Key takeaways

  • A balance transfer credit card can help you pay off existing debt by taking advantage of an introductory 0 percent APR.
  • Decide whether it’s worthwhile to transfer the debt considering that balance transfer offers typically carry a fee, and their regular APR can be considerably higher if you don’t pay off your debt within the introductory window.
  • Compare different card offers (and other sorts of loans) and determine which one works best for you, keeping in mind that even if balance transfer cards offer introductory zero-interest periods, you don’t want to rack up additional debt.

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There are many types of credit cards to choose from, and some come with more rewards and perks than others. One type, a balance transfer credit card, is even designed to help you pay down existing balances you have on other credit cards.

Ideally, you secure a 0 percent APR for a limited time, then quickly pay down as much debt as possible in that window. Balance transfer cards come with different introductory periods and subsequent APRs — and potentially a variety of additional perks — so take the time to compare options before you apply.

If you’re wondering how to choose a balance transfer credit card, here are the most important considerations.

Understand how balance transfers work

Don’t stop reading after “0 percent interest.” There are two key caveats you need to know about how credit card balance transfers work.

The first is that 0 percent offers are always for a limited time. Even though they don’t last forever, some introductory offer periods can be quite long. The best balance transfer credit cards offer up to 21 months sans interest. After the intro period ends, whatever balance you have on the card will start accruing interest at the card’s regular APR. This is why it’s ideal to pay off your entire balance before the intro period expires.

The other key consideration is the balance transfer fee. Most balance transfer cards charge a fee between 3 and 5 percent (with a $5 minimum) of the transferred balance. For example, if you transferred $1,000 of debt to a card with a 5 percent balance transfer fee, you would owe a $50 balance transfer fee. Use Bankrate’s balance transfer calculator to ensure that paying the fee is worth it considering how much you’ll save on interest. 

Know how much debt you have and consider alternatives

Take the time to figure out exactly how much debt you have, and remember that it’s possible to consolidate debt from several credit cards onto one new balance transfer card.

How much debt you have will also affect how long your debt repayment process will take. After all, it will take considerably less time to pay off $5,000 in credit card debt at 0 percent APR than it would to pay down $10,000 in debt, $25,000 in debt and so on.

While many people think of balance transfer cards as exclusively for credit card debt, you can often transfer different kinds of debts in order to consolidate your payments and take advantage of a 0 percent APR. This varies by card and issuer, but you may be able to transfer personal loans, student loans, auto loans and even home equity loans to your new balance transfer card.

If you have a considerable amount of debt to pay down, you should also evaluate whether a balance transfer card is the right tool for you in the first place. Personal loans can also be used to consolidate and pay down debt, and many let you secure a low fixed interest rate for five to seven years. Personal loans also come with fixed monthly payments and a predetermined repayment timeline, making them easy to budget and plan for. 

Check your credit score

The best balance transfer cards are typically available only to consumers with very good or excellent credit, or those with a FICO score of 740 or above. However, you may also be approved with a “good” FICO score in the 670 to 739 range.

Also, note that balance transfer credit cards for poor credit exist, though they typically come with less attractive terms and conditions for paying down debt.

Either way, it’s wise to see where you stand in terms of your credit score before you apply. Check your credit score for free to gain a better understanding of the cards you might qualify for. 

Compare card offer details

When it comes to transferring debt from one card to another, here are the most important factors to consider:

  • Length of the intro period: The best balance transfer credit cards offer a 0 percent intro APR for up to 21 months on transferred balances.
  • Regular APR: Be aware of the interest rate that will kick in at the end of your introductory period, as this will impact any remaining balance and future balances. Compare it to the average credit card interest rate right now, which is above 20 percent.
  • Fees: Balance transfer fees are typically 3 percent to 5 percent of the transfer amount. You should also consider any other fees, including if the card comes with an annual fee.
  • Intro APR on purchases: Some balance transfer cards also offer a 0 percent intro APR on purchases, although this is likely less important when you’re focused on paying down existing debt.

Choose a card with rewards and perks

If you want a balance transfer card that’s worth keeping for the long haul, you can also compare cards based on the rewards and cardholder benefits they offer. Many top balance transfer credit cards offer cash back on your spending, and some feature insurance protections or purchase benefits that can make using them for everything you buy a much better deal.

Keep in mind that balance transfers and earning rewards on spending do not always mix well. If you use your card for purchases while trying to pay off debt, you risk slowing your progress and potentially ending up worse off in the long run.

Best balance transfer credit cards

Some balance transfer card offers are considerably better than others. Here are some of the best available right now:

Discover it® Balance Transfer: Best for rotating rewards

The Discover it® Balance Transfer offers a 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 18 months, followed by a variable APR of 17.24 percent to 28.24 percent. There’s a 3 percent intro balance transfer fee, which bumps up to 5 percent on future balance transfers (see terms).

This no-annual-fee card also earns rewards on spending. Cardholders can earn 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 spent in activated quarterly bonus categories, then 1 percent back. You also earn a flat 1 percent back on other spending. Discover will even match the rewards you earn at the end of your first year.

Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for flat-rate cash back

The no-annual-fee Citi® Double Cash Card comes with a 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 18 months (transfers must be made within the first four months of account opening), followed by a variable APR of 19.24 percent to 29.24 percent. A 3 percent intro balance transfer fee (minimum $5) applies, increasing to a 5 percent fee for transfers made after the account has been open for four months.

As a flat-rate cash back card, cardholders earn up to 2 percent back on eligible purchases — 1 percent when they make a purchase and another 1 percent when they pay it off.

Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card: Longest intro APR offer

The Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card doesn’t earn rewards, but you’ll get one of the longest balance transfer offers on the market: 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 21 months (when completed within four months of account opening), after which you’ll be charged a variable APR of 18.24 percent to 28.99 percent. There’s no annual fee, but you’ll have to pay a 5 percent balance transfer fee (minimum $5).

The bottom line

A balance transfer can be a great step toward debt management, and the best balance transfer credit card for you depends on the amount of debt you have and how quickly you’re able to pay it off. Before you apply, weigh any additional fees that come with the card and its rewards structure (if any), as well as potential alternatives.