How to choose a balance transfer credit card

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 you can. 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 of 0 percent 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 make sure that paying the fee is worth it due to how much you’ll save on interest.

2. 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.

3. 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 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 17 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 play a role in 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.

Unsure if a balance transfer credit card is right for you? Check out our Credit Card Spender Type Tool where you can get personalized credit card recommendations based on your credit score, spending habits and daily needs.

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 lets cardholders earn rewards on spending while consolidating debt. This card lets you earn 5 percent back on up to $1,500 spent in quarterly bonus categories (activation required), 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.

You can also qualify for 0 percent intro APR on purchases for six months and on balance transfers for 18 months, followed by a variable APR of 15.74 percent to 26.74 percent. There’s a 3 percent intro balance transfer fee and up to 5 percent fee on future balance transfers (see terms).

Citi Double Cash Card: Best for flat-rate cash back

The Citi® Double Cash Card lets 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. There’s no annual fee, and the card comes with 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 18 months, followed by a variable APR of 17.74 percent to 27.74 percent. A 3 percent intro balance transfer fee (minimum $5) applies on transfers completed within the first four months of account opening.

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 16.74 percent to 27.49 percent. There’s no annual fee, but you’ll have to pay a 5 percent balance transfer fee (minimum $5).

Keep in mind, however, that the intro APR for purchases only lasts 12 months. If you’re looking to save on interest from purchases, too, the Wells Fargo Reflect® Card is a great choice, offering up to 21 months of 0 percent intro APR: 0% intro APR for 18 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers. Intro APR extension for 3 months with on-time minimum payments during the intro period. 17.24% to 29.24% Variable APR thereafter; balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate and fee of 3% then a BT fee of up to 5%, min $5.

The bottom line

A balance transfer can be a great step toward debt management. The best card for you depends on the amount of debt you have and how quickly you’re able to pay it off. You’ll also want to weigh any additional fees that come with the card and its rewards structure (if any).

Artur Starke
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