Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many issuers have pulled 0% balance transfer offers. And the number of cards waiving foreign transaction fees has continued to fall, even though many borders remain closed.
If you’re looking to save money by transferring your credit card debt to a 0% balance transfer card, we have bad news for you. These offers are in much shorter supply this year, and those that still exist have tightened their qualification standards.
American Express stopped accepting balance transfers on all of its cards. Some of its rivals closed their popular balance transfer offerings to new applicants: The BankAmericard credit card and the Chase Slate Card, among others, vanished from the respective issuers’ websites.
The economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has led many card companies to clamp down on risk. They’re especially wary of taking on balance transfer debt. Card issuers sent 42% fewer direct mail advertisements for 0% balance transfer cards in the first three quarters of 2020 when compared with the same period in 2019, according to Mintel Comperemedia.
At present, only 85 of the 100 popular cards that we surveyed accept balance transfers (down from 90 in late 2019). The vast majority of those cards (72 of 85) always charge a balance transfer fee, which is most commonly 3%. Nine always accept balance transfers without a fee, although those balance transfers are subject to the regular APR. Four others will waive the balance transfer fee if you agree to the regular APR but will assess the fee in exchange for a lower promotional rate.
A year ago, it was possible to avoid the transfer fee and pay no interest for up to 15 months on some cards. Not only have those fee-free 0% deals disappeared, but the ones that are left charge transfer fees and are typically harder to qualify for (likely requiring a high credit score and proof of sufficient income).
If you’re carrying credit card debt, a more attainable money-saving strategy might be to sign up for a program such as Amex Pay It Plan It, Citi Flex Pay or My Chase Plan. These are installment loans available to existing cardholders which include fixed payback schedules and lower interest rates (perhaps 7-10% instead of the national average of around 16%).
See related: Credit counseling: How it can help you
Nonprofit credit counseling is another way to lower your debt burden. Reputable counselors such as Money Management International and other members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you consolidate debts, lower interest rates and come up with a payment plan that works for you.
Some fees are falling
Travel – particularly across international borders – has been decimated by the pandemic. It’s ironic, then, that the number of cards charging foreign transaction fees fell from 46 to 42 over the past year.
This continues a steady trend. Back in 2015, 77 cards charged foreign transaction fees. In the five years since, that figure has fallen to 61, 56, 52, 46 and now 42, sequentially. The trend has been to eliminate foreign transaction fees in an effort to win more business from the kinds of affluent travelers who venture abroad and spend heavily on travel, dining and other categories. That’s good news for travelers, although we need to get the virus under control before most people will be able to take full advantage.
When a foreign transaction fee is present, it’s most often 3%.
Only 18 of the 100 cards always charge an annual fee. Seven others begin charging an annual fee after the cardholder’s first year, and one card will continue waiving the fee for some customers even beyond that. That leaves 74 cards that never charge an annual fee, the same as last year. Among the cards that do charge annual fees – mostly travel cards – the most common is $95.
It’s often possible to get an annual fee waived or lowered simply by asking. Some 70% of cardholders who attempted this tactic were successful, according to a 2018 CreditCards.com survey. You could also consider a product change, the term for switching from one card to another offered by the same card issuer. For example, swapping a travel card with an annual fee for a no annual fee cash back card.
When you pay late, it will usually cost you, although six cards (mostly Discover cards) waive the late fee for first-time offenders. One other, the HSBC Gold Mastercard®, gives a freebie every calendar year. Two cards never charge late fees (Apple Card and the Citi Simplicity® Card). That leaves 91 cards that always assess late fees, although many of these issuers will cut you a break once in a while if you ask nicely. Still, try to pay your bills on time – once you hit 30 days late, your credit score will suffer. The most common late fee is up to $40, which is the maximum allowed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If you take out a cash advance, expect to pay dearly. The average interest rate is close to 25% – much higher than the normal purchase APR – and it usually starts accruing immediately. Cash advances almost always come with another fee as well, typically 5% of the amount withdrawn. Just four of the cards in our sample allow cardholders to avoid cash advance fees (two of which only waive the fee in certain circumstances). Three other cards do not permit cash advances.
The two cards that allow cash advances but do not charge a separate fee for them are both issued by Pentagon Federal Credit Union. Still, with a high APR that begins right away, it’s best to avoid all cash advances if possible.
If your payment is rejected – due to insufficient funds, for example – 80 of the 100 cards will hit you with a fee, typically up to $39.
Only four cards – all of which are business cards – assess a fee for going over your credit limit. It’s generally $39. Personal credit card issuers often decline transactions that would exceed your limit.
Small numbers of cards charge for overdraft protection (8 cards), wire transfers (7), authorized users (3), stopping a payment (1), research (1), returned convenience checks (1) and credit protection (1).
The average card advertises 4.48 different fees, which is up slightly from 4.38 last year but down substantially from 5.5 in 2018.
The most fee-friendly card is Apple Card, which does not charge any fees whatsoever. The most fee-laden is the First Premier Bank credit card, with 12.
The research was conducted by CreditCards.com from Oct. 22-23, 2020. The 100-card survey pool is a representative sampling of cards from all major U.S. card issuers. Fee information was gathered from the cards’ publicly available cardholder agreements and terms and conditions documents.
All information about the Citi Simplicity Card, BankAmericard and Chase Slate has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer.
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