2012 balance transfer survey
September 9, 2012
By: Curtis Arnold
With holiday shopping on the horizon again, many banks have shifted their marketing toward interest-free purchases and away from fee-free balance transfers. The CardRatings.com team revisited 15 credit cards from our February balance transfer survey and added 8 more accounts to our watch list. Our September review of 23 balance transfer credit cards reveals that competition remains strong, with Chase offering the best overall deal: up to 15 months at no interest, with no balance transfer fee on its Slate from Chase account.
Low balance transfer APRs for life
Of the balance transfer credit cards we reviewed, only three promise to lock in a low interest rate for the life of the debt. Pentagon Federal Credit Union adjusted the 24-month balance transfer offer we reported in our February study, replacing it with a Promise Visa offer that carries a 4.99 percent annual percentage rate for as long as it takes to pay off the transferred amount. Simmons First promises a variable rate for both balance transfers and purchases, currently at 7.25 percent.
Meanwhile, Barclaycard continues to roll out its Ring credit card to more consumers on their waiting list. Instead of offering a typical teaser rate, the U.S. division of U.K. banking giant Barclays set the variable interest rate at a flat 8 percent. Consumers who might not qualify for a zero percent interest card can often still save money by surfing balances to this card, especially while the prime lending rate remains low.
Balance transfer fees stabilize at 3 percent
Barclaycard, PenFed and Simmons remain committed to offering new customers the opportunity to transfer balances with no upfront fees. Of the major card issuers we surveyed, only Chase continued the fee-free balance transfer offer on its plain vanilla Slate account. New customers can take 60 days to transfer balances at no cost, locking in 15 months with no finance charges. Slate includes Chase's Blueprint budgeting tool, to help you estimate the best monthly payments for your financial goals.
Nearly every other major credit card issuer in our summer survey restored balance transfer fees for new customers to 3 percent. U.S. Bank raises its balance transfer fees to 4 percent at the expiration of its cards' teaser periods. Wells Fargo bumps its fee to 5 percent for customers who transfer balances after six months with either the Wells Fargo Cash Back Card or the Wells Fargo Platinum Visa.
Act fast to lock in low balance transfer APRs
More banks in our summer survey have tightened timelines for customers to process their discounted balance transfers. U.S. Bank and Chase extend the shortest turnaround times. New U.S. Bank FlexPerks Select Rewards Visa and U.S. Bank Visa Platinum cardholders have just 30 days to move balances from their old accounts. That makes Chase's 60 day deadline look leisurely by comparison. Discover customers must complete their transfers before mid-February 2013. PenFed's deal expires on December 31 2012. While new Capital One and Wells Fargo customers have until the end of their promotional period to move their balances.
Most banks have settled into transfer windows that last 3-4 months, even if a slow process means that customers don't get as long to enjoy a deadline-driven teaser rate.
New players bring old playbooks to the balance transfer game.
Some banks use the seasons to refresh their credit card lineups. This fall, Discover's moving the Discover More Card backstage, in favor of the "Discover it™" Card. Like competing no-frills cards, Discover it strips away many routine service charges and promotes access to American-based customer support agents.
The Discover it introductory balance transfer offer is for 14 months at 0 percent APR, with a 3 percent balance transfer fee. Discover also offers an 18 month introductory balance transfer version of the card also at 0 percent APR with a 3 percent balance transfer fee.
The Citi Simplicity and Citi Diamond Preferred Cards both now process new balance transfers at 0 percent intro APR for 18 months. Citibank's balance transfer offers remain the survey's most consistently generous.
The paradox of needing a balance transfer
Tiny IberiaBank still offers new customers the chance to transfer balances at just 1.99 percent for a year. However, the bank has won over industry analysts with its focus on attracting only the most creditworthy customers. Typically, the kind of consumer that can benefit most from a low-interest balance transfer won't qualify for one of IberiaBank's credit cards. Pentagon Federal maintains a similar reputation, though prospective cardholders can build a relationship with the credit union by managing their checking and savings accounts there.
Consolidation among large banks can frustrate consumers, especially when card issuers reserve balance transfer deals only for new customers. Former Providian and Washington Mutual customers won't qualify for Chase's best deals. Likewise, Orchard Bank and HSBC cardholders may not earn automatic acceptance for Capital One's offers, now that the all three consumer lending portfolios live under one roof.
Little movement in go-to interest rates
Few credit card issuers adjusted the spread on their variable interest rates by more than a percentage point in either direction, according to the results of our August account review. Capital One adjusted its best offer to 10.9 percent. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo tacked on a point to its least favorable deal, topping out at a variable 25.99 percent APR. Simmons First barely edged out IberiaBank for the title of lowest go-to rate, with a tough-to-match 7.25 percent APR.
Keep control of your balance transfer
When shopping for better interest rates, restrict your search to companies that allow you to compare credit cards online. As previously reported on CardRatings.com, federal investigators have already shut down multiple fraudulent credit telemarketing operations in the past few months. These boiler room callers promised debt relief and cheap balance transfers, but sent customers' accounts spiraling into default. Although some of the card issuers mentioned above use legitimate outbound phone marketing tactics, it's always a good idea to review your options before switching accounts.
You can see the full detailed results of CardRatings.com's balance transfer credit card survey here.