Checking Account vs. Debit Card: What’s the Difference?

By Timothy Moore · October 18, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Checking Account vs. Debit Card: What’s the Difference?

Checking accounts and debit cards are both key to storing and accessing your money for making everyday payments. Think about how often you use them as you pay bills, grab a latte, and check your balance to see if you can afford some new shoes.

Though they are linked, they are two separate financial tools — and it’s possible (though uncommon) to have one without the other.

So what’s the difference between a checking account and debit card? Read on to learn the full story, including:

•   What is a checking account?

•   What is a debit card?

•   Can you have a debit card without a checking account?

•   What are the pros and cons of checking accounts?

•   What are the pros and cons of debit cards?

•   How can you find the right checking account and debit card for you?

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What Is a Checking Account?

A checking account is a type of bank account that allows you to access your money when you need it for paying bills or making purchases. Unlike other deposit accounts (like saving accounts), checking accounts allow you to make regular withdrawals by writing checks, swiping your debit card for purchases, or taking money out of an ATM.

Most checking accounts are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or NCUA (National Credit Union Administration), meaning your funds are protected up to $250,000 per depositor, per bank, per ownership category. You can typically fund your checking account through bank transfers and via direct deposit from your employer.

You can also connect your checking account to a peer-to-peer payment app like Venmo or Cash App to send money to and receive money from friends and family. Some banks may even offer built-in payment programs through their mobile apps.

Some checking accounts charge monthly fees while in other situations you can open a free checking account. Banks charging fees for accounts may offer ways to waive the fees. Other “fine print” details to consider when selecting a checking account include minimum balance requirements, overdraft fees, and annual percentage yield (APY).

Recommended: How Much Money Do You Need to Open a Checking Account?

What Is a Debit Card?

A debit card is a form of payment that gives you access to the funds in your checking account.

You can use a debit card online and in person to make purchases, wherever that card is accepted. You can even add your debit card to mobile wallets, like Apple Pay or Google Pay. You typically must use a unique personal identification number (PIN) to use the card for in-person purchases and ATM withdrawals.

Unlike a credit card that allows you to loan money from the card issuer, a debit card only gives you access to the funds in your checking account. If you don’t have enough funds in your account to cover a purchase, the transaction may be declined or you may overdraw the account (and face overdraft fees).

You can also use a debit card to withdraw cash at ATMs. Most banks and credit unions offer a network of fee-free ATMs where you can safely take out cash without incurring charges. You may also be able to request cash back at the point of sale at some businesses when paying with your debit card.

While we typically think of debit cards as a component of a checking account, consumers without a checking account can purchase a prepaid debit card, load funds onto it, and spend it at stores like a bank debit card.

Do You Automatically Get a Debit Card When Opening a Checking Account?

Most checking accounts come with debit cards nowadays, but it’s always a good idea to confirm before opening up a new account. Upon account creation, the bank or credit union will generally send your debit card in the mail. In some cases, you may have to request the debit card.

Not all debit cards are created equal. When looking for a checking account with a debit card, you may want to prioritize one that:

•   Has a large network of ATMs

•   Doesn’t charge fees for card replacements

•   Doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees

•   Offers cash back on debit card purchases.

Can You Have a Checking Account Without Having a Debit Card?

While most checking accounts come with debit cards these days, it’s still possible to encounter a checking account that doesn’t have a debit card. However, you’re more likely to find a checking account that no longer supplies free paper checks to members.

Debit Card vs. Checking Account

Let’s break down the difference between a checking account vs. a debit card.

Checking AccountDebit Card
Deposit account at bank or credit union that is typically federally insuredA card that allows you to make purchases and withdraw cash, typically tied to a checking account
May earn interestMay earn cash back
May have monthly maintenance feesMay have foreign transaction fees and overdraft fees
Can be used for online transactionsCan often be used for online transactions
Can be linked to P2P appCan be linked to P2P app
Federally insuredInsured if tied to insured account

The best way to think about the difference between checking accounts and debit cards? A checking account is a deposit account for storing and spending your money; a debit card is a common tool to access the money in that deposit account.

Pros and Cons of Checking Accounts

Now that you know how a debit card vs. checking account stacks up, here’s a closer look at checking accounts. These accounts are a staple of personal finance and, as such, offer plenty of benefits to consumers. There are also some downsides to be aware of.

Here are some of the pros and cons of checking accounts:

Pros

•   Easy access to funds: A checking account allows you to make purchases (in person or online), pay bills, and receive direct deposit paychecks.

•   Security: Checking accounts are typically insured by the FDIC or NCUA.

•   Banking benefits: Depending on the checking account, you may enjoy premium features like mobile check deposit, automatic savings tools, and early paycheck access.

Cons

Checking accounts have a specific and necessary purpose for most consumers, but they do have drawbacks:

•   Low or no interest: In terms of checking vs. savings accounts, checking accounts typically have low APYs — if they earn interest at all.

•   Fees: Some checking accounts may have monthly maintenance fees, overdraft fees, account inactivity fees, and other charges that can add up.

•   Minimum balance requirements: Some checking accounts may require you to maintain a specific amount of funds in your account. They may also require a minimum deposit to open the account.

Here are the pros and cons of checking accounts in chart form:

Pros of a Checking AccountCons of a Checking Account
Easy access to fundsLow or no interest
SecurityFees
Banking benefitsMinimum balance requirements

Pros and Cons of Debit Cards

To better understand the difference between a debit card and a checking account, it can be helpful to consider debit cards’ unique features. These cards also have their fair share of pros and cons.

Pros

Advantages of debit cards include:

•   Easy way to spend and withdraw cash: Debit cards are more convenient than paper checks and give you quick access to your cash at ATMs.

•   No risk of debt: Unlike credit cards, debit cards don’t let you spend money on credit. This means you don’t risk overspending and falling into high-interest credit card debt.

•   No fees or interest: Debt isn’t the only risk of credit cards. You also have to worry about annual fees and annual percentage rates (APRs) when opening a credit card. Neither applies to debit cards.

Cons

Debit cards have drawbacks, as well:

•   Less fraud protection: Credit cards may pose more debt risk, but they typically offer better fraud protection than debit cards.

•   Ability to overdraft: Some banks and credit unions charge fees if you accidentally overdraft using your debit card.

•   Daily spend limits: Your debit card likely has a daily spend limit, and it may be less than you think (possibly $300 or $400). Before using your card for a big purchase, you may want to check with your bank to see if they need to increase the limit temporarily.

Take a look at how these pros and cons look in chart form:

Pros of a Debit CardCons of a Debit Card
Easy way to spend and withdraw cashLess fraud protection
No risk of debtAbility to overdraft
No fees or interestDaily spend limits

Tips for Finding the Right Checking Account and Debit Card

How can you find the right checking account and debit card for you? Each person’s banking needs are different, but here are a few tips to get you started:

•   Think about the features that are right for you: It’s likely that no checking account will tick all the boxes for you, so it’s a good idea to make a list of the most important features of your ideal checking account. Maybe you want an interest-bearing account that also has a cashback debit card, or perhaps you just want a standard account with no monthly fees or overdraft fees. Deciding on your wish list will help you narrow down the options.

•   Ask friends and family: Getting recommendations from people you trust is a great way to instill confidence in any big financial decision.

•   Consider online banking: Online banks can often offer lower (or no) fees and higher interest rates because of their low overhead. With the advent of mobile banking, including mobile check deposit, online bill pay, and P2P payments, you may find that you don’t miss your brick-and-mortar bank — while enjoying the checking and debit features.

•   Bank in one place: It’s possible to have checking and savings accounts at separate institutions, but you may appreciate the convenience of banking in one place (or in one app). If you already have a credit card or savings account with a specific institution, it might be worth researching their checking account and debit card offerings.

Banking With SoFi

Looking for a new checking account with a debit card? Open an online bank account with SoFi. Our Checking and Savings account allows you to unlock a wealth of banking features, including a competitive annual percentage yield (APY), no account fees, automatic savings tools, and cashback on select local purchases when swiping your debit card.

Bank smarter with SoFi, and see why people love the SoFi debit card and Checking and Savings Account.

FAQ

Is a checking account a debit card?

A checking account is not a debit card. Rather, a debit card is a common way for consumers to spend and withdraw cash from their checking accounts.

Can you withdraw cash without a debit card?

It is possible to withdraw cash without a debit card. If your bank has a physical branch, you can go in person to take out funds. Some banks offer ATM cards for ATM withdrawals, and others may even offer cardless ATMs that allow you to access your funds through a mobile app.

Do checking accounts come with a debit card?

Most checking accounts come with a debit card. The bank may automatically send you the card upon account creation, but in some cases, you may have to request the card before the bank will send it.


Photo credit: iStock/Phiromya Intawongpan

SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a recurring deposit of regular income to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government benefit payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, or are non-recurring in nature (e.g., IRS tax refunds), do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.

As an alternative to direct deposit, SoFi members with Qualifying Deposits can earn 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Qualifying Deposits means one or more deposits that, in the aggregate, are equal to or greater than $5,000 to an account holder’s SoFi Checking and Savings account (“Qualifying Deposits”) during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Qualifying Deposits only include those deposits from the following eligible sources: (i) ACH transfers, (ii) inbound wire transfers, (iii) peer-to-peer transfers (i.e., external transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc. and internal peer-to-peer transfers from a SoFi account belonging to another account holder), (iv) check deposits, (v) instant funding to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, (vi) push payments to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, and (vii) cash deposits. Qualifying Deposits do not include: (i) transfers between an account holder’s Checking account, Savings account, and/or Vaults; (ii) interest payments; (iii) bonuses issued by SoFi Bank or its affiliates; or (iv) credits, reversals, and refunds from SoFi Bank, N.A. (“SoFi Bank”) or from a merchant.

SoFi Bank shall, in its sole discretion, assess each account holder’s Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits throughout each 30-Day Evaluation Period to determine the applicability of rates and may request additional documentation for verification of eligibility. The 30-Day Evaluation Period refers to the “Start Date” and “End Date” set forth on the APY Details page of your account, which comprises a period of 30 calendar days (the “30-Day Evaluation Period”). You can access the APY Details page at any time by logging into your SoFi account on the SoFi mobile app or SoFi website and selecting either (i) Banking > Savings > Current APY or (ii) Banking > Checking > Current APY. Upon receiving a Direct Deposit or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits to your account, you will begin earning 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% on checking balances on or before the following calendar day. You will continue to earn these APYs for (i) the remainder of the current 30-Day Evaluation Period and through the end of the subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period and (ii) any following 30-day Evaluation Periods during which SoFi Bank determines you to have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits without interruption.

SoFi Bank reserves the right to grant a grace period to account holders following a change in Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits activity before adjusting rates. If SoFi Bank grants you a grace period, the dates for such grace period will be reflected on the APY Details page of your account. If SoFi Bank determines that you did not have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits during the current 30-day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, then you will begin earning the rates earned by account holders without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits until you have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits in a subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period. For the avoidance of doubt, an account holder with both Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits will earn the rates earned by account holders with Direct Deposit.

Members without either Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits, as determined by SoFi Bank, during a 30-Day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances.

Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 10/24/2023. There is no minimum balance requirement. Additional information can be found at https://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet.


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