How do I redeem a gift card?

Gift cards have become a popular gift-giving option in recent years. According to the National Retail Federation, gift card sales reached an estimated $130 billion in the United States in 2017. Gift cards allow the recipient to purchase goods or services up to the loaded value from a participating retailer or restaurant. While gift cards provide more flexibility than a traditional gift, knowing how to redeem them properly is important to get the full value. This comprehensive guide will explain the common ways to redeem gift cards and things to know before using them.

Check the gift card balance

Before setting out to use a new gift card, first check the balance. Gift card balances can be checked in a few different ways depending on the merchant.

Check the physical gift card

For physical plastic gift cards, look for a toll-free customer service number printed on the back or included with the packaging. Call the number and follow the prompts to check the balance. Be sure to have the gift card number handy to provide for balance inquiries.

Some retailers like Starbucks encode the gift card balance in the barcode. Download a barcode scanner app on a smartphone and scan the gift card barcode to read the balance embedded in it.

If there is no customer service number or scannable barcode, bring the physical gift card to the issuing retailer’s store and ask an associate to check the balance at the register.

Check the gift card website

For electronic and e-gift cards, visit the merchant’s gift card website and look for a balance checking option. On restaurant chain websites like Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse, enter the gift card number and PIN to see the balance online.

Retailers like Walmart and Target offer a balance checker tool on their websites. Provide the gift card number and access code to view the balance remaining.

Check a retailer app

Major chains like Subway and Starbucks often have mobile apps with gift card balance checking capabilities. Download the app, register an account, and add the gift card by entering its number. The app will display and track the card’s balance.

Redeem gift cards in stores

The most direct way to redeem a gift card is visiting the issuing retailer’s brick-and-mortar store location. At the checkout register, simply provide the gift card when the cashier asks for payment.

If redeeming an electronic gift card on a mobile app, show the scannable barcode to the cashier so they can scan it and apply the gift card value to the purchase. For plastic gift cards, hand the card to the cashier so they can process it.

One tip is to tell the cashier upfront that you will be using a gift card. That way they know to deduct the gift card value from the transaction total when processing payment.

Using multiple gift cards

For large purchases that exceed the value on one gift card, use multiple gift cards together at the register. Let the cashier know upfront you will be using more than one gift card.

When they are ready for payment, hand the gift cards over in the order you want them applied. The cashier will use up the full value on the first card before moving to the next one. Be aware that most retailers do not allow combining the remaining balances from multiple cards onto a single card.

Checking balances after redemption

Always hold on to the physical gift card or gift receipt after partial redemption. That way you can track the remaining balance. If the card was used fully, most retailers will keep the card or mark it as redeemed.

For e-gift cards loaded into a mobile app, the app will automatically update the balance after redemption. Review the app for the updated balance details whenever a gift card is used partially or fully.

Redeem gift cards for online purchases

In addition to in-store use, many retailers allow redeeming gift card values during online checkout. The process varies by merchant but generally involves:

1. Adding desired items to the online shopping cart

2. Proceeding to checkout and selecting gift card as the payment method

3. Entering the gift card number and PIN

4. Applying the gift card value to the order total

For e-gift cards already saved within a merchant’s app, there may be an option to auto-apply the gift card value when checking out on the website.

One thing to double check is whether there are any restrictions on using a gift card online versus in stores. Some retailers may not allow combining a gift card with certain online discounts or promotions. Read the gift card terms and conditions for policy details.

Partial gift card redemption online

When redeeming a gift card with an available balance that only covers part of the online order total, the process will involve an additional payment method. After entering the gift card number, the site will deduct the gift card amount and show the remaining balance owed. At that point, provide a credit/debit card or other payment method to cover the remainder of the order.

Be sure to check the updated gift card balance after partial redemption through an online checkout just as you would in stores.

Check gift card expiration dates

While government regulations require gift cards to have a minimum 5 year expiration period from the purchase date, retailers can still set shorter limits. It’s important to check the expiration date on both physical and digital gift cards.

For plastic gift cards, the expiration term is usually printed on the front or back. For e-gift cards, check the email receipt or retailer website for an expiration policy.

When you redeem a gift card, ask the cashier to check that it has not expired, especially if redeeming one that has been sitting around for awhile. If the card has expired, unfortunately those funds are likely forfeited to the retailer.

Monthly service fees

In addition to expiring, some gift cards may deduct monthly service fees after a certain time period of inactivity. These deductions can gradually reduce the available balance. Review the fine print or check with the retailer to see if any inactivity fees apply. Redeeming the card sooner rather than later avoids running into fees.

Extending expiration dates

Depending on the retailer’s policy, it may be possible to extend the expiration date on a gift card by making a small purchase now and then. Even a purchase of a few dollars can demonstrate the card is active and reset the expiration clock. Check with the retailer first before assuming this will work.

Replace lost or damaged gift cards

It’s not uncommon for gift cards to become lost or damaged over time before you get a chance to redeem them. In these cases, all may not be lost for using the value.

Reporting lost or stolen cards

If a gift card is lost or stolen before activation, report it to the issuing retailer right away. Large merchants have systems to deactivate and replace lost gift cards while protecting the funds. There may be a replacement card fee.

For stolen activated gift cards, also report the theft to the retailer. Whether they can cancel the card and restore the balance will depend on their specific policies. Having the gift receipt and noting the balance right away helps the process.

Getting replacement cards

For damaged but still readable gift cards, make a free replacement request directly through the retailer’s customer service channels. This typically requires providing the damaged card’s number for verification. There is usually no replacement fee as long as the card itself is presented.

If the card number is no longer readable due to damage, check if the retailer can lookup the card based on the original purchase date and buyer’s information. Providing the gift receipt or order confirmation can expedite the replacement process.

Use gift card exchange services

For unwanted or partially used gift cards that you don’t plan on redeeming, consider exchanging them rather than letting the balances go to waste. Gift card exchange services purchase unused gift cards and resell them at a discounted rate to new users.

How gift card exchanges work

Exchange services like Cardpool and Raise allow users to enter card details including the number, retailer, and remaining balance. The service will make an offer, often up to 92% of the remaining value. Once accepted, provide the card details and redeem the offer in cash or as an e-gift card to another merchant.

For plastic gift cards, users can mail the physical cards to the exchange service and receive payment after inspection. Damaged cards with legible numbers can often still be exchanged.

Benefits of gift card exchanges

Exchanging gift cards provides a simple way to clear out unused balances and recoup a portion of the value. It’s an alternative to letting cards expire, sit unused, or try to re-gift them. Many exchange sites also allow users to trade one brand’s gift card for another’s if they prefer.

Be sure to compare rates and offers across multiple exchange services to get the best deal. Also look for promotional discounts which can increase the cashback amount on traded gift cards.

Watch out for gift card scams

While buying and redeeming gift cards is generally safe, consumers should be aware of potential gift card scams and fraud. Some common signs of a gift card scam include:

– Being pressured or threatened to pay with gift cards

– Being told to buy gift cards and provide the numbers to claim a prize or pay a fee

– Finding unused gift cards with tampered packaging and exposed PIN codes

– Receiving gift cards that have a substantially lower balance than advertised

– Seeing unauthorized gift card purchases on your credit card account

Protect yourself by only buying gift cards directly from reputable retailers instead of third parties. Also use secure WiFi when purchasing digital gift cards online. Being cautious with gift card numbers and avoiding shady redemption offers reduces the risk of scams.

Frequently asked questions

Can you redeem gift cards from different retailers together?

No, gift cards are only redeemable at the retailer that issued them. The value on a Target gift card cannot be combined and used with a Starbucks gift card, for example.

Where can gift cards be redeemed besides retail locations?

Depending on the retailer, gift cards may also be redeemable on the merchant’s website, mobile app, or over the phone for catalog orders. There are some exceptions though, so check the terms for each card.

Can employees redeem gift cards from their own employer?

Many retailers do not allow employees to redeem gift cards from their own company for a purchase due to internal fraud prevention policies. Always check your employer’s gift card guidelines first before assuming they can be used.

Do gift cards expire?

Yes, most gift cards have an expiration date and funds may be forfeited if not used by then. Expiration periods range from just a few months to several years. Gift cards issued after 2010 are required to be valid for 5 years minimum.

Are there any fees associated with gift cards?

Some retailers charge purchase or redemption fees for gift cards. Monthly inactivity fees that gradually drain the balance over time can also apply after 12-24 months of non-use. Check terms and conditions for each card carefully.


While gift cards continue growing in popularity as gifts, understanding the redemption process helps ensure you can actually take advantage of the stored value. Always check balances first and be aware of fees or expiration dates when redeeming gift cards. Using them sooner rather than later, whether instore or online, is key to getting the full advertised value. With a little preparation, gift card recipients can avoid headaches and make easy use of this versatile gifting option.

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