Prepaid cards let you load cash on them and spend anywhere credit or debit cards are accepted. There’s no credit check, so teens or those usually rejected can also get one.
This guide helps you understand what prepaid cards are, decide whether you should get one, and give you the best buys for your circumstances.
What are prepaid cards?
Prepaid cards do exactly what they say on the tin. You load cash onto a card, which can then be used in shops and restaurants just like a debit or credit card. However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. First, there’s the crucial point:
If you haven’t loaded money on it, you can’t spend on it.
Think of them like pay-as-you-go mobile phones. You can't spend beyond £0, forming a 'safe' barrier if you tend to overspend.
Another bonus is that you won't get credit-checked when you apply, making the application process much simpler. They're a good option for those who have just moved to the UK, or have a bad credit history.
Some people worry they might not be able to use a prepaid card in a lot of places. But most prepaid cards are Mastercard or Visa, meaning just like credit or debit cards, they're accepted by most retailers in the UK and abroad.
Who are they for?
Those who dip into their overdraft - great for everyday spending
If you struggle with budgeting, then a prepaid card may work out cheaper than accidentally dipping into a pricey overdraft on a monthly basis.
You'd spend as you normally would using a debit or credit card, but you don't have to worry about missing out on perks - some cards also offer cashback and discounts on well-known retailers.
Most children's bank accounts come with a debit card, but the worry is that they can spend all of the money in the account. With prepaid cards, parents can set maximum limits and keep an eye on their spending.
It might also be useful for school trips. If your child loses cash on a school trip, it can't be recovered. But if he or she loses a prepaid card, they'll be able to block the card by reporting its loss straight away.
There may be a small application fee, so you'll have to weigh up whether the costs of a prepaid card are worth your peace of mind. See How much will they cost me? to get a better idea of the fees.
If you’ve got bad credit and have previously defaulted on loans, or have county court judgments (CCJs), your credit score won’t be in good shape. If your default is recent or if you haven't settled your CCJ, forget about applying for normal credit cards. You’ll be rejected, it’ll leave a footprint on your credit file and you’ll end up in a rejection spiral.
Prepaid cards could help you adjust your spending habits, and some can even boost your credit rating.
One way of doing this is the Cashplus Creditbuilder card, which costs £4.95 to open. It charges a £4.95 monthly fee, which technically counts as a £59.40/year loan. As long as you pay the fee every month for a year, this info will be passed on to credit reference agency Experian.
You can also get a prepaid card to use abroad. You'll eliminate the worry about theft and overspending as you won't need to carry wads of cash around. You've got the additional perk of preventing ID theft and fraudulent transactions, as prepaid cards work like an electronic traveller's cheque.
You may have to pay an application fee (between £2 and £7) and other costs to operate your prepaid card, but choosing to use one specifically designed for spending abroad will generally have lower or no transaction and withdrawal fees compared to debit or credit cards.
For more info, go to our Cheap Travel Cards guide to see much you'd pay to use a specialised prepaid card abroad.
What about debit or credit cards?
If you want to use a debit card, see our comprehensive table on debit card charges abroad to see how your card would fare. You can usually take these anywhere in the world - just keep an eye on foreign exchange and ATM withdrawal fees.
The Norwich & Peterborough BS comes out on top as it has no overseas spending or cash withdrawal fee worldwide, but the catch is you need to pay in £500 a month (£6,000 per year) or keep £5,000 in the account to avoid its £5 monthly fee.
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Should I get a prepaid card?
For most people, getting a normal credit or debit card will be the sensible financial decision, but it all depends on why you want the card.
It could be a useful tool if you're on a tight budget as you can only spend what you've loaded onto the card. If you're a parent wanting to teach the benefits of money management to your child, it might also be a good option. Or if you want to stay safe online, you might opt for a prepaid card.
But in a nutshell, whether you should get one boils down to one thing - how financially attractive you are. If you can easily sign up for a credit card, and you have the discipline to pay it off IN FULL, every month - do that instead.
Are you eligible for a credit card instead?
Prepaid credit cards should only be a last resort for everyday spending if you can't get a credit card. Use our Eligibility Checker tool, which leaves NO credit file mark, to see how likely it is you'd be accepted.
We do a 'soft' credit search which YOU can see, but lenders CAN'T, so it has no impact on your future creditworthiness.
We map the details you give us against lenders' criteria, including your chances for cards on this page, where we can.
Is my cash safe on a prepaid card?
There are safeguards, but it's important you know that funds on a prepaid card don't have the same protection as money in your bank account or savings account.
Money on prepaid cards is classed as 'electronic money', and all prepaid card providers have to hold your cash in a bank account ring-fenced from their own operating cash. This mitigates against the risk of the card issuer going bust. In that event, your money would be protected as it’d be in a separate account.
But there's an important caveat here. Your cash wouldn't be protected if the bank or building society your money was ring-fenced in went bust. It's not counted as a deposit, in the way that cash in a savings account would be, and therefore, it's not protected.
What if I bought a faulty laptop on the prepaid card and the supplier went bust?
Chargeback schemes give you a chance to get your money back if you buy faulty goods, a service isn't provided, or a company goes bust and goods aren't delivered. You'll get your money back straightaway. Our Chargeback guide explains how it works.
You can also get purchase protection with the Cashplus Creditbuilder prepaid card, so if you're not happy with what you've bought, or a company you've bought from goes bust, you may be compensated through Cashplus's system.
Can I use a prepaid card for pre-authorisation and security deposits?
You may technically be able to, but you may not want to. When you offer a card for a deposit for services such as hotel rooms or car hires, or in-flight purchases, the company will 'lock' funds on the card for the duration of the hire and you won't be able to use it until the final bill has been settled and cleared.
So, if you can, use another card as a security deposit, preferably a credit card.
How much do prepaid cards cost?
There are a number of fees associated with prepaid cards that you need to keep an eye out for:
- Application fees – You pay this one-off charge to open the account. Prices range from £2 to £10.
- Monthly fees - Some cards require a monthly fee (typically between £2-£5).
- Renewal fees - Like standard Visa or Mastercards, prepaid cards are only valid for three years, so you may have to pay a renewal fee if you want to carry on using it. It's usually about the same price as an application fee (typically £2 to £7), however it could be waived if you top up a certain amount.
- Transaction and ATM fees - For every transaction you make, both online or over-the-counter in shops, you'll be charged a fee, usually about 50p. The same applies for ATM withdrawals. These will either be a percentage of what you withdraw, or a set charge, eg, 3% or £2. Decide how you’re most likely to access your money and stick with the cheaper option.
- Inactivity fees - Some may charge you a small monthly fee if your account is dormant, (if you don't make any transactions for, eg, three months). So just make sure you keep the account running - buy a packet of crisps if push comes to shove - to ensure you’re using prepaid cards in the most cost-effective way.
- Redemption fees - You'll be charged a fee if you want to get money back from the card you haven't used. On average this is £10, so how much you have left on the card will decide whether this is worth taking the hit for.
The costs of using a prepaid card can add up easily, so look at the fees associated with the card before you take it out. Do the benefits of using the card outweigh the costs?
Getting a prepaid card is my only choice. How can I keep costs low?
This very much depends on how you're likely to use the card. But there are some things you can do on all cards to cut the costs.
Opt out of any paper statements, as prepaid card providers can charge up to £10 per statement. Most of them have a online system or mobile banking app so you can view your balance or transactions on your mobile or tablet (watch for roaming charges when abroad).
Don't take your prepaid card abroad unless it's designed for it - or you could get hit with big charges. If it's a euro or dollar card, NEVER opt to pay in sterling. It may feel cheaper but it's a sly trick some retailers use so that they'll gain more from the transaction. For the best prepaid cards to use abroad, see our full guide to Travel Credit Cards.
Predict how you'll spend on the card on a monthly basis to figure out which card is best for you. Will you need to make lots of ATM withdrawals? Or is it just for over-the-counter transactions such as shopping and eating out? If you play your cards right, you'll be quids in.
Best for spending
We've rounded up the best cards and weighed up their costs and ease of use. We've picked cards that can be topped up at very low cost, or for no charge.
Kalixa*Best for regular use in the uk
The Kalixa Pay* card can be managed by email, SMS or online, making it a good option for regular users in the UK. Its contactless feature means it operates just like a debit or credit card, though sadly it's got a £6.95 application fee.
All over-the-counter transactions - in shops, restaurants and cafes - are free both at home and abroad, which means you can take it on holiday with you too.
You can sign up for free text or email alerts so you get a better idea of how you're doing with your budget, but you'll be charged 99p per month after six months of inactivity.
If you want to get your money back, you'll have to pay a redemption fee. You won't be able to get your money back if you have less than the equivalent of €10 on the card - Kalixa suggests spending the money instead.
You can also use its wallet-to-wallet transfer system to transfer funds to friends and family members with Kalixa cards.
Should I use this card abroad?
If you take this card abroad you'll be using it on Kalixa's own exchange rates which are similar to Visa or Mastercard's (updated throughout the day).
Transactions are free, and foreign ATM withdrawals cost £2.25 with no foreign exchange fee, meaning it's a decent option to take overseas. But it's worth checking our Cheap Travel Money guide for more details on cards designed specifically for spending abroad.
Orangeearn mobile phone credit while you spend
The Orange Cash prepaid contactless card is free to use in stores and online. Plus, there's the added bonus that you earn points as you spend. Those points can then be turned into Orange mobile phone top-up credit.
You don't need to be an existing Orange customer to apply for the Orange Cash card - though it'd help if you knew someone with an Orange pay-as-you-go phone, who you could give (or sell!) the credit to.
For every £1 you spend, you'll get one point towards Orange pay-as-you-go mobile phone credit. So you need to spend £500 to get £5 credit, which would get you either 200 minutes or unlimited texts for a month (subject to fair usage policies).
The card's not great if you're going to make a lot of ATM withdrawals, as it'll sting you with a 2.95% charge each time.
You can have up to three extra cards to give to your family, if you want to.
Should I use this card abroad?
Taking this card abroad will cost you a 2.75% foreign exchange fee, plus if you're making cash withdrawals, you're stung with the 2.95% withdrawal fee on top, making this one of the worst cards to take on holiday with you.
See Cheap Travel Money for more details on prepaid cards designed specifically for spending abroad.
Best for teenagers
If you're looking for a card to give to teens so they can learn to manage their money, these are our top picks. We picked cards that allow parents a certain level of control over the cash, while still giving teens an easy way of spending both in stores and online.
These two cards have fees - the first a monthly fee, but then transactions are free, the second card has an application fee, and then charges per transaction. So it's best to choose based on likely usage - if you'll make lots of transactions, the monthly fee card could be better, if not, then better to pay per transaction.
GoHenry*supervise kids' spending
The GoHenry* card works like any other prepaid card, while parents can either keep a watchful eye on, or get stuck into, their children's spending habits. However, it does have a monthly fee, of £1.97 per card.
GoHenry provides a mobile app to help parents and kids budget. You can set limits to control where the card can be used, view real-time spending, and most importantly, set tasks to be completed or rules to abide by so children can earn their pocket money.
Crucially, the card can't be used in places selling goods with age limits, such as betting shops, tobacconists or off-licences.
Should I use this card abroad?
The GoHenry card uses Visa's exchange rate, but charges 2.75% for each transaction you make. Overseas ATM withdrawals cost £2.
This card can be beaten for overseas use. See Travel Credit Cards for the best cards for overseas usage.
Pockit*Best for families
The Pockit* prepaid card has no monthly fee and is great for spending on the go. Apply using the link above and you'll get £5 free when you load £10 or more. The offer will end 30 September, or as soon as 1,000 people have applied for the card.
You can only apply for the card online, but once it arrives by post, you'll be able to manage your account both online or by text.
You can get up to two additional cards (99p each) linked to the main account. The main cardholder must be at least 18 years old, but you'll be able to give additional cards to those aged 13 or over.
Mobile text balance enquiries are 8p (standard network rates may apply in addition), so teenagers are able to keep on top of their balance. The card will be in their name so it'll be a great tool for financial education.
Crucially, if you forget about your card, you won't be charged a monthly dormancy fee, and getting cash back from the card is just as easy - it's free.
There's also the chance to earn 2%-10% cashback from a handful of retailers and restaurant chains, including M&S, Toys R Us, B&Q, New Look, Café Rouge, and RedSpottedHanky.
Should I use this card abroad?
Spending in shops on holiday will incur a 4% foreign exchange fee for each transaction not in the card currency, while ATM withdrawals cost £2.25, plus the 4% exchange fee.
While you'll be charged the standard load and ATM fees abroad, you've got the perk of having up to three cards to hand out to your family so that you're not reliant on one single card for spending abroad.
If you want a prepaid card solely for using abroad, it might be worth getting a prepaid card designed specifically for travel. See Travel Credit Cards for the best options.
Best for rebuilding your credit
If your credit file's a sea of defaults, then you're not likely to be able to get a credit card, even one designed for poor credit. But there is a card you can get which purports to improve your credit file, helping you re-establish a good payment history.
Before going for this card - as it's not cheap - it's worth checking if you're likely to get any other, free cards by using the eligibilty checker in our Credit Cards for Bad Credit guide.
If it's a no-go, then see if this card's right for you...
CAshplus credit builder*One year 'loan' to prove you're credit worthy
It costs £65 in total, but could build up your credit.
If you've been rejected for a credit card due to a bad credit score, there may be a way to amend that. The Cashplus Credit Builder* costs £4.95 to apply online and works exactly like a prepaid card. No credit check is involved, so you can't be rejected for it.
Just click 'yes' during your online application when asked if you're interested in adding the Creditbuilder function on top of your prepaid card application.
How is this card different?
The monthly fee of £4.95 is essentially a monthly repayment scheme as part of a one-year loan. Cashplus lends you £65 for the year, you pay back the monthly repayments while using the card as a normal prepaid card, and in a year's time, your credit rating should look better than it did before.
NEVER, EVER, EVER miss a monthly payment.
It'll get reported and leave you in an even worse position.
After 12 monthly payments, it should show up on your credit history as a fully repaid loan agreement. This should boost your attractiveness, meaning you may be able to apply for better credit cards and loans. But remember, you're paying £65 for the privilege.
An added bonus is that the card includes purchase protection. This will cover you if a company you've bought goods and services from goes bust. Note this is strictly voluntary and is not the same as Section 75 protection.
You can also earn cashback with the likes of Boots, Tesco, Asda, Currys, Halfords, Vodafone, BT, M&S, Carphone Warehouse and Aviva via Cashplus's cashback website.
Remember, never miss a monthly payment or it will show up on your credit file, which will make your situation even worse.
See how other MSE users got on with the card in the Cashplus Creditbuilder discussion.