How to get a debit card

two young women on their couch at home shopping with their debit card on a laptopImage: two young women on their couch at home shopping with their debit card on a laptop

In a Nutshell

A debit card is another way you can pay for items you buy. Issued by your bank or credit union and directly linked to your checking account, you can use a debit card to make purchases or withdraw money from an ATM, as long as you have the funds in your account. Learn more about how to get a debit card and how you can use it.
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A debit card gives you the convenience of paying for items directly from your checking account, without the hassle of writing a check or carrying cash.

You’ll often receive a debit card when you open a checking or spending account as a complimentary benefit of your account. But before you activate your card, ensure that your financial institution doesn’t charge a nominal fee to use a card. Once activated, you can use your debit card to make in-person and online purchases and withdraw cash at ATMs.

Debit cards are common and share some similarities with credit cards. Because the card is directly tied to your spending account and uses the cash you currently have, you want to be sure to keep it safe.

Let’s go over how to get a debit card, how to use it, what fees you might face and whether they’re secure.

How to get a debit card

A debit card is a physical card that’s directly linked to a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union. To get one issued, you’ll have to first open a checking account, which will require some personal information and, typically, a minimum deposit. Learn more about the different types of checking accounts and how to open one.

You’ll usually receive a debit card as part of your new checking account. Once you receive and activate your debit card, you can use it to access the money in your checking or savings account without having to visit a branch or log into your online account.

Where can I use my debit card?

Debit cards often have credit card network logos on them, like Visa or Mastercard. This means you can use them to do a variety of things, like …

  • Buy things in stores and from online retailers
  • Withdraw cash from your account using an ATM
  • Get cash back when making a purchase at a participating retailer. If you buy $10 worth of goods at a drugstore and ask for $40 in cash back, the entire $50 will be withdrawn from your account and the cashier will hand you $40 in cash.

How to use a debit card

Debit cards can be easy to set up and use. Whether you’re opening an account in person or online, you’ll generally have to follow these steps.

  1. Activate your card. Once you receive your card in the mail, activate it by logging into your online account or calling the financial institution. You’ll also need to sign the bank of the debit card.
  2. Create a PIN. Debit cards have a personal identification number, usually four-digit numbers. You need to enter the PIN as a security measure before using your debit card at an ATM and with some purchases. If you’re able to choose your PIN, try to use a number that you can remember but isn’t easily associated with you.
  3. Use your debit card to withdraw cash. If you need cash, you can use your debit card at an ATM or to get cash back during a purchase. Some banks and credit unions will charge you a fee to use an ATM that’s not part of their network. And ATM operators may charge you an additional fee.
  4. Use your debit card to make purchases. You can use your debit card to buy things in stores and online. In stores, you may have the option to use your PIN or choose “credit” and sign for your purchase. The decision affects how the transaction gets routed behind the scenes, but either option will result in the money coming directly from your account.

Do debit cards come with fees?

While spending accounts may come with a separate fee schedule, there are some common debit card fees that you want to be aware of. Here are some of the most-common fees.

  • Out-of-network ATM fee — Using your debit card at an ATM that isn’t part of your financial institution’s network typically results in a charge from your bank.
  • Overdraft fee — If you’ve opted in to your bank’s overdraft program, you’ll likely be charged a fee if you overdraw your account.
  • Foreign transaction fee — You might face a fee if you use your debit card to make a purchase while you’re outside of the U.S. or online in a foreign currency.
  • Nonsufficient funds fee — If you signed up for a recurring bill with your debit card, you may have to pay an NSF fee if there isn’t enough money in your account to cover the transaction.
  • Replacement card fee — Some financial institutions may charge you a fee to replace a lost debit card.

Debit card vs. credit card: What’s the difference?

Debit cards and credit cards look alike, but they have some fundamental differences. 

While you can use either type of card to make a purchase, when you pay with a debit card, you’re using the card to access money that’s in your account. The money is usually withdrawn immediately, with no bill to pay later. While not incurring debt can be great for your financial progress, your activity isn’t reported to the credit bureaus, and may not help your credit history.

When you choose to cover the purchase with a credit card, you have to pay back the credit card issuer at a later time — with interest. Since credit and interest are involved, your debt is then reported to the credit bureaus, which can help you build up your credit history.

Credit cards also have a credit limit — the maximum your balance can reach before the issuer can start to decline transactions. The limit on your debit card may depend on how much money you have in your account.

Prepaid debit cards

Some prepaid cards are referred to as prepaid debit cards. Unlike debit cards, prepaid cards aren’t directly linked to your individual bank account. Instead, you have to load money onto the prepaid card before you can use it. 

Are debit cards secure?

Your debit card comes with a PIN, which helps protect you when using your debit card for purchases and when withdrawing cash from your account. But keep in mind that because debit cards are directly linked to your account, they might not be as secure as credit cards.

If someone steals your debit card or account information, they can fraudulently use it to make purchases. And if they get your PIN, they could withdraw cash as well.

Federal law limits your responsibility for fraudulent charges if your debit card is lost or stolen, but the limit depends on how quickly you report the loss. Some financial institutions go beyond the federal regulations and offer zero-liability guarantees for all unauthorized transactions when your card is lost or stolen. 

If someone steals your account info while you still have the physical card, you won’t be responsible for any unauthorized transactions so long as you report the theft within 60 days of the bank sending your statement that includes the unauthorized transaction.

Next steps

Debit cards can give you freedom to pay for purchases with the equivalent of cash or check in a way that’s more convenient and potentially more secure than using cash. 

And unlike with a credit card, you don’t have to worry about high-interest debt.

But a debit card can come with fees, and you won’t necessarily build up any credit history by using it. Standard debit cards don’t offer many, if any, bells and whistles. If you’re looking to get more benefits out of your debit card experience, consider a rewards checking account, which might pay you an average percentage yield on the money you keep in your account.

About the author: Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer and has written for American Express, Discover and Nova Credit. In addition to being a contributing writer at Credit Karma, you can find his work on Business Insider, Cheapi… Read more.