Our top picks of timely offers from our partners

More details
Americor Debt Relief
Learn More
Terms Apply
Our top pick for customer satisfaction and, Americor has lower fees than some competitors
Choice Home Warranty
Learn More
Terms Apply
Protects 25+ systems & appliances. Free quote + $50 off + 1 month free
LifeLock
Learn More
Terms Apply
Helps protect your data and online identity. Take advantage of up to 52% off the first year. Get protected today.
UFB Secure Savings
Learn More
Terms Apply
Up to 5.25% APY on one of our top picks for best savings accounts plus, no monthly fee
LendingClub High-Yield Savings
Learn More
Terms Apply
Our top pick for best savings accounts for its strong APY and an ATM card with no ATM fees
Select independently determines what we cover and recommend. We earn a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links. This commission may impact how and where certain products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). Read more about Select on CNBC and on NBC News, and click here to read our full advertiser disclosure.
Credit Cards

What is a balance transfer — and should you do one?

A balance transfer allows you to move debt between cards and potentially save big on interest.

Share

When you're working on paying down credit card debt, interest charges can make it an especially challenging task. But what if you could pause them for a while, pay off your current balance and call it quits with your debt?

That's the idea behind a balance transfer card. As the name implies, a balance transfer card allows you to move a balance from another card and pay it off without accruing interest during a promo period. Below, CNBC Select explains how balance transfers work and what to consider when deciding whether it's the right move for you.

What you need to know about balance transfers

How to transfer a credit card balance

A balance transfer is a relatively simple process. You get a credit card that comes with a 0% APR promo period on balance transfers which typically lasts six to 21 months. Note that these cards often require good to excellent credit (or a FICO score of at least 680).

Once you have the card, you can initiate the balance transfer online or over the phone by providing the required information — usually, how much you're transferring and from which card. You can also request a balance transfer by mail, but you'll have a longer wait until it's processed.

After the balance transfer card issuer approves your request, they'll typically pay off your old card directly. At this point, you'll see your old balance on the new account, plus the balance transfer fee. A balance transfer isn't a free service and you can expect to pay between 3% and 5% of the transferred amount.

The goal is to pay off the balance before the 0% APR period ends to take advantage of interest savings. Once the promo period is over, the issuer will start charging interest on the remaining balance.

Here's how the math works. Let's say you carry a $6,000 balance on a credit card with a 22% APR. You're working hard to get rid of this debt and paying $300 each month. At this rate, it will take you 26 months to pay off the balance and you'll lose $1,562 to interest charges.

Instead of doing that, you get the Citi Simplicity® Card which offers 0% Intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers from the date of the first transfer (19.24% to 29.99% variable APR thereafter). There is an intro balance transfer fee of 3% ($5 minimum) when you transfer the balance from your old card within four months ($180), after the intro period, the balance transfer fee goes up to 5% ($5 minimum). You continue paying $300 per month and eliminate the debt in 21 months without any interest charges. Overall, you save $1,362 and five months of your time.

Citi Simplicity® Card

On Citi's Secure Site
  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% Intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers from date of first transfer and 0% Intro APR for 12 months on purchases from date of account opening.

  • Regular APR

    19.24% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    There is an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer (minimum $5) completed within the first 4 months of account opening. After that, your fee will be 5% of each transfer (minimum $5).

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

How long does a balance transfer take?

A balance transfer isn't an immediate process and can take from a couple of days to several weeks, depending on the issuer and how you initiate the transfer.

Here's how much you can expect to wait, by issuer:

  • American Express takes five to seven business days, but in some cases, you might wait up to six weeks.
  • Capital One typically completes a transfer in three to 14 days, depending on whether you initiate it electronically or by mail.
  • Chase processes most transfers within a week, but in certain cases, it can take up to 21 days.
  • Citi can take anywhere between two and 21 days to complete a balance transfer.
  • Discover processes balance transfers within four days for existing cardholders. However, if you've applied for a new Discover card, your account must be open for 14 days before the issuer begins processing your balance transfer request.
  • U.S. Bank typically completes balance transfers within 14 days.
  • Wells Fargo also takes up to 14 days to process a balance transfer.

Balance transfer cards to consider

Choosing the right balance transfer credit card comes down to your priorities — and how much time you need to pay off the debt.

If you need as long as you can get, some cards offer a 21-month intro period. Look into the Wells Fargo Reflect® Card, which offers a 0% intro APR for 21 months on both qualifying balance transfers and purchases from account opening. After the intro period, a regular variable APR of 18.24%, 24.74% or 29.99% kicks in. The balance transfer fee is 5% min: $5.

Wells Fargo Reflect® Card

On Wells Fargo's secure site
  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% intro APR for 21 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers.

  • Regular APR

    18.24%, 24.74%, or 29.99% Variable APR

  • Balance transfer fee

    5%, min: $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees. Terms apply.

The Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card also offers 0% intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers and for 12 months on purchases. The regular interest rate on this card is 18.24% to 28.99% variable. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening. You'll also pay a 5% fee on each balance transfer ($5 minimum).

Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card

On Citi's Secure Site
  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for 21 months on balance transfers; 0% for 12 months on purchases

  • Regular APR

    18.24% - 28.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    5% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees.Terms apply.

It's rare but some cards allow you to transfer a balance without fees. For instance, the Choice Rewards World Mastercard® comes with a variable APR of 13.50% to 18.00%. However, you'll earn 2X points on groceries, gas, electronics, medical, household goods and telecommunications and 1X points on all other purchases.

Choice Rewards World Mastercard®

On First Tech Federal Credit Union's secure site
  • Rewards

    Earn 2X points on groceries, gas, electronics, medical, household goods and telecommunications, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 20,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 60 days from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    13.50% - 18.00% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    None

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    N/A

Terms apply.

If rewards are a priority and you want to continue getting value from the card after paying off the transferred balance, you have more options. For example, the Chase Freedom Unlimited® is one of our top picks for rewards credit cards. It earns earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back! Plus, the card offers 0% intro APR for the first 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers (20.49% to 29.24% variable thereafter). You'll pay $5 or 3% of the transfer amount, whichever is greater, if you make the transfer within 60 days of account opening. After that, the fee is either $5 or 5% of the transfer amount, whichever is greater.

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

On Chase's secure site
  • Rewards

    Enjoy 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services, 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, our premier rewards program that lets you redeem rewards for cash back, travel, gift cards and more; and 3% cash back on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

  • Welcome bonus

    INTRO OFFER: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    20.49% - 29.24% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    Intro fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater, on transfers made within 60 days of account opening. After that, either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

  • Member FDIC. Terms apply.

Should I transfer my credit card balance?

A transfer balance can be a highly effective debt consolidation tool. However, it's not the optimal solution for every situation.

Here's what you need to make a balance transfer work for you:

  • Solid credit. Without a decent credit score, you might not qualify for the balance transfer card you want. You can still come out on top if you transfer your debt to a credit card with a lower interest rate than what you're currently paying, but make sure to do the math — and don't forget to include the balance transfer fee.
  • The right amount of debt. If you don't have that much debt and can pay it off in three months or less, paying a transfer fee and waiting for the transfer to go through might not be worth the trouble. Or, if your debt amount is too high, you might struggle to pay all or at least most of it before the end of the 0% APR period.
  • Discipline. A successful balance transfer requires sticking to your payment plan and not adding more to your debt. If you worry another credit card would lead you to problematic spending, a balance transfer might not be the right solution for you.
Subscribe to the CNBC Select Newsletter!

Money matters — so make the most of it. Get expert tips, strategies, news and everything else you need to maximize your money, right to your inbox. Sign up here.

Bottom line

If you have credit card debt, transferring it to a card with a 0% intro period on balance transfers can result in significant savings. But before you commit to a balance transfer, make sure it's the right step for you. That means the transfer should make sense mathematically and be the course of action you can stick with. Otherwise, you risk losing even more money to debt.

Why trust CNBC Select?

At CNBC Select, our mission is to provide our readers with high-quality service journalism and comprehensive consumer advice so they can make informed decisions with their money. Every credit card guide is based on rigorous reporting by our team of expert writers and editors with extensive knowledge of credit card products. While CNBC Select earns a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links, we create all our content without input from our commercial team or any outside third parties, and we pride ourselves on our journalistic standards and ethics. See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best credit cards.

Catch up on CNBC Select's in-depth coverage of credit cardsbanking and money, and follow us on TikTokFacebookInstagram and Twitter to stay up to date.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
Find the right savings account for you
Learn More
Terms Apply
Help your money grow by finding the savings account that offers the best rates and features for you
Chime
Learn More
Terms Apply
Chime offers online-only accounts that minimize fees plus, get paid up to 2 days early with direct deposits