How to Use a Debit Card Online and at an ATM

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Debit cards might be new to you, or you may want a refresher on how they work. We'll cover a few basic examples below, and you'll have a clear idea of how to get the most out of your card and avoid problems.

How to Use a Debit Card

You can use a debit card for payment almost anywhere credit cards are accepted. That includes restaurants, merchants, online retailers, government organizations, and more. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, it's as easy as swiping your debit card when you check out (or if paying online, by typing in your card number).

To pay, either run the black magnetic strip on the back of your card through the card machine or insert the square smart chip, if your card and the merchant use chips. You may need to sign for the transaction, although that’s optional with some small sales (and online purchases). In some establishments, you pay with your debit card by handing it to an employee who runs it through a card reader for you.

Handing your card to anybody is risky, so you should only give it to somebody you trust. Anybody who has your card in their possession can copy information from the card, potentially using that information to make fraudulent purchases from your checking account.

Use a Debit Card at an ATM

You can use debit cards to withdraw cash from your checking account at an automated teller machine (ATM). To do so, insert your card into the ATM's card reader. If you're not sure how the card goes in, look for a diagram that appears similar to your card. It should indicate which side goes up and which side should face left or right (look for something similar to the black stripe on the back of your card).

After the ATM reads your card, it will ask you to enter your personal identification number (PIN). Type in your PIN while blocking your hand from view (you don't want anybody else to see what you type in at this point). Then, follow the instructions on the screen to make withdrawals, view your balance, or transfer money. If you had to insert your card into the machine and the machine keeps the card, be sure to wait until the machine returns your card before walking away.

Use a Debit Card Online

If you're paying for something online, you can typically use your debit card just like a credit card. You don't need to specify that you want to use a debit card (just select the "pay with credit card" option). Start by indicating the type of card you have: Visa or MasterCard, for example. Then, type in the 16-digit number on the front of your debit card. You usually also have to enter the expiration date, which you can find after the words "good through" or "valid through."

You may also need to provide a CCD, CVV, or similar security code. Those three- or four-digit codes help to prove that you are authorized to use the card. Those codes can be found on the back of most cards toward the far right (often printed on the card in black ink after your card number). On American Express cards, the code is on the front of the card (again, in black ink on the far right).

To use a debit card online, you often need to know the billing address linked to that card. With most debit cards, this is your home address. However, you may have difficulty using prepaid debit cards if you do not know which address to use.

If you plan to make payments online, be sure that your computer will keep thieves from stealing your card information. Keep your security software up to date, and only use your card on sites that you trust. Verify that your card information goes through a secure connection when shopping online (look for the lock icon and any messages on your browser).

Use a Prepaid Debit Card

Prepaid cards are similar to traditional bank-issued debit cards. The main difference is that they don’t have a direct link to your bank account. Instead, they spend from a pool of money that you load onto the card before using it. In most cases, you can use a prepaid debit card as if it was any other card. As long as you have sufficient funds available, nobody's going to care that you have a prepaid card.

You might eventually use up all of the funds available on your prepaid debit card. At that point, some cards allow you to "reload" and add funds to the card. The process for reloading varies from card to card (you might have to go to a retail store and pay cash, or you might transfer funds from your bank).

If you're going to use a prepaid debit card, keep an eye on the fees you pay. These cards are typically (but not always) more expensive than debit cards issued by banks.

Debit Cards vs. Credit Cards

Debit cards make it easy to spend money. But when it comes to debit cards that are linked to your checking account, there is a significant risk involved: That card pulls funds directly from your bank account.

If your card gets stolen (or if somebody steals the information from your card), your checking account could get drained by a thief. You are protected—as long as you report the problem to your bank quickly enough—but a temporarily empty bank account can cause stress and other problems.

If you’re concerned about problems in your checking account, use a credit card for day-to-day spending and online shopping instead of using your debit card. Credit cards have more consumer protections, and, more importantly, the money doesn’t leave your bank account before you become aware of any problems. 

Pay off your entire credit card balance in full every month (if you were using a debit card before, you weren’t borrowing anyway), and you can avoid interest charges.