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- Credit cards have an average of 4.35 types of fees, according to CompareCards 2018 Credit Card Fee Study.
- Two cards — both no-frills credit cards from credit unions — had only a single fee. One card in our survey had as many as nine fees.
- Credit union-issued credit cards have 2.73 fees per card, lower than 4.48 fees for cards issued by banks.
- The most common fee levied by issuers is the late payment fee: 99.5% of cards impose this fee, averaging $36.02.
- The average balance transfer fee, among cards that allow them, is 3.46%.
- The average cash advance fee is 3.99%.
- Foreign transaction fees, overall, average 1.48%, including cards that have no fee. But if cards assess the fee, most of the time the fee is 3% of the purchase price.
- When compared with smaller credit card issuers, larger credit card issuers assess higher cash advance fees (4.11%, versus 3.86%) and balance transfers fees (3.49% versus 3.42%), on average.
- However, average foreign transaction fees are lower at larger credit card issuers (1.22%, versus 1.76% at smaller issuers).
- The study compared the fees of 200 credit cards representative of the cards in Americans’ wallets.
Every card we looked at had some sort of fee
Credit card fees aren’t as widespread as they were a decade ago, when the CARD Act of 2009 limited what exactly credit card lenders can and can’t impose fees for and for how much. Nonetheless, in CompareCards’ latest study of credit card fees, we still found there was a wide amount of variance among cards in the types of fees they impose on customers.
CompareCards looked at the fees of 200 credit cards that mirror the types and number of credit cards currently in Americans’ wallets. The 50 largest credit card issuers currently have more than 500 million credit cards in wallets, smartphones and desk drawers across the U.S.
The seven largest issuers — American Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Capital One, Chase, Citibank and Discover — account for half of those cards, and thus represent 100 of the 200 cards in our study. For the purposes of this study, we refer to those companies and their credit cards as the larger issuers. The other quarter-billion cards out there are represented by 100 cards issued by the next largest commercial banks, credit unions and savings banks — what we refer to as smaller issuers. Throughout this report, we refer to commercial banks and savings banks collectively as banks.
Note: The CompareCards fee study excludes both business credit cards and secured credit cards.
Average number of fees by card category
The average number of fees per card we found in 2018 was 4.35 fees per card. Credit unions had significantly fewer fees than the other credit card categories we examined, with 2.73 fees per card. At the other end of the spectrum, rewards cards and cards from the larger issuers had 4.57 fees per card, on average.
Fee prevalence by type of fee
The most common fee among the 200 cards in the 2018 study was a late payment fee: 99.5% of cards imposed this fee. One card that doesn’t, Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever, is primarily marketed to consumers who (to use Citi’s own words) don’t want to pay a late fee, ever. The card does assess other fees, like foreign transaction fees (3%) and a balance transfer fee of 5% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
The least common fee we found was a credit limit increase fee. Only one card in our study, the First Premier Bank card, imposed this fee when a cardholder receives a credit limit increase. Authorized user fees were nearly as scarce: Only nine cards out of 200 charge a fee to add an additional authorized user.
One fee that no personal credit card user needs to worry about — although you’ll occasionally notice the fee itemized as “none” in the credit card terms and conditions of some credit card issuers — is the over-limit fee. The CARD Act, while not prohibiting over-limit fees, requires the issuer to ask the consumer for permission to assess the fee. None of the cards in our study have such a fee. (However, over-limit fees can still be assessed on business credit cards. Business cards were not part of our study).
Average number of fees per card
While the cards in our study averaged 4.35 fees per card, fees per individual card varied significantly: Some had as few as one fee to as many as nine fees, as of May 2018. The most common number of fees was five — 39% of the cards had that amount. Two cards, both from credit unions, only had one fee. One card — the First Premier Bank card — had at least nine fees listed in the terms and conditions.
The credit cards with fewer or less costly fees
Credit unions vs. banks
There were 15 credit cards representing credit unions in our study, and we compare these with the 185 banks.
Credit union credit cards typically had the better fee-related bargains in most categories. The near-universal late payment fees are significantly lower at credit unions, averaging about $23 per occurrence. That’s significantly less than the average near maximum of $37 banks charge their customers for making a late payment. Fees for certain types of transactions — like balance transfers, foreign transactions and cash advances — were also lower than those charged by banks.
While the relatively low fees on credit union cards are nice, they come with a trade-off. More often than not, credit cards issued by credit unions tend to be no-frills cards that do the basics well, but they don’t offer cash back or travel rewards on purchases.
Cashback vs. rewards cards
The comparison between these two popular types of credit cards was a little more interesting. Travel and rewards-based credit cards (which typically give cardholders points or miles) performed better in areas you might expect, such as offering lower foreign transaction fees.
But rewards cards, somewhat surprisingly, were also a slightly better bargain when it comes to cash advance fees. The average 4.07% cash-advance fee is still hefty, but less than those of general purpose credit cards and those from banks in general.
But cashback cards (which typically give cardholders statement credits), offer much more modest annual fees. The average cashback card only charges $8.52, but more than half in our study don’t charge an annual fee at all.
Smaller issuers vs. the big guys
The seven largest issuers — American Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Capital One, Chase, Citibank and Discover — have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to fees.
Smaller banks typically offered more general purpose, no-frills credit cards, which tend to come with no annual fees. Larger cards offer more travel rewards cards, which are not only more likely to have annual fees, but also have costly annual fees. As a result, the average annual fee at the large banks is nearly $50, versus a little less than $20 at smaller banks and credit unions.
But with those higher annual fees will often come better perks, and that’s reflected in lower foreign transaction fees. Larger credit card issuers offer cards with foreign transaction fees of an average 1.22%, while it’s 1.76% at smaller banks and credit unions.
CompareCards examined the terms and conditions pages for 200 credit cards available to U.S. consumers in May 2018. The representative sample of 200 cards approximates the types and issuers of credit cards that Americans carry in 2018, according to data from The Nilson Report.