How to find the right balance transfer credit card
Updated: April 1, 2020
Credit card debt for the American consumer can be crushing – consumer revolving debt, which is primarily card balances, surged in December 2019 by a whopping $12.7 billion, according to the Federal Reserve’s G.19 consumer credit report. Closer to home, New Mexico tops the states and Washington, D.C., in credit card debt burden, while Massachusetts has the least, according to our December 2019 CreditCards.com study of credit card debt by state.
Owing thousands of dollars on your credit cards can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Consolidate debt, make lower interest payments, or pay off an old purchase and save money to boot with a balance transfer credit card.
But balance transfer cards can confuse the newcomer, which is where we come in. We’ve compiled this guide to walk you through how balance transfers work, when they are a good idea, and which balance transfer credit card is best for your needs. Here, we look at:
Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards
Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card
Best balance transfer credit card for balance transfers
This card’s very long balance transfer offer and relatively low ongoing APR earn it a top spot on our list of the best balance transfer cards. You can take advantage of a 0% introductory APR for 21 months – nearly two years – while you pay down your transferred balance (the APR is 13.74%-23.74% variable after that). If you need some room to breathe, this card is a solid choice.
Along with its great balance transfer offer, this card gets you a 0% introductory APR on new purchases for the first 12 months (13.74%-23.74% variable after that). This could be a lifesaver if you need to pay off larger purchases over time or if unexpected expenses pop up. Just pay the minimum due each month and you’ll avoid interest charges and fees for the first year.
Our Diamond Preferred card review breaks down one of this card’s biggest flaws: It charges a balance transfer fee of 5% (or $5, whichever is higher), which could end up costing you more than a few extra months’ worth of interest. It also comes with no rewards program, so its long-term value will be limited.
Citi Simplicity® Card
Best balance transfer credit card for no late fees
The card comes with an especially forgiving fee and penalty policy. Not only will you never be charged a late payment fee, your APR will never be jacked up due to late payments. Many cards charge a late payment fee as high as $40, and can hit you with a penalty APR of 29.99% if you frequently pay late.
The card boasts a competitive balance transfer offer: You’ll get a 0% introductory APR for 21 months on balance transfers and 12 months on new purchases (14.74%-24.74% variable APR thereafter). This makes it valuable both for paying off existing debt and managing ongoing expenses.
As our Citi Simplicity card review lays out, the card’s balance transfer fee of 5% (or $5, whichever is higher) could be costly. While this may be worth it if you want as much time as possible to pay off your transferred balance, a number of cards come with generous balance transfer offers and only charge a 3% balance transfer fee. Indeed, some charge no balance transfer fee at all.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
Best balance transfer credit card for good credit
The card’s ongoing APR is relatively low at 12.99%-23.99% variable, and with a solid credit history, you could qualify for the low end, which is better than the average APR for balance transfer and low interest credit cards and significantly lower than the national average.
You’ll get 15 months to pay down a transferred balance or finance new purchases without paying interest (12.99%-23.99% variable after that). The card also boasts an impressive rewards program, offering cash back in a number of everyday spending categories. You’ll earn 3% back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), 2% back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores and 1% back on all other purchases.
There are a few balance transfer cards – like the Citi® Double Cash Card, noted in our Blue Cash Everyday card review – that offer a longer introductory APR period while charging the same balance transfer fee. If your priority is paying off debt, you may want to go with a card that gives you more time to chip away at your balance, even if it carries no rewards program.
Wells Fargo Platinum
Best balance transfer credit card for 0% intro APR
It offers a long introductory APR period on both balance transfers and new purchases. You’ll get a 0% introductory APR on qualifying balance transfers and new purchases for the first 18 months (15.49% – 24.99% Variable after that). That gives you a lot of wiggle room as you pay down debt, tackle unexpected expenses and manage your ongoing spending.
The card’s included cellphone insurance stands out among the perks covered in our Wells Fargo Platinum review. Pay your cellphone bill with the card and you can be reimbursed up to $600 per claim and $1,200 per year should your phone be damaged or stolen (subject to a $25 deductible).
The balance transfer fee increases from 3% (or $5, whichever is greater) to up to 5% (or $5, whichever is greater) after the first 120 days. That said, a 3% balance transfer fee is lower than the fee charged by plenty of other balance transfer cards. The card’s ongoing APR is also a bit high, and as our Wells Fargo Platinum card review points out, “even cardholders who qualify for the lowest possible APR…could end up paying quite a bit on larger balances.”
Citi® Double Cash Card
Best balance transfer credit card for cash rewards
This card beats all the competition with its flat-rate cash back offer of 1% back when you make a purchase and another 1% back when you pay for it. Other flat-rate cards typically pay 1.5% back. As our Citi Double Cash Card review puts it, “this makes it a great addition for any cash back lover, especially those who juggle several cards to boost rewards.”
The Double Cash Card’s 18-month zero interest offer on balance transfers (then a variable APR of 13.99% – 23.99% after that) is longer than other cash back cards, while the ongoing rewards are also better than most.
There’s no 0% intro APR offer on purchases with this card, and the ongoing APR of 13.99% – 23.99% variable is one of the higher rates. There’s also no sign-up bonus offer.
American Express Cash Magnet® Card
Best balance transfer credit card for low interest
Even with interest rates dropping in recent weeks, the Cash Magnet’s regular interest rate is striking – it starts at 12.99%-23.99% variable APR. While it’s not ideal to carry a balance with a cash back card, it’s helpful to have a card with potentially low interest in your back pocket.
There’s a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months, in addition to 1.5% cash back on all purchases. Also, there’s a 0% intro APR offer for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers. It’s 12.99%-23.99% variable after that.
You can find cash back cards that reward more generously in specific categories such as gas and groceries or with higher rotating categories, if you are willing to time your spending.
Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa® card
Best balance transfer credit card for sign-up bonus
Not only can you score $150 after spending just $500 in the first 3 months, you can earn bonus cash back on some of your digital wallet purchases in the first year: Along with the 1.5% cash rewards you earn on general purchases, you can earn 1.8% cash rewards on Google Pay™ and Apple Pay® purchases for the first 12 months. That’ll be especially good news if you’re concerned about the cleanliness of your credit card.
It comes with a solid introductory APR on both balance transfers and new purchases: Pay 0% for 15 months on new purchases and on qualifying balance transfers made in the first 120 days (13.99%-25.99% variable after that). You’ll also get $600 worth of cellphone protection against covered damage and theft when you pay your monthly phone bill with the card ($25 deductible).
The introductory APR only applies to balance transfers made in the first 120 days, and the card’s balance transfer fee increases from 3% (or $5, whichever is greater) to up to 5% (or $5, whichever is greater) after the first 120 days. Additionally, our Cash Wise Visa card review notes that the card’s high-end ongoing APR is very high, so if your credit isn’t excellent, you may want to look elsewhere.?
Amex EveryDay® Credit Card*
Best balance transfer credit card for no balance transfer fee
This card is a solid choice if you are looking to avoid a balance transfer fee, provided you make the transfer within the first 60 days of card membership^. That way, you can save on a fee that can range from 3%-5%.
Not only does this card charge no balance transfer fee, it comes with a solid welcome offer and ongoing rewards such as 2X points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 spend a year, then 1X). Also, if you use your card 20 or more times on purchases in a billing period, you can get 20% more points on those purchases less returns and credits. As our Amex EveryDay review points out, this is a great deal for cardholders who use a single card for most of their purchases.
This card’s welcome offer is not the most robust, even for a BT card – it offers 10,000 points after a $1,000 spend in qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of card membership. Also, the ongoing rewards for U.S. supermarkets are not as generous as that of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express.
Compare the best balance transfer cards of 2020
The best balance transfer credit card is the Citi Simplicity Card with its 0% intro APR offer of 21 months on balance transfers (then 14.74% – 24.74% variable). All of the cards in the following table have no annual fee.
Understanding the table:
- ^ – Whichever is greater.
- † – On qualifying transfers made in the first 120 days, then 5%.
- †† – then 5% ($5 minimum)
- ** – Intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms).
- ‡ – On transfers made in the first 60 days.
- *** – Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.
- + – Of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater, on transfers made within 60 days of account opening. After that: Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
How we picked the best balance transfer credit cards
Number of cards analyzed: 1,002
Criteria used: 0% intro APR period for balance transfers, balance transfer fees, regular APR, savings period, current APR assumption, monthly payment assumption, other rates and fees, customer service, credit needed, security, ease of application, potential rewards, miscellaneous benefits
Ranking methodology: While a large number of factors contribute to the quality of a credit card, the following were our most important criteria in evaluating and choosing the best balance transfer cards: length of 0% intro APR period; balance transfer fee; regular APR after intro period; annual fee.
What is a balance transfer credit card?
A balance transfer card is a product that allows you to transfer balances on older cards to a new card, often with a temporary 0% interest rate. This can easily save you thousands of dollars, provided you pay the debt in full before the 0% APR offer ends.
In the case of our favorite balance transfer cards, you can get a 0% intro APR for anywhere from 6 months to 21 months, then the regular APR for that card kicks in. The trick is to map out how much you need to pay each month toward the balance to make sure you pay off the charges before the offer ends.
Check out our comprehensive guide to credit card balance transfers for an in-depth look at what balance transfers are, how they work and how you can make the most of yours.
How to save money with a balance transfer card
A balance transfer card could be a lifesaver if you need to hit pause on interest charges and chip away at your debt over time. Indeed, the latest CreditCards.com weekly rate report lists the average credit card APR at just under 17%, so getting a year or more to pay down your balances with a low- or no-interest balance transfer card could save you thousands of dollars.
Here we take a closer look at how much you could save with a balance transfer card, how much balance transfers cost, what features you should consider before you choose a card and how balance transfer fees work.
Use CreditCards.com’s balance transfer calculator to calculate savings
Our balance transfer calculator is a great starting point and should help you decide if a balance transfer makes financial sense for you. You can add your current card balances, APRs, issuers and monthly payments to see how much you could save on interest and how long it will take you to pay off your balance. You’ll also get personalized card recommendations.
How much does a balance transfer cost?
To help you understand your break-even point on the cost of a balance transfer, let’s crunch some numbers.
Most cards charge a balance transfer fee of 3% or $5, whichever is greater. In that case, if you were transferring a balance of $100, your balance transfer fee would be $5 (3% of $100 is just $3, so you’d pay the higher charge of $5). On the other hand, if you transferred a $1,000 balance, your balance transfer fee would be $30 (3% of $1,000).
Here’s the next question: Is it worthwhile to transfer a balance as small as $100? In a word: No. Here’s why. If you pay $35 a month (at 17% interest), you will pay it off in 3 months and your interest will be $2.82 – less than the $5 fee you’d pay to transfer the balance. That means if you can pay your debt off in 3 months or less, it’s not worth making the transfer.
Is a balance transfer worth your while when the balance is $1,000? Well, if you can pay $343 in 3 months (at 17% interest), your interest charges will be $28, making it less than the balance transfer fee for the same amount. So in that case, you shouldn’t make the transfer. But if you can’t afford to make such a high monthly payment, a balance transfer will be worth it, since the amount you’d save on interest charges would exceed the balance transfer fee.
Know what to look for in a balance transfer credit card
To make the most of your balance transfer, keep these key elements in mind:
- Lengthy 0% interest offer – Make sure you know how long of an offer you need in order to pay off the balance before the 0% intro APR offer ends.
- No balance transfer fee – A few credit cards offer no balance transfer fee. Do the math to decide if it’s worth your while to get one of those cards, because there may be disadvantages, such as no rewards.
- No annual fee – Most balance transfer cards have no annual fee, but a few do, such as the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.
- Rewards – You’ll need to weigh whether you want a super-lengthy intro APR offer such as the Citi Simplicity or rewards for the long term.
- Low regular APR – A number of card issuers, such as Discover, offer a low regular APR after their balance transfer offers end.
Understand balance transfer fees
There are some cards that charge no balance transfer fee, but we found in our January 2020 balance transfer survey covering APRs, fees and more that no-fee balance transfer options were still fairly limited. Out of 100 cards, just 14 balance transfer cards offer no-fee transfers, down from 15 in our January 2019 survey. The 2020 survey also found that standard balance transfer fees are growing – of the 100 surveyed, 26 cards charge a fee of 5% to transfer a balance, up from 18 cards in 2019. And while you can still find cards with a 3% balance transfer fee, the number of options is decreasing – 45 of the 100 cards surveyed in 2020 charge a 3% balance transfer fee, down from 50 in 2019 and 55 in 2017.
Usually it makes sense to transfer as much of your debt as possible onto a 0% card to minimize your interest payments – but not always. Balance transfer cards sometimes carry higher-than-average APRs, and if you can’t repay the balance before the introductory period ends, it could potentially cost you more in interest rates and fees than if you leave the balance where it is. If your current account has a lower interest rate, you should do some math to figure out whether transferring all of your balance or just a portion of it will cost less.
Consider balance transfer cards with no balance transfer fee
There are a few balance transfers cards out there with no balance transfer fee, but not many. Here are 3 that are standouts.
- Amex EveryDay* – It’s 0% intro APR for 15 months on balance transfers and purchases, then 12.99%-23.99% variable.
- Chase Slate – The BT fee is $0 for first 60 days of opening account; then $5 or 5%, whichever is greater.
- Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum Card – This card has a low starting regular APR of 7.49%-18% variable.
How to compare two balance transfer card offers
As we’ve seen, there are a few cards that don’t charge a fee for your initial balance transfer. So, which is a better way to go? A no-fee balance transfer offer, or a card with an especially long introductory period? Most of the time, the no-fee card wins out. Here’s the math to help you decide:
- Figure out your payment terms – Before you start comparing balance transfer cards, you need to figure out the following:
- What size balance do you want to transfer? Keep in mind that your new card will come with a credit limit that may restrict the amount that you’re able to transfer.
- How much can you afford to pay each month? While it’s a good idea to pay down your debt as quickly as possible, you should come up with a manageable amount.
- Calculate fees and interest – Once you know the size of the balance transfer and the installment amount, you need to calculate the fees and interest for each card. Basically, you need to calculate how much of a balance remains for each card once the introductory period expires (don’t forget to add the card’s balance transfer fee to the initial balance), and then calculate the interest that you will owe each month until the balance is paid off.
- Compare fees and interest on each card – Using the same balance transfer amount and installment payment, calculate the fees and interest for both cards, then compare the amounts side by side.
- Compare the cards’ remaining features – Finding the card that will cost you the least to pay down your balance should be your first priority. However, if all else is equal between the cards, you should look at remaining features on the cards to see if either is worth holding onto in the long run.
For example, in the table below, we compare the costs of transferring a $5,000 balance to the Citi Diamond Preferred Card and the Amex EveryDay* cards with a repayment period of 21 months. Even though the introductory period on the EveryDay is shorter, you would save more than $200 with it in this scenario, due to its waived balance transfer fee.
Cost of a $5,000 balance transfer over 21 months
Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card
Amex EveryDay card*
- 0% intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers
- 13.74% – 23.74% Variable APR
- 0% intro APR on balance transfer for 15 months
- 12.99% – 23.99% Variable APR
- $0 intro balance transfer fee if made within 60 days of account opening
- Monthly payment = $250
- No interest for 21 months = $0
- Balance transfer fee = $250
Total paid = $5,250
- Monthly payment = $250
- 6 months interest (18.74% APR) = $61.93
- Balance transfer fee = $0
Total paid = $5,061.93
Is a balance transfer a good idea?
In addition to concerns about our health and our economic security right now, we may have existing card debt. A balance transfer card is a good idea when you have a credit card balance and you are stuck paying interest each month because you can’t pay off the debt.
If you came into the COVID-19 crisis with card debt, you may feel overwhelmed financially. For now, we recommend that rather than prioritizing your card debt, balance building an emergency budget if possible while also paying down the card debt.
A balance transfer card is not a good idea if you think you might use it to incur additional debt because you have trouble with overspending. Instead, create a budget that sets some money aside for your card debt and also some aside for emergencies.
When is a balance transfer credit card a good choice?
Avoid paying high interest
If you want to avoid interest rates, a balance transfer credit card is a great way to achieve that. Keep in mind that you will pay interest on any balance you have after the offer ends (typically 6-21 months), but if you can pay off the debt before that, you can save hundreds of dollars.
With a balance transfer card, you can consolidate debt from multiple cards, then pay a single bill each month.
Improve your credit score
Once you’ve paid off your balance, you will have improved a number of aspects of your credit score, including your credit utilization ratio. You will also have a higher overall credit limit.
When is a balance transfer credit card a bad choice?
You keeping making late payments
If you occasionally pay late on your bills, a balance transfer is not a good choice because one late payment on your card and you could lose the BT offer, and then high interest charges kick in. And that’s even if you have the score to get a BT card, since on-time payments are the top factor in your credit score.
Pro tip: Set up an automatic payment through your bank and schedule it a few days before your due date to be on the safe side.
You keep incurring debt
Have you gotten into this mess without understanding how you got there? You may have fallen into the trap of spending on a credit card because you don’t “see” the money change hands.
Pro tip: Track your spending for a month, forgetting nothing. Then make a budget that includes room for fun and room for emergencies. Why? Because if your budget is too austere, you are more likely to break the bank. Do the same with your credit card spending, and check your spending every week to make sure you are on track.
You would not pay off before the offer ends
If you can’t figure out how to pay off your debt by the time the 0% APR offer ends, you may be looking at a card with an offer that’s too short for your purposes or you may not be putting enough into your monthly payments. Ask yourself: Is it because you are hankering for a rewards card?
Pro tip: Instead, look at cards with longer offers, which can be up to 21 months. That will allow you to pay a little less each month, and at the same time avoid interest. You’ll likely have to forego the shiny object of rewards – you need to choose your priorities, and paying down debt should be your first consideration.
You owe a small amount
If you can potentially pay off your debt within 6 months, a balance transfer card may not be the right choice for you.
Pro tip: Because most BT cards have a balance transfer fee of up to 5% of the transfer, you may want to opt out of a balance transfer card and pay down the debt quickly. Check with your card issuer to see if they will lower your interest rate. We’ve found that chances are, they will.
You have options
There are times when another option is best for your circumstances, perhaps because you can’t pay off the debt before the offer ends or because the balance transfer fee isn’t something you want to deal with.
Pro tip: Depending on your situation and the offers available to you, it might make more sense to consolidate your debt with a personal loan.
Does a balance transfer hurt your credit score?
While a balance transfer can negatively impact your credit score in the short term, in the long run you will be better off if you use it correctly. Here is how your credit score can be impacted:
- When you apply for the balance transfer card, your score takes a temporary hit of about 5-10 points, but it will recover within a couple of months.
- By getting a new card with a new credit limit, you lower your credit utilization ratio, the second most important part of your score. This ratio is your available credit by your balance owed. The lower your ratio, the better your score.
- Your score also factors in individual cards’ ratios. Say you have a $10,000 credit limit on your new balance transfer card, and you transfer $5,000. That means the ratio for that individual card is 50%, which is considered quite high and could negatively impact your score. That’s one reason why you want to pay down the debt as soon as possible.
- Don’t cancel your old card, because that will lower your overall ratio, thereby impacting your score. Also, if it’s an older card, you lose that card’s length of history, another factor in your score.
- Finally, and this is less of an issue if you have older cards, but when you take out a new card, that can impact your score somewhat because it lowers your overall length of history.
If you take out a balance transfer card, work to pay off the balance before the intro offer ends and keep the old card without incurring more debt, your score will get a boost in the long run.
Who can qualify for a balance transfer credit card?
Most cards that feature introductory APR offers require you to have good or excellent credit in order to qualify. While it’s possible to do a balance transfer with bad credit, whether it’s wise will depend on which cards you can qualify for and what your new APR will be. A balance transfer could also hurt your credit score, as it could both increase your single-card credit utilization and lower your length of credit history. You may be better off taking out a debt consolidation loan or focusing on paying down your balances as much as possible before you apply to improve your credit score. That said, there are a few credit cards with balance transfer and purchase promotions that require little or no credit, including:
- Discover it® Student Cash Back – This has an intro APR of 0% for 6 months on purchases or 10.99% for 6 months on balance transfers. It’s 12.99% – 21.99% Variable after that. No credit history is required.
- Discover it® Student chrome: Like the Discover it® Student Cash Back, this card also has an intro APR of 0% for 6 months on purchases or 10.99% for 6 months on balance transfers. It’s 12.99% – 21.99% Variable after that. No credit history is required.
- Discover it® Secured: Get an intro APR of 10.99% for 6 months on balance transfers. It’s 22.99% Variable after that. No credit history is required.
How to perform a balance transfer
If you’re considering a balance transfer card, you may be wondering how much work goes into moving the balance from one card to another. Overall, the process is relatively simple on the end of the cardholder. Here are the steps you should follow:
- Apply for a balance transfer card – Before choosing a card, check out our balance transfer calculator, which factors in fees and interest rates to determine how much you’ll save by transferring your existing balance to a different card. Once you find the balance transfer card that best suits you, complete the card application.
- Collect your information – Next, gather the account details for the card that has the debt – referred to as the “transfer from” card – including the account number and card balance.
- Contact customer service – After receiving your balance transfer card, call customer service and inform them that you want to transfer a balance onto your new card. Once you provide them with the necessary information, they will reach out to the old card company and move the requested amount onto your new card. Many cards also allow you to make balance transfers through your online account, but we advise that you wait until you receive the physical card to initiate a balance transfer. That way, once you receive the card, you can ask for a higher line of credit if the approved amount is below the old balance.
We recommend that you pay the minimum amount on your old card until the transfer closes to avoid late fees and other penalties. Also, be sure to transfer your balance before the card’s introductory offer ends.
Details on performing a balance transfer with 9 major card issuers
We’ve taken a close look at the balance transfer policies of some of the major credit card issuers. Here are some interesting details we found:
- You are not allowed to make a balance transfer from one American Express card to another.
- You can only qualify for a zero-percent balance transfer offer if you transfer your debt within 60 days of opening your new Bank of America credit card account.
- Customers can’t transfer more than $15,000 in credit card debt within any 30-day period with a Chase account.
- Citi requires that you transfer any balances during the first 4 months of opening your new account.
- If you try to transfer an amount greater than your credit limit, Discover will process a transfer for less than what you requested.
- Other credit card providers will charge 3% of the amount you transfer. HSBC charges 4% on most of its cards.
For more information on how balance transfer work with each issuer, check out Creditcards.com’s comprehensive guides:
How to transfer a balance to a new credit card, by issuer
How long does a balance transfer take?
As you might expect, your process doesn’t end with getting your new balance transfer card. Now, you’ll need to transfer the balance from the old card, and the amount of time a balance transfer takes can vary widely, depending on the card issuer and whether your balance transfer card is a new or old account. American Express has one of the longest transfer periods – 6 weeks – while it can take as little as 3 days with a Capital One card.
Here is the expected wait time for 8 major card issuers.
Source: CreditCards.com research
Laura is an editor and writer at CreditCards.com. She has written extensively on all things credit cards and works to bring you the most up-to-date analysis and advice. Laura’s work has been cited in such publications as the New York Times and Associated Press. You can reach her by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @creditcards_lm.
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