Credit and Debit Card Locks: What They Are and How They Work


You may not realize that many credit and debit cards have a security feature that allows you to lock or freeze your account for a period of time. This is primarily a great way to stop your credit card from making purchases if it is stolen or temporarily misplaced, though the card lock feature can also come in handy for other purposes.

Not that long ago, if you lost your credit card, your only option was to notify your credit card issuer, cancel your card, and wait for a replacement card to show up in the mail. This could take up to seven business days, which was an especially huge hassle if it was your only credit card and you needed it right away. And good luck if you were on vacation (although even then, most credit card companies would expedite the process in an emergency).

Fortunately, this isn’t your only option anymore. Most credit card issuers now offer a credit card lock option, which can majorly save the day when you’re in a bind. Now if your card is lost, you can make sure it won’t be used by anyone else until you find or replace it!

Keep reading to learn about how credit card locks work, the situations in which credit line locking can prove to be an invaluable option, and other ways to keep your credit card account safe from fraudulent charges.

How does a credit card lock work?

Most credit card issuers offer a card lock feature that allows you to essentially pause your credit card whenever you want. Locking — or “freezing,” as some credit card companies refer to it — your card renders it unusable for new purchases.

The most common reason for locking your credit card is when you misplace it but don’t think it’s stolen, says Rachana Bhatt, head of credit cards at PNC Bank.

“Locking your credit card means temporarily disabling it to prevent unauthorized use. It’s a useful security feature if you’ve misplaced your card but think there is a good chance you’ll find it.”

With the card lock feature, you don’t have to go through the trouble of canceling your card and ordering a new one — which will also give you a new account number. This creates a whole new hassle for you, as your credit card number will need to be updated on all your recurring transactions, such as streaming services and automatic bill payments.

The convenience of quickly enabling credit card locks gives you the opportunity to look for your card without worrying that it might fall into the wrong hands. Best of all, it’s easy to do from your online credit card account or your bank’s mobile app, says Ian Wright, Director at Business Financing.

“Locking your card is commonly done via an app, with the vast majority of online banking apps now offering this as a core feature as a means of fraud and theft protection should your card be stolen or otherwise misplaced.”

Transactions prohibited by card locks

Although your bank or credit card company may have different rules regarding credit card locks, in general, these are the types of new transactions that won’t be allowed when your debit or credit account is frozen:

Transactions allowed during card locks

Some activity will still continue even when your card is locked. Most notably, transactions flagged by a merchant as recurring, such as automatic bill payments and subscription services, should go through as usual. Other transactions you can expect to continue include the following:

  • Credits or other adjustments
  • Credit card payments
  • Fees
  • Interest
  • Rewards redemption
  • Overdraft protection transfers
  • Subscription charges
  • Scheduled bill payments

Super Tip

Check with your credit card issuers or banks to find out exactly what charges will and won’t go through when you initiate a credit card lock. You don’t want to find out too late that some recurring charges failed due to the card lock.

How long does a credit card freeze last?

It’s important to note that some cards stay locked indefinitely, such as credit cards issued by Capital One. Others will expire after a period of time, as is the case with an American Express credit card, which automatically lifts the card lock after seven days. Make sure you understand the policy on your credit or debit card in case you ever need to activate a credit card lock.

“Remember that [some] locks are only temporary. That’s why it’s important to call and report your card lost or stolen if it’s gone for good — fraudulent transactions can still occur after the lock is lifted,” says Ashley Fricker, senior editor at

Reasons to use a credit card lock

As mentioned previously, one of the best times to activate a credit card freeze is when you can’t find your credit card and want a little extra time to look for it. The temporary hold means you don’t have to cancel the card right away because you won’t have to worry about someone else running up a hefty tab of new purchases in your name. However, there are a few other scenarios in which you might want a locked card.

Your card is stolen

Even though you’re typically not responsible for fraudulent charges when your credit card is stolen, it’s not a bad idea to lock your card as soon as you realize it may be compromised. You’ll still want to immediately report the theft to your credit card issuer, but locking the credit card prevents any additional criminal activity.

You want to avoid making impulse purchases

If you think impulse spending is an issue for you, activating the card lock might make you think twice before making purchases you don’t need or can’t afford. Of course, you can deactivate the card lock easily enough, but that extra step could buy you time to reconsider that impulse buy and save you from further credit card debt in the process. It’s certainly worth a try!

You want to limit authorized users’ spending

Maybe you have a kid in college who’s an authorized user on your credit card, but they don’t always remember that the credit card is only supposed to be used for emergencies or purchases that you agree to. In that case, you can activate the card lock and only unlock it when you’ve approved a purchase.

You can also block an authorized user from using your credit card altogether. For example, maybe you authorized a friend or family member as a user to help them build credit (which in itself is a great idea), but you don’t actually want them to be able to use the card. Notes that if you do this, though, it should be with a credit card you rarely use yourself because a card lock will also prevent the main cardholder (you) from making new purchases.

You’re generally worried about fraud

If you’re nervous about credit card fraud in general, you can enable locks on all your cards and simply lift each credit card freeze whenever you need to use the card. This may not be necessary if you’re already fairly vigilant with your credit card use, but it never hurts to have another level of security.

“Personally, I wouldn’t say it makes sense to keep your card locked when you’re not using it, but it helps to be aware of how to do it within your banking app so that you know how to turn on the card locking function should you quickly require it,” says Wright.

You want to maintain an old credit card

Some credit card issuers will cancel your account if you never use the card. However, for a variety of reasons, you may want the credit account to remain open. In that case, you can keep some recurring transactions, such as one or two subscriptions, on the account to keep it active and turn on the card lock as a precaution against unauthorized usage.

Steps to lock or unlock a card

Banks and credit card issuers will offer slightly different ways to lock and unlock credit cards, but most credit card locks should have the same basic steps:

  1. Log in to your credit card account (online or mobile banking app).
  2. Select the credit card you wish to lock or unlock (if you have more than one).
  3. Navigate to the help, support, security, or account services page (this will vary by the card issuer).
  4. Select the option to either lock or unlock the card.

It’s a good idea to go through your various bank and credit accounts so you know the exact process to activate a card lock should you need to. It’s also smart to find out if your credit issuer offers card locks in the first place. Pretty much all of the biggest credit card issuers have a card-locking feature, but some smaller banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers may not. If your card is from a smaller financial institution that doesn’t offer the option to lock your card, then if it ever goes missing, you should cancel it right away to be on the safe side.

Super Tip

Did you know you can also change your PIN number? If you tend to use the same PIN across multiple credit cards (which is not recommended) and one of your cards has been compromised, you may want to change your PIN on your other accounts as an extra level of security.

Tips to avoid credit card fraud

Thanks to the abundance of credit card fraud and identity theft, you can never be too careful when it comes to protecting your credit cards and your personal information. Here are some steps you can take to keep your finances safe:

Be careful where you shop

Experts agree that one of the best ways to keep your credit card account safe is to be mindful of where you’re shopping, especially online or in other potentially less safe situations, says Bhatt.

“When accessing your financial data, choose secure Wi-Fi networks and avoid public ones. Additionally, be cautious about where and how you use your card. Only shop with credible merchants and look for URLs starting with “https” to ensure a secure connection.

“When it comes to payment methods, opt for dipping or tapping your card over swiping, as these methods offer stronger security features. This is especially important at unattended stations, such as fuel pumps or self-checkout.”

Wright adds, “Many credit card owners feel protected from potentially fraudulent stores because of the increased protection on a credit card versus a debit card, but you absolutely do still need to be aware of a) where you’re shopping and b) how you approach your online purchasing activity to ensure that you avoid being a victim of fraud at all costs.”

Super Tip

“My main tip on keeping your credit card safe from fraud is to conduct your online shopping specifically with stores that you trust rather than taking chances.” — Ian Wright, Director at Business Financing

Pay close attention to all your credit accounts

“Locking your card is an excellent security feature, but it shouldn’t be your only safety measure,” says Bhatt. “Make it a habit to regularly check your account for unauthorized transactions. Even a transaction with a small dollar amount is worth the call, as they could be a precursor to larger transactions. To bolster your safety further, a proactive measure you can take is setting up transaction alerts for real-time updates.”

Use a digital wallet

If your physical wallet is bulging with cards and other detritus, it can be easy to lose track of your credit cards and possibly not even notice if one is missing before a less-than-honest individual has scooped it and gone on a shopping spree. To avoid this scenario, you can save your most used credit card numbers into your digital wallet and leave the physical cards at home.

Keep in mind, however, that not every merchant offers the option to pay with a phone, so you should plan to keep one or two credit cards on hand just in case. To cover all your bases while keeping your physical wallet light, you may want to carry one debit card and one credit card on you at all times. Again, make sure you know how to quickly activate the card locks if needed!

Freeze your credit reports

Another tip that will prevent a broader range of fraudulent activity is to freeze your credit reports, advises Fricker.

“In addition to locking individual credit card accounts, you can also freeze access to your credit reports. This ensures no one can open a new card account or other type of loan without a secret code you establish with the credit bureau.”

If you choose to take this precaution, which prevents creditors from accessing your credit reports at all, you will need to notify each of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax — individually. Alternatively, you can activate a fraud alert on your reports, which alerts creditors that you may have been a victim of fraud and encourages them to take extra precautions before approving credit in your name.

Key Takeaways

  • A credit card lock stops anyone (including you) from making new purchases while still allowing previously authorized charges to go through, such as recurring subscription payments or automated monthly bills.
  • You can activate a credit card freeze from your online account or through the credit card issuer’s mobile app.
  • Credit card locks come in handy when your card is temporarily misplaced, lost, or stolen to prevent anyone else from making new purchases with it.
  • Aside from preventing fraudulent charges, a credit card lock can also be used as a tool to prevent impulse shopping, to curb spending by a family member or other authorized user, or to keep an old credit card active and secure from unauthorized use.
View Article Sources
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  4. Free credit freezes are here – Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
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