Important Facts About the Social Security Direct Express Debit Card

Senior man using smartphone and debit card
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Paper checks and direct deposits aren't always the most convenient way to receive your Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. A paper check requires a trip to the bank and direct deposit requires you to have a bank account. But there's an alternate way to receive your monthly benefits: a Social Security debit card.

It's called the Social Security Direct Express card, and it's a prepaid debit card that allows you to access and use your Social Security benefits. The card is serviced by Comerica Bank, which is based in Dallas, Texas.

You don’t need a bank account to get the card or to access your funds, which makes it a good choice if you’re not a bank customer. Having a Direct Express card also eliminates expensive check-cashing fees charged by check-cashing venues. You can use the card anywhere that accepts MasterCard debit cards.

Who Is Eligible for the Social Security Debit Card?

Anyone receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits is eligible to use this card.

Because it’s a prepaid debit card, you can only use your Direct Express Social Security debit card if you have funds in your account. Once you’ve spent or withdrawn your entire account balance, you’ll have to wait for your next monthly disbursement to use your card again.

You cannot deposit personal funds onto the card. You must open a separate bank or prepaid card to deposit personal funds.

How Does It Work?

The federal benefits are paid directly to your card on your monthly payment date. You won’t have to wait for a check to arrive in the mail. If you have another bank account, you can transfer the funds into another bank account, but you'll pay a $1.50 fee for each transfer to a U.S. bank account. If you already have a bank account with a debit card, enrolling in direct deposit may a better option.

Your card comes with a personal identification number (PIN) that you use to authorize transactions or withdrawals. You can also have your transactions processed as "credit" rather than "debit," which means you sign for purchases instead, as you would with a credit card. The funds are still deducted from your balance even when you choose the credit option.

Purchases, withdrawals, and transaction fees are deducted from your balance. Once you’ve spent all the funds on the card, you’ll be unable to use it until your next month’s benefits are paid.

You can be assured your money is safe: the funds in your account are FDIC-insured up to the legal limit.

Using Your Card

To get cash, you can use your card to withdraw funds from an ATM or get cash from a Walmart Money Center or Customer Service Desk. You get one free ATM cash withdrawal per deposit; after that, there’s a fee of 85 cents for each additional ATM withdrawal. Plus, the ATM operator may charge an additional fee if you use an ATM outside the Direct Express network. If you choose to get cash over the counter at Walmart, the fee is 85 cents. No additional Walmart fees apply.

You can also use your Direct Express card to shop and pay bills online. Alternatively, you can visit the U.S. Post Office to purchase a money order to pay your bills. You’ll only pay a fee to the post office to cover the cost of the money order.

Checking your account balance is free. You can find out your balance by calling the toll-free customer service number found on the back of the card, by visiting the website, or by checking the app. ATM balance inquiries are available for free, too—just make sure your selected ATM shows the MasterCard symbol.

If you opt into monthly paper statements to receive a physical record of your account details, you’ll be charged a fee of 75 cents each month.

Limitations of the Social Security Debit Card

While you can use the Direct Express Social Security debit card for the majority of your purchases, there are some limitations.

You can use your card for online purchases as long as the retailer accepts MasterCard debit as a payment method.

To use your card for gas purchases, you must pay the clerk inside the gas station; you cannot pay at the pump. If you use your Direct Express card to rent a car, the car rental agency will place an authorization hold on up to $500 of your funds. The authorization hold will be released when you return the rental car, but the money might not get back to your account for up to two weeks. In addition, the car rental agency may request additional documentation because you're not using a credit card.

Depending on the merchant, you may experience a "hold" or block on your account when renting a car or reserving a hotel room. Companies do this to decrease their risk; speak to the rental agent or clerk when paying to find out when the block will be removed (it could be up to 72 hours).

How Your Credit Score Is Affected

While it looks and swipes like a credit card, the Direct Express card is not a credit card. There's no credit check is required to receive the card or to have your benefits deposited to the card each month.

When you make purchases, you’re not borrowing money and there’s no balance to repay each month. Your card usage isn't reported to any of the major credit bureaus, which means it's not included in your credit report and won't impact your credit in any way. You can, however, use the card for paying other monthly bills that may affect your credit.

Preventing Losses and Fraudulent Activity

It's important to protect your Social Security debit card like you would any other credit or debit card or even your cash.

Keep your PIN safe and don't share it with others. If your Direct Express card is lost or stolen, you should report your missing card immediately by calling the customer service number on the back of the card. Direct Express will replace your card so you can continue to access your account. The first replacement card each calendar year is free; after that, there’s a $4 fee to replace a missing card. Your replacement card should arrive in the mail within seven to 10 days.

You can have a replacement card expedited by request. The fee for this service is $13.50.

Liability Protection

Fortunately, when it comes to a lost or stolen card, your Direct Express card is protected just like a traditional bank debit card. Since the card is a Master Card prepaid debit, you get MasterCard's Zero Liability Protection—which means you won't be held responsible for unauthorized transactions (although exceptions may apply).

Reporting a missing card within two days limits your liability for losses to $50. If you wait until after two days but report your missing card within 90 days (this limit is 60 days for traditional debit cards), you could be liable for up to $500 in losses. After that, you could be liable for all the losses on your account. Therefore, it's in your best interest to report a missing card as quickly as possible.

Check your account balance often to verify the purchases are yours. If you spot fraudulent activity on your account, report it right away. You may need a replacement card if your card number has been compromised.

How to Sign up for a Social Security Debit Card

You can sign up for the card at your local Social Security office or by calling the Direct Express card enrollment center at (800) 333-1795. Representatives of payees can sign up the same way.

Once you sign up, your Social Security Benefits will be paid directly to your Direct Express card account for you to access each month.

Article Sources

  1. Bureau of the Fiscal Service. "Direct Express." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.

  2. Benefits.gov. "Direct Express Prepaid Debit Card." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.

  3. Direct Express. "Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.

  4. Enterprise.com. "What Forms of Payment Are Accepted for Renting a Car?" Click on Forms of Payment Policies. Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.

  5. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Liability of Consumer for Unauthorized Transfers." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.