How to use a prepaid card

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Once you have your new prepaid card, you can start using it to buy things and pay bills. Find out how to use them with our guide.
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What are prepaid cards?

Prepaid cards can be a great way to help you manage your spending. Unlike credit cards you aren’t borrowing money, instead you load money onto the card, which you can then use to pay for things, as you would with any other credit or debit card.

Prepaid cards can be a good way for children and teenagers to spend, but they aren’t just for kids. They can be a convenient way of spending money overseas or if you don’t have a current account.

How much do prepaid cards cost?

Prepaid cards aren’t free to use. Charges vary between providers so it’s important to compare cards first and think about how you will use yours before you apply.

You sometimes have to pay loading or top up charges. Each card comes with different fees, and the amount usually depends on the method you use. For example, a card could charge:

  • £1 to pay in cash at a Post Office

  • 3% of the amount you pay onto the card in a PayPoint shop

  • 2.5% if you log into your online account and use your credit card

  • Nothing if you log into your online account and use your debit card

  • Nothing if you send money by bank transfer

In addition to top-up fees there may also be monthly or application fees depending on the card. Cards may also charge you for taking out cash out at an ATM or levy transaction fees (such as 3% of your purchase).

If you don’t use your card for a while some providers charge inactivity fees.

Activate your card

When you receive your new card and PIN, you usually need to confirm it has arrived to activate it. You also need to sign the back of the card on the signature strip.

You can usually do this by setting up your online account using the card provider's website and selecting the option to activate your card.

Some providers let you activate your card by phone instead. The number you need to phone should be on the card or the letter that comes with it.

Once you have activated your card you can add funds onto it and start spending or withdrawing cash.

Top up your card

Check how your provider lets you load money onto your card and compare the cost for each option. You may be able to add funds:

  • Online, by signing into your account on the card provider's website or app and paying money in using a debit card.

  • By paying in cash at a post office, some banks or a shop or petrol station that offers a PayPoint service.

  • By sending bank transfers from your bank account. Your prepaid card provider should let you know the sort code, account number and reference you need to use.

  • By receiving bank transfers somebody else sends to your card. Your employer could send your wages to your prepaid card if you use it instead of a bank account.

How long until you can spend the money?

The way you pay money onto the card affects how quickly you can access your money and some prepaid cards take longer than others. Ask your provider how quickly the funds become available to spend.

Most cards let you spend money once the funds have cleared. This can take up to two days forcard payments, but may be instant when you use cash.

Spend on your card

You can use prepaid cards almost anywhere that accepts credit and debit cards.

You can use your card:

  • In person in shops, restaurants and other businesses

  • Online by phone or mail order

  • Some can only be used in electronic terminals, which are chip and PIN devices found in most businesses that accept card payments

You can use it in the same way as a credit or debit card. If you pay in person, you can:

  • Make a contactless payment up to £100 

  • Enter your card and PIN into a card machine

  • If you pay online you need to enter the card number, expiry date and security code from the back of the card.

What happens if your transaction is declined? Can you use prepaid cards abroad?

Withdraw cash

You can use your prepaid card in a cash machine to check your balance or withdraw money.

You just need to insert your card, enter your PIN and follow the onscreen instructions. Some prepaid cards charge fees when you withdraw cash.

Keep track of your balance

You do not get monthly paper statements with most prepaid cards. Instead you can check your balance, any transactions you have made and the fees you were charged by:

  • Logging on to your online account 

  • Using your provider's smartphone app 

  • Using a cash machine

  • Phoning your card provider Texting your provider for a balance update

  • Some providers can send a statement if you ask them, but they usually charge a fee.

Set up automatic payments

Some of these accounts let you set up direct debits and standing orders, which automatically transfer money to other accounts to pay bills for things like your utilities or mobile phone.

This can be useful if you use a prepaid card instead of a current account, which could be suitable if you have bad credit and cannot get a normal current account.

Here is how to set up direct debits and standing orders

Make changes to your account

Change your personal details

If your address, name or other personal details change, let your card provider know as soon as possible.

You may be able to update some details online, but providers may need you to phone them, or post documents, for example a marriage certificate if you change your surname.

Change your PIN

You can usually change your PIN using a cash machine. However, you need to know your old PIN to do this.

If you have forgotten your PIN, contact your provider. It  will send you a new one, usually by post.

Some card providers let you change your PIN or request a new one online.

Cancel your prepaid card

You need to contact your provider to close your prepaid card account. Some let you do this online, by phone or in writing, and some charge a fee for cancelling your card.

It can take several days for your account to be closed because they need to wait for any remaining transactions to go through

If you still have leftover money on your card, you can usually have this refunded to your bank account. However, there is sometimes a charge for this, so it could be more cost effective to spend the money on your card instead of moving it.

Can you send your card back if you decide you do not want it?

Report your card lost or stolen

Report this to your card provider as soon as possible because they can freeze the card and stop anyone else spending your balance.

Call your provider to let them know, or you can report some cards as lost or stolen through its  website or app.

It will send you a replacement card in the post, although it could take up to two weeks to arrive. The balance on the missing card will be transferred over to your new card, but they may charge a fee of around £5 for the new card.

Whether you need a prepaid card for spending overseas, easy budgeting or due to bad credit, we can find the right option for you by comparing some of the best deals around.