Balance transfers are an excellent strategy, but always pay close attention to the details. They can take a lot longer to process than you may think.

Credit card balance transfers can be an excellent strategy to reducing debt. Not only are you consolidating several credit cards (and payments) into a single account, but you’re usually getting the benefit of a 0 percent introductory offer.

So, how long does this process take? Before we answer that, let’s start with the basics of credit card balance transfers.

How the credit card balance transfer process works

Many credit cards offer balance transfers (and we’ve got a list of the best balance transfer cards on the market). But a few offer 0 percent introductory rates for several months. Those are the balance transfer offers you want to take advantage of.

This can range anywhere from six months to 21 months, but 15 months is common. In fact, credit card issuers offering 0 percent introductory rates are required by federal law to offer a minimum of six months interest free.

To apply, you’ll need good credit. Excellent is even better. Figure you’ll need a credit score of at least 700, and the higher the better.

You can also use balance transfer credit cards for other debts, not just credit card debt. This can include installment loans, like auto loans. A typical application will require you to list the specific loans you want to be transferred to the new credit line.

Balance transfer offers usually have balance transfer fees, which can range between 3 percent and 5 percent of the amount transferred. If you’re transferring $10,000 in balances, that will result in an upfront fee of $300 or $500. That will also reduce the balance available to pay off debt. If the credit line is $10,000, with a 5 percent fee, only $9,500 will be available for balance transfers.

It can take several days to a week for your application to be approved. It will then take from one week to two weeks (or more) for the new credit card company to complete the transfers of the credit lines you listed in your application.

Are there strategies to speed up the balance transfer process?

You can speed up the balance transfer process in a number of ways. For a better understanding of how long the process takes, and how to expedite the process, here are some tips:

  • Submit your balance transfer application online, rather than by regular mail. This will cut a few days off the process. What’s more, if you complete the application online, it will be easier for you to monitor the progress of the application online as well.
  • Find out how long it will take for balance transfers to be completed. You can often find this information in the credit card disclosure. If not, make a phone call and get the specifics. For example, both Citi and American Express report that balance transfers will take “at least 14 days” after your account is opened to process payments. Pay close attention to the harmless-looking term “at least”. It means it could be more than 14 days. So it will take seven days to get your application processed, plus “at least” 14 days for transfers to be completed. You’ll need to budget for at least 21 days to complete the process. A month would be even better.
  • Request all your balance transfers at the time of the application. To take the most advantage of the introductory rate, get all your balance transfers completed as soon as possible. Most applications will allow you to request the transfer right on the inital application. If you’d rather wait to see if you are approved and what your credit limit is, that’s fine. But call and make your balance transfer over the phone as soon as you have the information you need.
  • Pay existing credit cards until the transfers are completed. Never assume you don’t have to make the payments on the existing lines. Given that will take three to four weeks to complete the process, you could end up being hit with several late payments. That will involve not just late payment fees, but possibly a few delinquencies on your credit report.

Is there a difference between credit card issuers?

The short answer is absolutely!

That’s why it’s so important to know exactly what the details of your balance transfer offer are. Never assume all credit card issuers use the exact same terms. Here’s a detailed list of our favorite balance transfer credit cards

But right here, we’re listing the best balance transfer offer available from major credit card issuers.

How much difference does the speed of the transfer make?

To make the most of your balance transfer complete it as soon as possible. You can often request any balance transfers right on the application. But if you don’t want to do that, you should call as soon as you know the account is open and request a balance transfer over the phone.

Make a plan to pay off your balance. Credit cards offering 0 percent introductory APR balance transfers often have high interest rates. Depending on your credit, they could easily be above 20 percent. If your account is not paid off when the intro rate runs out, the remaining balance will be subject to the regular APR for the account. It’s even possible the new APR will be higher than the APR on the credit line you’re paying off. So you’ll want to pay off as much as you can during the intro period.

There’s one other very important piece of advice, even though it has nothing to do with the speed of your credit card balance transfer: Don’t miss even one monthly payment on the new credit line!

These cards typically have language in the fine print telling you that just one missed payment will invalidate the 0 percent offer. Under the best case scenario you’ll be paying the regular APR on the credit line. Under a worst case scenario, you could be paying the default rate of 29.99 percent.

Summary

Balance transfers are an excellent strategy, but always pay close attention to the details. The application process can take up to a month to complete, and any misstep can invalidate the 0 percent APR promised by the credit card company.

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About the author

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Since 2009, Kevin Mercadante has been sharing his journey from a washed-up mortgage loan officer emerging from the Financial Meltdown as a contract/self-employed “slash worker” – accountant/blogger/freelance web content writer – on Out of Your Rut.com. He offers career strategies, from dealing with under-employment to transitioning into self-employment, and provides “Alt-retirement strategies” for the vast majority who won’t retire to the beach as millionaires. He also frequently discusses the big-picture trends that are putting the squeeze on the bottom 90%, offering work-arounds and expense cutting tips to help readers carve out more money to save in their budgets – a.k.a., breaking the “savings barrier” and transitioning from debtor to saver. He’s a regular contributor/staff writer for as many as a dozen financial blogs and websites, including Money Under 30, Investor Junkie and The Dough Roller.