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What Is a Prepaid Credit Card and How Does It Work?

By Jackie Lam · June 30, 2022 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is a Prepaid Credit Card and How Does It Work?

A prepaid credit card is a type of credit card onto which you load money in advance. You can use the card to make purchases online or at brick-and-mortar stores or to withdraw money at ATMs.

While they have “credit card” in the name, prepaid credit cards are actually quite different from a standard credit card. Wondering how does a prepaid card work exactly? Let’s take a closer look at what a prepaid credit card is, the different types of prepaid cards, and the pros and cons of having one.

What Is a Prepaid Credit Card?

As mentioned before, a prepaid card is a card on which you load money ahead of time, similarly to how you would with a gift card. Some of the same credit card issuers that offer traditional credit cards may offer prepaid credit cards.

The amount you load onto the prepaid card is the maximum amount you can spend on the card, similar to a credit limit. For instance, if you load $200 onto the card, you can spend up to $200.

You can use the card to make purchases or withdrawals from an ATM. Prepaid cards might also be used for government benefits or for payroll.

Many prepaid credit cards are also called prepaid debit cards or stored-value cards. While they may look just like a credit card and bear the logo of a major credit card company like Visa or Mastercard, they’re not actually credit cards.

Because you’re not borrowing from a line of credit, you won’t have to worry about accruing debt, making a minimum payment by a due date, or owing interest. Your activity also will not be reported to the credit bureaus, meaning it won’t affect your credit score or history.

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Types of Prepaid Credit Cards

There are two main types of prepaid credit cards: open-loop and closed-loop. Here’s how they differ.

Open-Loop

An open-loop prepaid credit card can be used anywhere that accepts the credit card network that the card is within. For instance, if your open-loop prepaid credit card has a Visa logo, then your prepaid card will be accepted at any merchant, location, or ATM where Visa cards are accepted.

Closed-Loop

Also known as a single-purpose card, a closed-loop prepaid credit card can only be used to make purchases from a single retailer or a group of stores. For instance, you may only be able to use the card when you shop at a particular grocery store chain. Closed-loop prepaid credit cards usually don’t have a credit card network logo on them.

How Does a Prepaid Credit Card Work?

You can use a prepaid credit card to make purchases and take out money at ATMs, just as you can get cash from a credit card. Each transaction you make using the prepaid card will reduce the total balance you have available. So, for instance, let’s say you loaded a total of $500 onto your card. Then, you make a purchase for $150. You would have $350 remaining to spend with your card.

Though it depends on the prepaid credit card, you may be able to reload additional funds onto your card. You can do so by depositing money from a bank account or paycheck, reloading the card at a retail location using cash, or buying a reload pack to add a certain amount to your card.

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Advantages of a Prepaid Credit Card

Let’s look at some of the benefits and risks of prepaid debit cards, another common name for prepaid credit cards. Here are some of the upsides to weigh if you’re considering getting one.

Doesn’t Require a Credit Check

A credit check isn’t required to open a prepaid card. As such, it may be an option available to those with lower credit scores or a thin credit history. Further, getting a prepaid credit card won’t require a hard credit inquiry, which can ding your credit.

Recommended: Does Applying For a Credit Card Hurt Your Credit Score

Provides a Safe Alternative to Cash

A prepaid credit card is a safe, easy alternative to using cash. Depending on the network, a prepaid card might come with liability protections similar to those offered by debit cards.

Doesn’t Necessitate a Bank Account

You won’t need a bank account in order to get or use a prepaid debit card. Unlike debit cards, prepaid credit cards don’t require you to draw funds from a bank account, though if you do have one, you have the option to deposit money from your checking or savings account.

Won’t Cause You To Go Into Debt

Since you’re using money that’s already been uploaded to the card, you won’t have to worry about running a balance on your credit card. Further, you won’t have to worry about making payment due dates, one of the cardinal credit card rules, or the possibility of incurring interest if you can’t pay off your balance in full.

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Disadvantages of a Prepaid Credit Card

While there are a number of positives to prepaid debit cards, there are disadvantages worth considering as well.

Can Carry High Fees

Fees are probably the biggest drawback of a prepaid credit card. Many prepaid credit cards come loaded with fees, which can include the following:

•   Activation fees

•   Monthly maintenance fees

•   Reloading or card replacement fees

•   Purchase fees

•   ATM fees for transactions or balance inquiries

•   Check deposit fees

•   Declined transaction fees

•   Inactivity fees

•   Foreign transactions fees

•   Customer service inquiry fees

Just as you would consider how much a credit card costs before applying for you, do the same due diligence on prepaid card fees before getting one.

Does Not Boost Your Credit Score

Prepaid credit cards aren’t actually credit cards, which offer a revolving line of credit. Because they aren’t a form of credit, your activity is not reported to the credit bureaus. In turn, they aren’t a way to build your credit.

Offers Fewer Fraud and Liability Protections

While prepaid credit cards might come with some fraud and liability protections, they typically don’t have the full suite of protections that standard credit cards offer. Instead, their protections, if offered, may be more akin to those offered by debit cards, which are generally weaker than those of credit cards.

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Alternatives to Prepaid Credit Cards

Besides prepaid credit cards, here are a few other options you might consider:

•   Gift cards: A gift card can be used at particular merchants or retailers. There are also gift cards offered by credit card networks, such as Visa or Mastercard, that you can use anywhere these networks are accepted. Like a prepaid credit card, you don’t need a bank account to get a gift card, though using one won’t help you boost your credit. Unlike prepaid credit cards, gift cards don’t typically carry any fees aside from potentially a one-time activation fee.

•   Debit cards: Another option you might consider is a debit card. These do typically require a bank account, however. Like a prepaid card, you’re only using the funds available in the account connected to the card. As such, getting a debit card does not involve a credit check nor will you have to pay interest since you’re not borrowing funds. There may be fees involved though.

•   Secured credit cards: If you have a low credit score or a thin credit profile, a secured credit card — one of the different types of credit cards available — can help boost your credit if you’re using the credit card responsibly. Secured credit cards require a deposit, and the deposit amount is usually the same as the card’s credit limit. Secured credit cards usually have lower fees than prepaid cards, but they do have interest fees. Plus, a credit check is required.

Recommended: What is the Average Credit Card Limit

The Takeaway

Contrary to its name, a prepaid credit card isn’t actually a credit card. You aren’t accessing a line of credit with a prepaid card, and you can’t build credit. Instead, you load cash onto the prepaid card, which effectively acts as your credit limit. You can then use the funds to make purchases or withdraw money from an ATM.

When considering a prepaid credit card or any type of credit card, for that matter, be sure to look at both the pros and cons, particularly the fees involved. If you’re looking for a new credit card rather than a prepaid card, the SoFi Credit Card is worth considering. There are no foreign transaction fees. Plus, SoFi cardholders earn 2% unlimited cash back rewards when redeemed to save, invest, or pay down eligible SoFi debt. Cardholders earn 1% cash back rewards when redeemed for a statement credit.1

FAQ

Do prepaid cards require monthly payments?

Prepaid cards can have a monthly maintenance fee. The amount of this fee varies, typically ranging from $10 to $15 a month. The money is drawn from the existing balance on your card.

Do prepaid cards cost money?

Prepaid cards usually do have fees. This may include an activation fee, ATM fees, reload fees, and foreign transaction fees, among others. Before getting a prepaid credit card, make sure to check what fees are involved.

Is an account needed for a prepaid credit card?

Are you wondering, ‘Can you get a prepaid credit card without a bank account?’ The answer is yes. A bank account is not required for a prepaid credit card.

Do prepaid cards help build your credit?

Prepaid credit cards do not help you to build credit. That’s because they’re not actually credit cards and don’t offer a revolving credit line. In turn, your payment history isn’t reported to the three credit bureaus.


1See Rewards Details at SoFi.com/card/rewards.
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.
Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s
website
.

The SoFi Credit Card is issued by The Bank of Missouri (TBOM) (“Issuer”) 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.

Photo credit: iStock/towfiqu ahamed
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