If you’re considering a balance transfer, start by checking your current balance and APR and understanding the terms, conditions and fees of the balance transfer offer. These tips will help you do a balance transfer successfully.
Is your credit card debt piling up? Worried that high interest rates are causing that debt to grow faster than you can pay it down? A credit card balance transfer might be a solution.
In a balance transfer, you take the debt from one or more credit cards and transfer it to a different card. The goal is to move your debt from credit cards with high interest rates to one with a far lower rate. Ideally, you’ll transfer that debt to a card that offers 0% interest for a limited period.
How to do a balance transfer in 5 steps
See related: What is a balance transfer and how does it work?
1. Check your current balance and APR
Before starting a balance transfer, it’s important to understand the extent of your debt. Gather the most recent statements of all your credit cards to determine the total balance of your credit card debt. Then look at the APR of your cards.
APR, which stands for annual percentage rate, is the price you pay to borrow money on your credit card. For credit cards, APR and interest rate are basically the same.
Maybe you have three credit cards, all with an APR of 18% or higher. It might make financial sense to transfer that debt to a credit card that offers either a lower APR or an introductory period in which it won’t charge you any interest on your existing debt.
See related: Balance transfer calculator
2. Pick a balance transfer card that works for you
Choosing the right balance transfer credit card depends on several variables.
- First is the new interest rate. Ideally, you’d want to transfer your high-interest-rate debt to a card that offers 0% interest on balance transfers for a limited time.
- The introductory offers with some credit cards last longer. If you have a lot of debt, you might pick a balance transfer card with a 0% offer that lasts 18 months instead of the more common 12 months.
- If you are transferring a lot of existing credit card debt, you want a balance transfer card with a high credit limit. This way, you can transfer more or all of your existing debt to it.
- Next, you should look out for balance transfer fees. These are typically 3% to 5% of the transferred amount. However, there are several credit cards with no balance transfer fee.
- You should then look at the features that come with a balance transfer card. Some will offer rewards points or cash-back bonuses that could be valuable if you plan on making new purchases on the card. The debt you transfer to a new card, however, usually doesn’t earn rewards or cash-back bonuses.
Usually, consumers apply for a new credit card with an introductory interest rate of 0% on all new purchases and balance transfers. When applying, they also sign up for a balance transfer, providing information to the new card provider about their existing credit card debt. This means listing the credit cards from which they want to transfer their debt and the amount of debt they want to transfer.
3. Understand the terms and conditions of your balance transfer
Rahkim Sabree, owner of Unlimited Investment Solutions, recommends that consumers always study the terms of a balance transfer offer before they initiate one. Not understanding these could prove costly, he said.
Some consumers might think that they always have at least 15 months to pay off the debt they’ve transferred before the 0% introductory offer expires. But that’s not always the case. Some cards might offer an introductory period of just six months. Consumers, then, might not put enough money on their debt to pay it off before the 0% period ends, Sabree said.
Others forget about the costs associated with balance transfers.
Justin Zeidman, manager of credit card products at Navy Federal Credit Union, said that these balance transfer fees can be costly. Say you are transferring $5,000 to a card that charges a transfer fee of 5%. That comes out to $250.
“Depending on how much you are transferring, taking a balance transfer offer with a lower interest rate of 1.99% for 12 months might save you money over taking a 0% offer that comes with a 4% fee,” Zeidman said. “Consumers have to do the math on this.”
4. Transfer your balance to the new card
If these requests are approved, the provider of the new credit card pays off the debt on consumers’ existing cards. That debt is then charged on their new card.
As noted, most card providers will charge a fee, often in the range of 3% to 5% of the amount of money you’ve transferred. If you’re transferring $6,000 of credit card debt and the fee is 3%, you’ll pay $180 for that transfer, a figure that will be added to the balance of your new credit card.
Depending on the credit limit of your new card, you might not be able to transfer all your existing credit card debt. If your new card comes with a credit limit of $10,000 and you have $15,000 of credit card debt, you’ll only be able to transfer over a portion of your debt.
Finally, you won’t be able to transfer your debt between two cards issued by the same provider. For instance, you can’t close a balance transfer between a Citi® Double Cash Card and a Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card even though both cards offer balance transfer promotions.
Balance transfer processes and policies may differ among the major issuers. See below to find out how each credit card company handles balance transfers.
5. Pay off your balance before the 0% APR period ends
While balance transfers can be useful tools for controlling credit card debt, personal finance experts warn that consumers often misuse them.
The biggest mistake consumers make with balance transfers is not paying off the debt they transferred before the 0% introductory APR offer expires. Then, when their new credit card adjusts to its higher interest rate, their existing debt once again starts to grow quickly.
Others also make the mistake of adding new debt to the credit card they paid off with their balance transfer. Then, when the introductory offer expires, they’re left with a portion of their old debt and new debt, all at high interest rates. These cardholders are now in an even worse financial situation than they were in before they started their balance transfer.
“Now you are paying higher interest on the balance you transferred, and you are faced with new debt,” said Sabree. “You have to change your frame of mind when you do a balance transfer. You can no longer live beyond your means.”
Fortunately, avoiding this mistake isn’t complicated. Zeidman said the best move consumers can make before starting a balance transfer is to create a household budget showing their monthly expenses and income. Once they’ve done this, they can determine exactly how much they can devote each month to paying down their credit card debt.
Zeidman recommends that consumers set up an automated monthly withdrawal from their checking account for this amount to make sure they pay down their transferred debt at a rate that they can afford.
“Budgeting is important. Autopay is important, too. It’s a way to keep you honest with your payments,” Zeidman said. “Set it and forget it, and then watch your credit card debt decrease month by month.”
Charnet’s advice is simple: Once you transfer your debt from one credit card to another, stop using that first card.
What to do when your APR offer ends
The 0% interest rates balance transfer cards offer only last so long. Once they expire, your new card’s standard interest rate will kick in. And that rate could be somewhere in the range of around 20% or more. The debt you haven’t paid off? This higher rate will apply to that.
Mark Charnet, founder and CEO of American Prosperity Group in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, said too many consumers get so enamored with that 0% offer, they don’t think about what happens after the introductory period ends.
This might not be a big problem for those consumers who have a plan to pay off their transferred debt before the introductory offer ends. But those who fail to pay off their debt in time? They might be in for a shock when their new card’s interest rate jumps from 0% to 19%, Charnet said.
“That is the No. 1 problem with balance transfers,” Charnet said. “People don’t realize what happens after the introductory period expires. They don’t realize how fast the debt they haven’t paid off can grow once that higher rate kicks in.”
If you manage to pay off your balance before your card’s regular APR kicks in, don’t close the account: Doing so could hurt your credit utilization ratio and drop your credit score. Just don’t use it.
“People today don’t understand the concept of scissors, of cutting up that other credit card,” Charnet said. “Suddenly, they see that they have all this credit available to them and they start to use it. It’s better to cut it up and forget about it.”
Transferring your existing debt to a card with a 0% introductory interest rate gives you an opportunity to pay it off without worrying about interest. If done properly, a balance transfer can help you take control of your credit card debt.
How to transfer a balance with the major credit card issuers
- How to transfer a balance to an American Express credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Bank of America credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Capital One credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Chase credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Citi credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Discover credit card
- How to transfer a balance to an HSBC credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a U.S. Bank credit card
- How to transfer a balance to a Wells Fargo credit card