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A prepaid debit card is a good tool if you don't have a checking account but don't want to carry around cash. It can also be useful if you have kids, and you want to teach them about money and monitor what they spend.
A good prepaid debit card should be affordable. This means it should be free or low-cost to register for a card and to reload the card with more money. Ideally, the monthly fees are low, there's a free ATM network, and you don't pay a fee each time you use the card.
Why it stands out: The Akimbo Prepaid Mastercard is a good option for people who want help budgeting. You can open multiple cards and assign them names in the mobile app, like "Groceries" and "Gifts." You can also track and manage all the cards in your app. The first two cards are free — after that, each additional card costs $4.95 to activate.
Look out for: No free ATM network. Some of our other top picks have extensive free ATM networks, but you'll pay every time you use your Akimbo Prepaid Mastercard at a machine. Akimbo charges $0.33 for balance inquiries and $1.98 for withdrawals. The ATM provider may also charge you.
Why it stands out: Earn 1% cash back on an unlimited amount in purchases, and the money will go back into your Serve account. If you set up direct deposits onto your card, you may be able to receive your paycheck up to two days early.
Look out for: Monthly fee. American Express charges a $7.95 monthly service fee, and there's no way to waive it. (Fees are not charged for residents of New York, Texas, or Vermont, though.) You'll have to spend at least $795 per month to earn $7.95 in cash back and cancel out the monthly fee.
Why it stands out: There's no fee to open a Bluebird card, and there are no monthly service fees. You may have to pay up to $3.95 to reload your card at certain retailers, but you can reload for free at Walmart. You can also use over 30,000 MoneyPass ATMs for free around the US.
If you set up direct deposits, your paycheck could appear on your card up to two days early. The Bluebird card also gives you access to roadside assistance.
Look out for: Mobile check deposits. If you deposit a check with your mobile app, it takes 10 days to process. To deposit the check immediately, you'll pay 1% on a government check or paycheck and 5% on other checks, with a $5 minimum fee.
Why it stands out: The FamZoo card is a good option if you want to help manage your kids' money without adding them to your bank account. Assign each kid a card and put money for allowance, birthday gifts, or money for other purposes onto their cards. You can also track each card's balance and purchases from your app, as well as lock cards.
The family plan is $5.99 per month, or $2.50 per month if you pay upfront.
Look out for: Monthly fee. You can lower you overall costs by paying in advance rather than monthly, but you can't waive the fee all together.
Why it stands out: There's no fee to sign up for a Movo Virtual Prepaid Visa Card, and the company doesn't impose a monthly fee. It also doesn't charge you for reloading your card, although the third party where you reload the card may charge you.
Look out for: No free ATM network. You'll pay a $2 fee when you use a Visa Plus or Visa Plus Alliance ATM, and you may have to pay more fees if you use machines in other networks.
Here are some other prepaid debit cards we looked at and our reasoning for not choosing them as our favorites:
- American Express Serve FREE Reloads: This card doesn't charge you for reloads, but there's a $6.95 monthly fee that can't be waived and you won't earn cash back.
- Walmart MoneyCard: This is a good option if you shop at Walmart frequently, because you'll earn cash back — but cash back is limited to $75 per year.
- Fifth Third Access 360 Reloadable Prepaid Card: You might like this card if you live near a Fifth Third branch, but branches only exist in 10 US states.
- Wells Fargo EasyPay Prepaid Card: This card is a decent option if you live near a Wells Fargo branch and ATM, but there's a $5 non-waivable monthly service fee.
- Greenlight: This is another worthwhile option for families, but there's no way to deposit cash, and there isn't a free ATM network.
- Nestspend Prepaid: You can receive your paycheck early with Netspend, but its fees are higher than what you'll pay with our top picks.
- Starbucks Rewards Prepaid Card: Purchases will earn you Starbucks rewards, but you can't make ATM withdrawals with this card.
We looked at a dozen prepaid debit cards before selecting our favorites. We chose cards that were useful for a large number of people. (For example, we didn't pick the Starbucks Rewards Prepaid Card because you have to frequently shop at Starbucks to get the most out of the card.)
We chose prepaid cards that are relatively easy to use. You should be able to use a card at ATMs and have several convenient options for reloading money onto the card. If a prepaid debit card had a special perk like cash back or a budgeting feature, we took that into consideration, too.
Finally, we picked cards that are relatively affordable. Almost every prepaid card comes with some fees, but we chose ones that are pretty manageable. We looked at monthly service fees and charges for signing up for a card, reloading money, and using an ATM.
What's a prepaid debit card?
With a prepaid debit card, you load money onto a card and use it to spend money. For example, if you put $1,000 on the card, you can spend up to $1,000 before your transaction is denied due to lack of funds.
There are several ways to reload the card with more money. Most companies let you put cash on the card at places like Walmart, or you can deposit a check at an ATM and have the funds go onto the card. Some allow you to set up direct deposits so funds from your paycheck can go directly onto the card. Certain companies even allow you to link your prepaid debit card to a checking account so you can transfer funds.
It sometimes costs a fee to reload your card. Fees vary by company, and some have free options.
How is a prepaid debit card different from a regular debit or credit card?
A prepaid debit card is similar to a regular debit card, but there are some key differences. A regular debit card is attached to a checking account, but you don't need a checking account to have a prepaid card. For this reason, a prepaid card can be useful for people who don't have bank accounts but still receive cash or checks.
Unlike a credit card, a prepaid debit card doesn't usually require a credit check to qualify. If a company does require a credit check, it's a soft inquiry, which doesn't affect your score. This also means getting a prepaid card won't affect your credit score one way or another.
With a credit card, you charge money to the card and pay it off later. A prepaid debit card spends the money you've already loaded onto the card, so you don't have to worry about any payments down the road.
How do you get a prepaid debit card?
You can usually order a prepaid debit card online. But if you need access to a card immediately, you can visit a retailer — such as Walmart, CVS, or Kroger — and get one.
What are the pros and cons of prepaid debit cards?
Here are the pros of prepaid debit cards:
- You can have a debit card even if you don't have a bank account
- Carrying a card around is safer than keeping a large amount of cash on hand
- You can't overspend, as you might with a credit card
- They're useful for limiting teenagers' spending
- It's easy to qualify for one
And here are the cons:
- There are often fees for signing up, reloading money, monthly maintenance, and/or using an out-of-network ATM
- You won't earn interest on your balance as you might with a bank account
- These cards aren't attached to other banking services, like a checking or savings account
- Using a prepaid debit card doesn't help you build credit
- Some cards limit how much money you can load onto them
A prepaid debit card might be the right fit for you, just be aware of the tradeoffs and limitations.
Are there any good alternatives to prepaid debit cards?
Online checking accounts are worthwhile alternatives to prepaid cards, as long as you're comfortable banking digitally.
Many online banks don't charge you for signing up, and there are no monthly fees. Most have free ATM networks, and unlike with some prepaid debit cards like Netspend, you won't pay a fee each time you swipe your card.
Here are some online banks and banking platforms that don't require any money to get started and don't charge monthly fees:
Online banks are just as safe as brick-and-mortar banks, as long as they have FDIC insurance. (All the banks listed above do have insurance. Chime is a banking platform, and your deposits are insured by its partner bank.) But if you don't want to bank online, you may decide a prepaid debit card is a better fit.
Laura Grace Tarpley is the associate editor of banking and mortgages at Personal Finance Insider, covering mortgages, refinancing, bank accounts, and bank reviews.