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Banking 101: How to Get a Debit Card


Written by Devon Delfino | Published on 7/12/2019

Note: This article is part of our Basic Banking series, designed to provide new savers with the key skills to save smarter.

Debit cards are a great way to manage your personal spending, minimize the amount of cash you carry and avoid running up a credit card balance. They are universally accepted as a payment method at stores and on the internet, and you are seldom very far from an ATM where you can use your debit card to withdraw cash.

Here’s what you need to know about getting a debit card, and their potential risks.

In this article we will cover:

How to get a debit card with a checking and savings account

You’ve got a couple of options for obtaining a debit card. Checking accounts and many savings accounts come with debit cards. There are also prepaid debit cards, which do not have a bank account associated with them. If you’ve had banking trouble in the past, you can get a debit card with a second chance bank account. For those younger than 18, there are also student bank accounts that come with a debit card.

How to get a debit card with a checking account

A checking account is the traditional option for those looking to get a debit card and use it to make everyday transactions. You can get a debit card and linked checking account through brick-and-mortar or online-only banks as well as credit unions. Some checking accounts will offer you sign-up rewards, too. Just keep in mind that opening an account at a credit union is often subject to different, more specific requirements than through a traditional bank.

How to get a debit card with a savings account

Some savings accounts also come with debit cards. You need to check the details of your potential account online or call the institution to verify that the savings account comes with a debit card option. It’s also important to be aware that Federal Regulation D limits you to six withdrawal transactions a month from a savings account, including debit card withdrawals. If you need a debit card for more frequent use, a checking account may be a better option for you.

How to get a prepaid debit card

A prepaid debit card functions like a gift card, without an associated bank account. You load cash onto the card online or at retail locations, or you have direct deposits sent to the card. You may then you may use it like any other debit card until the funds are depleted. Prepaid debit cards can be a good option for those who need the flexibility of a debit card but aren’t able to access a traditional bank account.

The main drawback to these debit cards, however, is that they can be expensive. You may, for example, have to pay monthly and transaction fees, and you could even be charged cash reloading fees, depending on the card and plan you choose.

Prepaid debit cards can be purchased from retail locations like grocery stores and drug stores, as well as online, by phone or from certain banks and credit unions.

Do teens have any debit card options?

Even though most banks require you to be at least 18 years old to open an account, there are options for minors, which are subject to state laws. Many banks, for example, will offer student accounts that are linked with a parent’s bank account. And those teen accounts may have the option to add a debit card to the mix as well.

How to get a debit card step-by-step

When shopping around for an account, be sure to choose one that earns interest and has low fees. Then follow these three easy steps:

Step 1: Open an account

You can open a checking or savings account either online or in person at a bank branch or credit union branch. Once you’ve decided which kind of account you’d like, visit a branch or go to the website and fill out an application. Proof of identity will be a key part of the process — the institution will require you to present one or more forms of valid identification, including a driver’s license, passport and/or Social Security card. Online applications will ask you to photograph your identification with your mobile phone. If you’re under 18, you will need an adult to cosign on the account.

The institution will run a background check with ChexSystemsChexSystems to verify whether your banking history is clean. If you’ve had trouble with your bank account in the past — too many overdrafts, or perhaps a few bounced checks — the bank may offer you a second chance account.

Many accounts have no minimum balance, but some will ask you to deposit at least a small amount of money to open the account. Balance minimums vary, so check with your bank to find out what it requires.

Step 2: Request a debit card

If you’re applying for an account in person at a bank branch, you should get your debit card immediately. Many institutions create a personalized debit card for you on site, while some institutions give you a temporary debit card and then mail you a personalized version within a few days. If you are applying online, you may have to wait up to seven to 10 business days before your new debit card arrives in the mail.

Step 3: Activate your debit card

If you get a personalized debit card at a branch, activation is handled by the bank employee who helps you with your application. If you receive your debit card by mail, you’ll need to activate it yourself, typically by phone or online.

As part of the activation process, you will also be asked to choose a personal information number (PIN). This is the four-digit code you use at ATMs to withdraw money. Your PIN should never be a personally identifiable number, like your Social Security number, birthdate or phone number. Always keep your PIN private.

If you choose a prepaid debit card

If you go with a prepaid debit card, the process is a bit different. If you purchase the card in person, you can immediately load money onto the card. If you buy one online, the physical card arrives in the mail after a few days. You can either load money via a website or take the card to a store to add funds.

In either case, you generally need to register the card and provide basic information like your name, address, date of birth, email address and a Social Security number or Taxpayer Identification number (or another ID number for those who are not U.S. citizens). You’ll also add a PIN.

Potential downsides to debit cards

If you shop around, you can avoid most fees associated with accounts that offer debit cards. The big potential downside you should be aware of is security. While debit cards are more secure than carrying cash, they do have less robust protections than what you may get with a credit card. You could be on the hook for up to $500 of any fraudulent charges made using a lost or stolen card, depending on how much time elapses between the theft and report.

The amount of protection you get also depends on the kind of transactions that a thief used, according to Ken Tumin, founder and editor of DepositAccounts. Debit card transactions may require your PIN to go through, but some only require a signature. Those may seem like slight differences, but on the back end, the result is quite different.

If, for example, someone were to make a fraudulent charge using a forged signature, it would likely be routed through Visa or Mastercard’s network, meaning you could get the protections afforded by those networks. If they had your PIN and used it to make purchases, on the other hand, you wouldn’t have access to those protections.

Once you report the theft, “it might be weeks before that money is put back into your checking account. So if you’re living on the edge, living paycheck to paycheck and you don’t have much money in your checking account … then it could cause you to miss several payments,” said Tumin.

It’s vital to monitor your debit card transactions, and set up low balance alerts, if available. You must keep your PIN a secret, and you should consider covering the keypad with your free hand when entering the numbers at an ATM. Report any lost cards or fraudulent charges as soon as possible. That way, you’ll be ahead of the curve in case something goes wrong.

The final word on getting a debit card

Debit cards can provide a convenient way to pay for things, in the real world or online, with more security than you would get toting around large sums of cash. And while they aren’t the most secure payment option available, there’s something to be said for the fact that debit cards can help people learn to spend within their means and even get rewarded for it.

There are a few debit card options available, requiring a bit of research to figure out which one is best for you. But once you find your best debit card option and start using it, there are ways to minimize the risks while maximizing those rewards.

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