If you want to transfer a balance from a high-interest credit card to another card with no or lower interest, a balance transfer check can help.
From time to time, your credit card company may send you balance transfer checks in the mail. Or, maybe you receive these offers frequently but choose to shred them, which is pretty common. However, you can use these promotional offers to consolidate high-interest credit card debt and potentially save money.
If you’ve received a balance transfer check or you’re interested in getting one, here’s how they work and how to use them.
What is a balance transfer check?
A balance transfer check is a paper check issued by a credit card company. You can write this check out to transfer balances between credit cards.
But why do balance transfer checks exist in the first place?
“Credit card companies issue blank balance transfer checks in hopes that their customers will move an owed balance from a competitor’s credit card to their credit card account,” said Ryan Inman, founder of Financial Residency and Physician Wealth Services.
“The idea is that the company issuing the balance transfer check will gain interest and potential fees from the customer,” he said.
You don’t necessarily need to be a customer of the credit card company mailing out balance transfer checks to receive them, either. They can also be mailed out to prequalified customers, said Larry Duffany, a Ramsey Preferred financial coach and founder of Raising Hope.
In that scenario, the credit card company that sent you the check is hoping to attract your business using a 0 percent or low introductory APR offer. Using the balance transfer check would mean opening a balance transfer credit card account with the company that sent it to you.
How do balance transfer checks work?
A balance transfer check looks like any other check, but the difference lies in how it can be used. When you write out a balance transfer check, you’re using it specifically to pay off another credit card balance.
“You simply write a check as you would for any payment,” said Debbi King, personal finance expert and author of “The ABCs of Personal Finance.”
“When the old credit card company cashes the check, the funds will be charged to the new credit card company in addition to a fee — anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent, usually,” she added.
The following is an example of how a balance transfer check works:
- Say you owe $5,000 to American Express and you receive a balance transfer check in the mail from Citi.
- You make out the balance transfer check to American Express for $5,000.
- Once it’s received, your account is credited for that amount, reducing your balance to $0.
- Meanwhile, you now owe Citi $5,000 for the transfer, along with any balance transfer fee due on the transaction.
Some balance transfer checks may also give you the option to write the check out for cash. You could then use that money to pay off debts other than your credit card debt.
It’s important to note that a balance transfer check is not a blank check that you can write it for any amount you choose. The maximum amount you can transfer is determined by the credit card company issuing the check, similar to how credit card companies set your card purchase limit or cash advance limit.
As far as balance transfer fees go, those are applied to your balance the same way they would be if you transfer a balance online. Going back to the previous example of a $5,000 balance transfer, let’s assume that the credit card company charged a 3 percent balance transfer fee. Your new balance owed would be $5,150 ($5,000 x .03 = $150) after adding the transfer fees to your transferred balance.
Balance transfer check vs. online balance transfer
Ostensibly, there isn’t much that distinguishes a balance transfer check from an online balance transfer. An online balance transfer usually starts with you applying and being approved for a new balance transfer card, then requesting a balance transfer from another credit card. The transfers are usually restricted to credit card debt.
As for a balance transfer check, though they’re also intended to help you pay off credit card debt, you could also use them for other things, such as a personal loan or unexpected expenses. The main point of a balance transfer check is that you have a physical check to write to any lenders or companies you owe.
Balance transfer check vs. convenience check
Convenience checks, much like personal checks, are for cardholders to write to whomever they want, but the money comes from their credit line. You can either write the check directly to the lender or to yourself, then withdraw it as cash.
However, the big drawback of convenience checks is that they count as a cash advance, accompanied with the cash advance APR (usually higher than the purchase APR) and cash advance fee. And, you would have no grace period — your interest would accrue immediately.
The maximum amount you can transfer with a balance transfer check is typically limited to the card’s credit limit, but the limit on a convenience check is the card’s cash advance limit (may be lower than the card’s entire credit limit).
What to consider when exploring a balance transfer check
If you want to take advantage of a balance transfer check, it’s helpful to evaluate it like any other balance transfer or promotional financing offer.
“Always read the fine print,” Inman said. “The credit card issuing the check might be offering 0 percent interest on that balance transfer, but it might come with a stiff fee for moving the balance,” he said.
If a balance transfer check lands in your mailbox, take care to check both the introductory APR and the regular APR, along with the terms of the promotion to see how long of an interest-free period you’ll enjoy.
When does a balance transfer check make sense?
Deciding when to get a balance transfer check means examining what the pros are for you specifically. According to Nadia Malik, personal finance expert and founder of Speaking of Cents, there are three reasons to consider a balance transfer check:
- You’re certain that you have enough time to pay the balance in full before the 0 percent APR period ends.
- You have the option of making the check out to yourself to get cash quickly.
- You want to transfer balances other than credit cards, such as from a personal loan.
“Balance transfer checks can help you in debt consolidation and paying off existing accounts with low or no interest, which is ideal if you’ve racked up a lot of debt,” Malik said.
When does a balance transfer check not make sense?
A balance transfer check may not be the best solution for consolidating debt if you don’t have a solid debt repayment strategy. King said one of the most important requirements for getting a balance transfer check is a commitment to pay off the balance on time.
“In many cases, you can save a ton of interest by taking advantage of 0 percent offers,” she said. “However, if you aren’t serious, then you’re paying out additional fees that should be going toward your debt.”
In other words, you shouldn’t use a balance transfer check as a procrastination tool. It’s also possible that a balance transfer check could make it easier for you to accumulate more debt.
“The debt relief that’s offered by the transfer may lull people into a false sense of comfort that may tempt them to charge again,” Duffany said. “What’s needed is not always a new loan but a new way of relating to money,” he said.
Even if that’s not an issue, you might want to avoid using a balance transfer check from a competing credit card company if the card you’re required to open doesn’t have much appeal beyond a 0 percent APR promotion. For example, if the card has a high annual fee, it could end up costing you money rather than saving it.
Remember that balance transfer check fees can increase the amount you owe, which is something to factor into your repayment plans.
As far as the balance transfer fee goes, there are some cards that offer no balance transfer fees. One such card is the Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum card*, which offers an intro APR of 0.99 percent for the first 12 months with a $0 balance transfer fee. After the intro period, the ongoing APR will bump up to 8.99 percent to 18.00 percent variable — quite low, considering credit card interest rates these days.
But some no-fee balance transfer fee offers may not extend to balance transfer checks, so it’s important to know what you’re paying up front.
How to get a balance transfer check
If you’d like to get a balance transfer check, you could wait for your credit card company to mail one to you. But the simplest way to get a balance transfer check may be by calling the credit card company and asking for one.
Balance transfer checks are available from Chase and Citi. Bank of America also offers balance transfer checks but seems to regard them as a cash advance. Discover offers cash checks, instead, which are also treated as cash advances.
Balance transfer check alternatives
If you’re looking for ways to consolidate debt, there are other opportunities besides balance transfer checks. Malik recommended considering these options for combining debt at a low interest rate:
- Home equity loan
- Home equity line of credit
- Unsecured personal loan
- 401(k) loan
Each has its own pros and cons. With a home-equity loan, for example, the pro is a fixed interest rate, while the con is that you’re effectively using your home as collateral for consolidating debt. A 401(k) loan means you’re borrowing money from yourself at low rates, but you could be shortchanging your retirement in the meantime.
With personal loans, you’re unlikely to get a 0 percent interest rate the way you would with a balance transfer check. But you may be able to lock in a low rate for your personal loan, if you have a solid credit score. And such loans can offer the benefit of fixed monthly payments, which can make budgeting for debt repayment easier.
Comparing all the avenues for managing debt can help you decide which one makes the most sense.
Balance transfer checks are convenient if you need or want to consolidate high-interest credit card balances. When considering balance transfer offers, be sure to understand how much you might pay in fees or interest versus what you could save.
Finally, check the fine print to ensure that what you’re using is in fact a balance transfer check and not a cash advance check, which has the potential to be much more costly.
*Information about the Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.