Your Prepaid Card Isn’t a Credit Card (and Why That Matters)

Prepaid cards offer several benefits:

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  • They eliminate the need to carry cash.
  • Like a traditional credit card, you may be able to use prepaid cards to shop online, over the phone or in stores.
  • Because the cardholder determines the value of the card based on the amount of money they load onto it, prepaid cards may inherently limit overspending behavior.

According to the FDIC, while purchase and fraud protection on credit cards is more robust, some types of prepaid cards offer liability protection if the card is reported as lost or stolen.

Despite their similarities, prepaid cards are not credit cards, in the traditional sense. Here’s why that difference can have an impact on your financial life if you use a combination of the two, or just one or the other.

Prepaid cards are only as valuable as the cash on them.

At first glance, it’s tough to distinguish between a prepaid card and a traditional credit card: Both show the logo of the major card issuer, an account number and may include a chip on the card’s front. The back will include a magnetic strip, security code and, potentially, the cardholder’s signature. A prepaid card might be swiped at certain terminals, or inserted into chip-enabled terminals at the point of sale, or keyed into a website’s checkout page for online transactions — just like a credit card.

But unlike credit cards — which allow cardholders in good standing to “buy now, pay later” — when cardholders pay with prepaid cards, they can use as much money as was loaded onto the card and how much has been spent. You may have seen the term “prepaid credit card,” but the common terms are “prepaid card” or “reloadable card” when referencing a card with pre-loaded funds. When a prepaid card transaction is approved, funds are deducted immediately from the available balance. Because of this, prepaid cards may not be acceptable forms of payment for hotel room incidentals or car rentals — unless the cardholder is willing to temporarily lose access to the funds the business requires for the security deposit.

Prepaid cards may charge for use.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) points out that some prepaid cards may charge fees based on how and when funds are loaded to the card, how much or little the card is used to make purchases, and for other transactions, like checking the card’s balance.

Prepaid cards require advance planning.

Some prepaid cards are designed for extended use and allow cardholders to load funds onto the card through a number of methods, including using cash or a check at a store that sells/reloads prepaid cards; a transfer from a checking, savings or PayPal account; or using direct deposit from a paycheck. But all prepaid cards require that the cardholder have cash available. A cardholder cannot use a prepaid card as a way of borrowing to fund a financial emergency as a traditional credit cardholder might.

Prepaid cards don’t involve or build a financial history.

While many financial institutions do offer prepaid cards, cardholders don’t need to own a bank account or have “good” credit or a positive financial history to obtain or use a prepaid card. In fact, a study cited by CreditCards.com indicates that the majority of prepaid cards are obtained at discount stores.

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Because prepaid cards do not involve borrowing, credit bureaus are generally uninformed about activity on them, so prepaid cards generally do not impact a person’s credit history or credit score. Many creditors, however, report to one or more credit bureaus. Credit plays a role in many aspects of life, even outside of finance. A credit check may be required to rent housing, or even land a job. Because length of credit history is a factor in credit score calculation, using prepaid cards exclusively would not impact a consumer’s credit score.

Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.

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