If you're already, you might be reluctant to apply for yet another , but a is a different animal. A balance transfer credit card lets you transfer debt from an old high-interest card to a new or low annual introductory percentage rate for a specific period of time -- usually between 12 and 21 months. This gives you some breathing room to pay down or pay off the transferred balance of existing credit card debt while accruing little or no interest.
When used the right way, a balance transfer credit card can give you a relatively cost-efficient way to catch up on bills and reduce your credit card debt. It can also help give you a single financial goal byinto a single payment. And the first step toward achieving financial security is getting your debt under control.
Check out CNET's top recommendations for the best balance transfer cards. We update this list periodically. If you're searching for a credit card based on other specific criteria, check out our picks for the, the and .
Best balance transfer credit card overall
The US Bank Visa Platinum Card* offers one of the longest 0% introductory APR periods, at 20 billing cycles for purchases and balance transfers (14.49% to 24.49% variable APR thereafter), combined with a relatively low 3% balance transfer fee ($5 minimum).
Long balance transfer period
The Citi Simplicity card is similar to the Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card, but the Simplicity has no late fee or penalty APR, while the standard APR for the Diamond Preferred is 1% lower (13.74% to 23.74% variable APR). If there's any chance that you could miss a payment at some point, the Simplicity could save you up to $40 and the loss of the introductory APR.
The 21-month 0% intro APR period on balance transfers and 12-month 0% intro APR period on purchases (14.74% to 24.74% variable APR thereafter) comes with a balance transfer fee of 5% ($5 minimum). The main advantage with the Citi card is the length of time you have to make a credit card balance transfer -- four months compared with US Bank's 60 days.
Low interest rate for an extended payoff period
- 1% unlimited cash back on all qualifying purchases
- 1% unlimited cash back on all qualifying purchases
The SunTrust Prime Rewards Credit Card* is different from the other balance transfer credit cards profiled here. Instead of an introductory 0% APR, SunTrust offers new cardholders three years of a low intro APR -- 3.25% variable (11.24% to 21.24% variable thereafter). (The average standard APR for credit cards is usually somewhere between 12% and 25%.)
That 3.25% variable intro APR functions similarly to a flat 3.25% transfer fee -- you're just paying it over the course of the year. And it's worth noting that the effective rate should end up being lower than a flat 3.25% fee, since your balance will decrease as you pay it off, lowering the principal.
If you need more time to pay off your debt, the SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards may be your best bet. You can see how it compares with the US Bank Visa Platinum below.
Choosing the best balance transfer credit card depends largely on how much you owe and how quickly you can pay it off. With a balance transfer card, the goal should always be to pay off the credit card balance by the end of the introductory APR period, which can have a huge impact on your ability to achieve or maintain a good.
For example, if you have a $6,000 credit card balance on a high-rate card and you can afford to pay $309 each month, US Bank Visa Platinum's 20-billing-cycle 0% intro APR period (14.49% to 24.49% variable thereafter) would do the trick. With its 3% transfer fee, you'd end up adding only $180 to your transferred balance -- compared with $1,221 with your old card, which is likely bogged down by a standard 22% APR.
If you can only afford to pay $150 each month, however, you'd need a card with a longer low-interest period. The SunTrust Prime Rewards card, for example, offers an introductory 36 months at 3.25% variable APR (11.24% to 21.24% variable APR thereafter) and no transfer fee for balance transfers made during the first 60 days. At the end of three years, it would have cost you a total of $372 in interest -- far less than a new card that offers 0% intro to start but then balloons to 20% or higher after 18 or 21 months.
Using a balance transfer credit card correctly requires some math -- but paying close attention to the numbers can ultimately save you many hundreds or thousands of dollars. And even though some banks have recently shortened or eliminated their introductory low-APR periods for balance transfers (due to increasing economic uncertainty), there are still plenty of good options in the market. Each balance transfer offer is different though, so be sure to vet each potential card and card issuer carefully before applying for a new credit card. Even if you have pretty good credit, your existing credit card debt could throw a wrench into your plans.
And when choosing the best balance transfer credit card, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Though some cards offer or cash rewards, they're mostly a distraction from the primary goal: paying down your balance.
- Some balance transfer cards charge an annual fee -- but I don't recommend any of them.
- You can't transfer balances between , so you can't transfer a Chase balance to another Chase card.
- The maximum amount you can transfer depends on a variety of factors, including your credit utilization ratio, the qualifying balance transfer, your minimum payment and whether you already have good credit or even excellent credit. Each card and credit card company is different, and each factor is determined by the card issuer after assessing your specific creditworthiness.
Glossary of terms
Introductory APR: The interest rate that's applied toward your balance transfer amount and any purchases during the initial period of card ownership (usually 12 to 21 months).
Standard APR: The interest rate applied toward balances and purchases after the introductory period ends.
Introductory balance transfer fee: The fee charged on a balance transfer during the initial period of card ownership.
Standard balance transfer fee: The fee charged on a balance after the introductory period ends.
What are the best balance transfer credit cards right now?
The US Bank Visa Platinum Card is our current pick for best balance transfer credit card right now, thanks to its long introductory APR period and low balance transfer fees. The Citi Simplicity card is also a good option -- it has a higher balance transfer fee, but a slightly longer introductory APR period on balance transfers.
How do balance transfer credit cards work?
Though balance transfer credit cards are technically credit cards, they're more like a debt-financing tool. They're better used to pay off existing credit card debt than as a payment method.
A balance transfer is when you take the debt, or balance, you owe on one card account and transfer it to another credit card account. Usually this is done with the goal of saving money, transferring debt from a high-interest account to one with lower or no interest.
While many credit cards allow balance transfers, those primarily designed for the purpose all share one main feature: an introductory 0% APR period on balances transferred to that account, typically applicable to transfers made within the first 60 to 120 days of card ownership. The introductory APR period generally lasts between 12 months and 21 months, giving you a significant period of time to pay off your balance interest-free.
While a few credit cards offer no-fee transfers, most balance transfer cards charge a fee to transfer your debt, usually between 3% and 5%. Broadly speaking, the longer the introductory 0% APR period, the higher the fee, and vice versa. So the best cards without a balance transfer fee have a shorter introductory APR period, and those with the longest introductory APR period have a 3% to 5% transfer fee.
If I still have a balance after the introductory APR period is over, can I just keep transferring my debt to a new balance transfer card?
Technically, yes. In some cases, transferring your balance two or three times might even be what's necessary to finally pay off your debt. But unless you have a firm understanding of how you got into debt in the first place and a plan for getting out of debt, you won't be working toward a solution.
While transferring your remaining debt to a second balance transfer card may allow you to pay off your balance without monthly interest or a fee, it's important to note that there are too many variables for multiple balance transfers to be a failure-proof debt strategy. For example, your card application could be denied, your credit limit could be much lower than you anticipated or your transfer request could be denied. Credit card offers could also change, making it difficult to plan ahead. For this reason I recommend selecting a card that allows you to pay off the full balance after one cycle if possible.
What's the maximum balance I can transfer to a new credit card?
The balance transfer limit is determined by the card issuer on an individual basis. Some cards may take into account your creditworthiness and account history (if applicable) when determining this amount.
The same goes for determining your credit limit. The card issuer will take into account factors like your credit score, credit utilization, income and housing payments when establishing your credit limit. Remember that the credit limit may be less than you expected and therefore less than your current outstanding balance. To successfully raise your limit, you usually need an adjustment in your financial situation, like increased income or lower housing payment, or an extended period of paying your bills on time, which obviously isn't a great option if you're qualifying for a balance transfer to take advantage of an introductory 0% APR period.
What is an introductory APR? And what is an introductory balance transfer fee?
The Introductory APR is the APR applied toward your balance (including balance transfers and purchases in most cases) for the first 12 to 21 months of card ownership, depending on the card. The Standard APR is the APR applied toward your balance after the introductory period ends. The Penalty APR is applied toward your balance if you miss more than one payment in six months, usually, but depends on the individual card and your card issuer.
The Introductory Balance Transfer fee is the fee charged for transfers made during the first 30 to 120 days of card ownership, depending on the card. The Standard Balance Transfer fee is the fee charged for transfers made after the introductory period. Note that some cards only allow balance transfers for a certain period of time.
How long will it take to complete a balance transfer?
It may take anywhere between 10 days and six weeks to complete a balance transfer, after receiving your new card and cardholder agreement. It's also important to note that some card issuers, such as Citi, make balance transfers available at their discretion, and could therefore decline a transfer request. And you should probably still pay the minimum on the old card's balance until you've confirmed that the transfer was completed, so you don't run the risk of fees or penalties.
What do I do if I have subpar credit?
Unfortunately, most of the cards recommended above require good to excellent credit scores, meaning above 670 or so. If your credit score is lower than that and you've been unsuccessful securing one of the cards above, there are alternative methods for refinancing your debt. You can call your current card issuer and try to negotiate a lower APR or explore a debt consolidation loan, which could allow you to gather all of your debt under a new, lower APR.
Can I use a balance transfer credit card to buy things?
While a balance transfer credit card certainly works like a normal credit card, it's generally not a good idea to use it to make new purchases. If you currently have credit card debt, your primary goal should be to get out of debt and avoid paying interest. When you purchase something and add new charges to your balance transfer account, you're moving in the wrong direction, especially if you're only able to make the minimum payment.
A debit card or cash is better for any new purchases while you pay off your debt, thus leaving your balance transfer account only for debt repayment. This will also help you track your progress more clearly. And keep in mind that some balance transfer credit cards still charge interest on new purchases until you pay off the entire balance (the new purchases plus whatever balance you transferred), which will only compound your debt problem.
How I picked the best balance transfer credit cards
To select my recommendations above, I primarily looked at two features: The length of the introductory 0% APR period, and the balance transfer fee. Those two factors determine the majority of the overall cost of paying off a balance when using a balance transfer card.
Given that the average credit card debt for US households is about $6,200, I used a $6,000 hypothetical balance to calculate which cards make sense in certain situations, depending on how much you can pay back each month.
List of cards researched
- Amex EveryDay® Credit Card
- Chase Slate
- Citi® Simplicity Card
- Citi® Double Cash Card
- U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card
- Discover it® Balance Transfer (no longer available)
- Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card
- BankAmericard® Credit Card for Students
- Citi Rewards+® Card
- Chase Freedom Flex℠
- Chase Freedom Unlimited®
- BankAmericard® Credit Card
- Simmons Visa®
- SunTrust Prime Rewards Credit Card
- Indigo® Platinum Mastercard®
- Milestone® Gold Mastercard®
- Applied Bank Secured Visa® Gold Preferred® Credit Card
- Surge Mastercard® Credit Card
- OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card
- Green Dot Primor Secured
- Fit Mastercard® Credit Card
- Reflex Mastercard® Credit Card
More personal finance advice
*All information about the U.S. Bank Visa Platinum Card, SunTrust Prime Rewards, Discover it Cash Back and HSBC Gold Credit Card has been collected independently by CNET and has not been reviewed by the issuer.
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