May 23, 2013
Last Fall, American Express released an innovative new prepaid reloadable product called Bluebird (see “Bluebird takes flight and changes the game“). While Bluebird was loaded with features, it wasn’t the features that made it innovative. It was the lack of fees. Bluebird can be used as a quasi-checking account, an ATM card, a credit card, and a peer to peer payment system — for free*. Green Dot, NetSpend, and many other companies have long offered similar capabilities, but with many fees. All charged per transaction and/or per month fees.
* In order to get free ATM access, you do need to use MoneyPass ATMs and you supposedly need to setup direct deposit as well (although I haven’t found that to be necessary in practice. See “Bluebird: Are direct deposits necessary for free ATM use?“).
Bluebird was especially exciting to those interested in earning points & miles. It was (and still is) possible to buy Vanilla Reload cards to earn credit card rewards, then load the money to Bluebird, then use Bluebird to pay bills (including credit card bills). This continues to be one of the best perpetual point machines around.
Recently, a great new Bluebird option opened up. Visa and MasterCard gift cards can now be setup with PINs (see “Gift card PINs“). If you can’t find Vanilla Reload cards, then you can buy Visa gift cards instead (they seem to work better than MasterCards). Take the cards to Walmart and use the PINs to do “swipe reloads” to move the money to Bluebird.
Green Dot Bank wasn’t willing to sit on the sidelines and watch American Express take all of its business. So, they developed a worthy competitor: GoBank. Like Bluebird, GoBank has no fees for most uses (except foreign transaction fees, out of network ATM fees, and customized card or replacement fees).
Currently, GoBank is rolling out its service to new members slowly. The best option if you want a card is to sign up at GoBank.com and wait for an invitation.
You can also try contacting GoBank via Twitter or Facebook to see if they can accelerate your membership.
In mid-April, The Free-quent Flyer wrote up GoBank in his post “Gobank’s Launch Challenges Bluebird.“ At that time, I signed up for GoBank’s waiting list and even Tweeted them, but I never received an invitation. A few weeks ago, at Free-quent Flyer’s suggestion, I simply entered my email address again and was immediately led to a series of signup pages. I received my card about a week ago.
GoBank vs. Bluebird head to head
Both GoBank and Bluebird are designed to be alternatives to traditional checking accounts. Both allow direct deposit, check capture, peer to peer payments, bill pay, and free in-network ATM use. Let’s see how they compare head to head…
Both services are happy to accept direct deposits, ACH transfers (in, but not out), check deposits (snap picture with your phone), and cash or debit reloads at Walmart. Here is where they differ:
- Walmart reloads: Both cards allow fee-free debit reloads at Walmart. Unlike Bluebird, GoBank currently has a quirk where some swipe reloads do not show up immediately in your balance, but they do show up after 10 or 15 minutes. Bluebird is limited to $1000 per day. GoBank is limited to $2500 per day. Advantage GoBank.
- Online debit loads: GoBank initially offered free online debit loads (up to $200 per day) but they are in the process of phasing out that option. Bluebird allows debit reloads online, but they limit you to $100 per day and $1000 per month with a $2 fee per transaction. Neither card has a good option here.
- Reload cards: Bluebird can be loaded with Vanilla Reload cards. GoBank can be loaded with GreenDot MoneyPaks. MoneyPaks cost more ($4.95 vs. $3.95) and are less often available to be purchased with a credit card. Advantage Bluebird.
Bill Pay / Check Writing
Both services offer free bill pay services. Whenever possible, payments will be sent electronically. If the recipient isn’t setup for electronic bill payments, then payments will be sent by paper check. Here is where the services differ:
- Write your own checks: Bluebird offers optional paper checks that you can write out yourself. This is useful for in-person transactions where credit and debit cards are not accepted. And, until mid August, Bluebird is offering your first book of checks for free. GoBank has no equivalent option. Advantage Bluebird.
- Recurring payments: GoBank allows you to setup recurring payments. Bluebird does not. Advantage GoBank.
Both services allow you to send money to friends over email. With Bluebird, the recipient needs a Bluebird or Serve account to pickup the money. With GoBank, the recipient can use a GoBank account or a PayPal account to pickup the money. This is a nice option since PayPal is so widely used. Advantage: GoBank.
Both services allow free ATM use at in-network ATMs. Here is where they differ:
- GoBank’s network of free ATM’s is bigger (over 40,000 vs. over 22,000) so it is easier to find a fee free GoBank ATM.
- GoBank charges $2.50 for out of network ATMs. Bluebird charges $2. In both cases you will likely incur an additional fee from the ATM operator.
- Bluebird has no foreign transaction fees on ATM withdrawals. GoBank charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.
Advantage: GoBank within the US, Bluebird outside of the US.
Both cards can be used as credit cards. Here is where they differ:
- GoBank is a Visa card. Bluebird is an American Express card. Visa is accepted in far more places than American Express.
- Bluebird has no foreign transaction fees (but American Express cards are not widely accepted outside of the US). GoBank charges 3%
- GoBank is a debit card and can be used anyplace that accepts debit cards. Bluebird is not a debit card.
- Bluebird’s purchase protection covers losses if your eligible purchase is accidentally damaged or stolen within 90 days of purchase.
Bluebird has the option to transfer funds directly from your Bluebird account to a bank account. As far as I can tell, GoBank has no similar option. Advantage: Bluebird.
I’ve never heard a credible report of anyone having their Bluebird account forcibly shut down, but Green Dot seems to shut people down regularly. Million Mile Secrets provides the following important cautions:
Warning: You should NOT experiment with the Go Bank debit card and reload card if you can’t afford to be without the money loaded in your Go Bank account. Many people complain that Green Dot (which owns Go Bank) arbitrarily closes accounts and that it takes months to get your money back.
- Do NOT fund Go Bank and then immediately withdraw money from an ATM or transfer money to your checking account. That is very easy to detect. Withdraw only as much money as an average person would – that is in the hundreds of dollars and NOT thousands of dollars per week.
- Use Go Bank for lots of routine transactions as well. If all you do with Go Bank is withdraw money from the ATM or to your bank account, you are likely to be shut down because you are unprofitable for GreenDot.
- You WILL get shut down if you try to spend tens of thousands of dollars per month at any store with any one card.
- I can’t give you an exact amount and you’ve got to decide for yourself what is a reasonable limit.
- Alternate with other credit cards so that you’re not buying too many gift cards with just one credit card.
- GoBank, in my opinion, has a better user interface on both their web site and their mobile application. I especially love how their mobile app lets you search for ATMs and (optionally) check your balance without logging in.
- Some people have reported that GoBank has better customer service than Bluebird.
Summarized Card Features
Advantage goes to…
|Load via debit card at Walmart
(Swipe Reload / Rapid Reload)
|Up to $1K per day. Up to $5K per month. No fee.||Up to $2500 per day. Up to $50K balance. No fee.||
|Load via reload card||Vanilla Reload. $3.95 Fee to buy card.||Green Dot MoneyPak. $4.95 fee to buy card.||
|Write your own checks||Yes||No||Bluebird|
|Free bill pay||Yes||Yes||Tie|
|Transfer funds to bank account||Yes||No||Bluebird|
|ATM out of network fees||$2 + ATM charge||$2.50 + ATM charge||Bluebird|
|Credit card use||American Express||Visa||GoBank|
|Foreign transaction fee||None||3%||Bluebird|
|Purchase protection||Yes, 90 days||No||Bluebird|
|User Interface||Good||Very good||GoBank|
|Receive money||Recipient must have Bluebird or Serve account||Recipient must have GoBank or PayPal account||GoBank (since PayPal is more prevalent)|
|Customer Support||Many complaints||So far, so good||GoBank|
|Known to shut down accounts||No||Yes||Bluebird|
GoBank looks like a worthy competitor to Bluebird. On several measures, it appears to be better than Bluebird. It’s great to see competition in this no-fee bank-alternative space and I’m happy to get a chance to try out GoBank to see how well it works in practice!