How to Get Debit Cards

five credit and debit cards fanned out in a person's hand
••• Tetra Images/Getty Images

Getting a debit card allows you to start paying with plastic instead of cash or check. Debit cards are simply cards linked to a pool of available funds (money in your checking account, or a balance that you’ve loaded onto a prepaid card, for example).

These cards are useful because, unlike credit cards, they only allow you to spend money that you have. Also, debit cards make spending easy—you can just swipe to pay, and you’ve got an electronic record of every transaction to help you track your spending.

If you need a debit card, there are several approaches you can take. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each option below.

Get a Debit Card From the Bank

Bank debit cards are traditional debit cards. Getting one is typically as easy as opening a checking account and letting the bank know that you want a debit card at some point during the account-opening process. In some cases, you’ll get one whether or not you ask.

Your debit card is linked to funds in your account. That means you can only spend as much as you have. Trying to spend more will result in your card getting declined, or (if depending on your bank and any options you selected when opening the account) the bank may “lend” you the money or transfer it from a linked savings account. However, that can get expensive if you pay overdraft fees each time.

Debit cards may arrive by mail because they must be printed and customized with your account information, but some banks and credit unions have printers on-site. Once you get your debit card, you can use it as if it was a credit card. With only a few exceptions, nobody cares whether your card is a debit card or credit card. Debit cards can also be used to get cash at automatic teller machines (ATMs).

Get a Prepaid Debit Card

You don’t necessarily need to get a debit card from a bank. Prepaid debit cards are available, and they draw from money that you have “loaded” onto the card instead of drawing from your bank account. Some cards can be reloaded, while others only allow you to spend the card’s stored value once and then you’re done. Prepaid debit cards are increasingly becoming an alternative to using bank accounts (for people who can’t or won’t get a bank account). You can get these debit cards online or at retail outlets.

While prepaid debit cards can replace some banking functions, they are notorious for high fees. It’s important to research all of the cards available and pick one that you can use without paying through the nose.

Get a Debit Card Online

Prepaid debit cards can be purchased online. Numerous websites offer cards of varying value and with a variety of features. After purchasing a card, it will be mailed to you. In most cases, these cards require that you provide personal information (such as a Social Security Number, valid mailing address, and other details) so that your identity can be verified. You can often reload these cards by transferring money from your bank account, depositing cash at certain locations, or by having your pay direct-deposited to the card.

Debit Cards From Stores

You can also get prepaid debit cards at stores if you don’t want to order online. Cards from stores might not require you to provide personal information, so they work well as gifts and prizes—the person who will ultimately use the card does not need to be present when the card is purchased. They are also good for situations where you want to remain anonymous (to avoid identity theft, stolen card numbers, or your bank knowing when and where you spend money). You can find debit cards for sale at convenience stores, grocery stores, and superstores.

Note that debit cards from stores often have lower spending limits. Unless you get a debit card that is connected with your bank account or funded by direct deposit, you might not be able to spend with these cards for very long.

Debit Cards for Teens

If you’re a teenager (or your child is) and you want to get a debit card, you have a few options. Debit cards from stores are the easiest cards to get, but they may not be your best option considering the fees involved. You can also get a traditional card from a bank or credit union; some banks issue debit cards to teenagers as long as there is an adult co-owner on the checking account. For example, the Wells Fargo Teen Checking account allows teens to start using a checking account as early as age 13.

Rewards Debit Cards

It is increasingly difficult to get debit cards with rewards. As rules have changed in the banking world, it is less profitable for banks when you pay with a debit card (as a result they can’t offer the same rewards they can offer when you pay with a credit card). If you want the best rewards out there, you’ll have to use a credit card. However, there are still plenty of debit cards available that offer rewards—the question is whether or not you want what they offer. “Cashback” is uncommon, but discount credits, games, and “points” that you can redeem for other items are still a possibility. Check with retailers where you regularly shop to see if they offer a card that will save you money.