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Banking basics: How to get a debit card

Man using debit card at Walmart
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Once upon a time, cash was king. Today, debit cards are a safer and more secure way to pay for purchases, and they’re an accepted form of payment nearly everywhere. Fewer and fewer businesses accept personal checks, and nearly all online purchases require a debit or credit card. Plus, it’s relatively easy to get a debit card.

Since a debit card is directly linked to your checking account, you don’t have to worry about racking up a credit card bill or the interest charges that ensue. Using a debit card is like writing a check, but without the hassle of filling out a piece of paper in the checkout line, and with it you can easily access cash from your checking account when needed at an ATM.

Step One: Open a checking account

Debit cards look like credit credits, but are directly connected to your checking or savings account. If you don’t already have one of these accounts, you’ll need to open one at a bank or credit union. You can complete that process online or in person, depending on your preferences and your bank’s offerings. You’ll typically need several forms of valid identification—often a combination of driver’s license, passport and/or social security card. If you’re under 18, you may need an adult to co-sign on the account.

You’ll also need to supply a form of payment to open the account. Balance minimums vary—though they can be as little as $1—so check with your bank to find out what it requires. Then fill out an application form to get the process started.

Step Two: Request your debit card

As part of the account opening process, you’ll be able to request a debit card connected with that account. In some cases, you’ll have to wait 7 to 10 business days before your card arrives in the mail. Many banks, however, offer same-day access to a debit card that you can use immediately.

Step Three: Activate your card—and start using it

Once you’ve got your debit card in hand, you’ll need to activate it. This is a quick and easy process that you can typically do by phone or online. If you choose to activate online, be sure to use a secure, password-protected internet connection to avoid would-be hackers.

Your debt card may come with a bank-generated PIN, or you can choose your own—you can often change it during the activation process, in fact. Your PIN should not be your social security number, birthday, phone number or any other number easily associated with you. Be sure to keep your PIN private.

Things to remember when you have a debit card

While debit cards are a convenient and safe form of payment, they do have some potential disadvantages. Because your debit card pulls funds directly from your checking account, it’s important that your spending does not exceed your balance or you could incur costly overdraft fees. Also, be aware that you may incur additional fees when using an ATM that’s not affiliated with your bank.