What Must Know About the Social Security 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 benefits. Paper check requires a trip to the bank and direct deposit requires you to have a bank account. The Social Security Direct Express card––a social security debit card––is an alternate way to receive your monthly benefits.

The Social Security Direct Express card is 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 alternative if you’re not a bank customer. Having a Direct Express card 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?

You’re eligible for the card if you receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits. Because it’s a prepaid debit card, you can only use your Direct Express social security debit card if you have funds on 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 Once you’ve spent or withdrawn your entire account balance, you’ll have to wait for your next monthly disbursement to use your card again.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.

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 PIN, a personal identification number, 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, 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.

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. There’s an $0.85 fee for each ATM withdrawal––the ATM operator may charge an additional fee if you use an ATM outside the Direct Express network. And a $1.50 fee to get cash over the counter at Walmart.

The Direct Express card even has a bill pay option. You can set automatic bill payment for your monthly bills, like your utilities, phone, and cable television. You’ll have the ability to decide the timing and amount of your bill payments. 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.

You can keep up with your balance via an iPhone or Android device, by checking online at USDirectExpress.com, by calling the customer service number on the back of your card, or by using an ATM with the MasterCard logo. If you opt into monthly paper statements to receive a physical record of your account details, you’ll be charged a $0.75 fee.

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 vehicle, 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.

In addition, the car rental agency may run a soft credit check and request additional documentation because you're using a prepaid card.

How Your Credit 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 on your credit report and won't impact your credit in anyway. 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 and online account password protected. If your Direct Express card is lost or stolen, you should report your missing card immediately to minimize the loss of funds. Direct Express will be able to 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 social security debit card.

There may be an additional fee to have your card expedited.

Fortunately, when it comes to a lost or stolen card, your social security debit card is protected by the similar laws that protect traditional bank debit cards. 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. 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 to get the fraud cleared up. You may need to receive 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, by calling the Direct Express hotline at 1-800-333-1795, or by visiting USDirectExpress.com. Representatives of payees can also sign up using the same process. Once you sign up, your Social Security Benefits will be paid directly to your Direct Express card account for you to access each month.