How to choose a balance transfer credit card
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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. Balance transfer cards come with different introductory periods and subsequent APRs as well as a variety of additional perks (or not), so you’ll want to take 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 we’ll discuss below:
1. 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 intro offers 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 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 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 due to how much you’ll save on interest.
2. 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 actually transfer different kinds of debts in order to consolidate your payments and take advantage of 0 percent APR. It varies by card and issuer, but you may be able to transfer personal loans, student loans, auto loans and even home equity loans.
If you have a considerable amount of debt to pay down, then you should also consider whether a balance transfer card is the right tool. After all, 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 repayment timeline, so they are easy to budget and plan for.
3. 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 able to 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 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.
4. 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 intro period: The best balance transfer credit cards offer up to 21 months or more of a 0 percent intro APR 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 19 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.
5. 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 rewards on spending and balance transfers do not always mix well. If you use your card for purchases while trying to pay off debt, you’ll slow your progress and potentially end up worse in the end.
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 16.24 percent to 27.24 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 while consolidating debt. 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 all other spending. Discover will even match all the rewards you earn after the 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, followed by a variable APR of 18.49 percent to 28.49 percent. A 3 percent intro balance transfer fee (minimum $5) applies on transfers completed within the first four months of account opening.
As a flat-rate cash back card, cardholders earn up to 2 percent back on every purchase they make — 1 percent when they make a purchase and another 1 percent when they pay it off.
Citi Diamond Preferred Card: Longest 0% intro APR
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, after which you’ll be charged a variable APR of 17.49 percent to 28.24 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.