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Your Guide to Choosing the Best Balance Transfer Credit Card
If you feel like you are in a never-ending cycle of credit card debt, there just might be a solution – consider the balance transfer card.
Used correctly, a balance transfer card can help you get hold of your debt and allow you to save on interest charges for a set amount of time. Here, we share how these credit cards work, when they are a good or a bad idea, and we offer examples of great cards to choose from.
Best balance transfer credit cards
Balance transfer card details
Best for: Everyday spending
The Bank of America Cash Rewards card offers a solid 3% cash back on a category of your choice and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (on the first $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club purchases each quarter, then earn 1%). The 0% introductory APR period for balance transfers is good, but you’ll have to act fast. Only balance transfers made within the first 60 days of opening an account qualify for 0% intro APR for the first 12 billing cycles (then 13.99%-23.99% variable). A 3% fee (minimum $10) applies to all balance transfers.
Best 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: 0% introductory APR for 18 months on balance transfers made in the first 4 months and on purchases for 18 months (the APR is 14.74%-24.74% variable after that). One pitfall is that it comes with no rewards program, so its long-term value will be limited. It also charges a balance transfer fee of 3% (or $5, whichever is higher).
Best for: Cash rewards
While some cards may require you to sacrifice long-term value for a great balance transfer offer, the Citi Double Cash does not. In addition to an introductory 18-month zero interest offer on balance transfers (then a variable APR of 13.99%-23.99% after that), you’ll earn 1% cash back when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay your balance. Just remember that there’s no 0% introductory APR offer for purchases, and there’s also no sign-up bonus.
Best for: 0% intro APR
With this card, you get the best of both worlds: a long (18-month) 0% introductory APR period on both qualifying balance transfers made in the first 120 days and new purchases. After that, it’s 16.49%-24.49% variable. While the ongoing APR isn’t the greatest, an 18-month intro APR period gives you a lot of wiggle room as you pay down debt, tackle unexpected expenses and manage your ongoing spending. Another standout feature is the cellphone insurance: 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).
Best for: Low interest
The BankAmericard allows you 12 billing cycles to work on paying off a balance transfer (made within the first 60 days) without accruing interest. After that, your interest rate could still be quite low. The regular APR is 12.99%-22.99% variable, which is good, especially if you can secure an interest rate at the low end of that spectrum. There is no rewards program, but you still have access to money-saving perks with BankAmeriDeals, Bank of America’s card-linked cash back offers.
Best for: Sign-up bonus
This card 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 (14.49%-24.99% variable after that). Keep in mind that the 120-day period is extra limiting because the card’s balance transfer fee increases from 3% (or $5, whichever is greater) to up to 5% (or $5, whichever is greater) after that period ends. On the flip side, your first few months of card membership have the opportunity to be quite lucrative if you achieve the sign-up bonus of $150 after spending just $500 in the first 3 months.
Best for: No annual fee
If you’re looking for a card that’s going to be valuable long after your balance transfer offer ends, this is a great choice. Cardholders earn 3 points per dollar spent on dining, travel, transit, gas stations purchases and select streaming services. So after you’ve used the 12-month 0% introductory APR period to pay off your qualifying balance transfer, you can continue to reap this card’s benefits through its excellent rewards program. Just make sure you’re able to pay off the balance within the 12-month introductory period – the ongoing APR of 14.49%-24.99% isn’t ideal for those who plan to carry a balance.
Best for: Supermarkets and gas stations
In addition to rewarding 2 ThankYou points per dollar spent at supermarkets and gas stations (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1 point per dollar), Citi will round up each purchase to the nearest 10 points. The introductory APR of 0% for 15 months on balance transfers (13.49%-23.49% variable after that) is one of the shorter offers on the balance transfer market, but it still gives you more than a year to pay down debt with 0% interest.
What is a balance transfer credit card?
Whether you’ve incurred debt because of holiday shopping, travel plans or fixing up the old homestead, a credit card balance can be a burden that hangs over you for months and even years. That’s where a balance transfer card comes in.
A balance transfer card allows you to transfer balances on older cards to a new card. The main benefits of a balance transfer credit card include:
- Avoid interest. This is a great tool for temporarily avoiding interest charges, since many offer a 0% intro offer of 6-18 months. By paying no interest for a period of time, you’ll save money on interest, pay over a shorter period of time and pay less overall.
- Consolidate debt. If you are looking to simplify payments into one bill, a balance transfer card is an option. This can help ensure you pay on time because you only have one bill to worry about.
What is a balance transfer fee?
Credit cards typically make their profit through fees and interest charges. When a card presents a 0% intro APR offer on a balance transfer, it’s losing out on the interest charges you would normally pay for carrying a balance into the next month. To help make up for that, issuers will usually charge a balance transfer fee.
You pay a balance transfer fee when you make a transfer from one card to another. The card issuer taking over the balance charges the fee, which is usually 3%-5% or $5-$10, whichever is greater. While difficult, it’s not impossible to negotiate a lower balance transfer fee. A precious few waive any balance transfer fees, and when they do, they may not have the rewards or longer offer you might be looking for.
How to save money with a balance transfer card
So why would you get a balance transfer card? Here’s the deal: They often come with a temporary 0% interest rate. But instead of the endless game of transferring your debt, we advise you to pay off the balance before the offer ends. This can easily save you hundreds of dollars, provided you pay the bulk of the debt before the 0% APR offer ends. Offers can be for 6 months to 18 months, taking you well into 2022.
If you don’t pay off the balance before the offer ends, the go-to rate, usually the regular APR, kicks in. But it’s not deferred. So, if you have a $3,000 balance, and you pay $2,400 before the offer ends, you will only pay interest on the remaining $600.
Look into low interest offers
If you anticipate that you might still have a balance after the 0% intro APR offer ends, take a look at balance transfer cards with low interest rates. Here are a couple we like.
Keep in mind that the better your credit, the lower your regular APR will likely be on a card. Taking a look at the Alliant Visa, imagine you will owe $600 and you plan to pay $100 a month. If you get the APR rate of 22.24%, you will owe $43 in interest. If you get the APR rate of 10.24%, you will owe $19 in interest, more than half that of the higher interest rate. That said, it’s always best to pay down all of your debt before the 0% intro APR offer of a balance transfer card ends. However, if that’s not possible, a card that has relatively low interest could be a life-saver.
Understand your savings
There are a number of items that will cut your costs when looking at a balance transfer card, including annual fee, balance transfer fees, length of offer and whether you will have a balance when the offer ends. Here, we put it all together, with the amount owed for both at $3,000 and the monthly payment at $200. One example has a balance transfer fee and the other does not:
|Credit card||Balance transfer fee||0% intro APR offer||Interest paid||Annual fee||Savings after fees and interest|
|Citi® Diamond Preferred®||$90||18 months, then 14.74%-24.74% variable||$0||$0||$253|
|Navy Federal® Platinum Credit Card||$0||12 months, then 5.99%-18.00% variable||$16, when paying 15% for remaining $600 at $200 a month||$0||$327|
Pros and cons of a balance transfer credit card
Pros: When does a balance transfer make sense?
- Avoid paying high interest. If you want to avoid interest rates for a period of time, a balance transfer credit card is a great way to achieve that, because many of these cards offer a 0% intro APR. Keep in mind that you will pay interest on any balance you have after the offer ends (typically 6-18 months), but if you can pay off the debt before that, you can save hundreds of dollars.
- Consolidate debt. With a balance transfer card, you can consolidate debt from multiple cards, then pay a single bill each month. You might do this for convenience or for budgeting purposes.
- Improve your credit score. Once you’ve paid off your balance, you might have improved your credit score, notably your credit utilization ratio. You will also have a higher overall credit limit. By expanding available credit and paying down debt, you can improve your score.
Cons: When does a balance transfer not make sense?
- You keep making late payments. Instead, 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. Track your spending for a month, forgetting nothing. Then make a budget that includes room for fun and room for emergencies. 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. Instead, look at cards with longer offers, which can be up to 18 months. That will allow you to pay a little less each month, and at the same time avoid interest. You’ll likely have to forgo 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. 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.
How to choose a balance transfer credit card
When considering your balance transfer card options, not only the process (having a good credit score), but also any fees, the offer length and even rewards. There are several different factors to consider when choosing a balance transfer credit card:
- Your credit score. Most balance transfer cards require good or excellent credit, so watch out for that. You don’t want to apply for multiple cards or apply for a card you don’t have a good chance of landing, so be careful of that as well.
- The introductory offer. The length of offer is a top concern, because it means you might have more time to pay off your balance.
- Terms and conditions. A few balance transfer cards offer no balance transfer fee, and most offer no annual fee. Check for other terms, such as deadlines for when the transfers have to be made by.
- Rewards. Some balance transfer cards offer rewards, although those cards usually have a shorter 0% intro offer. That said, if you are looking for a card for the long haul, rewards may be something to consider.
How to do 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:
- Check the rules. Pay attention to the rules, because some cards require the transfer to be made within 60 days of approval.
- 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.
- Keep paying the minimum. We recommend that you pay the minimum amount on your old card until the transfer closes to avoid late fees and other penalties.
- Avoid new, unplanned charges. While you might have a card that offers 0% APR on new purchases for a limited time, make sure you have a plan before you use it. That way, you don’t go into further debt.
Alternatives to a balance transfer
Get a personal loan
Depending on your situation and the offers available to you, it might make more sense to consolidate your debt with a personal loan. Personal loans can have a lower interest rate than a credit card, and there are a number of options available.
Renegotiate regular APR
This involves simply making a phone call. Check with your card issuer to see if they’ll lower your interest rate. Our research has shown that by calling, fees can get waived and interest rates can be lowered, if you keep things pleasant and you have a good track record with the issuer.
Create an austere budget
This is the toughest option, but perhaps the most straightforward. Instead of applying for a balance transfer card, consider bulking up on your monthly payments and forgo café lattes and restaurants for a while. Tough to do, but you will pay significantly less interest than if you keep paying the minimum.
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.
Additional balance transfer resources