Many Americans look to balance transfer credit cards to consolidate debt or provide a window of financial flexibility. But as convenient and helpful as balance transfer offers can sometimes be, they’re not instantaneous. In rare cases, a balance transfer could take up to a month and a half to complete.
What Is a Balance Transfer?
A credit card balance transfer is the process of moving outstanding debt from one or more cards onto a new or existing account. Usually, a balance transfer offer comes with a special introductory interest rate — often as low as 0% APR. This low, promotional balance transfer rate lasts for a limited time, often between 12 – 24 months. It’s essentially an incentive to get you to apply for a new account.
The major benefit of a balance transfer credit card comes during that introductory period when you pay no or low interest on transferred balances. Sometimes, a credit card issuer will also extend the same introductory rate for new purchases, too. But balance transfer offers can vary greatly. You can (and should) check the terms and conditions of your card for specific details.
Because you can avoid interest charges during the promotional period, your entire payment may help pay down your principal balance. This helps to eliminate your credit card debt quicker. However, once the introductory rate ends, any leftover balance will be subject to a higher interest rate.
How Long Do Balance Transfers Take?
Balance transfers can take some time to process — anywhere from a few days to several weeks depending on the circumstances. With so many moving parts, it’s difficult to nail down a specific balance transfer timeline.
Here are what major credit card issuers say about how long balance transfers take:
- American Express: It usually takes 5 – 7 days for a balance transfer with American Express, although it can take up to 6 weeks.
- Bank of America: Allow 2 weeks from opening an account for processing balance transfers, according to the terms of credit cards on Bank of America’s website.
- Capital One: Transfers take between 3 – 14 days generally at Capital One, depending on whether they can complete the process electronically or by mail.
- Chase: Most Chase transfers process in a week, but they can take up to 21 days. The time frame also depends on how promptly the payee processes the transferred amount.
- Citibank: “As a new customer, we allow at least 14 days from the date your account is approved for you to receive and review your full card agreement and pricing terms before processing any balance transfer offers,” Citibank writes on its site. “This gives you the opportunity to cancel or modify your balance transfer during those 14 days.”
- Discover: A Discover account must be opened for 14 days before a balance transfer is processed. It then usually takes 4 days to process the request.
The Balance Transfer Process
The overall balance transfer process is similar across credit card companies. But each card issuer’s policies, procedures, and workflows will vary. These differences add to the uncertainty in the final balance transfer timeline. Below is a basic walkthrough to show how a balance transfer works behind the scenes.
An issuer markets a balance transfer offer
Before you can move your existing credit card debt to a new account with a lower interest rate, a credit card company has to have a balance transfer program in place. While this might seem obvious, and it is, this fact also remains relevant. Here’s why.
The state of the economy tends to have a big impact on whether card issuers offer balance transfers and the types of deals available. For example, during the Great Recession an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that, as credit rules tightened and delinquencies increased, consumers discovered fewer balance transfer opportunities in 2008 and 2009.
Thankfully, there are numerous balance transfer opportunities currently available for well-qualified consumers. You can review some of the best balance transfer credit card offers here.
You apply for a balance transfer credit card
As mentioned, when the economy slows the number of balance transfer opportunities might decrease. Lenders may tighten up their approval criteria as well. Both of these hurdles can make it more difficult to qualify for the best credit card offers.
Before you apply for new financing of any kind, it’s important to know where your credit stands. Checking your three credit reports and credit scores is a good place to start. As you review your reports, be on the lookout for credit reporting errors. You’ll want to dispute any mistakes you find with the appropriate credit reporting agencies.
Wait for approval and transfer
Once a card issuer approves your application for a new account, you can request a balance transfer. If you included the balance transfer request with your initial credit card application, the process may already be in motion. Either way, you’ll have to wait for the transfer to process.
The funds transfer may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to finalize. The issuer of your new balance transfer credit card will pay off the old account. This transferred amount, plus any balance transfer fee, will show up on your new account’s next statement.
Note: Some card issuers might give you the option to deposit balance transfer funds into your personal checking account. If you opt to manage your balance transfer this way, you’ll be responsible for the added step of paying off your original credit card balance(s) with those funds.
Potential Balance Transfer Complications
Most balance transfer requests go through without any errors or delays. But a human error here or a glitch in the system there could cause a hiccup in the process. So, what can you do? Be vigilant and don’t just assume that your balance transfer will go through as planned. The following best practices can help.
Be mindful of deadlines
You might need to transfer your debt to your new balance transfer credit card within a specific period of time to qualify for the introductory APR. For example, the window of opportunity might last 60 days from your account opening date. So, aim to make your request early and then monitor the balance transfer process for potential snags.
Continue paying on the old card
You won’t know how long it will take for your new card issuer to process your balance transfer and pay your existing credit card debt off (or down). So, keep making at least the minimum payment on your original credit card in the meantime. Doing so can help you avoid potential late fees and derogatory marks on your credit reports.
Payment history affects your FICO® Scores more than anything else. Even a single missed payment might lower your credit scores significantly. Late payments may also remain on your credit reports for up to seven years.
Be prompt with payments on the new card
Not only can late payments damage your credit, they could take away your introductory APR on a new balance transfer card. So, if you mismanage your new account you could wind up paying a higher APR than you planned, plus the addition of a balance transfer fee.
Ponder your purchases
Unless your new balance transfer card includes a 0% introductory APR for new purchases, additional charges won’t feature the same low rate as your balance transfer offer. This can make it confusing when trying to figure out how much interest you’ll pay. So, you should think hard about whether you really want to make purchases on this card until you pay off your transferred debt.
You should also be careful about making new purchases on the cards you pay off with a balance transfer. If you keep overspending on your original accounts, a balance transfer may lead to bigger debt problems down the road. Use your credit cards responsibly, on the other hand, and you could build better credit over time.
Will a Balance Transfer Improve Your Credit Scores?
A balance transfer has the potential to improve your credit scores. More specifically, if a balance transfer lowers your credit utilization rate, your credit scores might benefit. Credit utilization, as a reminder, is the percentage of your credit card limits in use (according to your credit reports). Lower utilization rate indicates that you’re a better credit risk.
If you transfer a balance to a card with a 0% rate, you’ll accrue no interest — your balance would be lower than if you did accrue interest, and this would be better for your utilization.
It is possible during the balance transfer process, however, for one or more of your credit reports to temporarily show a balance on both the old and the new card. If this happens, your overall credit utilization ratio might increase and your credit scores could decline. But this effect should be temporary, if it happens at all. Your next credit reports should show that the balance of the old card is zero (or paid down, if the balance transfer amount was not enough to cover the entire debt).
How Do You Find the Right Balance Transfer Credit Card?
Before you apply for a new balance transfer credit card, take some time to compare available offers. When you know what’s available, you can select the card that serves your needs best.
As you compare the terms and conditions of different balance transfer offers, pay close attention to the following:
- Introductory interest rate: To attract new consumers, credit card issuers may offer a low introductory APR, often 0%. Research whether the introductory rate applies to balance transfers only. If you’re lucky, you might find an introductory rate that extends to new purchases as well.
- Promotional period: All good things eventually come to an end. Generally, within 12 to 24 months the low or 0% introductory APR will cease. When you compare offers, those with longer promotional periods will probably be more attractive to you.
- Balance transfer fee: Card issuers usually charge a balance transfer fee when you move debt to your new account. Most balance transfer fees range from 3%–5%. And there’s usually a minimum fee (e.g., $5) which kicks in if you only move a small amount of money to the account. Depending upon the rate, a balance transfer fee may cost you around $30 to $50 per $1,000 of debt you transfer. By comparison, $1,000 in credit card debt at 19.1% APR would cost you more than $260 over an 18-month period (assuming you made minimum payments of 2%).
- Regular APR: When the promotional period ends, any remaining balance on your account will be subject to the card’s regular APR. This rate can vary widely from around 13% to more than 20%, depending upon your credit scores and the issuer’s guidelines. The Federal Reserve reports that the average rate on credit cards that assessed interest was 16.43% in August 2020.
- Annual fee: An annual fee doesn’t have to be a deal breaker when you’re looking at the pros and cons of a credit card offer. But, you should take the time to make sure the card’s benefits are worth more than the cost of the annual fee to you.
A balance transfer can potentially help you pay down debt and avoid expensive interest fees. A well-managed balance transfer might even help you improve your credit scores as a bonus.
If you’re using a balance transfer to lower your debt, consider not using the card for new purchases. You’ll want to avoid charging more than you can afford to pay in full each month on your other credit cards too. Otherwise, your credit rating and your bank account may suffer.
Remember that balance transfers can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to process. So, keep making payments on your original card until you confirm your account balance is zero.
Finally, when the economy tightens, balance transfer opportunities may tighten as well. Making sure your credit reports are error-free and in good shape before you apply for your chosen credit card offer may improve your approval odds.
The Short Version
- Depending on the card issuer, credit card balance transfers can typically take a few days to a few weeks
- A credit card balance transfer is the process of moving outstanding debt from one or more cards onto a new or existing account
- If a balance transfer lowers your credit utilization rate, your credit scores might benefit