They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. While this may be true, 0% balance transfer credit cards come very close. These special types of cards enable you to transfer high interest debt to a new credit card without paying interest during the introductory rate period.
If you’re trying to pay off debt, a 0% balance transfer credit card could save you hundreds – even thousands – of dollars in interest payments. I took advantage of multiple 0% interest offers from several credit card companies, including Citi, Chase, and Discover on my own journey to debt freedom. In fact, I continued to roll my debt over to new balance transfer cards for several years until our debt was finally paid off.
While these cards may appear similar on the surface, there are significant differences from one balance transfer offer to another. For example, of all the cards we’ll cover in this article, only one comes with no balance transfer fee. The Chase Slate offers a 0% balance transfer for 15 months with no fee for transferring balances within the first 60 days.
In contrast, the Citi Simplicity Card offers the longest 0% offer currently available. The no interest deal lasts for a full 21 months, but it does charge a transfer fee. Finally, some cards offer significant cash rewards, signup bonuses, or other perks. As a result, it’s important to understand what you need from the card before selecting the best option.
To begin with, let’s review the best offers currently available based on our rating methodology that is described at the end of this article.
Our Top Overall Picks
The Best Balance Transfer Credit Card of 2016
- Chase Slate: Best for large balances
- Discover it® Cashback Match™ – Double Cash Back your first year: 14 month balance transfer + Cash Bonuses
How Balance Transfer Credit Cards Work
Balance Transfer Terminology
Let’s start with some important terminology. Here are the key terms you’ll see throughout this report and when you apply for a card:
APR: Short of Annual Percentage Rate. This is the amount of interest charged by the card on an annual basis.
Introductory APR: This is the interest rate you’ll be charged during the Introductory Rate Period (see next term). For all of the cards in this study, the Introductory APR is 0%.
Introductory Rate Period: Usually expressed in months, this is how long the Introductory APR lasts. In some cases the IRP is expressed in billing cycles, which generally are on a monthly basis.
Regular APR: This is the APR that will apply once the Introductory Rate Period expires.
Transfer Fee: The fee credit card companies charge on balance transfers. Most cards charge a fee of 3% of the amount transferred. For example, transferring $1,000 would cost $30 ($1,000 x 3% = $30). The transfer fee is added to the balance transferred, increasing the total amount of the debt. Note that most cards have a minimum balance transfer fee of $5 or $10.
Billing Cycle: The period of time used to determine the charges that will appear on a credit card bill and the interest incurred. Billing cycles are generally monthly, although they frequently do not begin on the first day of the month or end on the last day. A credit card statement reflects the charges on the card during the previous billing cycle.
How to Transfer a Balance
A balance transfer enables you to take an existing balance on a credit card or other debt and transfer it to a new card. When you apply for a balance transfer card, the online application includes a place to list the existing credit card balances you wish to transfer. For example, here’s part of the application for the Chase Slate card:
It’s here that you would list your existing credit card debt you wished transferred to the new card. Once approved for the card, the credit card company will contact the card issuers you listed in the application to initiate the balance transfer.
It’s important to continue making the required minimum payments on the old debt until you have confirmation that the balances have been transferred to your new credit card.
Types of Debt That Can Be Transferred
This can be tricky. Unfortunately, credit card issuers don’t make it easy to determine exactly what type of debt can be transferred to a 0% card. For this report, I spent hours talking to credit card issuers either on the phone or via online chat to understand what types of debt can be transferred. Here’s what I learned.
Credit Card Debt
Most balance transfers are used to pay off other high interest credit cards. As noted above, these debts can often be listed in the online application for the new card. Once approved for the card, the issuer will initiate the transfer electronically.
It can take a few days to more than a week for the transfer to be completed. During this time it’s important to make any minimum payments on your existing debt.
Non-credit card debt
Most credit card issuers today allow you to transfer all kinds of debt. There are, however, exceptions. Further, the card issuers often do not disclose what types of debt you can transfer on their websites.
For this article, I reached out to Discover, Chase, Capital One, American Express, Barclaycard, and Bank of America.
Chase: Effectively, a Chase balance transfer is limited to paying off other credit card debt. In response to a written inquiry, Chase responded that a balance transfer cannot be used to pay the following types of accounts:
- Any secured or unsecured loans issued by Chase or any of
- To debit cards
- To government agencies (e.g. IRS)
- To secured lines of credit or consumer loans (e.g. auto,
student, or home equity loans)
- To individuals (ACHs may be processed to bank account(s)
regularly used to make payments)
Credit card debt is about the only thing left.
Barclaycard: You can transfer balances from any Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express credit card online. As part of the application process, you’ll be prompted to enter the account number of the credit card balances you wish to transfer. If you want to transfer other types of debt, Barclaycard prompts you to contract them by phone once you receive your credit card: From Barclaycard’s website: “If you would like to complete a balance transfer from another account that is not a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card, please call the phone number on the back of your credit card once you are approved.”
Discover: A Discover representative informed me that you can transfer any debt not linked to a checking account. Transferrable debts include car loans, home loans and medical debt. Transfers of credit card debt can be initiated online as part of the application process. For other types of debt you’ll need to call Discover.
Capital One: With CapOne you can transfer just about any type of debt. Further, you can initiate the transfer online:
American Express: With an Amex you are limited to transferring credit card debt.
Bank of America: A representative of B of A informed me that you can transfer any debt so long as you have the 16-digit account number. I then asked what one should do if the debt has an account number with fewer digits. Just add leading zeros:
The credit limit extended by the balance transfer card is critical to managing your debt. You won’t know in advance how much credit you’ll receive, which depends on a number of factors including your credit score. As a result, there’s no way to know in advance whether the balance transfer card will have a credit limit high enough to cover all of the balances you want to transfer.
The approach I took was to apply for one transfer card at a time. You can use the available credit to transfer as much of your existing credit card debt as possible. If you still have high interest debt that you couldn’t transfer due to the credit limit, you can then apply for a second balance transfer card.
There’s one important caveat when it comes to American Express. As I was digging through its terms and conditions, I found a provision that limits balance transfers to no more than $7,500 or 75% of your credit limit, which ever is less:
Balance Transfers: Only balance transfers from accounts in your name requested within 30 days from the date of account opening will be approved. We will charge your Card account for the total approved amount of all balance transfers. No transfer will be processed if: (1) any requested transfer is less than $100; (2) the total amount of all requested transfers exceeds the lesser of $7,500 or 75% of your credit limit; or (3) charging the requested transfers to your Card account would cause your total account balance to exceed your credit limit. We will not initiate any balance transfer until at least ten days after we have mailed or otherwise provided the Card Member Agreement to you. In some cases, it may take up to six weeks to complete a balance transfer. Please be sure to make all required payments on any account from which you are transferring a balance until the balance transfer is credited to that account. You authorize us to verify the balance of such accounts. You may not transfer balances from any account issued by American Express or any of its affiliates. Additional Card Members may not request or authorize balance transfers. Your balance transfer request may be declined if any of your American Express accounts are not in good standing.
Balance Transfer Fee
The vast majority of cards charge a balance transfer fee. The standard fee is 3% of the amount transferred, with a minimum fee of $5 to $10. That means you’ll pay $30 for every $1,000 transferred ($1,000 x 3% = $30). Transfer $10,000 in high interest debt and you’ll pay a fee of $300.
The three percent fee is a great deal when compared to interest rates on credit cards that can easily exceed 15 or 20%. Keep in mind that the fee doesn’t change based on the length of the 0% offer. Even longer offers typically charge the same 3% fee that short duration offers charge. As a result, if you are going to pay the fee, aim to get the longest 0% offer you can.
As noted above, the one 0% balance transfer offer available today without a transfer fee is the Chase Slate card (so long as you initiate the transfer within the first 60 days).
Timing of the Transfer
Several cards having timing limitations that are important to understand. As just noted above, the no fee offer from the Chase Slate card applies only to transfers made in the first 60 days. Similarly, the BankAmericard Credit Card requires balance transfers to occur within 60 days in order to take advantage of the 0% offer.
Transfers from One Issuer’s Card to Another
Credit card companies do not allow transfers between their own cards. You cannot transfer a balance, for example, from one Citi card to another Citi card. As a result, if you have a balance on a Chase credit card, you’ll need to transfer it to a card issued by a credit card company other than Chase.
Balance Transfers vs. 0% on Purchases
It’s important to distinguish between 0% on balance transfers and 0% on purchases. Many of the cards listed here offer both. With 0% on purchases, there is no transfer fee. Instead, the credit card issuer agrees not to charge interest on purchases for a set period of time. The length of the 0% offer is often the same as for balance transfers, but not always.
How Much Can a 0% Balance Transfer Card Save You?
This really is the key question. The answer depends on several factors:
- Your current interest rate
- How much debt you transfer
- The balance transfer fee
- Length of the 0% balance transfer offer
To give you a more concrete idea, however, let’s look at some numbers. Let’s assume we’re dealing with $10,000 in credit card debt at 18% interest. We’ll use simple interest just to make the calculations a bit easier.
Over a 21-month period, we’d pay approximately $3,100 in interest ($10,000 * 18%/12 * 21). It actually would be a bit lower as our balance would decline each month, but it’s roughly accurate. Now let’s compare $3,100 in interest with the fees and interest we’d pay with the three best balance transfer deals:
|0% for 15 Months
No Transfer Fee
|0% for 18 Months
3% Transfer Fee
|0% for 21 Months
3% Transfer Fee
|Interest After 0% Expires*||$630||$288||$0|
|Total 21-Month Cost||$630||$588||$300|
*We assume an 18% simple interest rate. We further assume that during the 0% introductory period, the balance is reduced by $200 each month.
Keep in mind that the above numbers use simple interest, so that actual costs will vary slightly. In addition, the above numbers assume that the balance is not paid in full by the end of the 0% offer. If you plan to pay the balance in full before the 0% rate expires, the no fee balance transfer will always come out on top.
Regardless of which approach you take, all of the above options result in significant savings.
Our Top Picks by Issuer
Here are more details on the cards mentioned in this article, along with our other top picks from each of the major credit card issuers.
This is the first card anybody wanting to transfer balances should consider. It’s the only option available today with no balance transfer fee so long as the transfer occurs within the first 60 days. The introductory 0% APR on balance transfers last for 15 months. The card has no annual fee.
In addition, Chase recently added free access to your FICO® score. With the Chase Credit Dashboard, you get access to your FICO® score based on data in your Experian credit report.
You can also use the Chase Blueprint program. Blueprint gives you more control over which balances and purchases to pay down in what order. And you can also take control of your budget with spending trends. You can add authorized users, as well, to consolidate all of your household spending into one online program.
With a 21-month introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers, this card offers the longest 0% balance transfer currently available. The card has no annual fee. It doesn’t charge late fees or penalty rates, either.
This is a pretty basic credit card. It gives you access to Citi® Easy Deals and Citi® Price Rewind, which searches for a lower price on certain types of purchases. It also offers a $0 liability guarantee.
Discover it® Cashback Match™
The Discover it® Cashback Match™ card offers a long introductory period on balance transfers–0% APR for 18 months. All transfers are charged a 3% transfer fee. The card has no annual fee. As the card name also indicates, new card members get double cash back the first year.
The card offers 1% cash back on every purchase, plus 5% cash back on categories that rotate every 3 months. You can redeem your cash back any time as a deposit, statement credit, or payment at Amazon.
If you’re trying to get out of debt and raise your credit score, this card offers free access to your current FICO® score. You’ll get score updates on your monthly statement, or you can log into your online account any time for score updates. It also has no annual fee, and there’s no late fee for your first late payment. If you travel often, you’ll appreciate that this card has no foreign transaction fee, and it comes with a $0 Fraud Liability Guarantee.
BankAmericard Credit Card
This card from B of A offers 0% on balance transfers for 18 months. The transfer must be initiated within the first 60 days. A 3% fee (minimum $10) applies to all transfers. As with many of the other cards listed here, the BankAmericard Credit Card doesn’t offer other rewards.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
There’s a trade off with cards offering a 0% APR introductory rate. Those cards with the longest 0% offers typically have few if any rewards. Those cards with significant rewards often have shorter 0% offers. That’s the case with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.
The 0% introductory APR on balance transfers lasts for 12 months. That’s shorter than many of the other offers listed here. If it’s all you need, however, you do get the benefit of significant rewards. With this card you can earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days – that’s enough to redeem for a $500 travel statement credit. You also earn 2X miles on every purchase.
The Amex Everyday® Preferred Credit Card from American Express
This card offers 0% on balance transfer for 15 months. Beyond the low rate are substantial rewards. Earn 15,000 Membership Reward® points after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Earn 50% more points: Make 30 or more purchases with your Card in a billing period and get 50% extra points on those purchases less returns and credits. You also can earn 3x points at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1x); 2x points at US gas stations; 1x points on other purchases.
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card
This is an interesting option. Capital One doesn’t describe the length of its 0% offers in terms of months. Instead, this card’s balance transfer offer lasts effectively for 9 billing cycles (until September 2016 as of January 2016). In addition, the card pays 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There is an annual fee of $39.
We considered several factors in selecting the balance transfer credit cards to include in this guide:
- Credit Card Issuer: We’ve included at least one balance transfer card from each of the major issuers, so long as they met our other rating requirements listed below.
- Length of 0% Offer: The length of the 0% offer is a key factor in our rating. The minimum length to make our list is 12 months, but most offers run 15 to 21 months.
- Balance Transfer Fee: We’ve also considered any fees for transferring balances, and we rank highly those cards (just one at the moment) that do not charge a balance transfer fee.
- Annual Fee: We also looked at other fees associated with the cards, particularly the annual fee. We ranked higher those cards with no annual fee.
- Other Rewards: Finally, we considered other card benefits, including cash back rewards and sign-up bonuses.