While prepaid cards were once a last resort for those who couldn’t qualify for a traditional bank account, new features have moved some of the best prepaid cards into the mainstream. According to a Nilson report, prepaid cards with the top 50 U.S. Banks and credit unions accounted for $118.09 billion in spending at merchants in 2013, a 6.1 percent increase from the year before. A recent study from Pew Charitable Trusts also reported that the vast majority of prepaid card owners use them as a complement to their regular checking account, not an alternative. But why?
For many users of prepaid cards, the move seems to be one of convenience. Unlike with traditional checking accounts, prepaid users can make deposits at a wide range of retailers including convenience stores. And unlike traditional banks, prepaid cards usually belong to a large network of ATMs that allow users to withdraw cash for free.
But that convenience comes at a cost. In most cases, prepaid cards come with higher fees than traditional checking accounts, and those fees can add up quick. Of course, all prepaid cards are not created equal and some come with lower fees and more reasonable terms. In order to find the best prepaid card out there, you need to be able to compare their features and fees side by side. That’s why we created this guide – once you are armed with the right information, you can choose the best card for you.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Prepaid Card Picks
Here are the 5 best prepaid cards of 2015:
- American Express Serve®
- PayPal™ Prepaid MasterCard®
- AccountNow® Prepaid Visa® Card
- Western Union® NetSpend® Prepaid MasterCard®
- NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card
What Makes These the Best?
Prepaid cards come in all shapes and sizes, but there are certain features that help some of them stand out. When you’re looking for a prepaid card, these are the characteristics you should look for:
- Convenient card loading options
- Flexible ways to spend and pay bills
- Minimal monthly fees
- Free direct deposit
- Retail networks or online connections
- Widely accepted
- Ability to send money to friends and family online or via mobile device
Although new prepaid cards come on the market every year, some have stood the test of time. As you read through the details on each card we’ve highlighted, consider how each card would work with your personal spending habits. Then consider the fees associated with each card to see how they stack up.
American Express Serve®
The American Express Serve® may be the best prepaid card because it is low cost and provides easy ways to avoid fees and add cash. The $1 monthly fee is already very low, but the fee is waived if you use direct deposit or load just $500 onto your card each month.
Moreover, you can load cash for free at CVS and 7-Eleven stores. Most other cards offer large retail networks but those retail partners often charge their own fees to add cash at their locations.
This card is also great for families. You can set up sub-accounts for your kids and set spending limits for them. The card also has a reserve function, so you can set aside money each month for a large purchase or family vacation.
American Express Serve® — Snapshot
- Get a $50 credit after receiving $250+ twice via Direct Deposit by 6/30/14.* Enroll in Direct Deposit to get your paycheck in your American Express Serve Account on payday.
- Enjoy American Express service and security 24/7. Shop online or off and get access to membership benefits like Purchase Protection.
- Add cash for free across 15,000 CVS/pharmacy® stores and participating 7-ELEVEN® locations.
- Free ATM withdrawals at over 24,000 ATMs nationwide.
- Use the Mobile App* to deposit checks on-the-go, manage your money, easily pay bills and more. *Terms, conditions and exclusions apply.
PayPal™ Prepaid MasterCard®
Because PayPal™ is the authority of online payments, it stands to reason that the PayPal™ Prepaid MasterCard® is one of the best prepaid debit cards on the market. While the card costs $4.95 per month, it offers unlimited signature and PIN purchases as well as cash back from select specialty stores and restaurants. It also offers the advantage of transferring money between your card and your PayPal account.
Theoretically, it is possible to link other prepaid cards to your PayPal™ account, but I’ve heard of many problems associated with the difficulty of linking them. In addition to your PayPal™ account, you can add money with direct deposit, or at over 130,000 NetSpend Reload Network locations nationwide. Fees may apply at these locations.
PayPal™ Prepaid MasterCard® — Snapshot
- Free direct deposit – get your paycheck and government benefits up to 2 days faster.
- Instantly transfer money from your PayPal Account to your PayPal Prepaid MasterCard!
- Get account alerts on your mobile device or download our App to check your balance and see recent transactions
- Earn Cash back rewards from specially selected stores, restaurants and more
AccountNow® Prepaid Visa® Card
The AccountNow® Prepaid Visa® Card is potentially the cheapest prepaid debit card around, although it is best for people that only make occasional purchases. You pay a one-time $4.95 activation fee and no monthly fee. However, AccountNow tacks on a $1-per-transaction fee. Those fees can add up if you’re not careful. You may want to use this card like a savings account by letting money accumulate, and only using it for larger, infrequent purchases.
If you think you’ll be making more frequent transactions with your card, the Account Now Gold Visa® Prepaid Card may be a good choice. It carries a $9.95 monthly fee but doesn’t charge any transaction fees.
AccountNow® Prepaid Visa® Card — Snapshot
- $0 Monthly Fee
- No Minimum Balance
- Free Direct Deposit and Online Bill Payment
- Now with Purchase Rewards
- Perfect for Occasional Usage
Western Union® NetSpend® Prepaid MasterCard®
The Western Union® NetSpend® Prepaid MasterCard® offers several features that make it both easy-to-use and inexpensive. Like most prepaid cards, it offers free deposits of your paycheck or government benefits such as Social Security, SSI, or SSDI. However, it also comes with the added benefit of letting you accept Western Union money transfers directly on your card without charge.
The card comes offers a pay-as-you-go option with no monthly fee, but that version charges $1 for each signature purchase and $2.00 for each PIN transaction. If you plan to use your card frequently, you would probably be better off signing up for the $9.95 per month Monthly Fee Advantage Plan or $5.00 per month Premier Fee Advantage Plan. Both offer unlimited signature and PIN transactions.
Western Union® NetSpend® Prepaid MasterCard® –Snapshot
- Upgrade to a $5 per month Premier FeeAdvantage™ Plan after you direct deposit at least $500 into your account during one calendar month.
- Access to an optional 5.00% APY Savings Account on balances up to $5,000.
- Receive Western Union Money Transfers in minutes and at no charge.
- Free balance inquiries via text message.
- Reload your card for free at one of over 130,000 reload locations in the NetSpend Reload Network.
NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card
The NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card remains popular with users because of its easy to understand fee structure. The card comes with three separate plans – a no-fee plan with a $1 fee for signature purchases and a $2 fee per PIN purchase transactions, a Fee Advantage Plan with a $9.95 monthly fee and free unlimited transactions, and a NetSpend Premier FeeAdvantage Plan with a $5.00 monthly fee and free unlimited transactions.
If you only make a handful of transactions each month, you might be better off going with the pay-as-you-go plan with no monthly fee, but if you make lots of purchases, you should probably choose one of the plans with a monthly fee and unlimited transactions. You can qualify for the cheapest plan, the NetSpend Premier FeeAdvantage Plan, by setting up a direct deposit of at least $500 during one calendar month.
NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card — Snapshot
- Load your card for free at more than 130,000 reload locations.
- Funds are FDIC insured up to the current coverage limit.
- Online banking makes it easy to manage and pay bills online.
- No minimum balance and no credit check.
- Perfect for users who want to make unlimited transactions without additional fees.
Best Prepaid Cards Comparison
Take a close look at the table below to get a better understanding of which prepaid card is best for your situation.
|PayPal™ Prepaid MasterCard®||AccountNow® Prepaid Visa® Card||American Express Serve®||Western Union® NetSpend® Prepaid MasterCard®||NetSpend®Visa® Prepaid Card|
|Max Monthly Fee||$4.95||$0||$1||$9.95||$9.95|
|Purchase Fees||$0||$1 per transaction||$0||$0||$0|
|ATM Fees||$1.95||$2.50||$0 at MoneyPass ATMS||$2.50||$2.50|
|Foreign Currency Fee||2.5%||3%||2.7%||3.5%||3.5%|
Although only five prepaid cards made our list, there are several others you should consider as you continue looking for the best prepaid card for your situation. These cards aren’t quite as widely used as the ones mentioned previously, but they do offer low fees and access to a large network of ATMs and reloading locations. Here are two honorable mentions that deserve a closer look:
American Express Bluebird®
American Express Bluebird® is growing in popularity due to its lack of fees and how easy it is to use. Not only does Bluebird come without any minimum balance requirements, but it also comes without monthly or annual fees, overdraft fees, foreign exchange fees, bill pay fees, inactivity fees, or card replacement fees.
Even though American Express Bluebird® is light on fees, it still offers a ton of perks. For example, Bluebird offers its users an amazing online bill pay feature and the ability to write paper checks. Meanwhile, card owners can add cash for free using mobile check deposit or at any Walmart checkout register.
American Express Bluebird® — Snapshot
- Transfer money for free out of your checking or savings account.
- Add cash for free at almost any Walmart checkout register.
- Pay bills with online bill pay or paper checks.
- FREE ATM Access at more than 24,000 MoneyPass ATMs
- No overdraft or stop payment fees.
- No foreign transaction fees.
Kaiku Visa® Prepaid Card
The Kaiku Visa® Prepaid Card is a fairly new prepaid card that offers a lot of promise in the prepaid card scene. With the Kaiku Prepaid card, there are no activation fees, usage fees, card declined fees and currency conversion fees. Furthermore, users get access to more than 55,000 surcharge-free Allpoint ATMs, and all for a low monthly fee of $3.
Since it offers free unlimited transactions, the Kaiku Visa® Prepaid Card is a great option for anyone who makes many small purchases throughout the month. Meanwhile, a large network of free ATMs makes this card a contender for anyone who uses their prepaid card to access cash often.
Kaiku Visa® Prepaid Card—Snapshot
- Low monthly fee of $3
- Kaiku’s “Funds-Ometer,” app tracks card users’ spending and compares it to their average spending over the past 60 days in non-essential categories, like eating out, bars and entertainment.
- No activation fees, usage fees, card declined fees and currency conversion fees.
- Low $1.45 fee for out-of-network ATM use.
- Mobile checking loading
- Easy card to card transfers
Who Should Use a Prepaid Debit Card?
Since traditional checking accounts almost always come with fewer fees and stipulations when compared to prepaid cards, you should always consider them first. However, there are certain situations when a prepaid card might make more sense.
You should consider getting a prepaid debit card in these four cases:
- If you can’t open a free or low-cost checking account. People who have a history of not paying bank fees or overdrawing their account will get flagged in ChexSystems, which is a special credit system that banks use.
- If you don’t like certain bank fees, like overdraft or service fees. Most banks offer some free checking options but, if you overdraft your account often, you’ll rack up fees.
- If you don’t want online purchases to have any link to a bank account or credit card. You can limit the amount of money on the card so, if anyone got ahold of your information, your downside is limited to what’s on the card instead of your entire bank account!
- If you want to use a prepaid card to issue your kids gas money, allowance, or college-spending cash. This ensures your kids don’t go rogue and overspend on the family credit card.
If you do not fit into any of the categories above, then your best bet is to sign up for a free or low-cost or free checking account.
If you’re someone who has bad credit and you’re looking to build it back up, you may be better off with a secured credit card in addition to a prepaid card. I plan on covering secured credit cards in the near future so that might help with your decision. In the meantime, there’s no problem with owning a prepaid debit card as long as you plan on using it to offset any fees you may have to pay.