Everything you need to know about balance transfer checks

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If you want to consolidate and pay off your credit card debt, a balance transfer credit card can help you get the job done—and the best balance transfer cards offer a 0 percent introductory APR on transferred balances for a year or more, giving you time to pay off your debt without accruing interest on your transferred balance.

But what about balance transfer checks? Does a balance transfer check work the same way as a balance transfer credit card, and can you use transfer checks to pay off outstanding credit card debt?

Yes and no. Balance transfer checks can help you pay off credit card debt, but they don’t always come with the same perks as a top balance transfer credit card. Plus, not all credit card issuers offer balance transfer checks—if you want Chase balance transfer checks, for example, you can request them online or over the phone, but if you want Capital One balance transfer checks, you’re out of luck.

What do you need to know about balance transfer checks? Let’s take a close look at how balance transfer checks work, how to request a balance transfer check and whether using balance transfer checks to pay off debt is a good idea.

What is a balance transfer check?

A balance transfer check is a paper check provided by a credit card issuer. As the name implies, a balance transfer check allows you to transfer a balance from one credit card to another—but instead of making a direct online transfer, you’re writing a check against one credit card so you can pay off another credit card’s balance.

Let’s use an example to make it a little easier to understand.

Imagine that Credit Card A comes with free balance transfer checks. You decide to use one of your balance transfer checks to pay off a $1,000 credit card balance you’re currently carrying on Credit Card B. You make your balance transfer check out in the amount of $1,000 and use it to make a payment against Credit Card B.

At that point, Credit Card B’s balance is cleared out—but Credit Card A has $1,000 added to its balance (plus any associated balance transfer fees) since you just used a balance transfer check to borrow $1,000 from Credit Card A to pay off Credit Card B.

That’s how a balance transfer check can help you consolidate your debt and manage your credit card balances. If Credit Card A offers lower interest rates than Credit Card B, for example, transferring a balance from Credit Card B to Credit Card A could save you a lot of money in interest charges.

How do balance transfer checks work?

Balance transfer checks work a lot like balance transfer credit cards. Both transfer checks and balance transfer cards allow you to transfer a balance from one credit account to another. In both cases, the amount you transfer cannot exceed your balance transfer card limit—that is, the balance you transfer to your credit card cannot take you over your total credit limit on that card.

Both balance transfer checks and balance transfer credit cards often come with balance transfer fees. This means you’ll pay a fee for every balance you transfer, often in the form of a percentage of the transferred balance. Most balance transfer credit cards offer balance transfer fees that range between 3 and 5 percent, which means you’ll pay between $30 and $50 in fees for every $1,000 you transfer. Balance transfer checks, on the other hand, can have significantly higher balance transfer fees—which is why you should always read the fine print before using a balance transfer check to consolidate your debt.

You should also make sure you’re dealing with a balance transfer check and not a convenience check, which allows you to take out a cash advance against your credit card. While you can use a cash advance to pay off credit card debt, convenience checks typically come with high APRs and significant cash advance fees. Knowing the difference between a balance transfer check and a convenience check can help you avoid an expensive mistake.

There’s one more reason to read the fine print before using a balance transfer check: to find out what your balance transfer APR will be and whether you’ll get to take advantage of any 0 percent introductory APR promotions. While the best balance transfer credit cards offer a 0 percent introductory APR on balance transfers for a year or more, not all balance transfer checks offer the same 0 percent APR benefits. If your balance transfer checks include a 0 percent intro APR period, great—but if they don’t, you’ll start paying interest on your balance as soon as it is transferred.

By understanding the terms, APR and fees associated with your balance transfer checks, you’ll be able to decide whether they will be good tools to help you pay off your credit card debt—or whether you’ll be better off applying for a balance transfer credit card.

How to request a balance transfer check, by issuer

Each credit card issuer has its own method of issuing balance transfer checks. Some credit card issuers, such as Citi, preemptively mail balance transfer checks to eligible cardholders. Other issuers allow you to request balance transfer checks—if you want Chase balance transfer checks, for example, you can request your checks online or over the phone.

In some cases, issuers may not offer balance transfer checks at all. Neither Capital One nor American Express currently offer balance transfer checks, although both issuers still allow cardholders to complete a balance transfer online.

Here are how three major credit card issuers handle balance transfer checks:

Issuer Chase Bank of America Citibank
Balance transfer check policy Request a balance transfer check online or over the phone Request up to three balance transfers at once Receive a balance transfer check from Citi in the mail
Transfer amount No more than $15,000 within a 30-day period Total amount requested can’t exceed your credit limit Total amount requested can’t exceed your credit limit
Additional notes Balance transfer checks are treated the same as a direct deposit cash advance You cannot request a check online or over the phone

Is using a balance transfer check a good idea?

If your balance transfer check offers benefits on par with today’s best balance transfer credit cards, then using your balance transfer check to consolidate debt and pay off old balances is a good idea. On the other hand, balance transfer checks that come with high fees and high balance transfer APRs are rarely your best choice—especially because there are many balance transfer credit cards that may be offering lower fees and better terms.

When to use a balance transfer check

If your balance transfer check offers an introductory 0 percent APR period of at least a year and comes with a balance transfer fee that’s lower than 5 percent, using the check might be a good option. If the transfer check has high balance transfer fees and doesn’t offer an extended 0 percent introductory APR period, you might be better off with a balance transfer credit card.

Alternatives to balance transfer checks

Balance transfer checks aren’t the only way to get rid of credit card debt. If you’re not interested in using a transfer check or balance transfer card to pay off debt, you might want to consider other popular debt repayment methods such as the snowball method or the avalanche method. You could also use a low-interest personal loan to pay off your credit cards, or work with a credit counseling service to learn how to create a budget, consolidate your debts and more.

Want more debt guidance? Use Bankrate’s credit card debt resources to discover tools that can help you manage your debt, including debt repayment calculators, advice on whether to pursue debt settlement and tips on how to repair your credit.

The bottom line

Balance transfer checks can help you consolidate your credit card debt and pay off old balances—but not all balance transfer checks offer the same terms as today’s top balance transfer credit cards. In some cases, using a balance transfer check to pay off debt will be less cost-effective than applying for a balance transfer credit card.

Before you use a balance transfer check to transfer a balance, make sure you read the fine print. That way, you’ll know whether the APR and fees associated with the balance transfer check are comparable to the 0 percent introductory APR offers and low balance transfer fees offered by the best balance transfer credit cards—and whether using your balance transfer check to pay off debt is a good idea.