How to do a balance transfer in 6 steps

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In a Nutshell

A balance transfer can be a great way to save money on interest and pay off debt faster. We’ve broken down how to do a balance transfer in six steps, so you can get started.
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If you have several thousand dollars of high-interest credit card debt, it can be tough to climb out.

The good news is there are balance transfer credit cards out there that offer a low introductory APR that can help you pay off high-interest debt.

How does a balance transfer work? A credit card balance transfer allows you to take a high-interest credit card balance (or even multiple balances) and transfer it to a new credit card with a lower interest rate. Some balance transfer cards offer a 0% intro APR for balance transfers for a limited amount of time.

If you transfer balances from multiple credit cards to one balance transfer card, this can streamline your payments into one easier-to-manage payment.

While balance transfers can be helpful in the debt-payoff process, they’re not a magic solution. You must commit to getting out of debt for it to be a successful move — or risk ending up in even more debt. You should also educate yourself about some of the pitfalls of balance transfers before applying for a card.

Here’s how to transfer credit card balances to help you pay off debt.

  1. Check your current balance and interest rate
  2. Pick a balance transfer card that fits your needs
  3. Read the fine print and understand the terms and conditions
  4. Apply for a balance transfer card
  5. Contact the new credit card company to do the balance transfer
  6. Pay off your debt

1. Check your current balance and interest rate

Before you do a balance transfer, empower yourself with information about your current situation.

Review your credit card balances and interest rates. Your credit card interest rates are typically expressed as an annual percentage rate, or APR. You’ll need this information so you can pick an appropriate card for a balance transfer.

Ultimately, you want to find a balance transfer card that can accept the amount you want to transfer and has a lower interest rate than you’re already paying on your debt.

2. Pick a balance transfer card that fits your needs

Now that you know what you owe and what your APR is, it’s time to choose a balance transfer card that fits your financial needs. Luckily, there are lots of balance transfer offers out there.

When choosing a balance transfer card, consider APR, the length of the promotional low-APR period and any fees. These factors could all make a difference when it comes to paying down your debt.

  • How long will the low intro APR last? Most balance transfer cards offer a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers for a set amount of time, and typically on purchases as well. Credit card companies can change their offers, but currently, there are some good balance transfer cards with 0% intro APR offers ranging up to 21 months. Make sure that the promotional period lasts long enough for you to pay down as much debt as possible.
  • How long will you have to transfer your existing balance once you have the card? You may only have a matter of weeks to transfer your balance in order to take advantage of an intro offer — the amount of time you have varies from offer to offer.
  • What kind of fees will you be charged? Many balance transfer cards charge balance transfer fees, typically between 3% and 5% of the amount transferred. Decide whether it makes financial sense for you to transfer the balance. Once you take into account the fee, it may be more expensive to transfer a balance than it is just to leave it on the original card.

For example, the Citi Simplicity® Card comes with a long balance transfer offer: 0% intro APR on balance transfers for the first 21 months from date of the first transfer and a variable APR of 19.24% - 29.99% on balance transfers afterward. Balance transfers must be completed within four months of account opening. (It also offers an intro 0% APR on purchases for 12 months, after which you get a variable APR of 19.24% - 29.99%.)

But the card also has a balance transfer fee: Intro fee 3% of each transfer ($5 minimum) completed within the first 4 months of account opening. After that, 5% of each transfer ($5 minimum).

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3. Read the fine print and understand the terms and conditions

Before you go through with a balance transfer, a word of warning: It’s crucial that you read the fine print and the terms and conditions.

For instance, if the balance transfer card of your choice has a balance transfer fee, calculate how much it will cost to make the transfer and how much you may save on interest to see if it makes sense for your situation. It’s important to stay on top of the specifics to make sure you’re making the best use of an offer.

And it’s a good idea to check whether the bank sets limitations on the following:

  • Credit limits — It’s important to note that credit limits are based on the issuer’s assessment of your credit and other factors. Depending on your situation, you may not be approved for a limit that will cover the balance you want to transfer. Some issuers also only permit a maximum balance transfer.
  • Any restrictions with certain cards — Some credit card issuers do not allow you to transfer a balance from one of their cards to another of the same issuer’s cards.

4. Apply for a balance transfer card

Once you’ve chosen the right balance transfer card for you, you can apply for the card.

You can typically apply for credit cards online. If you have a Credit Karma account, you can check your Approval Odds for the card you’re interested in.

Once you’ve filled out your pertinent information, submit the application and wait. If you receive a confirmation that you’ve been approved for the balance transfer card, then you can take the next steps to transfer the balance.

Applying for a balance transfer card may result in a hard inquiry on your credit reports, which could lead to a small and temporary decline in your credit scores. However, it could also increase your available credit and lower your credit utilization, which could have a positive impact on your credit scores. Overall, a balance transfer could have little effect on your credit.

5. Contact the new credit card company to do the balance transfer

The best way to transfer a credit card balance is by contacting the new credit card company with the balance transfer request. You can typically do a balance transfer over the phone or online.

“You’ll need to provide your new credit card company with the account numbers of your old cards and tell them how much of your balance you want to transfer,” says Matt Freeman of Navy Federal Credit Union.

It can take several days or even weeks for a credit card issuer to process a balance transfer, so it’s important to still make payments on your old card until you get a confirmation the transfer has gone through. The last thing you want is to add any late payment fees to your debt load.

6. Pay off your debt

After your balance transfers are approved and go through, your transferred balance will be on the new card. If you’re able to transfer your entire balance, your balances on the old cards will be wiped clean.

But if you couldn’t transfer all your debt, remember that you still need to make at least minimum payments on your remaining cards.

To pay off debt faster, start making payments on the balance transfer card.

Freeman says it’s essential to make all your payments on time: “Sometimes, even if you’re late just once, it could mean an early end to your low introductory rate.”

Make a plan to pay off your balance — or at least most of it — within the introductory period when your APR is the lowest.

That way you can save money on interest, pay off debt faster and utilize a balance transfer to your advantage.

Freeman says this can be helpful because “this new lower rate helps to reduce your level of debt because more of your monthly payment will go toward paying off the debt, [or principal balance] rather than the interest on the debt.”

Once you’ve paid off your existing debt, it’s a good idea to have a plan or make a budget to help you avoid racking up more credit card debt in the future.

Bottom line

By getting a balance transfer card, you can start fresh with a lower APR and get ahead on paying off your debt.

But a balance transfer can be a double-edged sword if you’re not careful. Remember to read all the fine print, and choose a card with terms that will set you up for success. You want to be sure that you’re committing to paying off debt — and not getting into more of it.

Once you’ve transferred your debt from an old card, consider keeping the card open — if you can avoid the temptation of spending money on the card. Closing a credit card can sometimes negatively impact your credit.

About the author: Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy and empowering people to take control of their finances. Her work has been f… Read more.