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Prepaid cards: what they are, what they do, and where you can use them


a stack of prepaid cards

What are prepaid cards

Prepaid cards usually work a lot like your personal debit card, but they’re deliberately pre-loaded with funds separate from a bank account.

Once the card is depleted, you can’t spend any more than what was loaded without a top-up.

While that obviously has benefits for household budgets, prepaid cards are perfect for a huge variety of applications that we’ll outline in this article.

How to use prepaid cards

woman using her prepaid card to shop onlineWhile there are many situations where a prepaid card is useful, the vast majority of cards will be used the same way as a debit card or gift card.

You’ll either present them at the till when making an in-store purchase, or give the card’s details online during online checkout.


Skip to the card you’re interested in by tapping/clicking a section below:

Closed-loop vs open-loop

Prepaid cards come into two major varieties that have a big impact on how, and where, they can be spent. Those varieties are open-loop and closed-loop.

An open-loop card is what we’d colloquially think off as a Visa or Mastercard – you would expect to spend it in any location that accepts payment using those types of cards.

A closed-loop card, however, limits where the owner can spend. This could be limited by the card issuer, or it could be limited by where the card is accepted. For instance, a closed-loop Mastercard is limited to a closed group of shops. However, other gift cards (like our own Love2shop Gift Cards) are limited by how many retailers accept that specific product.

While it might sound like open-loop has an inherent advantage over closed, that isn’t always the case. As we’ll outline below, there are times when limiting where a card can be spent is more beneficial than leaving it open.

Prepaid debit cards

a stack of prepaid debit cardsPrepaid debit cards are ideal for consumers looking for a peace-of-mind option for managing their monthly budget.

It works on the same principle we outlined above – a consumer loads their card (or someone else’s card) with an amount they’re comfortable spending, then uses it as a debit card.

They give consumers confidence to spend exactly what they set aside without having to worry about dipping into an overdraft or breaking their budget for the month.

Before being granted a banking licence, the popular savings company Monzo used prepaid debit cards from Mastercard to help their customers budget day-to-day transactions with an associated app that tracks spending.

Prepaid debit cards are open-loop, just like your usual debit card. They’re also used for international travel, but we’ll go into more detail on that below.

How to buy a prepaid debit card

There are plenty of prepaid debit card providers in the UK – too many to list all the benefits and drawbacks of the individual cards here.

There is, however, a good run-down of the major providers and their key pros and cons available here on moneysavingexpert.com. The bank supplying your current account might also be able to provide one to you as an extra service to paid current account.

Prepaid gift cards

shopping with a prepaid gift cardYou have almost certainly come across a prepaid gift card before. If you haven’t already had one as a gift at Christmas, you will have seen them popping up at supermarket checkout aisles.

They’re a prepaid card that lets the holder spend the value of the card in a specific retailer, restaurant, or other similar outlet.

While some people often think of gift cards as being for a single store, you can also buy gift cards that are accepted by multiple retailers, which we’ll outline below.

How to buy a prepaid gift card

Gift cards can be bought in just about any major retailer, and quite a few independent ones as well. We stock a selection of single-store gift cards available here, and our sister website highstreetvouchers.com offers a selection of their own for smaller orders.

Discount cards

prepaid discount cards come in two varietiesWhen we talk about discount cards, we could be talking about two distinct products.

Some discount cards carry no value, and can’t be loaded with cash, but let the bearer access a discount at the till.

Student discount cards, Blue Light Cards for emergency services workers, or military discount cards entitle a card-holder to a discount at point-of-purchase.

The cashier applies the discount on presentation of the card using the till. The card is just a token to show they’re entitled to the discount.

There are, however, prepaid discount cards that carry a value. The major differences between prepaid discount cards is how the actual discount is given to the consumer.

Discount on loading: Some cards, like our own Everyday Benefits Card, give you a discount on loading funds to the card. For instance, if a card has a 7% discount, and the user loads £100 on the card, only £93 is taken from the card-holder’s bank account. The discount stays with the card-holder, and they pay full price at the till.

Discount on cashback: A discount-on-cashback card lets the user load funds onto a card, but the user pays their full value up front to load that card. They then pay full value at the till using the card. However, the card-holder will enjoy cashback rewards for their spending from the card issuer at a later date.

Depending on the details of your scheme, a discount card could be open-loop or closed-loop.

How to buy a discount card

buying or using a prepaid discount card onlineGenerally speaking, discount cards cards are invitation-only, and card-holders qualify by their profession or their custom to a specific brand.

They’re often given out by employers, unions, professional groups, or used as rewards for loyal customers.

If you’re interested in joining a discount card scheme and you’re not part of a customer or professional group already entitled to them, you could always ask your marketing department to introduce a customer loyalty card.

Prepaid travel cards

on their way to spend their prepaid travel cardPrepaid travel cards work a lot like prepaid debit cards, but rather than focusing on the need for monthly budgeting, they focus on the need for security and peace of mind while abroad.

They let you spend as if you were on a normal day out, but without having to stress about overspending, currency exchange, loss and theft, or identity theft. You can even lock your exchange rate in before you travel by using a prepaid card.

Travel agencies occasionally supply these gift cards for their clients. Either to include secure walking-around money as part of a holiday package, or as an added service to booking a holiday.

For instance, our own travel department, Love2shop Holidays, will sometimes convert leftover travel budget from travel customers into a Mastercard for walking-around money.

While travel cards are an open-loop product, the holiday cards we’ll mention next are an example of a closed-loop card.

How to buy a prepaid travel card

You can buy a travel card at the Post Office, but there are other providers. It might be worth comparing and contrasting the options based on your needs – services like balance transfers, ATM withdrawals and exchange rates very between providers.

Or, ask your travel provider if they can include one in your holiday package next time you book travel.

Other prepaid travel cards

Alternatively, a prepaid travel card might mean a prepaid card to be used to pay for the travel itself. These cards are closer to the gift cards we mentioned earlier than travel cards. The only major difference is they can (largely) only be spent with a travel agency to book your holiday.

How to buy a prepaid holiday card

Major travel agencies like TUI, Last Minute, Love2shop Holidays and Secret Escapes offer these cards.

High street shopping cards

use a prepaid high street card to get your shopping inWhen you think of gift cards, you might think of the single-store gift cards we talked about earlier. One card, one shop. A high-street gift card or high street shopping card, on the other hand, lets the recipient pick from a range of participating shops.

The major difference with these cards, aside from where you can spend them, is how your money is held. When you buy an Argos gift card, the money is given to Argos on the agreement they will give the card holder an equivalent value in merchandise when presented in the shop.

For a multi-retailer gift card, the money is held “in trust”. This means the money is protected in a bank account owned by the card issuer, and is claimed by retailers when they give stock to you.

You benefit from this because your money is always safe – even if one of the retailers available on the shopping card is unavailable, the money is still valid in all the other participating retailers.

How to buy a high street shopping card

There are two major suppliers of high-street shopping cards in the UK. The Love2shop Gift Card, provided by Love2shop and by highstreetvouchers.com to consumers, and the One4all card, provided by Blackhawk Group.

Digital gift cards

woman checks her digital gift card while out shoppingDigital gift cards use the same process as prepaid gift cards, only they dispense with the plastic.

Unlike your debit or credit card, which uses chip-and-pin or RFID technology to speak to your bank, gift cards don’t transmit currency between accounts.

The magnetic strip on your gift card just tells the cashier how much value the retailer owes you. Digital gift cards do the same thing using QR codes or bar codes saved to your phone.

The advantage is clear – you don’t have to carry the card, and it’s much easier to keep track of something you can’t physically lose.

The downside is that not everyone is up to speed on how to download and save files from emails yet, so many people prefer to stick with plastic for now.

Most digital gift cards now offer you a blend of in-store and online shopping, but what’s available depends on the retailer. Primark, for instance, will accept a digital gift card but won’t offer online shopping, while Argos will accept digital gift cards for online and in-store spending.

Be sure to have a quick look at the FAQ’s of a digital gift card before making a purchase to avoid disappointment.

How to buy a digital gift card

Many retailers now offer an “e-gift card” service that lets you send a gift card to friends or family over email, so it’s worth checking their websites. Alternatively, we stock a range of single-store and multi-retailer digital gift cards available here.

Pocket money cards

replace the piggy bank with a pocket money cardUsing a prepaid card to deliver pocket money, or a spending allowance, has great benefits over normal credit and debit cards.

They let your card holder enjoy the freedom of spending and managing the money on the card as they see fit, but without any of the potential dangers of accruing credit card debt or depleting a bank account. A taste of responsibility without the dire consequences of irresponsibility.

In addition, by being in control of the prepaid card, you can keep track of where their spending goes. Many pocket money cards aimed at under-18s will even give parents the power to halt spending if you spot something that looks nefarious, or if you think the card holder is being scammed.

Because of the security options made available to parents, these cards are often open-loop cards.

How to buy a pocket money card

GoHenry, Pockit, and Rooster Money offer prepaid pocket money cards for under-18, among other providers. They differ on admin fees, transfer fees, parental control suites, personalisation options, and more. You might want to compare and contrast the benefits of the major providers here.

Business expense cards

using a business expense card to make a small purchaseBusiness expense cards, also known as corporate expense cards, are often necessary for professions where staff are likely to be travelling, on work sites, meeting clients or otherwise not office-bound. They’re generally open-loop prepaid cards.

A business expense card lets you give them a prepaid debit card to use while they’re out for all their usual needs, depending on what they are for your business. Whether it’s food, accommodation, or drinks for a client, you can be confident they have what they need day-to-day.

You can also be confident that they can’t accumulate credit card debt, and with many providers you can keep track of their expenses in real-time without having to pore over receipts at the end of the month.

This lets your business set hard limits on spending without having to hassle or babysit staff through their spending – they’re free to budget as they see fit.

How to buy a business expense card

Equals and Cashplus offer specialist business expense cards with favourable options like free bank transfers or low-to-no admin fees. Alternatively, it’s worth contacting the company who supply your banking facility and asking if they can offer a service that would compete before taking your money to a third-party supplier.

Prepaid fuel cards

woman travelling with her prepaid fuel cardFuel cards are a closed-loop prepaid card that can only be spent on fuel at petrol stations. Most people will think of fuel cards as perfect for employees on the road, like travelling sales staff or drivers. While that’s absolutely accurate, there’s a little more to it than that.

They’re also useful as rewards and incentives in the auto sales world. They’re used as rewards for making purchases of promoted vehicles, for taking up trim packages, or agreeing to certain financing packages as a “free fuel” bonus.

For businesses, fuel cards are useful because they help a company keep accurate track of what an employee’s fuel spending is like. Major suppliers will offer an analytics and tracking suite to go with your cards.

This keeps your finance department in-the-know with real-time information at all times.

How to buy a prepaid fuel card

Major petrol suppliers like BP, Esso and Shell offer prepaid fuel cards for businesses. If you get in touch, they will have dedicated resources to help you organise and manage fuel cards for your business.

Reloadable prepaid cards

While these cards are all prepaid, that doesn’t mean you can’t load them again for the future. This doesn’t just reduce plastic waste, it also offers you benefits, depending on your specific card.

Business expense, pocket money and prepaid debit cards

For business expense cards, prepaid debit cards, and pocket money cards, the reloadable aspect is obvious. It’s a key part of the appeal of the card.

Even better, depending on your supplier, you can likely access more favourable interest rates on the loaded funds if you maintain a certain minimum balance.

Fuel cards

Fuel cards for business are often reloadable, as it would be difficult to send a replacement fuel card to someone always on the road. However, when they’re used for a reward mechanic for the public, fuel cards are usually single-use.

Even fuel-station loyalty schemes, like BPMe, tend to focus on non-petrol rewards over fuel cards.

Travel cards

Depending on your supplier, travel cards can be topped up while out and about on holiday, so that you keep all the benefits of security and budgeting without having to worry about your card running out of funds.

Holiday cards used to buy travel can also be topped up with funds if you want to spend a little more than what’s on the card to pay for a holiday package.

Gift cards and high street cards

Gift cards and high street shopping cards be topped-up with extra funds to avoid a “dual-currency” purchase, where you have to combine your debit/credit card or cash with a gift card.

Not every gift card can be used for a dual-currency purchase, so card-holders top the card up to exact sum of an item, then make the purchase with the gift card.

Discount cards

Discount cards are reloadable by their nature, but you can use the reloadable aspect as a reward mechanic on its own. You can remotely top-up someone’s discount card as a reward for customer loyalty instead of buying them a new gift card.

In summary

Prepaid cards are immensely versatile, and offer great value across the business and consumer world.

Depending on your needs, there’s almost always something available that either brings someone joy, gives them a bit of freedom, gives us peace of mind, or makes your business easier to manage.

If you have any questions about prepaid cards, you’re welcome to get in touch. Call us or use the live chat on this page during business hours, or send us an email. We’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.