Best Balance Transfer Cards for February 2021
Balance transfer credit cards can be a tool to help you get out of debt, but only if they are used in the right way. See how to find the best card for your needs.
If you're determined to reduce the interest you pay every month so you can tackle debt, then a balance transfer credit card may be a helpful tool for you.
With the right card, you can pay debt off faster and save money in the process.
But which card has the best offer for your situation?
What We Surveyed
We evaluated a dozen of the most prominent balance transfer cards in three categories that work best if you…
- ... need a long period of time to pay off the balance
- ... want the best ongoing APR for the long term
- ... don't want to pay a balance transfer fee
Following our picks, we explain the ins and outs: how balance transfer credit cards work, how to choose a balance transfer card, and the fastest way to get out of debt.
Best Balance Transfer Card for Longest Payback Period - Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offer
A big attraction of balance transfer cards is an initial payback period with a low or no interest rate.
With several cards offering a 0% initial payback period, the length of this payback period becomes a key consideration.
This category was ranked primarily based on the length of the 0% initial payback period.
For cards with the same length of payback periods, the balance transfer fee and ongoing APR were used as tie-breakers. When those were similar, we took a look at things like ongoing perks and, as applicable, rewards opportunities.
Intro Balance Transfer APR: 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months
Ongoing APR: 13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)
Balance Transfer Fees: 3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
Annual Fee: $0
Credit Needed: Excellent
Pro Tip: The combination of a long payback period with a reasonable balance transfer fee as well as the opportunity to rack up nice cash-back rewards on an ongoing basis, make this a solid choice.
Intro Balance Transfer APR: For a period of 18 months, enjoy a 0% intro APR on balance transfers (and on purchases).
Ongoing APR: 14.74% - 24.74% Variable
Balance Transfer Fees: 3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum
Annual Fee: $0
Credit Needed: Excellent
Pro Tip: Customers who expect to take a long time to pay off their credit card debt may find that the longer 0% payback period for the Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card card could more than make up for the balance transfer fee.
Best Balance Transfer Card with No Fee - Simmons Visa®
While a major goal of using a balance transfer credit card is to save money on interest, in many cases this will cost you money right off the bat in the form of a balance transfer fee.
A balance transfer fee is usually applied as a percentage of the amount of money you are transferring. When comparing balance transfer cards, it is important to know what that initial cost will be because it will eat into any other financial benefits of the new card.
The following cards were chosen primarily for their ability to minimize that balance transfer cost.
The Simmons Visa® card was one of only two in the study that charge no balance transfer fee. Of the two, it was rated first because of its lower APR.
Balance Transfer APR: There isn't a 0% interest period with this card; but there is a very low regular APR, so it's quite possible you'd save money transferring a balance to this card even without an intro 0% offer.
Ongoing APR: 8.25% variable
Balance Transfer Fees: None
Annual Fee: None
Credit Needed: Excellent
Pro Tip: Note that, while this card does not charge a balance transfer fee, it does not have the benefit of a 0% introductory rate. Therefore, the Simmons Visa® card may be best for people who intend to pay off their balance in full very quickly, so their interest charges don't exceed the savings from paying no balance transfer fee.
The Simmons Rewards Visa Signature®card was one of only two in the study that charge no balance transfer fee. It was rated second of the two because its interest rates are higher, though it does offer rewards benefits.
Balance Transfer APR: Once again, there isn't a 0% intro APR for balance transfers, but the ongoing APR is low so you could still save money if you're transferring a balance from a card with a higher rate.
Ongoing APR: 10.25% variable
Balance Transfer Fees: None
Annual Fee: None
Credit Needed: Excellent
Pro Tip: Note that, while the Simmons Rewards Visa Signature® card does not charge a balance transfer fee, it does not have the benefit of a 0% introductory rate. Therefore, this card is best for people who intend to pay off their balance in full very quickly, so their interest charges don't exceed the savings from paying no balance transfer fee. In choosing between this and the other Simmons card, consumers should consider whether the value of the rewards this card offers make up for its higher interest rates.
How Balance Transfer Cards Work
The easiest way to think of a balance transfer card is that it lets you use one credit card to pay off another.
Why would that make sense? After all, just moving a credit card balance around doesn't reduce your debt.
But doing so can work to your advantage if the new card has a lower interest rate than the old card. That would allow you to reduce the interest expense on your credit card balance.
When you reduce the interest expense, more of your payments go toward paying down what you owe rather than toward paying interest to the credit card company. With the special promotions that are common to balance transfer cards, these interest savings can be significant.
You see, many balance transfer cards charge 0% interest for a limited period of time. During that time, you have a chance to pay down your credit card balance without racking up any more interest expense.
However, that 0% interest rate only applies during an introductory period. After that, a more normal interest rate kicks in.
Even during the 0% introductory period, using a balance transfer card may not be cost-free. There is typically a one-time charge for transferring a balance from another card. This charge is assessed as a percentage of the amount transferred; so the more you transfer, the more it costs.
In addition, some cards charge an ongoing fee for as long as you maintain the account.
Choosing a Balance Transfer Card
Given this background, there are some key features to consider when looking at balance transfer cards:
In many cases, this can be as low as 0%, offering the potential for significant savings during the introductory or "payback" period.
Length of payback period
If there is a 0% introductory rate, then, naturally, the longer it lasts the better. Of particular relevance is whether you are likely to pay off your balance during the introductory period.
Balance transfer fee
It may cost you some money right off the bat just to transfer your balance. You need to know how much and whether you can save enough during the introductory period to make up for it.
Note: When these fees are assessed as a fixed dollar amount rather than as a percentage of the balance transferred, it may not be cost-effective to transfer small balances.
Ongoing interest rate
What rate does the card charge beyond the payback period? While this may well change by the time the payback period has expired, knowing the ongoing rate can help you judge how competitive the card is under current conditions and, in particular, how it compares with your current rate. This is especially important if you expect it will take longer than the payback period to pay off your balance and/or if you plan to continue to use the card for new purchases.
Interest rate range
When checking the ongoing interest rate, you are likely to see a range of rates listed. These ranges are often quite wide, such as 15.99% to 25.99%. The rate you would get depends very much on your credit history.
Naturally, customers with better credit would get rates toward the lower end of the range while customers with poorer credit would pay rates toward the higher end of the range.
You should take the rate you are likely to get into account while assessing how a credit card offer compares with your current card and other alternatives.
Some credit cards charge annual fees. These are often assessed as a fixed dollar amount and could represent a particularly high percentage of smaller balances. You should check to make sure any maintenance fees would not wipe out the interest savings you might get from a balance transfer card.
Optimize the 0% payback period
In order to weigh the costs and benefits of using a balance transfer card, you need to have a plan. You should know what a card is likely to cost given your credit score, how much of a balance you intend to transfer and how long it will take you to pay down that balance.
In the best-case scenario, you would pay off your balance during the 0% payback period. That way, you may pay a balance transfer fee and possibly some maintenance fees; but when you add up the cost of doing that, it is likely to be a lot less than if you had continued to pay your normal credit card interest rate.
However, if you don't think you can pay off the credit card balance during the 0% payback period, things get a little more complicated. In that case, you have to look at what the rate on the new card would be after that period expires.
It might be tempting to think that, when the introductory period ends on one card, you can simply find another 0% card onto which you could transfer the balance. However, if you open credit card accounts too frequently, it might damage your credit score.
Also, a danger of repeatedly transferring balances is that you might just be freeing up the credit limits on old cards for more spending. In that case, a balance transfer card wouldn't be a tool for getting you out of debt but, rather, one that could get you deeper in the hole.
In short, signing up for a balance transfer card is not enough. A real debt-reduction strategy has to involve planning and budgeting for a cost-effective way to pay off your debt.
Strategy: The Fastest Way to Get Out of Debt
Balance transfer credit cards with a 0% payback period give you a break from continuing to rack up interest charges on your credit card debt, but that break doesn't last forever. You need a plan for paying down debt to avoid further interest costs in the future.
To make the most of a balance transfer card, your goal should be to pay off the balance within the 0% payback period. Here are some tips for how to do that:
Aim higher than the minimum payment
Credit cards generally let you get by with only making a small monthly payment; but if that's all you pay, it will take you a long time to pay off your debt. This is a problem with credit-card debt in general because the longer you take to repay it, the more interest you will pay. It is especially a problem with balance transfer cards because you have a limited time to take advantage of the 0% introductory rate.
Use a credit card calculator to set a payment target
Since 0% payback periods are limited, your goal when using a balance transfer card should be to pay off the balance before that period expires. You can use a credit card calculator to figure out how much of a monthly payment you would have to make in order to pay off the debt in full within a card's 0% payback period.
Budget around your payment target
Once you have figured out a payment target for your balance transfer card, budget to make sure you can meet this target each month. Any sacrifices you have to make to do this will only be temporary and should pay off handsomely in the long run.
While making these payment targets might restrict your immediate spending, by helping you pay off your debt and avoid further interest charges in time, those sacrifices can give you more money to spend on yourself rather than on the credit card company.
Avoid further credit card purchases until your balance is paid off
It's hard to get out of a hole if you keep digging. If you continue to add new charges to the card, it will be difficult to pay off your balance before the 0% payback period expires.
Credit Score You Need for a Balance Transfer Card
Different credit card companies have different guidelines for what it takes to qualify for their cards, and credit scores are only one factor. However, they are an important indicator.
All 12 of the cards in this study require good or excellent credit scores to qualify. Good credit is generally considered to be a score in the 670 to 739 range. Anything above that is considered very good or excellent.
Keep in mind that your credit score determines more than just whether you qualify for a balance transfer card. It also affects what interest rate you get.
When credit cards advertise, they generally show a range of possible interest rates. If your credit score is relatively low, you may qualify - but you are likely to pay a rate toward the higher end of the advertised range. Only if you have excellent credit are you likely to get the best rate a card advertises.
This article only considers some of the most prominent balance transfer cards available and is certainly not an exhaustive list. However, comparing the most prominent offers can serve as a valuable yard stick when looking at other balance transfer cards too.
Since this study ranked cards according to three different categories, three different methodologies were used:
- For best balance transfer card with no fee, the primary characteristic considered was the balance transfer fee. Beyond that, rankings were determined based on other cost factors such as the payback period APR, the length of the 0% payback period and the ongoing APR.
- For best balance transfer card with the longest payback period, the length of the payback period was the primary characteristic used to rank the cards. Other factors included the balance transfer fee and the ongoing APR.
- For best balance transfer card for low APR, the premise used here was that customers looking for a balance transfer card are interested in a 0% payback period, but might also want to use the card beyond that period. So, this category was ranked according to the lowest ongoing APRs among those cards offering a 0% initial payback period.
What these examples show is that choosing the best card depends on how you plan to use it. Planning ahead for how you will use a balance transfer card can help you determine which is the most cost-effective option for you.