Debit card fees and features

If you're one to indulge in a spot of credit card abuse from time to time, debit cards are a great alternative, allowing you to spend only the cash you have with the convenience of a Visa or Mastercard. It's a simple way for students to monitor their spending habits and never slip out of credit control.

So, you know what a debit card is - now it’s time to breakdown the details that you need to know when using one. And that means checking out what features are going to be available to you and what fees you might be hit with.

We’ve collected all the need-to-know information in this handy guide, just to make your job a bit easier.

Debit card features

Many debit cards function in more or less the same way - but that doesn’t mean they’re all created equal, and the main difference often comes down to which features your bank decides to include.

So whether you’re picking a new debit card, or just trying to understand the one you have now, here’s a rundown of the features you might expect to have at your disposal.

Visa or MasterCard

One of the first things you’ll notice about your debit card is whether it’s Visa or MasterCard. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter that much, as both are accepted globally and come with handy features like ‘tap and go’ for purchases under $100 (more on this below). There’s not much of a difference between the two, and which one you use will often come down to either personal preference, or which one your bank has a contract with.

But whichever one you wind up with, rest assured you’re probably not getting a much different deal to anyone else.

Linked bank account

Since a debit card is essentially a tool for spending your own money, it will need to be linked to a transaction account. The money in this account is the money you have available to spend.

Often, you’ll have the bank account first and then get the debit card later - so choosing a great bank account will likely be your first priority. You’re looking for an account with no monthly service fees, but don’t count on making any real interest from your bank account. Instead, make sure you’re regularly shifting funds over to your savings account when you won’t need them for spending money.

ATM access

Even if you haven’t embraced plastic as your favourite payment method, a debit card is a handy item to have, because it gives you access to your own cash via ATMs.

Each bank usually has an ATM network that you can access for free using your debit card, and many will also allow you to use other partner bank’s machines as well - especially if you bank with a smaller institution who has partnered with one of the majors to use their ATMs.

PayPass, payWave and other contactless payments

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that contactless payment methods are on the rise. That includes things like PayPass, payWave and digital wallet technology. Contactless payments are quick and easy and most newer debit cards come with the option of using at least one of these methods, depending on your provider.

Overdrafts

You can set your debit card up with an overdraft option, so that if you run short of savings at the worst possible moment (in the middle of buying the weekly groceries, maybe), you can still use it to pay for life’s necessities. This might be a handy feature, but keep in mind that you’ll usually pay for it with super high fees.

It’s also an option to opt out of having access to an overdraft service - which is a great idea if you’re worried about racking up a debt. That way, if you try to spend money you don’t have, your card will be declined, rather than providing you with credit at a high price.

If you’re worried about getting caught without money when you need it, stick a low rate credit card in your wallet as well.

Chargeback

One of the problems with using a debit card is that the transaction is completed pretty much instantaneously - which means if something goes wrong, like a double payment or your online shopping not arriving, you don’t have a lot of time to dispute it.

But if this happens, you do have the option of a chargeback, which is a request to your bank or card company to get your money back. Get in touch with your bank to find out how.

Rewards options

Ok, so you probably won’t rack up the same kind of rewards on your debit card as you might on an awesome rewards credit card. But you can cash in on some perks, including:

  • Special offers on some retail products and event tickets
  • Cash back on tap and go purchases
  • Rewards points - usually attached to an existing rewards program, such as Qantas Frequent Flyers.

Debit cards that offer these kind of bonuses aren’t exactly common, so you’ll have to do some searching if this is what you’re after. A good place to start is our debit card comparison table, where we’ve listed all the most important details about each card - including what perks it offers.

Security Features

Generally speaking, a debit card is a pretty secure way to access your money. It’s protected by your bank’s anti-fraud policy - so if it gets lost or if someone steals your details, you can have it cancelled. You also generally need a PIN to access an ATM with your card, and even to make tap and go purchases over $100.

The only time your debit card might not be as secure as, say, a credit card, is when you’re shopping online, since they’re a direct link to your bank account. Your bank usually has security measures in place to deal with this, though, and you can also protect the bulk of your savings by limiting the amount that’s left in your bank account. Stick most of your money in your savings account, so it’s safe and out of reach.

Debit card fees

Now let’s move on to the serious matter of what fees you might be paying when flashing your debit card at the checkout. While having the card itself doesn’t often incur fees, there are other charges associated with the linked account or how you use the card, which you’ll need to be aware of to get the best value out of using a debit card.

Check them out below:

Surcharges

The bane of every plastic-loving shoppers existence, surcharges are an extra fee you’re charged by some businesses when making a purchase on credit or debit card. Some businesses were charging huge markups on these fees (airlines, we’re looking at you), but the good news is that new regulations have came into force in 2016 that limit excessive surcharging on credit and debit card transactions.

You might still pay a surcharge for using your debit card, but the recommended amount is around 0.5% on debit cards.

Account fees

A debit card doesn’t come with an annual fee, the way a credit card might, but keep in mind that it does need to be linked to a transaction account, which might have a monthly service fee. But never fear - there are ways around this. If your linked bank account charges you a fee, you could:

  • Switch accounts. Check out the other bank account options available and switch to a provider who isn’t charging a fee to hold onto your hard earned cash.
  • Check out the conditions. Most bank accounts that come with a fee also come with an offer that will help you avoid that fee. For example, the monthly service fee might be waived as long as you deposit $2,000 per month into the account - say, your pay cheque. If you’re doing that, just don’t forget to then transfer that money into your savings account so you don’t miss out on earning interest.

Overdraft fee

So an overdraft seems like a handy feature right? Well, it’s also one you should use with caution, because it usually comes with a whopping fee attached. A good way to avoid these fees is to either have a solid budget and make sure you stick to it, or contact your bank and opt out of the overdraft service entirely.

Some banks might also offer the option to set up an overdraft line of credit, which means you can skip the hefty fee - but you will pay steep interest on the overdraft instead.

ATM withdrawal fee

If you’re using your bank’s ATM in Australia, a lot of the time you won’t pay a fee for getting cash out at all. You’ll mostly get hit with withdrawal fees if you’re overseas (hint: check out some travel debit cards for a better option) or if you’re using a third party ATM. So check which ATMs you can use for free to avoid being charged when you go to grab some cash.

Overseas purchase and foreign exchange fees

As mentioned above, when you head off overseas, you might suddenly get hit with extra fees for using your plastic. These include the foreign ATM fee, as well as a foreign exchange margin and occasionally, a foreign exchange fee.

The best way to avoid or minimise these fees? Compare your debit card options and choose the best one or, opt for a prepaid travel card instead.

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