What Is a Debit Card?

By Kim Franke-Folstad · April 06, 2023 · 14 minute read

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What Is a Debit Card?

A debit combines some of the features of an ATM card and a credit card to give you an easy way to access cash and pay for purchases. For many people, tapping, swiping, or entering their digits online has become a favorite way to conduct everyday financial transactions.

Debit cards resemble credit cards, but they don’t involve a line of credit or accruing interest charges; the money spent is deducted directly from your checking account. This (and other features) can be a benefit or a downside, depending on your particular situation.

Here, learn more about the ins and outs of debit cards and how to use them most efficiently, including:

•   What is a debit card?

•   How do debit cards work?

•   Where can you use a debit card?

•   What are the differences between a debit card vs. an ATM card?

•   What are the differences between a debit card vs. a credit card?

Debit Cards Defined

A debit card is a payment card that allows you to spend money without carrying cash.

When you use a debit card, the funds are your own, so there’s nothing to pay back later.

Most debit cards look just like credit cards. They typically feature an account number on the front, along with the cardholder’s name and the expiration date.

There will likely also be a smart chip on the front, along with a logo in the lower right-hand corner that tells you which payment network the card is connected to (such as Visa, Mastercard, or Discover). On the back you’ll likely see a place to sign, as well as a three-digit security code (CCV).

But there are some major differences between debit cards and credit cards.

When someone uses a credit card the money is borrowed. Credit card holders receive a bill every month for what they owe, and the balance must be paid in full or they can be charged interest.

When you use a debit card to get cash or make a purchase, the money comes directly from an account you have with a bank or some other type of financial institution. The funds are your own, so there’s nothing to pay back later.

How a Debit Card Works

Now that you know what a debit card is, here’s how a debit card typically works:

•   You tap, swipe, or insert the card at a terminal and enter your PIN (personal identification number) in many cases. The PIN adds a level of security to the transaction.

•   The information is communication (the amount of your purchase) and your bank verifies that the funds are available in your checking account. The transaction is approved in that case, or it will be denied if you don’t have enough funds available.

•   In a similar way, a debit card can allow you to deduct funds from an ATM.

Worth noting: Debit cards may have spending limits capping the amount you can use in a single day, even if you have more than that amount on deposit. Check with your financial institution to learn what may apply.

Features of a Debit Card

Debit cards have many features that make them an asset to managing your financial life:

•   Safer than carrying cash

•   More convenient that using checks, plus no fee for ordering checks

•   Quick and easy way to make purchases or access cash

•   Accepted for purchases by many vendors

•   Does not charge interest since it draws directly from your checking account

•   Typically don’t charge fees

•   May offer cash back rewards

•   May have daily spending limits

How Do You Get a Debit Card?

If you don’t already have one, you may wonder how people get debit cards. These are the steps to getting a debit card:

1.    Open a checking account: Checking accounts (whether at a bank, credit union, or online financial institution) typically come with a debit card that can be used to get cash at ATMs or to make purchases.

A brick and mortar bank may be able to issue customers a new debit card right away. With an online institution, it might take a few days for the card to come by mail. Card holders also receive a personal identification number (PIN), which is a security code they’ll use with their account.

2.    Activate the card: Typically, you can activate a new debit card at the financial institution’s website, at one of its ATMs, or by calling a designated phone number and answering or keying in some basic identifying information.

3.    Start using your card. You should be ready to start tapping, swiping and entering your card’s digits online to make purchases.

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Where Can You Use a Debit Card?

A debit card can be used to make withdrawals at an ATM, to make in-person or online purchases, and to make automatic payments for recurring bills.

Each type of transaction works a bit differently. Here are tips for using your debit card.

At the ATM

One of the great conveniences a debit card has to offer is that it can be used to get cash (or make a deposit, transfer funds, or just view your account balance) just about anywhere there’s an ATM.

You just push your debit card into the slot, and enter your PIN to get access to your account. Once you finish and retrieve your receipt and debit card, it’s a good idea to double check that the machine has returned to its welcome screen before turning it over to the next user.

If you use an ATM that’s not in your bank’s network, you could end up paying a non-network fee to your bank and an ATM surcharge to the ATM’s owner. If you’re overseas, you might also be charged a foreign transaction fee.

If you’re a big-time ATM user, you might be able to avoid those fees by scouting out in-network ATM locations in your area or where you are going to be traveling ahead of time. Or you might open an account at a financial institution that doesn’t charge fees and/or reimburses certain fees.

Quick Money Tip: Fees can be a real drag when you’re trying to save money. SoFi’s high-yield checking account has no account fees, including overdraft coverage up to $50.

In-Person Purchases

The process for using a debit card to purchase goods or services can be a little different from one merchant to the next.

Typically a customer will be asked to swipe, insert, or tap their debit card themselves at a card reader on the counter, then may be prompted to authorize the purchase, either by entering their PIN or by signing as they would with a credit card.

Either way, the money to pay for the purchase comes out of the card holder’s account, though the transactions are processed somewhat differently.

The transaction method also may affect any points or other rewards a card holder is hoping to earn on a purchase. Some programs reward PIN purchases only, some reward signature purchases only, and some reward both.

A retailer also may allow customers making a PIN transaction to ask for cash back on top of the total amount of their purchase, so they don’t have to make a separate trip to an ATM. However, you may be charged a small fee for this convenience.

Online Purchases

Can you use a debit card online? Usually, yes, even if you do not see “debit card” listed as a payment method when you want to buy something online. But if there’s a credit network logo on the front of your debit card, you should be able to use your card for the transaction.

When a merchant’s website asks for a payment method, debit card users can choose “credit card,” then enter their debit card account number, expiration date, and three-digit security code (CCV) to have the purchase processed as a signature transaction. (A PIN transaction won’t be a payment option online.)

Automatic Payments

A debit card also can be used to make automatic payments on monthly bills, such as student loans, car loans, subscriptions and memberships, and utility bills.

To set up automatic debit payments, the card holder provides the company with a debit card account number, expiration date, and CCV, and authorizes future electronic withdrawals. The payment can be the same amount every month, or, if the amount is likely to vary a bit from month to month (as utility bills generally do), the card holder can specify a range.

With automatic debit payments, card holders give businesses permission to take payments from their account, which is different from arranging with the bank to make authorized recurring payments. In both cases, however, it can be important to track those payments and be sure the transactions are accurate.

Is There a Difference Between a Debit Card and an ATM Card?

There are differences between a debit card and an ATM card to note:

•   A debit card can be used to make withdrawals at an ATM, but it also can be used to make purchases and to pay bills.

•   An ATM card can be used only to get funds from a checking or savings account at an ATM machine.

Is it Better to Use a Credit Card or Debit Card?

As with most financial tools, it’s up to each individual to decide what works best for them. Here are some ways to evaluate the pros and cons of using a debit card vs. a credit card.


Using a debit card for a majority of transactions may make it easier to stick to your budget, because you can spend only what you have in your account. You aren’t borrowing money as you would with a credit card, so you may find yourself paying more attention to every purchase and whether you can really afford it.

With a credit card, it can be tempting to pay now and worry about the bill later. If you’re super disciplined about paying off your entire credit card balance every month, that might work for you.

But if, like many Americans, you’re likely to carry forward a balance on your credit card (or cards) every month, the debt could eventually grow out of control with interest.


Both debit and credit cards are easy to use, but there are a few ways in which debit cards may have an edge when it comes to convenience.

•   It’s easier and cheaper to get quick cash with a debit card. You can get a cash advance with a credit card, but you may have to pay a hefty fee and a higher interest rate on the advance. And with a cash advance you could be charged interest starting on the day you receive the money — there’s no grace period as there is when you make a purchase with a credit card.

•   You may be able to get a physical cash advance when making a purchase. That benefit usually isn’t available with a credit card.

•   It’s generally easier to get a debit card than a credit card. Most financial institutions will automatically give customers a debit card when they open an account. Getting a credit card can be harder, especially if you’re under 18, don’t have any verifiable income, have a poor (or no) history with credit, or lack the typically required identification documents. The requirements are tougher for credit cards because lenders want to be sure their borrowers are capable of repaying their debts.

Penalty Fees

No matter what kind of card you use — debit or credit — you could face a penalty fee if you spend more money than you currently have available.

With a debit card, you may incur an overdraft fee if you spend more than you have in your account (when making a signature purchase, for example, or when using autopay).

With a credit card, you could face an over-limit fee (if you push your balance over your credit limit), a late-payment fee if you fail to make your minimum monthly payment, or a returned payment fee if for some reason your payment isn’t accepted.)


Credit cards can be more likely to offer extra perks than debit cards, such as cash-back rewards or points that can be used for travel, though some debits do offer points and rewards.

Spending Limits

One of the things that can make a debit card really useful is that it’s difficult to spend more than you have. But that also can be a drawback if you need to make an expensive purchase. Even if you have a hefty amount of money in your account, you may encounter a daily spending limit when using a debit card.

Those daily limits are meant to protect account holders by limiting the amount fraudsters could spend with a stolen debit card. But if you aren’t aware you have a limit or don’t know what the limit is, you could get an unpleasant surprise when making a major purchase. Don’t know what a debit card’s limit is? Ask your bank.

If you find out you have a debit limit and feel it’s too low, you may be able to request an increase.

Of course, credit cards have spending limits, too, in the form of available credit. Those who go over their credit limit could have their card declined or they might have to pay a fee. Credit card users can check their monthly statement online or in person, or call customer service to see where they stand.

Building Credit

This may seem like a bit of irony, but even though consumers may be trying to be financially responsible by using a debit card whenever they can, they won’t be directly helping their credit score.

Lenders often use credit scores to determine if a person qualifies for a loan or credit card, or a better interest rate when borrowing money. It reflects an individual’s past credit history and shows how well they’ve handled credit in the past.

When someone uses a debit card to pay for goods and services, the money is coming from their own account, so it doesn’t impact their borrowing record. If you use a debit card to stay out of debt and to make car or student loan payments on time, though, it might indirectly help your credit standing.


A debit card is linked to your bank account, so if a thief gets hold of your physical card or just your card number, any money they take is yours — not the bank’s, as would be the case with a stolen credit card.

And that could cause a lot of problems if you don’t notice and report the problem swiftly, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) .

Debit card use is protected by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA), which gives consumers the right to challenge fraudulent charges. But card holders have to act with some speed to get full federal protection.

And those protections aren’t quite as substantial as the federal law that covers credit card theft, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).

If your debit card is lost or stolen, you could have zero liability if you report it before any unauthorized charges occurred. If you report a lost or stolen card within two business days, your loss may be limited to $50. But if you wait more than 60 calendar days after you receive your statement to make a report, you could lose all the money a thief drains from any account linked to your debit card.

That may sound scary, but if your debit card is backed by a credit card network (like Visa or Mastercard), you likely have the same “zero liability” protections credit card users have.

Debit Card Alternatives

If you don’t have a debit card or prefer not a use one, here are some options:

•   Cash. It’s still a form of payment that’s accepted at many retail locations.

•   A check. For paying bills or making purchases (typically from smaller vendors), you may be able to write a check.

•   Prepaid cards (also called prepaid debit cards in some cases). Available at various retail stores, these cards hold the amount of cash you put on them. Some are meant for one-time use; others can be reloaded with additional funds through an app, direct deposit, money transfer, or with cash at a store that offers this service.

Prepaid cards usually work at any ATM or retail location that accepts the card’s payment network. However, there are pros and cons of prepaid debit cards. They tend to come with more fees and fewer protections than traditional debit cards.

Banking With SoFi

Debit cards are typically offered along with a checking account. You can use a debit card to quickly get cash, either from an ATM or by using the cash back function offered by many merchants. You can also use your debit card to purchase goods and services, and even use it for autopay. Because you are using the cash you have on deposit, you don’t accrue any interest fees, but you are likely not establishing your credit either. These cards can be a convenient aspect of your daily financial life.

Looking for a debit card that provides perks and protections but frowns on account fees? SoFi Checking and Savings may be the right choice for you. Open an account and receive a World Debit Mastercard®, which offers contactless payment, purchase protection, and a cash back rewards program. And, withdrawing cash is fee-free at 55,000+ Allpoint Network ATMs worldwide.

SoFi: Helping you spend smarter.


Are there debit card fees?

Typically, debit card use does not incur fees. However, if you use it at a non-network ATM to withdraw cash, you could be hit with a fee. Also, if you overdraft your account when swiping, that could incur charges. Lastly, the checking account that it’s connected to may or may not be fee-free.

What do the numbers on a debit card mean?

The numbers on a debit card are similar to the numbers on a credit card: They identify the industry issuers involved and uniquely capture your account number.

Are debit cards safe?

Debit cards are typically safe, but they can be stolen or lost, which could allow someone to make unauthorized transactions. Plus, the hackers of the world are usually at work, trying to steal people’s information. That said, using a PIN helps protect transactions, and if you report the loss or theft of your debit card within two business days, your liability should be capped at $50. Some cards offer zero-liability protection.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

SoFi® Checking and Savings is offered through SoFi Bank, N.A. ©2023 SoFi Bank, N.A. All rights reserved. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.
The SoFi Bank Debit Mastercard® is issued by SoFi Bank, N.A., pursuant to license by Mastercard International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.

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