September 3, 2013
This is an update to a post of the same name published a year ago. A lot has changed since then so I thought it would be good to create a new post rather than edit the old one.
Vanilla Reload cards can be a terrific tool for increasing your credit card rewards: 1) purchase a Vanilla Reload card with a rewards credit card (to earn rewards); then 2) Load the value of the card onto a prepaid card; then 3) Use the prepaid card for expenses where credit cards are not usually allowed: bill payments, ATM cash withdrawals, debit payments, etc.
Vanilla Reload cards are not the only type of reload cards available. There are also MoneyPaks, REloadit cards, PayPal load money cards and probably more (see “The reload game is on“). This post, though, focuses only on prepaid cards that can be loaded with Vanilla Reload cards.
Amex vs. Visa/MasterCard
All of the cards detailed below are issued by American Express or Bancorp Bank. Unlike the American Express cards, the Bancorp issued cards are either Visa or MasterCard cards, and can be used as debit cards. The American Express cards are similar to debit cards in that they can be used at ATMs to withdraw cash, but they cannot be used in any other transaction where a debit card is required.
Two types of Vanilla Reload cards
There are two distinct types of Vanilla Reload cards, but they look virtually identical. With the most common type, you can purchase the card at a store, bring it home, and transfer its value to a prepaid card. With the other type, you must bring the card to the counter in-store and use it in-store to reload your prepaid card. This second type can only be used with true debit card prepaid cards (i.e. MasterCard and Visa cards). For more details see “Pursuing the Other Vanilla Reload card“.
Many types of Vanilla
In addition to the fact that there are two different kinds of Vanilla Reload cards, it is important to understand that there are also multiple kinds of Vanilla cards. Depicted below are a few varieties. None of these can be used to reload other prepaid cards:
Prepaid cards compared
The tables below summarize the fees and limits of each prepaid card that can be loaded with a Vanilla Reload card. Note that most of the numbers below were taken from publicly available member agreements and FAQs. In some cases, these online documents have not been modified in years and so may be inaccurate. Please help me correct these tables if you have recent experience that contradicts these numbers.
Other fees of note
|Amex Bluebird||$0||N/A||Free at MoneyPass ATMs*. $2 elsewhere||N/A||$0||$2 for online load from debit card (but free at Walmart)|
|Amex Serve||$0||N/A||Free at MoneyPass ATMs. $2 elsewhere||N/A||N/A||No other fees|
|Amex Prepaid||$0||N/A||$2 (first per month free)||N/A||$0||No other fees|
|Mio MasterCard||$0.50||$0.50||$1.50||$4||$2.50 per transaction ($3.25 per ATM use)||Fees published online and in cardholder agreement are inaccurate. $2.95 activation/purchase fee (in store).|
|Momentum Visa||$1||$1||$2||?||$1 + 3%||Optional $10 per month plan eliminates per use fees. $10 Activation fee.|
|MyVanilla Visa||$0.50||$0.50||$1.95||$1.95||3.5%||$3.95 per month inactivity fee after 90 days;|
|NetSpend MasterCard or Visa||$1||$2||$2.50||?||3.5%||Monthly plans available to eliminate per transaction fees. $1 per check bill payment. Check refund: $5.95|
|PayPal MasterCard||$0||$0||$1.95||$2.50||2.5%||$4.95 mandatory monthly fee|
* Free MoneyPass ATM use is supposed to be contingent upon setting up direct deposit to Bluebird, but I haven’t found that to be necessary in practice. See “Bluebird: Are direct deposits necessary for free ATM use?“
Max load via Vanilla Reload (day / month)
Maximum balance (from Vanilla loads)
Max ATM withdrawal (day / month)
Maximum debit transaction
Other limits of note
|Amex Bluebird||$1K / $5K||$10K||$500 / $2K||N/A||$10K per month spend limit except for checks|
|Amex Serve||$1K / $5K||$10K*||$500 / $2K||N/A||$10K per month spend limit except for checks|
|MyVanilla||$2,500||$9,999||$400||$5,000||$2500 max cash advance|
|NetSpend||$7,500||$15,000||$940||$4,999.99||$4999.99 max cash advance|
A deeper look at each card
American Express Bluebird
American Express advertises Bluebird not as a prepaid card, but as a checking account alternative. It is the only card in the roundup that not only includes free bill pay, but also provides an option for paper checks that cardholders can write out themselves (Unlike a regular checking account, though, each check must be preauthorized and results in an immediate reduction of available funds). Another great feature of this card (and the Amex Serve card) is that funds can be transferred directly to your bank account for free. This card is also the only one in the roundup that can be loaded for free at Walmart using debit cards or gift cards (see “Gift card PINs“). Overall, Bluebird has an almost perfect combination of multiple load options, easy access to funds, and almost no fees. Grade: A+.
American Express Serve
Serve is so similar to Bluebird that American Express only allows you to have one or the other. One big difference between the two (that I’m aware of) is that Serve allows loads via credit or debit card for free (limited to $200 per day and $1000 per month). Also, while Serve has the same bill pay feature as Bluebird, it does not have a paper check option for writing out checks yourself. Overall, the two products are so similar that they’re hard to differentiate. They’re both terrific products for loading up from Vanilla Reload cards. Grade: A+.
American Express Prepaid
Amex prepaid cards are great in that they have virtually no fees, but unlike Bluebird and Serve, they are very limited in options for accessing your money. The only options for accessing your money are to withdraw cash at ATMs or to use the card like a regular credit card (and therefore forego additional credit card rewards for those same transactions). Grade: B-.
The Mio card is only available in certain regions of the country and must be bought in-store. You can use this web page to search for availability in your area. Mio charges fees for virtually all transactions so I don’t recommend it for daily use. The best use for this card is for high value debit transactions (e.g. purchase money orders, pay federal taxes, Walmart bill pay, etc.). I’ve used this card for over a year now, with no problems. Grade: B.
Like the Mio card, the Momentum card is only available in certain regions of the country and must be bought in-store. You can use this web page to search for availability in your area. Momentum charges fees for virtually all transactions unless you sign up for the $10 per month plan, which seems steep to me. The best use for this card is to go without the monthly plan and use only for high value debit transactions. Grade: B-.
Unlike the Mio and Momentum cards, MyVanilla is available everywhere within the U.S. You can buy the card at a store, or simply order one for free online. Fees and limitations are very similar to the Mio card described above. A number of people who have run very large amounts of money through these cards have had their accounts shut down. When that happens, it can take a while to get your remaining funds back so beware of that. Grade: B-.
NetSpend used to have the option to pay bills via mailed checks, but a reader told me that that feature has been discontinued (can anyone confirm?). While the fees and limits of this card appear to be very similar to the others in this roundup, the NetSpend card has a major disadvantage: they eventually shut down the accounts of almost everyone who loads funds via Vanilla Reload cards. You can read about my experience with this here: “We’re sorry, there is a problem with your account.” Grade: C-.
This card has a mandatory $4.95 monthly fee, but then free credit and debit transactions. This card belongs to the Allpoint Network so while the card itself charges $1.95 for ATM withdrawals, you won’t get another fee from the ATM operator if you go to an Allpoint Network ATM. Note that the PayPal card is administered by NetSpend so this card may be just as likely to be shut down as the NetSpend card (but I don’t know that for sure). Grade: D (I don’t like mandatory monthly fees!).
Bluebird continues to be my favorite Vanilla Reloadable. You just can’t beat its perfect combination of almost no fees, easy load options, and easy access to your money. I expect that if I had a Serve account I’d be just as happy with that too. If you want a debit card for occasional high value transactions, then look for one with no monthly fees and with low per-transaction fees. Mio and MyVanilla are two good examples. If you want a debit card for frequent use, then look for one with no per-transaction fees. For example, the PayPal card offers free transactions but charges $4.95 monthly.