Credit cards vs. debit cards: Key differences

Credit and debit cards have a lot of things in common. They look nearly identical, and both can give you a fast and convenient way to pay—whether you’re paying in person, online or over the phone.  

But credit and debit cards also have a number of key differences. When you pay with a credit card, you’re borrowing money from a line of credit to repay later. On the other hand, paying with a debit card pulls money directly from your checking account. Learn more about how credit and debit cards work and some key differences between the two.

Key takeaways

  • The main difference between a credit card and a debit card comes down to whether you’re borrowing money from a line of credit or spending money in your checking account.
  • Credit cards can be used to build credit, while debit cards can’t.
  • There are other differences related to interest, fees, fraud coverage and rewards.

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What is a credit card?

In simple terms, a credit card allows you to borrow money to make purchases. Every time you use your card, you’re borrowing money from a line of credit.

How much you can borrow is referred to as your credit limit, which is typically based on multiple factors, including your creditworthiness. To help determine your credit limit, lenders may look at things like your payment history, how often you’ve applied for credit and more.

How do credit cards work?

As you use your credit card, purchases add up. At the end of each billing cycle—usually every 30 days or so—you’ll receive a credit card statement telling you how much you’ve spent, how much you owe and when your payment is due. By paying your credit card bill, you’re paying back the money you borrowed from the credit card issuer.

If you pay your balance in full on or before your due date every month, you may be able to avoid paying interest.

If you’re not able to pay your balance in full, check how much the minimum payment is. It’s the smallest amount you can pay each billing cycle to keep your account current. Making your minimum payment on time can help you avoid some potential consequences like late fees and penalties.

Keep in mind that if you pay only the minimum—or more than the minimum but less than your full balance—you may be charged interest on the unpaid portion of your balance.

Want to know more? Find out how credit cards work and how credit card interest works.

Benefits of credit cards

Using your credit card responsibly can help you build a positive credit history, improve your credit scores and maintain good scores. And there are a lot of benefits to having good credit scores.

But building credit isn’t all that credit cards are good for. There are plenty of potential benefits of using a credit card, including:

  • Flexibility: Credit cards can provide flexibility, allowing you to borrow money now and pay it back later.
  • Rewards: Some cards let you earn rewards on the purchases you make. And depending on the type of rewards, you may be able to redeem them for things like travel, cash back, statement credits or gift cards.
  • Fraud protection: Federal law provides consumers with some protections against unauthorized credit card use. But some issuers might provide more. For example, Capital One offers $0 liability for unauthorized charges. This means if your card is lost or stolen, you won’t be responsible for charges you did not authorize.*
  • Network benefits: Some credit cards come with benefits provided by the credit card networks. For example, some cards have travel benefits like insurance for lost luggage, coverage for trip cancellations or interruptions, and travel assistance services.
  • Budgeting: Your credit card statement can be a great way to track your expenses and help you budget.

Things to keep in mind with credit cards

Here are a few things to consider when it comes to using credit cards:

  • You could be charged interest if you don’t pay your balance in full every month.
  • There are a variety of potential fees associated with credit cards. Common credit card fees include annual fees and late fees, as well as fees for transactions like balance transfers and cash advances.
  • If you don’t use credit cards responsibly, you could hurt your credit. And bad credit scores can negatively impact applications for loans, housing, employment and more.

What is a debit card?

A debit card is linked to your checking account and allows you to use the account for purchases. Debit cards can also be used at ATMs for cash withdrawals and other transactions.

How do debit cards work?

Remember: Your debit card is linked to your checking account. So when you use your debit card to pay for something, you’re using money you already have. And funds are deducted directly from your bank account.

If you have enough money in your account when you use your debit card for a purchase, you should be good to go. If you don’t have enough money to cover a purchase, a few things could happen:

  • Transactions could be declined.
  • Transactions could be approved. And if you’ve linked your debit card to your savings account, your bank or credit union may automatically transfer funds to your checking account to make up the difference.
  • Transactions could be approved, but your bank or credit union may charge you an overdraft fee. Many banks and credit unions charge a fixed amount for overdraft fees, regardless of how much the transaction is. That means you could be charged even if you overdraw by just a penny. And as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) explains, “Some banks might charge this fee for every purchase until you put enough money in your account to pay for the things you are buying.”

Capital One provides free overdraft protection and has eliminated overdraft fees. That means that even if you don’t enroll in overdraft protection, transactions that would overdraw your account will be declined and you won’t be charged any fees.

Benefits of debit cards

There are perks to all different kinds of payment options—including debit cards. Here are a few benefits that come with using a debit card:

  • You can pay using money you already have—without carrying cash or having to write a check.
  • You can use your debit card at ATMs to get cash, make deposits, transfer money and check your balance.
  • When you use your debit card to make an in-store purchase, you can often get cash back as part of the transaction. And that can save you a trip to the ATM.
  • As the FTC explains, “You don’t pay extra money in interest when you pay with a debit card.”
  • Debit cards generally can’t hurt your credit.

Things to keep in mind with debit cards

Here are a couple of things to consider when it comes to using debit cards:

  • Fraud protection for a lost or stolen debit card varies, depending on how quickly you report it. But some banks—including Capital One—offer $0 liability for unauthorized charges. So if your card is lost or stolen, you will not be responsible for charges you did not authorize.*
  • Debit cards generally can’t help you build credit.

Additional differences between credit cards and debit cards

The biggest difference between a credit card and a debit card lies in where the funds come from. Remember, paying with a credit card means borrowing money from the card issuer, while using a debit card means spending your own money from your checking account. Here are a few additional differences:

  • Using a credit card responsibly can help build credit, unlike a debit card.
  • Credit cards can add to your debt if the statement balance isn’t paid off on time. Debit cards don’t grow your debt—you can only spend money you already have.
  • If a credit balance goes unpaid, it may accrue interest—which can add up over time. Since you’re not borrowing money with a debit card, you don’t have to worry about interest charges.
  • Some credit cards have an annual fee. Most debit cards don’t come with annual fees, although issuers may charge for other things like overdraft fees or ATM withdrawal fees.
  • Many credit cards offer rewards, like cash back or miles. But debit cards typically don’t earn rewards.

Is it better to use credit or debit?

Deciding between a debit card and a credit card depends on your personal needs and financial goals. And depending on your situation, it might be a good idea to have both.

If you’re looking to limit your spending, a debit card can help you spend only what you already have. And while you should definitely stay on top of your account activity, debit cards don’t require you to pay a bill every month.

Credit cards, on the other hand, can provide flexibility and help you earn rewards on the purchases you make with the card. And if you use credit cards responsibly, they can be a powerful tool for building and improving your credit.

Is it safer to use credit cards or debit cards?

Both types of cards are generally safe options. And they each typically have security features. But those features don’t guarantee protection, so it’s important to learn ways you can help protect your personal information.

In cases where fraud does occur, credit cards may offer slightly more protection. For fraudulent charges made with a lost or stolen credit card, you can be liable for:

  • $0 if you report the card lost or stolen before it is used fraudulently.
  • Up to $50 if you report the card lost or stolen after it has been used.

With lost or stolen debit cards, you can be responsible for:

  • $0 if you report the card lost or stolen before it’s used fraudulently.
  • Up to $50 if you report the card lost or stolen within two business days.
  • Up to $500 if you report the card lost or stolen after two business days but within 60 days of your account statement. 
  • All the money that was taken from you if you pass the 60-day mark.

If your account number was used, but your credit or debit card wasn’t stolen or lost, you shouldn’t be on the hook for the lost amount. But with debit cards, you must report the fraudulent activity within 60 days of your statement date in order to avoid liability for your loss.

In order to minimize your liability for both, the FTC recommends that you report any lost or stolen credit or debit card as soon as possible and watch your account for fraudulent charges.

When to use your credit card vs. your debit card

Whether you use a credit or debit card to make purchases depends on your personal situation and financial goals. And many people have both a credit card and a debit card in their wallet.

For example, if you’re trying to pay off credit card debt, it might make sense to pay with a debit card. That way, you can only spend money you have. And you won’t rack up more charges—that may accrue interest—on your credit card. But if your goal is to build credit or earn rewards, using a credit card might be the better option.

Credit cards vs. debit cards in a nutshell

The main difference between credit cards and debit cards comes down to whether you’re borrowing from a line of credit or using your own money.

Credit cards may also charge you interest and other fees for borrowing money, while debit cards might only incur fees if you overdraft your account. There are also differences in how federal fraud protections work for each card.

If you’re ready to explore your credit card options, you could start by comparing credit cards from Capital One. And if you find a card you’re interested in, it might be worth checking to see whether you’re pre-approved for any offers before you apply. It’s quick and won’t hurt your credit.

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