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Choosing a debit card

Since their launch in 1987 debit cards have established themselves as the most popular payment card with consumers. Initially developed as a convenient and cost-effective alternative to point-of-sale cheques, debit cards are increasingly being used as a substitute for cash.

A debit card operates likes cash or a personal cheque. When you use a debit card the money is immediately deducted from your current account. As long as you have enough money in your account you can use your debit card to buy things in person, over the phone, by mail order and online. While a credit card is a way to “pay later”, a debit card is a way to “pay now”, also debit cards can be used to usually get up to £50 cashback from merchants offering that service.

Debit cards are linked directly to your bank account and are offered by most banks in the UK. Therefore, your choice will be as much about the type of bank account you want as about the type of debit card.

There are two main types of debit cards available – those which are ‘electronic only’ and those which can be processed offline. In the UK, you may be issued with a card that uses the Visa Electron scheme – this is an electronic-only card, which means that your account is checked before each transaction, and if you have insufficient funds, you won’t be able to withdraw cash or debit your account.

Other debit cards in the UK will be issued under the Debit MasterCard or Visa Debit schemes – these cards do not need to go online to check the availability of funds for every transaction, so it may be possible to go overdrawn if you do not monitor your own spending. See Types of debit cards for more information.

There are a number of factors that will determine the types of debit card available to you. In the following circumstances you will generally only be able to obtain an electronic-only card:

  • If you require a savings account rather than a current account.
  • If you are under 18, as you not permitted by law to enter into a contract for credit, and therefore must use cards that check online for available funds.
  • If you have a poor credit history.

If you're unable to get a debit card, you may want to consider a basic bank account or an ATM only card.

Some of these cards have further functions that may be offered to you:

Cash machine access – the majority of debit cards in the UK will offer you access to your funds at cash machines across the world. If you require a card only to withdraw cash, you may want to consider getting an ATM-only card.

Overdraft – whilst an overdraft is a feature of your bank account rather than a feature of your card, it is worth considering whether an overdraft might be a suitable alternative to a credit or charge card.

For more information about opening a bank account please visit the British Bankers’ Association website.

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