If you’re currently paying monthly interest on card debt, transferring your balance to a new card could save you money. A 0% balance transfer credit card offers the opportunity to cut out the interest in the hope of paying off debt faster. These cards offer a 0% introductory rate on transferred balances for a fixed period, but usually come with a one-off balance transfer fee, and always come with a balance transfer limit.
When you apply for a new balance transfer credit card, you’ll be given a personalised credit limit – this is the maximum debt you are allowed to run up on the credit card. The limit you are offered will depend on factors like your credit score, income and existing level of debt. Your credit limit affects how much you can transfer, because your balance transfer limit will usually be a percentage of your credit limit (typically 90% or 95%).
How do balance transfer limits work?
The vast majority of credit cards available on the UK market come with personalised credit limits. However, it’s not unusual for card issuers to declare the minimum and maximum credit limits that they will offer.
To get the highest credit limit, you’ll usually need to have a decent credit score and be able to comfortably afford the monthly repayments that would be involved if you maxed-out your card.
The amount of existing debt you can move across to a new balance transfer credit card – your balance transfer limit – is dependent on your credit limit. Typically it’s a high percentage (say, 95%) of your credit limit. For example, if you’re offered a balance transfer credit card with a £5,000 credit limit, and a 95% balance transfer limit, you would be able to transfer £4,750 to the card.
It’s also not unheard of for the card issuer to specify a maximum amount, either in addition to, or instead of, a percentage-based balance transfer limit. For example, your balance transfer’s small print might allow for “up to 95% of your credit limit, or £5,000, whichever is lower”. Credit cards usually come with a minimum transfer amount too.
You are normally charged a balance transfer fee, although there are cards out there which waive fees for transfers within a specified window. The balance transfer fee is normally a percentage of the amount you wish to transfer (typically around 3%), and your balance transfer limit may or may not include this fee – for larger balances, it’s worth checking.
It’s frustrating to not know the limit you’ll be approved for until you apply for a card, but some card issuers offer eligibility checkers online that are able to estimate the limit you’ll be offered. If you need a higher limit, you can call the provider and ask, or look for another card.
How much can I transfer?
Credit card providers use your credit limit to determine how much debt you can transfer to a new card. While some cards may let you transfer up to 100% of your credit limit, others may cap it, usually at around 90-95%.
This remaining 5-10% of credit limit acts as a buffer, which is in the card issuer’s interests. If you incur any fees, you’ll hopefully still be within the amount it is happy to lend to you.
For example, if you had £2,000 worth of credit card debt and got a balance transfer card with a £2,000 credit limit, you might not be able to transfer all of the balance to the new card, especially if the new card charges a balance transfer fee. A balance transfer card with a higher credit limit of £3,000 is more likely to allow you to move the whole debt. So the higher your credit limit, the more likely you are to meet these requirements and get your balance transfer approved.
What if the limit I’m given is too low?
In this situation, you may opt to:
Transfer what you can. Transfer as much of the balance that you can to the new card and take advantage of the introductory rate. During this time, you’ll need to make minimum payments on your original card and the new one.
Request a higher limit. Try to request a higher credit limit from the provider. Just keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that the provider will agree to it.
Consider other options. If you’re struggling with debt and can’t find a balance transfer card with a high enough limit, you might consider applying for another balance transfer credit card. But again, be aware that applying for a balance transfer credit card will leave a mark on your credit score so the more applications you make, the less likely your applications are to be approved. The reality is that if you’re looking for a balance transfer credit card with a high limit, you’ll have better luck if you have a high credit score.
Some typical situations
Check out the following scenarios, where Tara and Mark each transfer a balance to a new credit card to save money on interest payments.
Tara, Sheffield, 32
Tara applies for a 0% balance transfer credit card in the hope of clearing the £4,000 on her store card faster. The new card has a 0% on balance transfers offer that lasts for 24 months, and cardholders can use up to 95% of their credit limit toward a balance transfer. The issuer of the new card can only offer her a credit limit of £3,000, so Tara opts to transfer the maximum possible (£2,850) from her store card to her new credit card. The interest-free period on her new credit card enables Tara to devote a greater proportion of her monthly card repayments to paying off the remaining £1,150 on her store card, meaning she can get out of debt faster, and more cheaply.
Mark, Norfolk, 39
Mark takes his credit card with him on an overseas trip. Even though he had planned on only using the card in an emergency, Mark comes back with £2,000 of card debt. When he gets home, he applies for a new credit card, which offers 0% on balance transfers for 18 months, with a 2.5% balance transfer fee. The card issuer offers Mark a £5,000 credit limit, but he decides to set his limit at £2,500. The new card lets cardholders use up to 90% of their credit limit for a balance transfer, so Mark can comfortably bring the full balance across. Although the transfer fee costs Mark £60, he is able to clear the full balance just before the 0% period expires, and ends up saving around £300.
If you’re focused on getting out of debt, a balance transfer may be what you need. Your credit limit will be based on the card issuer’s assessment of your circumstances, and the balance transfer limit will normally be a percentage of your credit limit. Comparing balance transfer credit cards can help you get the best deal available to you.
Frequently asked questions
A balance transfer can be requested over the phone or online. You’ll often be given the opportunity to request a transfer when completing the application. You’ll need to pass on your existing credit card numbers and the amount you want to transfer from those accounts to your new account. The balance transfer request is usually processed when you activate your credit card.
A balance transfer request can take up to 10 days to process from when you activate the card. Often it can be much quicker than this.
You will only be able to transfer some of the balance from your previous card under these circumstances. For example, if you have a £5,000 credit card debt you want to pay off using a balance transfer, and you only get approved for £4,000 on your new credit card, the balance transfer maximum limit is calculated on a credit limit of £4,000.
You’ll have to apply for a credit limit increase with the card issuing institution. This request is approved or denied based on the financial institution’s credit lending criteria. If you’ve accepted the maximum credit limit available to you and your circumstances have not changed, you may not be able to get a credit limit increase.
Chris Lilly is a publisher at finder.com. He's a specialist in credit-based products including business and personal loans, mortgages and credit cards, and is passionate about helping UK consumers make informed decisions about their borrowing. In his spare time Chris likes forcing his kids to exercise more.
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