Can I Use a Debit Card Online?

Yes, but there may be better options

Close up of internet security form
Your debit card will work even though it says "Credit Card". Tetra Images / Getty Images

Question: I’m shopping more and more online, and websites always ask for a credit card. Can I use my debit card online, and is it safe to do so?

Answer: You certainly can use a debit card online, but if you have the option to use a credit card, that would be safer. Don’t have a credit card? No problem – your debit card will work just fine.

Both Cards Work

You can enter either a debit or a credit card number to complete most purchases online.

 

To use your debit card: enter the debit card number as if it was a credit card number. Include the security code (usually on the back of your card) and any address information required – the zip code you enter must match the address on file with your bank. It will be processed as a “credit” transaction, and funds will be deducted from your checking account within a few business days.

There are a few potential exceptions (some hotel and rental car agencies will only accept a credit card – or they’ll lock up funds in your checking account), but debit cards are fine for most transactions. Most online services like iTunes and Netflix will accept either, and most won't know or care that you're using a debit card.

The Case for a Credit Card

Just because you can order with a debit card online doesn’t mean you should. Shopping online exposes you to certain risks, especially the risk that your card information will be stolen (that risk also exists in brick-and-mortar stores, but it’s not as easy for hackers to snatch your data).

Direct link to checking: Your debit card pulls funds directly from your checking account. If somebody uses your card number to make fraudulent purchases, your account will get drained. That means it’ll be harder (or impossible) to pay for your expenses, like rent, mortgage, utilities, and food.

If your card information is used fraudulently, you might be protected under Regulation E, but getting that money back into your bank account is a painful and slow process.

How long can you live with an empty checking account?

Credit cards create a buffer: A credit card creates a debt that you have to repay, but it doesn’t pull money out of your checking account without your knowledge. Thieves spend the card issuer’s money instead of yours, and you can get everything cleared up while keeping your money in your account. In other words, they put an extra layer between thieves and your money. What’s more, when your credit card is used fraudulently, your liability is limited to $50, while debit card fraud can cost a lot more (especially if you don’t report fraudulent activity quickly enough).

Debit Card Protection

Federal law offers some protection against fraud in your checking account, but you have to report trouble as soon as possible. If you spot the problem and notify your bank, your liability can be limited:

  • You’re liable for up to $50 if you call your bank within two days of fraudulent use.
  • You’re responsible for up to $500 if you report the problem within 60 days.
  • You can be held 100% responsible if you don’t report the problem within 60 days.

Some debit cards come with additional protection from the card issuer, so you’re safer than federal law requires. However, your card still pulls from your checking account – so you’ll have to wait at least a few days to get your money back. If your checking account is running on empty, that’s going to cause a domino effect.

If you're using a prepaid debit card (as opposed to one that came with your checking account), you might have less protection than described above – be sure to research your card's policies before using it online.

Is Online Especially Dangerous?

Using a debit card online isn’t the only way to get ripped off. Thieves can steal your card information from brick-and-mortar stores, ATMs, gas pumps, or just about anywhere. They might pull it off with the help of a skimming device or by hacking into a merchant’s payment system remotely.

Given all that, you shouldn’t necessarily fear punching in your debit card number online. But if you have the option, a credit card is better for everyday spending (and online purchases) – just be sure to pay it off every month so you don’t pay finance charges. Especially if you’re not familiar with the merchant or you’re not shopping at a major website, it’s risky to provide any type of card number. If you want to be extra safe, add another layer between you and the merchant and pay with PayPal or a similar (but trustworthy) service.

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