Key takeaways

  • A balance transfer credit card is a type of card offering a 0 percent introductory APR period during which you can pay off your debt faster without interest.
  • With a balance transfer, you move your credit card debt from a credit card with high interest to your new card for interest-fee payments for a set period of time, often anywhere from 12 to 21 months.
  • It could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for your balance transfer to go through, and you should make payments on your card balance in the meantime.
  • Before you initiate a balance transfer, compare the variable interest rates of different cards and make a plan to pay off the amount you transfer before your promotional period ends.

A balance transfer can be a valuable tool if you’re struggling with high-interest credit card debt. Many credit card issuers offer balance transfer credit cards with introductory 0 percent annual percentage rate (APR) periods that allow you to pay down what you owe interest-free for periods of a year or longer — even up to 21 months.

With the right intro APR offer, you can avoid costly interest charges while you work to pay off your transferred balances, helping you pay down your debt faster while saving you money.

Let’s take a look at how to do a balance transfer with a credit card in five easy steps.

1. Do your research

Like many things involving your personal finances, balance transfers have pros and cons worth considering. Take the necessary time for research and reflection before applying for a new card.

Confirm a balance transfer is the right choice for you

Before you get started, take a close look at your financial situation to see if you’re in the right position to do a balance transfer. Two main factors can help determine whether that’s true:

  • Your debt. A balance transfer credit card will benefit you most if you have high-interest debt and need more time to pay it off. In most cases, you’ll pay a balance transfer fee to move the balance, so you’ll want to be strategic about how much you transfer: Enough to truly save on interest over time, but not more than necessary.
  • Your credit score. Qualifying for a top-rated balance transfer credit card is generally easier if you have a good credit score or excellent credit score of between 670 and 850. You might still be able to open a balance transfer credit card with a credit score below 670, but it may come with a shorter intro APR period. That can make it more challenging to pay down your debt before the introductory offer ends. 

Compare individual card offers

 Here are a few things to look for when comparing balance transfer cards:

  • Length of the intro APR offer. Many balance transfer cards offer zero interest for a year or more. The longer this temporary interest-free window lasts, the longer you can avoid costly credit card interest. It’s important to note each balance transfer card’s regular APR since your interest rate will eventually convert to that rate after the intro APR offer ends.
  • Balance transfer fee. Most balance transfer cards charge balance transfer fees of 3 percent to 5 percent of your balance. So, if you transfer $5,000 in debt to a balance transfer card, you could pay an extra $150 to $250 in fees. You’ll find a few credit cards that don’t charge balance transfer fees, although these no-fee transfers often come at the cost of a shorter introductory APR period. Bankrate’s balance transfer calculator can help you determine whether incurring a transfer fee makes sense for your specific situation.

Take note of the fine print

For one, be sure to take your potential credit limit into consideration. You can’t transfer a balance higher than your credit limit, and $10,000 is at the high end for most consumers. (Remember that any applicable balance transfer fees will also be deducted from your credit limit.)

Also be aware of the types of debt you can transfer. Most balance transfers involve moving debt from one or more credit cards to a new card. Though it’s less common, some issuers also allow you to transfer other types of debt, including car loans and student loans. Review the card’s terms and conditions before applying to make sure it can accommodate the type of debt you’re looking to transfer.

Finally, take the card’s variable APR into consideration before you apply. If you fail to pay off your balance within the allotted introductory window, the variable APR will kick in for your remaining balance. 

2. Apply for a balance transfer card

You can apply for a balance transfer card online in a matter of minutes. To apply, you’ll need to provide basic personal and financial data, such as your name, address, Social Security number and income. You’ll also want to make sure you have details for the credit cards you’re looking to transfer balances from on hand.

With some cards, you can begin the process of transferring balances as part of your application. In this case, the balance transfer credit card application will ask you for the credit card account number and balances you’re planning to transfer to your new card.

Keep in mind that applying for a balance transfer credit card often results in a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can temporarily decrease your credit score. However, increasing your total available credit with a new balance transfer credit card can improve your credit utilization ratio and positively affect your credit score in the long run.

After you apply for your new balance transfer card, you’ll usually find out if you’ve been approved right away. If you aren’t notified of your approval with your application, you may need to wait for an email from the credit card company. Learning that your card application is “pending” or “under review” can be nerve-wracking, but be patient — in most cases, you’ll hear back from your credit issuer within a few days.

In the event the issuer denies your application, look for a letter in the mail explaining the reasons for the denial.

3. Transfer the balance to the new credit card

While each credit card issuer’s balance transfer process is slightly different, it’s usually a simple process you can likely complete in a few ways:

  • Online at the time of application. Sometimes the card application will ask you whether you have a balance to transfer. You can initiate the process at that point.
  • Call customer service. You can call a customer service representative to initiate the transfer.
  • Through your online account or mobile app. Log into your account and request the balance transfer through the issuer’s portal.
  • Using a balance transfer convenience check. Some issuers offer balance transfer checks you can use to complete a balance transfer. Be sure to check that you’re actually using a balance transfer check and not a cash advance check if you go this route.

In any case, you’ll need to provide basic information about the credit cards you plan to transfer the balances from, including the card numbers and the amounts you’d like to transfer to your new card. You can also transfer other types of debt, like loans, with most issuers. If you need additional help learning how to transfer a credit card balance, review your credit issuer’s online resources or call its customer service line for assistance.

Looking for guidance with a specific issuer? See our issuer guides to balance transfers

4. Wait for the transfer to go through

Balance transfers take time, and you may need to wait a few days to a few weeks for your transfer to complete. It’s important to keep making payments on your old cards until your balances have been fully moved over to your new 0 percent introductory APR credit card. If you don’t, you risk running up new interest charges and fees on your old cards for missed payments.

After your balance transfer is complete, follow up with your old credit card issuers to make sure those accounts show a $0 balance. Only after you confirm the $0 balance should you stop making payments (although you may not want to close the account).

5. Pay off your balance

Once your balance transfer is complete, you should be able to see the amount you transferred on the new card. To pay your debt off faster, prioritize making payments on the balance transfer credit card.

Put the 0 percent APR introductory offer to good use by using it to pay down your debt while you aren’t accruing interest. And try to avoid adding new charges to the card.

The more money you can put toward your balance each month after your transfer is completed, the faster you’ll get out of debt. That’s because each dollar you pay during your 0 percent APR period has a bigger impact since 100 percent of it goes toward the balance you owe — and not to interest payments.

Take a look at your monthly budget and identify any areas where you can reduce spending, at least temporarily. Controlling your spending will enable you to get a handle on your current debt, all while developing healthy money habits to help you avoid getting into debt again in the future.

The bottom line

The best balance transfer credit cards can make it a lot easier to consolidate and pay down debt while saving money on interest. If your credit score is above 670, and you have debt you could manage to pay off over a 0 percent introductory interest period, a balance transfer may be a great tool to help you pay down high-interest debt.

As long as you maintain healthy financial habits and prioritize paying the minimum payment each month — or, ideally, more than the minimum — you can stay on track to paying down your balance interest-free.