Balance transfer credit cards can be a great way to save money if you're expecting to make a big purchase or looking to pay one off.
This is a Best Credit Cards category in which Money has seen strong competition, since credit card issuers are banking on you staying a customer even after the promotional period is over. For consumers and would-be applicants, this is great news: It means more competitive terms and aggressive offers as lending institutions jockey for business.
We'll take a step back for those of you wondering, what is a balance transfer? It's pretty simple: Once your application is approved, you can authorize a credit card balance transfer from your old card to your new one, which means you'll have a period of months during which you can pay down that balance without incurring interest charges. Not having to pay to service your debt can turbocharge your ability to pay it off, which is why the best credit cards for balance transfers have promotional periods of a year or longer.
Brian Karimzad, co-founder of MagnifyMoney.com says that balance transfer card offers became scarcer when the Federal Reserve started raising interest rates, since credit card APRs are closely correlated with the benchmark rates set by policymakers. But since the Fed recently implemented two back-to-back rate decreases, Karimzad suggests that the pendulum could be swinging back the other way. "If interest rates decline further, you could see the issuers be more aggressive with 0% offers," he says.
When evaluating the best balance transfer cards, we look for no additional fees — including annual fees — a long 0% APR promotional period and reasonable regular APRs. Many balance transfer cards also offer a concurrent 0% APR promotional period for purchases, as well, which is nice if you're undertaking a period of heavy spending like a home renovation, where additional costs for which you hadn't budgeted can pop up.
Winner: Citi Double Cash
•Rewards: 2% cash back on purchases, with 1% issued when purchases are made and 1% issued when purchases are paid off.
•Annual fee: $0
Why You Should Get It
The Double Cash has been a Money top pick in the cash back rewards category in the past thanks to its simple and generous rewards structure. Combined with the current balance transfer promotion the Double Cash offers — you get a whopping 18 months 0% APR on balance transfers (purchases are not included) — this is the best balance transfer credit card. This card's unique rewards structure — it gives you 2% cash back, but you have to pay off your purchases to get the full amount — is a nice incentive to help motivate you to pay off your outstanding balances sooner. Keep in mind that this card does charge a 3% balance transfer fee, which is fairly typical — and in fact, MagnifyMoney's database shows rates as high as 5%. Unfortunately, credit cards offers with 0% interest and no balance transfer fees are hard to find (although check out one potential contender below).
In general, balance transfer cards for fair credit (which credit bureau Experian defines as a score of 580-669) can be hard to get: If you're maxed out on your current cards, your credit score might not be in the range to qualify for a new card. Even if you start out with pristine credit, if you're revolving a large balance, credit can be harder to come by. And the success of any balance transfer credit card in helping manage your money depends on your financial discipline not to run up your old credit cards again once you've transferred your balances to the new one.
The EveryDay Credit Card from American Express (a previous Money winner in this category) offers a shorter window for 0% APR on balance transfers — 15 months compared to 18 months — but it is relatively unique in the category in that it comes with a 0% balance transfer fee. Even among the best balance transfer cards, no fee for transferring that balance is a rarity, according to MagnifyMoney’s database.
Money worked with MagnifyMoney to narrow down credit card options in each category to a set of finalists. Money’s editorial staff was solely responsible for choosing the winners, focusing on interest rates, fees, and perks of each card.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
(An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Citi Double Cash offered 18 months of 0% interest on both balance transfers and purchases.)