Best balance transfer credit cards for November 2020 – CNET

Paying off credit card debt can be tedious and exhausting. A credit card balance on an account with a high interest rate can take years to pay down — or even worse, it can balloon out of control. That’s where a balance transfer credit card comes in. Used properly, a balance transfer card can offer you a relatively cost-efficient opportunity to catch up. 

A balance transfer credit card lets you transfer debt from a high-interest card to one with a low or 0% annual percentage rate for a set period of time — typically between 12 and 20 months. This gives you some breathing room to pay down or pay off your balance while accruing little or no interest. The big caveat: Most credit card companies charge a fee on the transfer — usually 3% to 5% of the total credit card balance — and the longer the introductory APR period, the higher the balance transfer fee. 

Read more: Best credit card for 2020

Best balance transfer credit cards, compared

Best card overall for balance transfers Longest balance transfer period Longest balance transfer period (runner-up) Best card for an extended payoff period Another card worth considering Another card worth considering
US Bank Visa Platinum Citi Simplicity Wells Fargo Platinum SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards Discover it Cash Back HSBC Gold Mastercard
Balance transfer annual percentage rate (APR) 0% 0% 0% 3.25% 0% 0%
Balance transfer APR period (months) 20 18 18 36 14 18
How long you have to make transfers (months) 2 4 4 2 3 2
Standard APR 23.99% 24.74% 24.49% 21.24% 22.99% 23.99%
Balance transfer fee 3% 3% 5% 0% 5% 4%
Annual fee $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0

Choosing the best balance transfer credit card depends largely on how much you owe and how quickly you can pay it off. With a balance transfer card, the goal should always be to pay off the balance by the end of the introductory APR period, which can have a huge impact on your ability to achieve or maintain a good credit score. For example, if you have a $6,000 balance on a high rate card and you can afford to pay $309 each month, US Bank Visa Platinum’s 20-month 0% APR period would do the trick. With its 3% transfer fee, you’d end up adding only $180 to your transferred balance — compared to $1,221 with your old card, which is likely bogged down by a standard 22% APR.

Sample balance transfers, compared

US Bank Visa Platinum Citi Simplicity SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards
Starting balance $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
Balance transfer APR 0% 0% 3.25%
Monthly payment to pay off balance during low APR period $309 $343 $175
Months 20 18 36
Total fees and interest paid $180 $180 $305
Monthly payment with standard card (22% APR) $361 $394 $229
Total fees and interest paid $1,221 $1,099 $2,249
Amount saved with balance transfer card $1,041 $919 $1,944

If you can only afford to pay $150 each month, however, you’d need a card with a longer low-interest period. The SunTrust Prime Rewards card, for example, offers 36 months at 3.25% APR and no transfer fee. At the end of three years, it would have cost you a total of $372 in interest — far less than a new card that offers 0% to start but then balloons to 20% or higher after 18 or 20 months.

Sample balance transfer, compared (part 2)

US Bank Visa Platinum Citi Simplicity SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards
Starting balance $6,000 $6,000 $6,000
Balance transfer APR 0% 0% 3.25%
Monthly payment $150 $150 $150
Special APR payment periods 48 50 43
Total fees and interest paid $1,178 $1,483 $372
Standard payment periods (22% APR) 73 73 73
Total fees and interest paid $4,913 $4,913 $4,913
Amount saved using balance transfer card vs. standard card $3,735 $3,431 $4,541

Using a balance transfer credit card correctly requires some math — but paying close attention to the numbers can ultimately save you many hundreds or thousands of dollars. And even though some banks have recently shortened or eliminated their introductory low-APR periods for balance transfers (due to increasing economic uncertainty), there are still plenty of good options in the market.

Before we get to the best balance transfer credit cards, a few final caveats, notes and words of caution:

  • Though some cards offer sign-on bonuses or cash rewards, they’re mostly a distraction from the primary goal: paying down your balance.
  • Some balance transfer cards charge an annual fee — but I don’t recommend any of them.
  • You can’t transfer balances between cards from the same issuer, so you can’t transfer a Chase balance to another Chase card.
  • The maximum amount you can transfer depends on a variety of factors, including your credit utilization ratio, the qualifying balance transfer, your minimum payment, and whether you already have good credit or even excellent credit. Each card and credit card company is different, and each factor is determined by the card issuer after assessing your specific creditworthiness.

Below are CNET’s top picks for balance transfer cards, followed by a glossary of terms and answers to some frequently asked questions. 

Best balance transfer credit card overall

  • Introductory APR: 20 months of 0% APR for balance transfers and purchases
  • Standard APR: 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: N/A
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 3% or $5, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 60 days
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

The US Bank Visa Platinum offers one of the longest zero percent introductory APR periods, at 20 months, combined with a relatively low 3% fee.

Longest balance transfer period

  • Introductory APR: 18 months of 0% APR for Balance Transfers and 12 months for Purchases
  • Standard APR: 14.74% to 24.74% variable APR
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: N/A
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 3% or $5, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 120 days
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

The Citi Simplicity card is similar to the Citi Diamond Preferred, but the Simplicity has no late fee or penalty APR, while the standard APR for the Diamond Preferred is 1% lower. If there’s any chance that you could miss a payment at some point, the Simplicity could save you $40 and the loss of the introductory 0% APR.  

The 18-month introductory APR period comes with a transfer fee of 3%, making the Simplicity similar to the US Bank Visa Platinum. The main advantage with the Citi card is the length of time you have to make a balance transfer — 120 days compared to US Bank’s 60 days. 

Longest balance transfer period (runner-up)

  • Introductory APR: 18 months of 0% APR for Balance Transfers and Purchases
  • Standard APR: 16.49% to 24.49% variable APR
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: 3% or $5 for first 120 days
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 5% or $5, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 120 days
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

The Wells Fargo Platinum offers 18 months of 0% APR for balance transfers, but with a higher standard APR than the Citi Simplicity after the introductory period and a higher balance transfer fee after the first 120 days of card ownership. In most circumstances, you’ll transfer a balance at the beginning of the period to qualify for the introductory 0% APR; as such, the higher standard balance transfer fee is less consequential. 

Otherwise, this card is virtually identical to the Citi Simplicity, but will cost more if you maintain a balance beyond the first 18 months. 

Best card for an extended payoff period

  • Introductory APR: 3.25% for 3 years on balance transfers
  • Standard APR: 11.24% – 21.24% variable APR
  • Penalty APR: 11.24% – 21.24%  variable APR
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: $0
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 3% or $10, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 60 days
  • Credit Requirement: Good to Excellent (680 to 850)
  • Annual Fee: $0

The SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards credit card is different from the other balance transfer credit cards profiled here. Instead of an introductory 0% APR, SunTrust offers new cardholders three years of a low APR — 3.25%. (The average standard APR for credit cards is usually somewhere between 12 and 25%.)

That 3.25% APR functions similarly to a flat 3.25% transfer fee — you’re just paying it over the course of the year. And it’s worth noting that the effective rate should end up being lower than a flat 3.25% fee, since your balance will decrease as you pay it off, lowering the principal.

If you need more time to pay off your debt, the SunTrust Mastercard Prime Rewards may be your best bet. You can see how it compared to the US Bank Visa Platinum in the chart above. 

Another card worth considering

  • Introductory APR: 14 months of 0% APR for Balance Transfers and Purchases
  • Standard APR: 11.99% to 22.99%
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: 3% for first three months
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 5%
  • How long you have to make balance transfers: No limit
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

Another card worth considering

  • Introductory APR: 18 months of 0% APR for Balance Transfers and Purchases
  • Standard APR: 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: None
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 4% or $10, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 60 days
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

Glossary of terms

Introductory APR: The interest rate that’s applied toward your balance transfer amount and any purchases during the initial period of card ownership (usually 12 to 20 months).

Standard APR: The interest rate applied toward balances and purchases after the introductory period ends.

Introductory balance transfer fee: The fee charged on a balance transfer during the initial period of card ownership (usually 12 to 20 months).

Standard balance transfer fee: The fee charged on a balance after the introductory period ends.

How do balance transfer credit cards work?

Though balance transfer credit cards are technically credit cards, they’re more like a debt-financing tool. They’re better used to pay off existing credit card debt instead of as a payment method.

A balance transfer is when you take the debt, or balance, you owe on one card account and transfer it to another credit card account. Usually this is done with the goal of saving money, transferring debt from a high-interest account to one with lower or no interest. 

While many credit cards allow balance transfers, those primarily designed for the purpose all share one main feature: an introductory 0% APR period on balances transferred to that account, typically applicable to transfers made within the first 60 to 120 days of card ownership. The introductory APR period generally lasts between 12 months and 21 months, giving you a significant period of time to pay off your balance interest-free. 

While a few credit cards offer no-fee transfers, most balance transfer cards charge a fee to transfer your debt, usually between 3% and 5%. Broadly speaking, the longer the introductory 0% APR period, the higher the fee, and vice versa. So the best cards without a balance transfer fee have a shorter introductory APR period, and those with the longest introductory APR period have a 3% to 5% transfer fee. 

If I still have a balance after the introductory APR period is over, can I just keep transferring my debt to a new balance transfer card?

Technically, yes. In some cases, transferring your balance two or three times might even be what’s necessary to finally pay off your debt. But unless you have a firm understanding of how you got into debt in the first place and a plan for getting out of debt, you won’t be working toward a solution. 

While transferring your remaining debt to a second balance transfer card may allow you to pay off your balance without monthly interest or a fee, it’s important to note that there are too many variables for multiple balance transfers to be a fail-proof debt strategy. For example, your card application could be denied, your credit limit could be much lower than you anticipated or your transfer request could be denied. Credit card offers could also change, making it difficult to plan ahead. For this reason I recommend selecting a card that allows you to pay off the full balance after one cycle if possible. 

What’s the maximum balance I can transfer to a new credit card?

The balance transfer limit is determined by the card issuer, on an individual basis. Some cards may take into account your creditworthiness and account history (if applicable) when determining this amount. 

The same goes for determining your credit limit. The card issuer will take into account factors like your credit score, credit utilization, income and housing payments when establishing your credit limit. Remember that the credit limit may be less than you expected and therefore less than your current outstanding balance. To successfully raise your limit, you usually need an adjustment in your financial situation, like increased income or lower housing payment, or an extended period of paying your bills on time, which obviously isn’t a great option if you’re qualifying for a balance transfer to take advantage of an introductory 0% APR period.

What is an introductory APR? And what is an introductory balance transfer fee?

The Introductory APR is the APR applied toward your balance (including balance transfers and purchases in most cases) for the first 12 to 20 months of card ownership, depending on the card. The Standard APR is the APR applied toward your balance after the introductory period ends. The Penalty APR is applied toward your balance if you miss more than one payment in six months, usually, but depends on the individual card and your card issuer.

The Introductory Balance Transfer fee is the fee charged for transfers made during the first 30 to 120 days of card ownership, depending on the card. The Standard Balance Transfer fee is the fee charged for transfers made after the introductory period. Note that some cards only allow balance transfers for a certain period of time. 

How long will it take to complete a balance transfer?

It may take anywhere between 10 days and six weeks to complete a balance transfer, after receiving your new card and cardholder agreement. It’s also important to note that some card issuers, such as Citi, make balance transfers available at their discretion, and could therefore decline a transfer request. And you should probably still pay the minimum on the old card’s balance until you’ve confirmed that the transfer was completed, so you don’t run the risk of fees or penalties. 

What do I do if I have sub-par credit?

Unfortunately, most of the cards recommended above require good to excellent credit scores, meaning above 660 or so. If your credit score is lower than that and you’ve been unsuccessful securing one of the cards above, there are alternative methods for refinancing your debt. You can call your current card issuer and try to negotiate a lower APR or explore a debt consolidation loan, which could allow you to gather all of your debt under a new, lower APR.

Can I use a balance transfer credit card to buy things?

While a balance transfer credit card certainly works like a normal credit card, it’s generally not a good idea to use it to make new purchases. If you currently have credit card debt, your primary goal should be to get out of debt and avoid paying interest. When you purchase something and add new charges to your balance transfer account, you’re moving in the wrong direction, especially if you’re only able to make the minimum payment.

A debit card or cash is better for any new purchases while you pay off your debt, thus leaving your balance transfer account only for debt repayment. This will also help you track your progress more clearly. And keep in mind that some balance transfer credit cards still charge interest on new purchases until you pay off the entire balance (the new purchases plus whatever balance you transferred), which will only compound your debt problem. 

How I picked the best balance transfer credit cards

To select my recommendations above, I primarily looked at two features: The length of the introductory 0% APR period, and the balance transfer fee. Those two factors determine the majority of the overall cost of paying off a balance when using a balance transfer card. 

Given that the average credit card debt for US households is about $6,200, I used a $6,000 hypothetical balance to calculate which cards make sense in certain situations, depending on how much you can pay back each month. 

List of cards researched

Amex EveryDay Credit Card 

Chase Slate 

Citi Simplicity 

Citi Double Cash Card 

US Bank Visa Platinum Card 

Discover it Balance Transfer

Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express

BankAmericard Credit Card for Students 

Citi Rewards Plus Card

Chase Freedom

Chase Freedom Unlimited 

Bank Americard 

Wells Fargo Platinum Card 

Simmons Visa

SunTrust Prime Rewards

Indigo Mastercard

Milestone Mastercard

Applied Bank Secured Visa Gold Preferred

Surge Mastercard

OpenSky Secured Visa 

Green Dot Primor Secured

Fit Mastercard

Reflex Mastercard

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