Social Security Direct Express cards vs. credit cards: What’s the difference?

The Social Security Direct Express card is like a debit card for your benefits. (iStock)

Many people think that getting paper checks or direct deposits are the only ways to receive their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits each month. However, there is a third option. The Social Security debit card is a prepaid card that recipients can use to access their benefits without having to worry about keeping a current bank account.

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That said, there is some confusion surrounding these cards. Though you can use them to make purchases (similar to how you might with a credit card) they are not credit cards. Below is a look at how Social Security Direct Express cards are different from credit cards, as well as the pros and cons of using one to receive your benefits.

What’s the difference between Social Security Direct Express cards and credit cards?

While, in some respects, a Social Security Direct Express card might look like a credit card, the two tools function very differently. For example, with a Social Security Direct Express card you’re not borrowing money and you won’t have a balance to repay each month. As such, your spending activity won’t be reported to the credit bureaus and it won’t have an effect on your credit score.

Instead, your Social Security benefits are paid directly to the card each month and money is deducted from it every time you make a purchase. When the funds are depleted, you won’t be able to make any more purchases until your benefits renew.

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Additionally, liability protection is different. While credit cards generally have a blanket policy of 0 percent fraud liability, Social Security Direct Express cards are treated like a debit card. If you report your card missing right away, you won’t be liable for any fraudulent charges. However, if you wait between two and 90 days to report the card, you could be liable for up to $500 in purchases and, if you wait longer than that, all of the charges could fall on your shoulders.

That said, Social Security Direct Express cards can also do things that credit cards cannot. For instance, you’re entitled to one free ATM withdrawal per pay period. Credit card cash advances, on the other hand, can be very costly.

How do I get a Social Security Direct Express card?

Fortunately, the process behind getting a Social Security debit card is fairly simple. You can elect to receive a card as soon as you’ve been approved to receive your retirement benefits.

All that you have to do, as either the recipient or a representative of a payee, is sign up for one. You can do this by either going to your local Social Security office or by calling the Direct Express card enrollment center at (800) 333-1795.

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Once you’ve been successfully enrolled, you’ll be given a card and your benefits will be applied directly to the card’s account each month. You’ll then be able to use the card to make purchases as you see fit, which makes it a good choice for those who either are unable to make regular trips to the bank to deposit checks or who don’t have access to a traditional bank account.

Pros and cons of Social Security Direct Express cards

Pros

  • It’s easy to use. The funds are deposited onto your card on your monthly payment date. No trips to the bank required.
  • It's convenient. You can use your Social Security debit card to shop and pay bills, either in-person or online. It’s accepted anywhere that Mastercard is taken.
  • It has limited fees. Most services - including checking your balance, getting cash-back from retailers, and even getting one replacement card per year - are free. The only fees are for multiple ATM withdrawals ($0.90 per transaction), transferring the funds into a U.S. bank account ($1.50 per transfer), requesting paper statements ($0.70 per statement), requiring more than one replacement card ($4.00 per card), and a foreign transaction fee.  

Cons

  • It only allows one free ATM withdrawal per month. If you’re a fan of using cash to make purchases, you need to be aware of this limit. However, you can get around it by requesting cash-back from retailers or bank tellers.
  • The card isn’t good for traveling internationally. Leave this card at home when you travel abroad. A $3.00 fee is charged each time a foreign transaction is made plus 3 percent of the amount is withdrawn. 
  • You can’t load more money onto the card. Meaning that if you work or receive more than one set of benefits each month it isn’t easy to consolidate funds.