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2.1. Credit Card Terms

Important terms of use generally must be disclosed in any credit card application and even in solicitations that don’t require an application. Here are the most important terms to understand — or ask about — when you are choosing among credit offers.

Fees. Many credit cards charge membership and/or participation fees. Issuers have a variety of names for these fees, including “annual,” “activation,” “acceptance,” “participation” and “monthly maintenance” fees. These fees may appear monthly, periodically, or as one-time charges, and can range from $6 to $150. What’s more, they can have an immediate effect on your available credit. For example, a card with a $250 credit limit and $150 in fees leaves you with $100 in available credit.

Transaction Fees and Other Charges. Some issuers charge a fee if you use the card to get a cash advance or make a late payment, or if you exceed your credit limit.

Annual Percentage Rate. The APR is a measure of the cost of credit, expressed as a yearly rate. It must be disclosed before your account can be activated, and it must appear on your account statements.

The card issuer also must disclose the “periodic rate.” That’s the rate the issuer applies to your outstanding balance to determine the finance charge for each billing period.

Some credit card plans let the issuer change the APR when interest rates or other economic indicators — called indexes — change. Because the rate change is linked to the index’s performance and varies, these plans are called “variable rate” programs. Rate changes also can raise or lower the finance charge on your account. If you’re considering a variable rate card, the issuer must tell you that the rate may change and how the rate is determined.

Before your account is activated, you also must be given information about any limits on how much your rate may change — and how often.

Grace Period. A grace period, also called a “free period,” lets you avoid finance charges if you pay your balance in full before the date it is due. Knowing whether a card gives you a grace period is important if you plan to pay your account in full each month. Without a grace period, the card issuer may impose a finance charge from the date you use your card or from the date each transaction is posted to your account.

Balance Computation Method for the Finance Charge. If you don’t have a grace period — or if you plan to pay for your purchases over time — it’s important to know how the issuer calculates your finance charge. Which balance computation method is used can make a big difference in how much of a finance charge you’ll pay — even if the APR and your buying patterns stay pretty much the same.

Balance Transfer Offers. Many credit card companies offer incentives for balance transfers — moving your debt from one credit card (Card Issuer A) to another (Card Issuer B). All offers are not the same, and their terms can be complicated.

For example, many credit card issuers offer transfers with low introductory rates. Some issuers also charge balance transfer fees. If Card Issuer B charges four percent to transfer $5,000 from Card Issuer A, your fee would be $200. In addition, if you pay late or fail to pay off your transferred balance before the introductory period ends, Card Issuer B may raise the introductory rate and/or charge you interest retroactively. And if you use your card from Card Issuer B to make new purchases, any payments you make will go toward your balance with the lowest interest rate — and finance charges at the higher interest rate will be assessed on the portion of your balance that came from new purchases.


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