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How to avoid credit card fees

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Annual fees, foreign transaction fees and balance transfer fees can add up.

Credit cards have a wide range of features and benefits, but they also come with many different fees and charges. These costs can quickly add up and lead to serious credit card debt if left unchecked. The good news is that you can avoid most credit card fees if you’re aware of them.

TIP: Credit union-issued cards often have fewer fees and lower fees than bank-issued cards. Waived fees often include foreign transaction fees, balance transfer fees, cash advance fees and overlimit fees. Also, the annual percentage rate (APR) is lower.

Annual fees

Some credit cards charge an annual fee, which can cost as little as $25 or as much as $550. The more features and benefits a credit card has — such as a generous rewards program or complimentary lounge access — the more likely it is to have a high annual fee.

Annual fees usually start when you first activate your card, and are then charged on the same monthly statement for every year you have the card. Some cards have $0 intro annual fee for the first year, so be sure to check the ongoing rates and fees before you apply.

How to avoid it

If you take advantage of credit card perks, you could find that the value they offer outweighs the cost of the annual fee. Otherwise, you should consider a card with no annual fee for life.

Case study: How Alex avoided annual fees

Alex currently pays an annual fee of $195 for her platinum rewards credit card. While she earns 2 points per $1 spent on the card, she only spends about $12,000 per year. This is just enough points for a $240 redemption value, meaning Alex earns $45 in value ($240 – $195 = $45).

By switching to a no annual fee rewards credit card with a 1.5x points rewards rate, Alex can get a $180 in redemption value, or $135 more than when she paid an annual fee.

Compare no-annual-fee credit cards

Name Product Annual Fee Balance Transfer APR Purchase APR Filter values
$0
17.99% to 26.99% variable
17.99% to 26.99% variable
Earn 75,000 Hilton Honors™ Bonus Points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
$0
17.99% to 26.99% variable
17.99% to 26.99% variable
Earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
$0
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
Earn a $150 bonus statement credit after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & fees
$0
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases with your new card within the first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
$0
0% for the first 12 billing cycles (then 16.24% to 25.74% variable)
16.24% to 25.74% variable
When you spend $500 on your card within the first 90 days, you’ll receive a $150 cash back bonus. Rates & Fees

Compare up to 4 providers

Interest

Credit cards charge interest when you carry a balance. The amount you pay is based on the APR of your balance, such as 19.99%. Despite being an annual rate, it’s calculated daily and charged monthly. Depending on your card, you could have any or all of the following interest rates applied to your balance:

  • Purchase rate. The interest rate charged for new purchases made on the card whose balance isn’t paid in full by the due date.
  • Cash advance rate. The interest rate applied for cash advance transactions, such as ATM withdrawals. This is often the highest rate of up to 28%. Unlike the other rates where you get a grace period, the cash advance rate accrues from the day you make your transaction.
  • Balance transfer rate. The interest rate applied to any balance you have moved from an old card to the current card. If you get a balance transfer credit card, you will usually pay a 0% promotional rate for the introductory period. Standard balance transfer rates after the intro period are usually based on the card’s purchase rate.
  • Penalty rate. The penalty APR can be up to 32% and it often applies when you make more than one late or returned payment, or if you haven’t paid your minimum for more than 60 days. Depending on the card, the Penalty APR may last from six months to indefinitely.
  • Promotional interest rate. This interest rate is usually offered to new cardholders for a set period of time, such as the first 12 months. If you’re looking at getting a card with a promotional interest rate for purchases or balance transfers, make sure you also check the standard interest rate that’s applied after the intro period.

How to avoid it

You won’t be charged interest if you pay your balance in full by your statement due date. But if you do carry a balance, aim to pay more than the minimum each month or choose a card that has a low APR, or a 0% promotional interest rate.

To avoid cash advance rate, either skip on cash advance transactions or pay the balance as soon as you make the transaction because you don’t get a grace period.

Case study: Thien’s interest savings

Thien has a credit card with a $5,000 balance and a variable APR of 19.99%. If he only makes minimum payments on this card, he will be charged around $955 in interest for the year.

If Thien switches to a card that offers a low ongoing APR of 12.99%, he could save around $354 in interest over the course of the year. He could save even more by making larger repayments. He would also be able to avoid interest charges completely if he made a balance transfer to another card with a 0% intro APR period.

Compare 0% intro purchase APR credit cards

Name Product Purchase APR Balance Transfer APR Annual Fee Filter values
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
$0
Earn a $150 bonus statement credit after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & fees
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
0% for the first 15 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
$0
Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases with your new card within the first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
0% for the first 12 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
0% for the first 12 months (then 15.24% to 26.24% variable)
$95
Earn $250 bonus cash back after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & fees
0% for the first 18 months (then 13.24%, 17.24% or 21.24% variable)
0% for the first 18 months (then 13.24%, 17.24% or 21.24% variable)
$0
An 18 months 0% intro APR period on both purchases and balance transfers, plus zero foreign transaction fees, makes this is a strong well-rounded card. See Rates and Fees
0% for the first 12 months (then 15.24%, 19.24% or 25.24% variable)
0% for the first 12 months (then 15.24%, 19.24% or 25.24% variable)
$0
Earn 3% cash back on up to $10,000 in the first 12 months, then 1.5% on all purchases. See Rates and Fees.

Compare up to 4 providers

Balance transfer fees

Most balance transfer credit cards charge a fee for moving your existing debt from a current card to a new account. Balance transfer fees get charged as soon as you transfer a balance. Depending on the card, you can pay between 3% and 5% of the amount you move, with a minimum of either $5 or $10.

How to avoid it

In most cases, you won’t be able to avoid paying the balance transfer fee. However, there are some cards that offer $0 balance transfer fee either for a limited time or for the life of your card. Cards issued by credit unions often waive this fee.

Case study: Move your debt and save like Miranda

Miranda has seen a balance transfer credit card that offers 0% intro APR period for 12 months and charges a 3% balance transfer fee. She has a $6,000 debt she wants to move, but would have $180 for the transfer fee added to her balance if she got this new credit card. Instead of applying, Miranda compares a range of balance transfer options and finds a different card that doesn’t charge a balance transfer fee. This means she can transfer her debt, save money on the process and pay off her balance faster.

Foreign transaction fees

Some credit cards apply foreign transaction fees on purchases made abroad or when you shop online with an international merchant. This charge is usually between 1% and 3% of the total transaction.

How to avoid it

Look for a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card that you can use abroad with incurring extra charges on purchases. Travel credit cards are often the best pick.

Case study: How Jai saved on transaction fees on holiday

Jai has just got back from a trip to Brazil, where he spent $3,000 on his credit card. He checks his statement and sees that a 3% foreign transaction fee was applied each time he used the card, adding $90 to his total bill. While Jai has to pay the fees this time, he decides to shop around for a card with no foreign transaction fee so that he saves money on all his future trips.

Name Product Foreign Transaction Fee Annual Fee Purchase APR Filter values
None
$0
17.99% to 26.99% variable
Earn 75,000 Hilton Honors™ Bonus Points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
None
$0
15.24% to 26.24% variable
Build your credit with no fees: Apply if you're new to credit or have a fair to good score.
None
$0
0% for the first 12 months (then 15.24%, 19.24% or 25.24% variable)
Earn 3% cash back on up to $10,000 in the first 12 months, then 1.5% on all purchases. See Rates and Fees.
None
$550
N/A
Get 5x Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5x points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com. Rates & fees
None
$250
See Rates & Fees
35,000 bonus Membership Rewards® Points when you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months. Rates & fees

Compare up to 4 providers

Cash advance fees

This fee is charged for cash advance transactions, including when you withdraw money from an ATM or pay with plastic while gambling. In these instances, you’ll be charged between 3% and 5% of the total transaction. Most cards also have a minimum cash advance fee of between $10 and $15.

How to avoid it

Limit cash withdrawals or transactions in a casino. Also, check with your credit card provider about other transactions where this fee applies and steer clear of them.

Case study: Valentina’s cash advance mistake

Valentina has run out of cash at a music festival. She isn’t sure of the balance of her everyday transaction account, so she withdraws $1,000 using her credit card. When she gets her next statement, she sees she has been charged a 3% fee worth $30. The cash advance APR of 21.99% has also been charged for 20 days, totaling $12, which means Valentina has paid $42 for using her credit card to take a cash advance. In the future, she decides to keep more cash on hand and make sure she has some available on her debit card to avoid these fees.

Late payment fees

If you don’t make a payment on your credit card by the due date on your statement, you could be charged a late payment fee worth anywhere from $10 to $38, depending on whether your card is issued by a credit union or a bank. Note that even if a late fee is not charged, other penalties could apply that may affect your credit history.

How to avoid it

Always make payments before the due date on your statement, and make sure you factor in processing times for the payment method you choose. You may even want to set up an automatic payment from your transaction account so that you always meet this deadline. It’s also a good idea to check your credit card terms and conditions regarding late payments so that you know exactly how much you will pay and what else could apply. Learn more in our guide on what happens when you can’t pay your credit card bill.

Overlimit fees

You could be charged an overlimit fee if you max out your credit card in a statement period. Not all credit card companies apply this charge, but if they do it could be up to $35.

How to avoid it

Some card issuers offer overlimit protection, or they don’t charge this fee at all. Despite that, you should regularly check your credit card balance to know what your available credit limit is.

Other credit card fees

These credit card fees are less common, but it’s still good to know when they may apply and how you can avoid them.

  • Chargeback fee. If you need to reverse a credit card transaction through your credit card provider, you could be charged a fee of around $15 to $25. You can avoid this fee by trying to get a refund with the merchant before going to your credit card provider.
  • Card replacement fees. Most credit card companies don’t charge a fee if you need a replacement card. But for fast-tracking or overseas replacements, you could pay anywhere from $5 to $30 or sometimes more. Have a backup payment option so that you don’t need to speed up the process.
  • Additional cardholder fee. Some credit cards charge an annual fee when you request an additional or supplementary cardholder for your account. This is often the case with credit cards with a high annual fee. If you want to share your account with a partner or family member, make sure you check for this fee, as there are many cards that don’t charge it.
  • Returned payment fee. When you make a payment that bounces because of insufficient funds or because of an account freeze, you could incur a returned payment fee, which can be up to $38.
  • Credit card surcharges. This fee is charged by the merchant to cover their costs. You can avoid it by having another payment option available, such as a debit card, cash, direct transfer or by using a service such as PayPal. Merchants legally have to notify you of a surcharge before you make payment.
  • Paper statement fee. Some credit card companies will charge you a fee if you request paper statements for your account. Usually, this will be around $2 to $5, but you can avoid it by opting for paperless statements delivered to your email or via Internet banking.
  • Non-bank ATM fee. If you use your credit card to withdraw cash or check your balance at an ATM outside of your credit card provider’s network, you could be charged a fee of up to $6. There may also be additional charges from the ATM operator, so avoid getting cash out and check your balance via Internet or mobile banking instead.

Bottom line

While credit cards come with many different benefits, they often have just as many fees. Now that you know more about these charges, you can make informed decisions about how and when you pay with plastic to avoid them and keep your card working for you.

If you haven’t found your card yet, make sure to compare your credit card options until you find the right fit for your financial situation.

Images: Getty Images

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