Will I owe interest when my credit card’s 0 percent intro APR ends?

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Credit cards with a zero percent introductory APR offer can help you fund a large purchase, cover an emergency expense or pay off debt—but what happens when your intro APR ends?

Many of today’s best credit cards offer zero percent intro APR periods on balance transfers, new purchases or both. These promotional interest rates can last for up to 18 months, giving you a lot of time to pay off your balances—but if you still have a balance on your credit card after the intro rate expires, your credit card issuer will begin to charge interest.

The good news is that you won’t have to pay back interest on an outstanding balance. After a zero percent intro APR offer ends, any balance remaining on your credit card will begin to accrue interest, but you won’t be charged interest on any previous months of unpaid balances.

Read on to learn more about zero percent intro APR credit cards, as well as what happens when a promotional period ends.

What is a zero percent introductory APR?

A zero percent introductory APR is a promotional rate offered by a credit card. Zero percent APR promotions can apply to purchases, balance transfers or both, and the intro APR rate can last as long as 15 to 18 months, depending on the offer.

During the zero percent intro APR period, you will not be charged interest on any purchases or balance transfers covered by the promotional offer. Some balance transfer credit cards, for example, only apply the intro APR period to balance transfers made within the first four months of card ownership. Read your credit card’s fine print to learn what is and isn’t covered under your zero percent intro APR promotion.

Just because you have a zero percent intro APR offer doesn’t mean you can stop making payments on your credit card. In fact, some credit issuers will end your offer early if you miss payments on the credit card, so be sure to make on-time payments every month.

When your intro APR period ends, expect to pay interest on any outstanding balance remaining on the card. When you apply for a zero percent intro APR card, the terms and conditions will clearly state what interest rate you’ll be charged after the promotion expires. In many cases, your interest rate will be close to the average credit card interest rate of 16 percent, but in some cases, you might pay considerably more in interest, especially if your credit isn’t great.

Some people wonder how to get a zero percent intro APR on an existing credit card. While applying for a new credit card is generally the best way to get one, your current credit cards may occasionally offer promotional interest rates—especially on balance transfers. These promotional interest rates might not always be zero percent APR offers, but they can still help you pay off your debt while keeping your interest costs as low as possible.

Best zero percent APR credit cards

There are many excellent zero percent intro APR cards on the market, several of which offer additional rewards such as cash back on purchases. It’s always a good idea to compare credit cards before applying, so here are three of our top picks to help get you started.

Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card: Best for balance transfers

The Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card offers a zero percent intro APR for 18 months on both purchases and balance transfers (14.74 percent to 24.74 percent variable APR thereafter). This makes it not only a top zero percent APR card, but also one of the best balance transfer credit cards out there.

If you’re hoping to use your new credit card to consolidate and pay down old balances while getting 18 months of interest-free spending on new purchases, the Citi Diamond Preferred Card could be one of your best options. This credit card is recommended for people with excellent credit, so if you’re not quite there yet, you might want to work on building your credit score before you apply.

Citi Rewards+℠ Card: Best for rewards

If you’re hoping to earn rewards on your purchases, the Citi Rewards+℠ Card might be the right pick for you. In addition to getting a 15-month zero percent intro APR on both purchases and balance transfers (13.49 percent to 23.49 percent variable APR thereafter), you’ll be able to earn ThankYou points on everything you buy—and Citi will automatically round up any points you earn.

Here’s how the Citi Rewards+ Card point structure works:

  • 2X points on supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 in combined purchases per year
  • 1X points on all other purchases
  • Round up to the nearest 10 points on every purchase
  • Receive 10 percent points back on redemption for the first 100,000 points you redeem per year

You can also earn 15,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in purchases within three months of opening your account, and these bonus points can be redeemed for a $150 gift card at thankyou.com. If you decide to apply for the Citi Rewards+ Card, make sure you read Bankrate’s guide to Citi ThankYou points so you can make the most out of your hard-earned rewards. Like the Citi Diamond Preferred Card, the Citi Rewards+ Card is recommended for people with excellent credit.

Chase Freedom Unlimited®: Best for overall versatility

The Chase Freedom Unlimited® offers a zero percent intro APR on purchases for 15 months (14.99 percent to 23.74 percent variable APR thereafter), as well as 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase. New cardmembers can earn a $200 cash back bonus after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of account ownership, plus 5 percent cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target or Walmart) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.

Flat-rate cash back cards are extremely versatile since you don’t have to worry about spending categories, spending limits or rotating quarterly rewards. The Chase Freedom Unlimited gives you even more opportunities for rewards versatility since your cash back rewards can be converted into Chase Ultimate Rewards points at the rate of 1 point per penny. Read Bankrate’s guide to Chase Ultimate Rewards to learn more about managing, combining and maximizing your Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

The Chase Freedom Unlimited is recommended for people with good or excellent credit, but before you apply, be aware that the zero percent intro APR offer only applies to purchases, not balance transfers. If you want to transfer a balance to your zero percent intro APR card, the Chase Freedom Unlimited might not be right for you.

Tips for using zero percent APR cards

Credit cards with zero percent intro APR promotions can be extremely useful. Many people take out one of these cards to fund a big purchase, such as a vacation. You can charge your vacation to the credit card right away and pay it off over time,  and as long as the balance is paid off before the promotional period ends, you won’t have to pay interest on the cost of your trip.

Other people use zero percent intro APR cards to pay for an unexpected expense. If you don’t have an emergency fund, a credit card with an intro APR offer can help you cover the costs of an emergency while giving you the opportunity to pay off your balance, interest-free.

Lastly, people often use balance transfer credit cards with zero percent intro APR periods to pay off debt. If you are carrying balances on multiple credit cards, a balance transfer can help you consolidate your debt into a single monthly payment, and you can use the card’s zero percent intro APR period to wipe out your debt without paying interest. Read Bankrate’s guide to balance transfers to learn more.

What happens when your zero percent intro APR ends?

All good things must come to an end, and that includes zero percent intro APR offers. If you still have a balance on your credit card when your zero percent APR offer ends, that balance will begin to accrue interest at the card’s regular interest rate.

If you have the Chase Freedom Unlimited, for example, you’ll get a zero percent intro APR on purchases for 15 months—but what happens to a zero percent intro APR after 15 months? Expect to pay a variable APR between 14.99 percent and 23.74 percent, depending on your creditworthiness. This APR will apply to any new purchases you make, as well as any balance remaining on your Chase Freedom Unlimited card.

If you’re carrying a balance on a zero percent intro APR card after the promotional period, it’s a good idea to pay down that balance as quickly as possible and avoid high-interest charges; you can use Bankrate’s guide to paying off credit card debt to help you get started.

You can also transfer your balance to another credit card. Many balance transfer credit cards come with their own zero percent intro APR offers, and a no-fee balance transfer card will waive your balance transfer fee if you complete your transfer within a certain time period (often within 60 days of opening the card).

The one thing you shouldn’t do after your zero percent intro APR ends is close the credit card account. Canceling an unused credit card can hurt your credit score—either by shortening your credit history or increasing your credit utilization ratio. Keep your zero percent intro APR cards open even after the intro offer ends, and make sure to use them at least once per year to keep the accounts active. If you pay off your statement balance before your grace period expires, you won’t be charged interest on your purchases (which means you can still take advantage of interest-free spending even after your intro APR period ends).

The bottom line

A zero percent intro APR credit card can help you pay down debt, cover an emergency expense or fund a large purchase. However, it’s important that you do your best to pay off any purchases or balance transfers in full before the intro APR period ends.

If there is still a balance remaining on your credit card after the promotional period ends, your credit card issuer will begin to charge interest on that balance (and you might end up paying higher-than-average interest rates, depending on your creditworthiness).

Having a plan for paying off your credit card—and knowing what will happen to your APR after your card’s zero percent APR offer ends—are key components of using credit cards responsibly.