Are gift cards activated at self checkout?

When purchasing a gift card at a store, many shoppers wonder if they need to go through a regular checkout lane to have the card activated, or if self-checkout is also an option. There are a few key factors that determine whether gift cards can be activated at self-checkout stations.

Do all retailers activate gift cards at self-checkout?

No, not all retailers have the capability to activate gift cards at their self-checkout stations. The ability to activate gift cards at self-checkout depends on the point-of-sale (POS) system used by the retailer as well as their specific store policies.

Many major national chains such as Walmart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens do allow gift card activation at self-checkout. However, some smaller chains or individual stores may not. When in doubt, check with a store associate before purchasing a gift card if you need to use self-checkout.

Why might a retailer not allow gift card activation at self-checkout?

There are a few reasons why a retailer may prohibit gift card activation at their self-checkout lanes:

Limitations of POS system

Older POS systems may not have the capability to activate gift cards at self-checkout. Updating POS software requires significant investment, so some retailers may be slow to upgrade.

Policy to prevent fraud

Some retailers may have concerns about the potential for gift card fraud at self-checkout. By requiring activation at staffed registers, employees can verify identification and ensure legitimate purchases.

Encourage use of staffed lanes

Directing customers with gift cards to staffed registers helps keep those lanes open. This provides better customer service than if only self-checkout was available.

Do you need a receipt to activate a gift card?

In most cases, no, you do not need the gift card receipt in order to activate it. The card will activate as soon as payment is successfully processed. However, holding onto the receipt is recommended in case you need to verify details later, like the purchase date or gift card number.

Can you activate a gift card online after purchasing in store?

Some retailers allow gift cards purchased in store to be activated online if self-checkout activation is not available. The process varies by retailer:

  • Target – Cards can be activated online using the gift card number
  • Starbucks – Physical card or eGift must be registered online to activate
  • Walmart – Physical gift cards cannot be activated online

Check the retailer’s website for specific gift card activation policies. Purchasing and activating entirely online is also an option for many major retailers.

Do gift card activation limits apply at self-checkout?

Yes, any dollar amount limits for gift card activation will also apply at self-checkout. Retailers often have activation minimums ($10) and maximums ($500) in place to prevent fraud.

Trying to activate multiple gift cards for large amounts could also prompt an approval by store personnel at self-checkout. Always observe the activation limit policies posted by the retailer.

Can you activate a gift card before purchase is complete?

No, it is not possible to activate a gift card before the transaction is fully complete. The gift card barcode must be scanned and payment processed before activation can occur through the retailer’s POS system.

Attempting to activate a card early by scanning it twice or inputting the number will not work. The card will only turn on once purchase is fully finalized.

What if there’s an issue activating a gift card at self-checkout?

If an issue pops up when trying to activate a gift card at self-checkout, here are some tips:

  • Make sure payment fully processed – Activation cannot happen until after payment.
  • Try scanning gift card barcode again – Sometimes it does not scan properly on first attempt.
  • Go to staffed register if problems persist – Staff can manually activate card by inputting number.
  • Call retailer’s customer service – They can investigate and activate over the phone if needed.

Can you deactivate and re-activate a gift card?

Most retailers do not allow gift cards to be temporarily deactivated and reactivated. Once activated, the card remains active until the balance reaches zero.

However, it is sometimes possible to temporarily suspend lost or stolen gift cards by reporting them to the retailer. This prevents fraudulent use while allowing the balance to be restored on a replacement card if recovered.

Can you buy a gift card in one transaction then activate it in another?

No, gift cards must be activated in the same transaction where they are purchased. The system automatically activates the card when it is scanned during checkout.

It is not possible to buy a gift card in one transaction, then activate it later in a separate transaction. Some reasons this is prohibited:

  • Prevents card being scanned twice for fraudulent purposes
  • Retailer policy requires simultaneous purchase and activation
  • POS systems are set up only for automatic instant activation

Attempting to activate a previously purchased gift card by itself will not work. The card must be activated when it is initially purchased.

Can a retailer activate a competitor’s gift card?

No, retailers can only activate and redeem gift cards that are issued by their own company. They do not have systems in place to activate or apply funds from another retailer’s gift card.

For example, Target is not able to activate or accept a Walmart gift card. Cardholders must go to the retailer that issued the original card to activate and use it.

Do gift cards need activation for use online?

If a gift card is purchased in a physical store, it will need to be activated at checkout before it can also be used for online purchases with that retailer.

For eGift cards purchased digitally online, no additional activation is required. The eGift confirmation code, or virtual card number, can be used for online shopping right away.

Can you re-gift an unused gift card without activating it?

Technically yes, you can pass along an unactivated gift card to someone else. However this is not recommended for a few key reasons:

  • Card balance cannot be verified beforehand
  • Recipient may not be able to activate if issues arise
  • Unactivated lost or stolen cards have less protection

For these reasons, it is strongly advised to activate any gift card before gifting it to ensure the full value is available for the recipient to use.

Do gift cards expire if not activated promptly?

Most retailers do not impose an expiration date for activating gift cards. As long as the card is eventually scanned at purchase, there is no time limit for activation.

However, some states require gift cards to expire within 5 years. So always check the back of the card for any printed expiration date regardless of activation status.

Can you return a gift card without activating it first?

Yes, gift cards can be returned to the retailer without activation in most cases. However, specific return policies vary by store:

  • Target – Unactivated gift cards can be returned with receipt within 30 days.
  • Starbucks – Cards must be activated before returns allowed.
  • Amazon – Physical and eGift cards are non-refundable once purchased.

If immediately returning an unactivated gift card, be sure to keep the original receipt. Retailers can look up the purchase to process the refund.


The option to activate gift cards at self-checkout simplifies the purchasing process for customers. However, limitations of older POS systems and anti-fraud policies sometimes require activation at staffed registers instead.

Always check with store associates if unsure whether self-checkout activation is supported. With proper policies in place, the convenience of self-checkout gift card activation benefits both shoppers and retailers.

Retailer Self-Checkout Activation
Walmart Yes
Target Yes
Costco No

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