utilization portion of your credit score without actually changing the amount of debt you have.
If you’re considering trying this strategy, use our tradeline calculator to help you calculate both your individual and overall utilization ratios so that you can decide whether a balance transfer could help your credit utilization.
Generally, good or excellent credit is needed in order to qualify for the best balance transfer offers, such as a long 0% APR introductory period and/or no balance transfer fees.
According to NerdWallet, consumers who have good credit (i.e. a 690 or higher FICO score) might be able to qualify for a balance transfer card with an introductory 0% APR for a period of 12 to 18 months. Some cards may offer even longer introductory periods of up to 21 months.
In addition to having a high credit score, credit card issuers also want to see that you’re not already maxed out on all of your credit cards, which indicates to them that you are desperate for credit and may not be able to pay back all of your debt obligations.
Money Under 30 says that you’re most likely to get approved for a balance transfer card if you can get your overall revolving utilization ratio under 50%. Having at least a few years of credit age under your belt is also a good sign to lenders.
If you have fair credit (580 – 669 FICO score), then it will be more difficult to get a good balance transfer card. You may be able to qualify for a balance card transfer that doesn’t have all the perks of a balance transfer card for excellent credit. For example, it may have a shorter introductory period, a higher APR, or a higher balance transfer fee.
In this case, it’s even more important to do the math before going through with your balance transfer in order to make sure it will still save you money overall despite the fees.
Consumers who have a bad credit score are unlikely to qualify for a balance transfer credit card. Lenders don’t want to take on your debt if they think you are not likely to pay it back, which is what a low credit score indicates. However, there are other things you can do to reduce your credit card debt even if you have bad credit.
If you’re not able to get approved for a new balance transfer credit card, don’t give up hope on paying off your debt. There are still a few options that may be a good fit for you.
Check your existing roster of credit cards and see if any of them 1) have a lower interest rate than what you’re currently paying on your balance and 2) have enough available credit for a balance transfer. If the answer to both questions is yes, then it might be worth transferring your balance to the lower-interest card. However, you should always run the numbers first to be sure.
Although the offers won’t be as appealing as those for excellent credit, it may be possible to qualify for a secured credit card with a lower introductory balance transfer APR than the rate you’re paying now. Keep in mind that you will need to have some cash on hand for the security deposit required for a secured credit card.
As you may recall from our article about “The Fastest Ways to Build Credit,” getting a co-signer with good credit can help you get approved for credit that you might have trouble qualifying for on your own.
If you can find a co-signer willing to accept responsibility for the debt if you cannot repay it, then you may have better chances of getting approved for a decent balance transfer card.
Another option for paying down debt with fair credit or bad credit is to apply for a personal loan and use the funds to pay off your credit cards, which is known as a debt consolidation loan. A debt consolidation loan allows you to combine all of your debt into one loan with one monthly payment and a lower interest rate.
However, personal loans for bad credit and fair credit can come with high interest rates and fees, so be sure to read the terms carefully before committing and steer clear of predatory lenders. In addition, watch out for loans that have prepayment penalties, especially if you know you’ll want to try to pay off your loan early.
One of the easiest credit hacks that can help save you money on interest and pay down your credit card debt faster is to call your credit card issuer and simply ask them for a lower interest rate. Make your case by explaining why you’ve been a good customer and why you feel that they should lower your rate.
Most people who do this are successful in getting a lower interest rate, so why not give it a try? One phone call could save you a significant amount of money on interest charges and help reduce your credit card debt burden.
In extreme cases of credit card debt, it may be necessary to consider working with a credit counseling organization to create a debt management plan. With this option, a credit counselor can help you outline a plan to repay your debt and negotiate with your creditors on your behalf to lower your monthly payments and interest rate.
Hopefully, you can use one or more of the above strategies to help make a dent in your debt repayment, but it’s also important to keep focusing on improving your credit over time. With time, patience, and good credit management, you may be able to qualify for a good balance transfer card in the future.
For more information on how to improve your credit score, visit the Credit Repair & Credit Score Information section of our Knowledge Center, where you can find many helpful articles such as “How to Increase Your Credit Limit,” “The Fastest Ways to Build Credit,” and “How to Get an 850 Credit Score.”
A balance transfer is a good idea when you have determined that it will save you money in the long term and when you have a plan to pay off your balance in the time allotted.
Generally, balance transfers may be a viable option for those with less than $15,000 in debt who can also afford to repay the balance in 21 months or fewer, according to NerdWallet.
On the other hand, a balance transfer may not make sense if you don’t have very much debt or if the interest rate you are currently paying is already fairly low. In these cases, it may not be worth paying the balance transfer fee just to save a little bit of money on interest.
Another important step in deciding whether a balance transfer would be a smart financial move for you is to think about your own psychology and behavior patterns. If you think that having extra credit available to you as a result of a balance transfer may tempt you to spend even more on your credit cards, then a balance transfer may ultimately do more harm than good.
If you’ve decided that a balance transfer might be a good debt repayment strategy for you, follow these tips to avoid paying interest and ensure that your balance transfer actually saves money in the end.
Choose a card that’s going to be a good fit for you. Look for one with no annual fee, a long 0% APR introductory period, and low balance transfer fees. Read the terms of the card closely and watch out for contracts that allow for retroactive or deferred interest charges.
Instead of just assuming a balance transfer is always a good idea, you need to do the math first to ensure that you’ll actually come out ahead in the end.
Becoming 60 days late on a payment could sabotage your promotional interest rate and land you with a high penalty APR instead. Not only that, but you would get a derogatory mark on your credit report. Set up automatic bill pay on your account so that you never miss a payment.
The point of a balance transfer is to tackle your debt faster while saving on interest, but in order to do so, you need to be able to pay off your balance before the end of the 0% APR introductory period. Make a plan to finish paying off your debt before your interest rate goes up and do your best to stick to it, even if your cash flow is a little tight for a while.
Although it might be tempting to use your new balance transfer card for purchases or to run up the balance on your old card again after clearing the balance from it, this is just going to make it even harder for you to get out of debt.
In fact, having extra available credit from opening a new credit card means you could potentially get yourself into an even bigger mess than you were in before.
If you’re going to use a balance transfer as a way to help you pay off debt, then you first need to make sure you have addressed the spending habits that got you into debt in the first place. If you haven’t mastered responsible credit card usage, the balance strategy could backfire and end up costing you more instead of saving you money.
Even the perfect plan can go awry when something unexpected happens, such as if you lose your job and can’t pay as much toward your debt as you would like. In other cases, your balance may simply be too large to realistically pay off during the introductory period.
Either way, if for some reason you aren’t able to finish paying off your balance by the end of the introductory promotional offer, then you may want to consider taking advantage of another 0% APR balance transfer offer. This will allow you to have some additional time to pay down your balance without accumulating interest.
A balance transfer can be a valuable option for those in the process of paying down high-interest debt. It could help you consolidate your payments, save money on interest, and chip away at your debt faster.
However, it’s not an instant cure-all for credit card debt.
You need to change the behaviors that got you into debt before looking into a balance transfer, otherwise, you might end up right back where you started, or even worse off than you were before.
If you do choose to do a balance transfer, it’s imperative to read the fine print, be aware of the terms of your balance transfer offer, and have a realistic strategy in place for paying off the balance.
For a quick rundown on balance transfers, hit play on the video below. In this Credit Countdown video from our YouTube channel, credit expert John Ulzheimer explains how balance transfers work and the possible risks and benefits.
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