A Complete Guide to Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Find out how to get out of debt without paying interest on your credit card balance.

Half of Americans carry credit card debt. If you’re one of them and your goal is to be debt-free, not paying interest on what you owe is a great way to start.

Consider moving your high-interest credit card debt to a balance transfer credit card. Balance transfer cards give you up to 21 months to focus on reducing your debt without paying interest, which could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

What are balance transfer credit cards?

Balance transfer credit cards are regular credit cards that allow you to combine your balances from other cards. Many balance transfer credit cards sweeten the deal by offering low-interest rates (as low as 0% APR) for a limited time on transferred debt. Their purpose is to consolidate debt and save you money on interest payments. The best balance transfer cards offer an introductory rate of zero percent for periods ranging from 12 to 21 months.

What does 0% APR mean?

The first thing you need to understand about balance transfers is that a 0% APR does not mean a balance transfer is always free. Most balance credit cards charge a transfer fee that ranges from 3 – 5% of the debt balance. On a $15,000 debt — which is about the average credit card debt for an American household that carries a balance — that’s $450 to $750 in transfer fees.

The good news is that there are a handful of credit cards on the market, such as Chase Slate, BankAmericard, and Barclaycard Ring (no 0% APR intro rate) that don’t charge a balance transfer fee.

How to use balance transfer credit cards?

Balance transfer cards have great teaser rates. It doesn’t get much better than 0% APR. The problem is once the introductory rate expires, their standard rates are often higher than those of your average credit card.

The secret is to either pay off your balance before the intro rate expires or transfer the pending balance to another 0% APR credit card. Another option is to pay your credit card debt with a low interest personal loan. You probably won’t find a personal loan with a 0% APR (unless you ask your Mom for one) but personal loans do have the advantage of fixed monthly payments and a set pay off date.

Who qualifies for a balance transfer credit card?

Balance transfer cards typically have large lines of credit and are only available to people with good to excellent credit. The eligibility criteria differ from card to card, but credit card companies typically look for consumers with:

  • A solid credit history
  • High credit scores
  • And regular incomes

Which card should you choose?

The first step to determining which balance transfer credit card is best for you is to note which bank issued your current credit card. For example, if you have a balance on a Chase credit card, you can’t transfer it to the Chase Slate. Credit card issuers offer these benefits to gain new customers, so it doesn’t make sense for your bank to offer you a break on interest if it’s already making money off you.

Second, consider your other needs and preferences. For instance, if you want to minimize fees and earn rewards as you pay off your debt, choose a card with no annual fee and a decent rewards program, such as the Amex EveryDay credit card. However, the Amex EveryDay would not be a good card for you if you travel a lot, because it charges a 2.7% foreign transaction fee and American Express cards are not always accepted abroad.

Third, invest some time in comparing the balance transfer credit cards available. You may be leaving money on the table if you just go with the last credit card offer you received in the mail.

SuperMoney’s comparison tools make it easy to find the best balance transfer credit card for you. Take five minutes to see which card suits your lifestyle.

WEIGH THE RISKS & BENEFITS

A balance transfer credit card is a great opportunity to get out of debt without paying interest. However, there are pros and cons to consider. Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks of balance transfer credit cards.

Pros
  • Lower credit card interest rate - As low as 0%!
  • Option to move your balance to a credit card with better terms
  • Consolidate your debt into a single payment
Cons
  • Your interest rate could be higher after the introductory period
  • Balance transfer fees can get expensive
  • A balance transfer could ding your credit score

How who to make the most out of balance transfer credit cards:

  • Transfer all your high-interest debt to the balance transfer card with the longest introductory rate and cheapest transfer fee you can find.
  • Try to pay off the entire balance within the introductory period.
  • If you still have a balance when the 0% APR expires, consider transferring your balance to a balance transfer card of another company or paying it off with a low interest personal loan.
  • Don’t forget to include balance transfer fees when calculating the total cost of a balance transfer.
  • Use SuperMoney's comparison tools to find the best balance transfer credit card for your lifestyle.

How to prepare?

You may have to work a little before you qualify for a top balance transfer credit card. Here are three things you can do to improve your credit score before you apply:

  • Check your credit report and score. Don’t apply if you don’t meet the card’s minimum credit score requirement.
  • Ask the credit bureaus to remove any negative items on your credit report that are not correct or accurate.
  • Pay your bills on time.