Home Debt What is a balance transfer — and is it a good idea for debt?

What is a balance transfer — and is it a good idea for debt?

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Key takeaways

  • A credit card balance transfer is a popular option for tackling high-interest debt.

  • A balance transfer credit card typically offers a 0 percent intro APR period that allows you to save on interest payments for a limited time.

  • You can transfer more types of debt than you think, depending on the issuer of your balance transfer card.

  • Before committing to any tool to help pay off debt, commit to a sustainable plan for repayment.

Credit cards are powerful financial tools that offer an opportunity to build your credit score, accumulate rewards, manage your cash flow and make secure purchases. It’s no secret, though, that they can also pave the path to a mountain of debt.

A November 2023 Bankrate survey found that 49 percent of cardholders carry a credit card balance from month to month, a potentially expensive habit with the average credit card interest rate sitting at more than 20 percent.

The good news is that many credit cards feature a handy option for helping you dig out from under that pile of debt and avoid hefty interest charges: A balance transfer.

Learn what a balance transfer is and how it can help you get on a stronger path to healthier finances.

What is a balance transfer?

A balance transfer is a transaction that moves existing debt from one credit card to another card. If you transfer the balance from a card with a higher APR to a card with a lower rate, or even an introductory 0 percent APR period, you can save money on interest as you work to pay down the debt.

The goal is to pay off your credit card debt entirely during any introductory period.

What is a balance transfer credit card?

A balance transfer credit card features a 0 percent intro APR period on balance transfers. The longest 0 percent APR periods are usually on cards that offer little more than that lengthy intro period. However, some of the best rewards credit cards tout decent, if slightly shorter, balance transfer offers.

But, if your goal is to get out from under debt without distractions or the temptation to earn rewards, focus on choosing the card with the length of balance transfer you need and leave the rewards earning for another time.

How do balance transfers work?

A balance transfer works as a debt payoff strategy, allowing you a period of time to pay down debt without paying interest on what you owe. For example, if you have a $5,000 debt on a card with a 19.99 percent APR, you would pay about $691 in interest to pay off that debt in 15 months, with payments of about $379 monthly. On the other hand, if you transfer that debt to a 0 percent intro APR card with a 3 percent balance transfer fee, you can pay $344 monthly to pay off your debt in the same time frame and without racking up any interest.

The general process looks like this:

  1. Apply for a balance transfer card. Choose a balance transfer card that offers the length of intro 0 percent APR you need to fully pay down your debt or get as close as possible. Use Bankrate’s balance transfer calculator to compare options. One note: You usually can’t transfer a balance from one card to another card with the same issuer. If you have a balance on a Chase card, for example, you won’t be allowed to transfer it to another Chase card.

  2. Request the balance transfer. Sometimes you can initiate this process as part of your card application. If you signaled in your application that you have a balance to transfer and are instantly approved for the new card, the system may prompt you to do your balance transfer. You’ll need to provide the amount you want to transfer, the name of the issuer, your account number and other details.

  3. Wait for the transfer to complete. Once the issuer approves it, your transfer can take two weeks or more for the process to be completed. When you request a balance transfer, the bank to which you’re making the transfer will usually simply pay your existing credit card bill. That effectively moves the balance from your current account to the new one. While you wait, make sure you continue making payments on your old account so you don’t accrue late fees or other penalties. Soon, you’ll see the new balance, along with any associated balance transfer fee, in your new card account.

  4. Make a plan for paying off your balance. Now that the balance is on your new card, do the math and make a plan for paying off as much of the balance as possible during the intro period. Remember to add in your balance transfer fee and then divide the total balance by the number of months you have to pay it off in order to find your needed monthly payment.

What types of debt can you transfer to a credit card?

Some balance transfer cards allow you to transfer more than credit card debt, including car loans, student loans and personal loans. Currently, Chase and American Express are the only major issuers that don’t allow transfers of anything other than credit card debt.

Is a balance transfer right for you?

You can do a balance transfer in response to debt you accrued unexpectedly, such as in emergencies or simply through poor budgeting you’re now working to correct. You can also, though, take a proactive approach.

For example, if you have a large purchase coming up as part of a planned home improvement project, you could pay for the purchase with a rewards credit card and then transfer that balance to a balance transfer credit card. That way you both earn rewards on your big purchase and take advantage of an intro 0 percent APR period to pay it off interest-free.

Deciding if a balance transfer is the right move depends on your specific situation and financial goals. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you have a lot of high-interest credit card debt?

The primary benefit of balance transfers is avoiding interest while you pay down debt. Therefore, they are best for people with a lot of high-interest debt to pay down. By moving debt to a new credit card with a 0 percent intro APR offer, you get the chance to save money on interest — and pay down the balance at a faster pace.

Do you need time to pay off a recent large purchase?

If you need extra time to pay off a big credit card purchase, transferring the balance to a balance transfer card can be a smart move. If you manage to pay off your balance before the intro period ends, you can successfully dodge interest that may otherwise have been added to your balance.

Would you rather focus on one balance?

If juggling multiple balances becomes too much, consolidating multiple balances to one card means you have only one payment to keep up with — with a potentially lower monthly payment. Since you aren’t paying high-interest anymore, you can also potentially pay off your debt more quickly.

Are you ready to commit to a debt-payoff plan?

Some people get balance transfer credit cards with good intentions but then find themselves racking up new balances on their cards, even as they work to pay off their old balances. If you aren’t ready to commit to paying off your credit card debt without taking on new debt, a balance transfer credit card might not be the right option for you.

Would a personal loan work better for your needs?

If the amount of debt you have is larger than the potential credit limit on a new card, or if you have a low credit score or need a longer debt payoff plan, it’s worth considering a personal loan. Though you won’t find an interest-free intro period, the best personal loans from banks and other financial institutions tend to offer lower rates than credit cards do.

Dig deeper:6 times a balance transfer is a bad idea

The bottom line

If you’re under a mountain of high-interest debt, a balance transfer can help you save on interest and pay down what you owe more quickly. Before applying for a balance transfer card, analyze your bills to understand the types of debt you owe, how much and to whom. Then compare the best balance transfer credit cards on the market to find a fit with your budget and debt-payoff plan.

And learn why I’m considering a balance transfer card to pay off my own debt.

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