What is a prepaid card and how does it work?

Similar to a debit or credit card, prepaid cards can be used to make purchases. But unlike those cards, a prepaid card comes with a balance that acts as a spending limit. Once you’ve spent the balance, the card can’t be used until you add more money to it.

Keep reading to better understand prepaid cards.

Key takeaways

  • Prepaid cards are similar to credit cards and traditional debit cards, but they’re not linked to a line of credit or a bank account.

  • Like credit and traditional debit cards, prepaid debit cards can be a simple and safe alternative to carrying cash.

  • Prepaid cards can be used to make purchases as long as you hold a balance.

  • There are often fees associated with prepaid debit cards.

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What is a prepaid card?

You can use a prepaid card to make purchases or pay bills—the same way you would a credit card or debit card. But similar to a gift card, a prepaid card is loaded with money in advance. You might hear prepaid cards referred to as prepaid debit cards, prepaid credit cards, pay-as-you-go cards or stored-value cards.

You can generally buy prepaid cards at banks or retail locations like grocery stores and drugstores. The cards come with either a set available balance or an option to load money onto the card. From there, you can use the card until you’ve depleted the balance. Once the money runs out, you won’t be able to make more purchases until you reload the card.

A prepaid card functions in some ways like other cards. This means you can swipe or insert it into point-of-sale systems to make your purchases and, in some cases, use it at ATMs for cash withdrawals.

Prepaid card vs. debit card vs. credit card

A key factor that differentiates prepaid cards is that they aren’t linked to a bank account like a debit card is, and they aren’t linked to a line of credit like a credit card is.

When you use a prepaid card, you’re only using the money that you’ve loaded onto it. You aren’t borrowing any money, and the card doesn’t draw from any other financial accounts you may have.

That’s why you need to reload an empty card with more money if you want to continue using it.

Why use a prepaid card?

There are several situations where a prepaid card could be helpful. Here are some of them:

  • You don’t want to carry cash: A single card can be easier to carry than a wad of bills, and it may also be a safer alternative to cash.

  • You want an extra layer of security: While a stolen prepaid card can be easy to use, a thief will only have access to the balance on the card—unlike a debit card, where they may be able to overdraw an account.

  • You want to limit your spending: A prepaid card can help you avoid spending more than the balance available on your card.

  • You need a checking account alternative: If you don’t have a checking account but want the convenience of using a card instead of cash, you may opt for a prepaid card.

  • You don’t want to impact your credit scores: You don’t need a credit check to purchase a prepaid card, so it could be a helpful short-term credit card alternative.

How do you put money on a prepaid card?

Once you’ve used the balance on a prepaid card, you have to add more money to it if you want to keep using it. There are several ways to do this:

  • Deposit money directly to the card from a checking account or another prepaid card.

  • Deposit money to the card from paychecks or other sources of regular income.

  • Reload the card at a retail location or bank using cash.

  • Purchase a reload pack to add a predetermined amount of money to your card.

Do prepaid cards build credit?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) confirms that prepaid cards generally won’t help build your credit history. When you use a prepaid card, you aren’t borrowing money, and there’s no associated line of credit. That means activity on your prepaid card isn’t reported to any credit bureaus and doesn’t impact your credit scores.

If your goal is to establish credit, you might consider applying for a traditional credit card. If that’s not an option, there are other ways to build credit from scratch, like applying for a secured credit card.

CreditWise from Capital One shows you key factors that may impact your credit scores. Plus, you’ll get email alerts when something meaningful changes on your TransUnion® credit report and more. Using CreditWise to keep an eye on your credit won’t hurt your scores. And it’s free for everyone, not just Capital One cardholders.

Disadvantages of a prepaid card

While there are some situations where prepaid cards might be helpful, they can come with certain disadvantages. 

One important thing to consider before choosing a prepaid card is whether there are fees associated with certain actions. According to the CFPB, you may be charged fees for a number of reasons, like: 

  • Withdrawing cash 

  • Making purchases

  • Reloading your card

  • Checking the balance on your card

  • Transferring money between cards 

  • Not using your card for a certain amount of time

  • Making foreign transactions

  • Using your card every month

The CFPB also points out that these fees vary in amount. 

Prepaid cards may also come with fewer protections than your typical credit or debit card. The government has taken steps to provide legal rights for prepaid cardholders, like options for reimbursement if you lose your card or have it stolen. But these protections may not measure up to those of traditional credit or debit cards.

For example, you may need to register your card in order to get assistance from the card provider. Additionally, there’s a time limit for disputing charges. After that, you may be considered responsible for them, even if fraud is involved.

Prepaid card alternatives

For anyone having trouble qualifying for a traditional credit card, a secured credit card might be a good alternative to a prepaid card.

Even if your credit scores are considered bad or poor, a secured card might be an option to help build your credit with responsible use.

Prepaid cards in a nutshell

Prepaid cards generally allow you to make purchases in the same way as credit and debit cards. The key difference is that prepaid cards aren’t linked to a bank account or a line of credit. So to use one, money has to be loaded onto the card. Keep in mind that there may be fees to activate or use prepaid cards.

If you’re looking for a payment option that allows you to earn rewards on every purchase, you may want to consider a Capital One rewards credit card. And with responsible use, like paying your statement on time each month, you could improve your credit scores over time.

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