The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Apply For a Prepaid Card: How to Choose the Right Card & Manage the Account

Apply For A Prepaid Card

credit card advice

Eric Bank

Written by: Eric Bank

Eric Bank

Eric Bank has been covering business and financial topics since 1985, specializing in taking complex subject matters and explaining them in simple terms for consumer audiences. In addition to his work on CardRates.com, Eric has appeared regularly on Credible.com, eHow, WiseBread, The Nest, Get.com, Zacks, Chron and dozens of other outlets. A former software engineer, Eric holds an M.B.A. from New York University and an M.S. in finance from DePaul University.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Florida. Today, she edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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Reviewed by: Ashley Dull

Ashley Dull

With more than a decade of experience as a content manager and marketer, Ashley has specialized in finance coverage since 2015. She has worked closely with the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, up-and-coming fintech companies, and press and news outlets to curate comprehensive content and media campaigns. Her credit card commentary is featured on national media outlets that include CNBC, MarketWatch, Investopedia, and Reader's Digest, among others.

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Advertiser Disclosure

There are plenty of reasons to apply for a prepaid card, especially if your relationship with banks is complicated. Many people find banks forbidding and branches exasperating. Not to mention all those mysterious fees. Think of a prepaid reloadable card as banking lite; it provides a few essential services without the drama (or overdraft fees).

We’ll review in this article how to get a prepaid debit card and, once you have it, how to use it effectively. Even if you’re not ready to cut up your credit cards or burn your checkbooks, you may decide these little plastic cards deserve a slot in your wallet.

What to Look For in a Prepaid Card

You want a prepaid card that: 

  • has convenient reload options 
  • charges relatively low fees
  • delivers rewards
  • hosts an extensive ATM network
  • provides a purchase cushion for small overdrafts

We give top ratings to the following prepaid debit cards. All are easy to purchase, activate, and register online or in-person at a retail location. 

Brinks Prepaid Mastercard Review

at Republic Bank & Trust Company’ssecure website

PREPAID RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

  • Brink’s gives you the peace of mind you deserve. Securing cash and valuables since 1859.
  • With Brink’s Direct Deposit, you can get paid faster* than a paper check.
  • No late fees or interest charges because this is not a credit card.
  • Use the Brink’s Money Prepaid Mobile App to manage your account on the go and get text message or email alerts (Message & data rates may apply.)
  • *Card issued by Republic Bank & Trust Company, Member FDIC. Card may be used everywhere Mastercard Debit cards are accepted. “Apply Now” for full details.
  • See additional Brink’s Prepaid Mastercard® Details.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
Variable Monthly Fees
Not applicable
PayPal Prepaid Mastercard® Review

at The Bancorp Bank’ssecure website

PREPAID RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

  • Move money from your PayPal account to fund your prepaid card account.
  • Earn cash back and personalized offers, just for using your card.
  • With Direct Deposit, you can get paid faster than a paper check.
  • Card issued by The Bancorp Bank, Member FDIC. Card may be used everywhere Debit Mastercard is accepted.
  • Click PayPal Prepaid Mastercard® for additional features & program details, and to request a Card.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
Variable Monthly Fee
Not applicable
NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card Review

at NetSpend’ssecure website

PREPAID RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

  • With Netspend Direct Deposit, you can get paid faster than a paper check.
  • No late fees or interest charges because this is not a credit card.
  • No Overdraft Fees on purchases using your card.
  • Use the NetSpend Mobile App to manage your account on the go and get text message or email alerts (Message & data rates may apply).
  • Card issued by MetaBank®, Member FDIC. Card may be used everywhere Visa Debit cards are accepted. Click “Get My Card” for full details.
  • See additional NetSpend® Prepaid Visa® details.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
Variable Monthly Fee
Not applicable
Playcard Prepaid Mastercard Review

at MetaBank®’ssecure website

PREPAID RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

  • Enjoy online gaming? Get PlayCard and Stay in the Action.
  • Separate your fun money from your budget.
  • No late fees or interest charges because this is not a credit card.
  • Use the Playcard Mobile App to manage your Card Account on the go and enroll to get text messages or email alerts. (Message & data rates may apply).
  • Card use is subject to activation and ID verification. Terms and Costs Apply.
  • Card issued by MetaBank®, N.A., Member FDIC.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
Not applicable
NetSpend® Visa® Prepaid Card Review

at NetSpend’ssecure website

PREPAID RATING

★★★★★
4.7

OVERALL RATING

  • With Netspend Direct Deposit, you can get paid faster than a paper check.
  • No late fees or interest charges because this is not a credit card.
  • No Overdraft Fees on purchases using your card.
  • Use the NetSpend Mobile App to manage your account on the go and get text message or email alerts (Message & data rates may apply).
  • Card issued by MetaBank®, Member FDIC. Card may be used everywhere Visa Debit cards are accepted. Click “Get My Card ” for full details.
  • See additional NetSpend® Prepaid Visa® details.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
Up-to $9.95 monthly
Not applicable

+ See More Prepaid Cards

If you are looking to introduce your children to debit card ownership, choose a card that offers family plans — they’re an excellent way for kids to learn about managing money. 

Requirements to Apply For a Prepaid Debit Card

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about applying for a prepaid card is what isn’t required — a credit check or bank account. 

You can have bad credit or no credit at all because debit cards do not check credit. Nor do you need a checking account because prepaid debit cards maintain your funds in their own accounts.

Debit prepaid cards usually require three things of primary applicants:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age.
  • Your personal information (i.e., name, address, date of birth, Social Security number) must be valid and complete.
  • You must read the cardholder agreement and agree to be bound by, and comply with, its terms.

A few cards permit an alternative to your Social Security number, such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or a foreign ID number. You may also have to provide a copy of your driver’s license, passport, or other official photo ID.

Family-oriented prepaid cards permit minors to be authorized users. The minimum age allowed for an authorized user varies from 6 to 13 among these cards. 

Buying a Prepaid Card In-Store vs. Applying Online

The most convenient way to get a prepaid debit card is online, but if you want a physical card right away, you’ll need to purchase it in the store. 

If you sign up online, expect card delivery in seven to 10 days unless you pay for expedited shipping. The issuer may give you a virtual card account number you can use for card-not-present (CNP) transactions until your card arrives.

Both methods of getting a card share three stages:

  1. Card acquisition: You fill out an online form with the requested information or you can buy a prepaid card from a retailer. Most prepaid cards charge $3 to $10 for in-store purchases but waive the fee when you request the card online.
  2. Card activation: You activate your card by funding it the first time (i.e., the initial load). You can do so with cash, check, direct deposit, or electronic transfer. To activate the card, you must set a personal identification number (PIN). Some funding methods, such as cash load/reload at a retail location, may incur fees, whereas others (direct deposits, standard mobile check loads, and account-to-account transfers at the card’s website) are usually free of charge.
  3. Card registration: Federal law requires prepaid card issuers to verify your identity, a process called registration. Depending on the issuer, you can register the card at the time of purchase or when you receive the card after buying it online. 

You can’t use the card at all until you activate it. Unless you register it, the card will not cover you for damages due to its loss or theft. The issuer may also restrict you from using an unregistered card for in-store purchases, ATM withdrawals, account-to-account transfers, additional loads, and international transactions.

Some prepaid card issuers assess a monthly fee for card inactivity (usually about $5 to $10) if you fail to activate and/or register your card by a set deadline, typically 90 days.

How to Use a Prepaid Debit Card

You can do many things with a prepaid debit card, including:

  • Accept direct deposits
  • Earn rewards on select cards
  • Reload funds
  • Make purchases online and in-store
  • Transfer funds to other accounts
  • Withdraw money at ATMs and get cash back at checkout lines

Let’s take a close look at these activities:

Reloading a Card

Prepaid cards are debit cards, meaning they draw from deposited funds — in this case, in a bank account administered by the card issuer. If you exhaust your funds, you can’t use your card until you reload money, although some cards offer overdraft protection. 

You can reload your card in several ways:

  • Depositing cash (or equivalent) at in-network reload centers and retail locations. For example, Netspend has an extensive, nationwide network of reload centers, and you can replenish the Walmart MoneyCard®, a prepaid debit Mastercard, at any Walmart store. Generally, you can refill a card at the place you bought it. Most cards charge a reload fee, although a few waive it.
  • Arranging direct deposits of government and payroll checks. Debit cards don’t charge for a direct deposit.
  • Check capture using the camera and app on your mobile phone. You scan both sides of the check and transmit the images via the card’s mobile app. This service is usually free, but you may have to pay a fee for an expedited check load. Ingo Money provides this service for most prepaid cards and online banking apps.
  • Adding money from a linked checking or savings account. 

You can’t fund a prepaid debit card from a credit card, but you can use a credit card cash advance to make a cash deposit if you really need to. It’s not a very good idea, however, due to the high interest rates credit cards charge for cash advances.

Making Purchases

The primary reason to own a prepaid debit card is to purchase goods and services at a physical store, online, and in-app without using cash or a credit card. 

Prepaid cards may charge you a flat monthly fee in the $5 to $10 range to cover your purchase activity. Alternatively, you can sign up for pay-as-you-go pricing, in which you pay a small fee (typically $1.50) for each transaction.

You can use a prepaid debit card at a store in two ways.

How to Use a Prepaid Debit Card

If your prepaid card is among the few equipped with an EMV chip, you can make a debit transaction by entering your PIN. This alternative is safer because you don’t transmit card account information, just a unique number for each transaction. 

The alternative is a credit transaction (which is misnamed, as it doesn’t involve the use of credit), in which you sign your name instead of supplying a PIN. If your card lacks a chip, you’re stuck with this purchase method, which is less secure because the card carries and transmits your account information.

You can also use your prepaid card for online and in-app purchases by providing the cardowner’s name, account number, and security code on the back of the card. Online purchases are safer if the website uses encrypted communications. 

Some of the reviewed debit cards offer payback rewards on eligible purchases. These rewards reduce the cost of owning these debit cards.

Several cards provide a purchase cushion (typically $10) to allow you to complete a purchase even if it results in a small negative account balance. The cushion usually doesn’t apply to ATM withdrawals. Issuers expect to bring your account out of negative territory as soon as possible. 

Usually, this service has an overdraft fee if you don’t immediately replenish the funds, and the card may limit the number of overdrafts per month. You may have to satisfy a card’s direct deposit requirements to have access to a purchase cushion.

Sometimes, credit card owners going on international trips take a debit card instead of a travel card. This option reduces the worry about financial damage from the theft of a travel card.

Withdrawals and Transfers

You can withdraw cash from your prepaid card balance at ATMs, financial institutions, and reload locations. Fees usually apply for any cash withdrawal. ATMs may also charge a small fee for balance inquiries, but you can get the information free online or by calling the card’s customer service department.

The website and mobile app usually charge nothing to transfer money to other cardholders. You can also transfer money from your checking account to your debit card for free but expect a charge if you receive assistance from a customer service agent. A fee may apply to transfers from your card to another account, and many cards charge to accept money order transfers.

Be aware that debit cards often carry miscellaneous charges, such as a custom card fee or statement printing fee, that add to their cost.

Prepaid Cards Provide an Alternative to a Bank Account

Are you ready to apply for a prepaid card? We’ve given you the information you need to get started. If you think you’d benefit from owning a prepaid reloadable card, read the cardholder agreement and compare the fees closely, as some are more expensive than others. 

If you are among the unbanked masses or have bad credit, it’s good to know you have an alternative that doesn’t require you to step into a bank branch or wield a credit card.

Advertiser Disclosure

CardRates.com is a free online resource that offers valuable content and comparison services to users. To keep this resource 100% free, we receive compensation for referrals for many of the offers listed on the site. Along with key review factors, this compensation may impact how and where products appear across CardRates.com (including, for example, the order in which they appear). CardRates.com does not include the entire universe of available offers. Editorial opinions expressed on the site are strictly our own and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by advertisers.