Prepaid cards, also known as stored-value cards or gift cards, allow you to load money onto them to make purchases. The cards work similarly to debit cards, except you must load funds onto them before using them. One question that often comes up with prepaid cards is how long the money stays available on them before expiring.
In most cases, money loaded onto a prepaid card does not expire. Federal law prohibits gift certificates, store gift cards, and general-use prepaid cards from expiring for at least 5 years from the date of purchase or last load. Branded bank-issued prepaid cards may expire sooner, but banks must honor expired funds for at least 3 years from expiration.
Federal Gift Card Law
The Credit CARD Act of 2009 established federal regulations regarding gift cards, including prepaid cards. Under these rules:
- Gift certificates, store gift cards, and general-use prepaid cards may not expire for at least 5 years from the date of purchase or last load.
- No fees may be charged for non-use or inactivity in the first year.
- After one year, a dormancy, inactivity, or service fee may be charged only if disclosed clearly on the card or certificate.
These protections apply to prepaid cards issued by retailers, restaurants, and other merchants. They also apply to general spending prepaid cards that can be used anywhere like American Express, Visa, Mastercard, or Discover cards.
Branded Bank Prepaid Cards
Prepaid cards issued directly by banks, such as Chase Liquid or American Express Serve, are exempt from the CARD Act gift card rules. These branded prepaid cards may carry shorter expiration dates, such as 60 days of inactivity or 3 years from purchase.
However, bank-issued prepaid card regulations say funds cannot expire for at least 5 years. If a bank prepaid card does expire sooner, the bank must honor the funds for 3 years from expiration. So while the card itself may expire, the underlying funds are still valid if requested within 3 years of expiration.
When Prepaid Cards Expire
Now that we’ve covered the regulations, let’s look at some common prepaid card expiration scenarios:
Many prepaid card providers now issue cards that never expire. This includes general spending prepaid cards like American Express, Visa, Mastercard, and Discover. It also includes retailer branded cards from stores like Walmart, Target, Amazon, and Starbucks.
Since federal law prohibits expiration for at least 5 years, there is no real incentive for providers to set shorter timeframes. So “never expires” or “no expiration” is common.
Expires After 3 Years
Bank-issued prepaid cards may carry shorter expiration dates, such as 3 years from purchase or load. This includes cards like Chase Liquid, American Express Serve, Bluebird, and Wells Fargo EasyPay.
While these cards themselves may expire in under 5 years, the bank must honor the money for 3 more years. So you can still cash out expired funds for up to 3 years after the expiration date.
Expires After 12 Months of Inactivity
Another common prepaid card expiration policy is to expire cards after a set period of inactivity, such as 12 months. So if your prepaid card sits unused for 12 months, it may expire and no longer work at cash registers.
But again, federal regulations state the money cannot expire for at least 5 years. So even if your inactive card expires, you can still contact the issuer and recover the balance.
Expires After X Days From First Use
Prepaid cards may also expire a certain number of days after initial use, such as 120 days from first use. This encourages card use instead of hoarding and ensures cards don’t sit unused indefinitely.
But as long as it’s been less than 5 years from purchase or load, you can recover your expired balance by contacting the card provider.
Recovering Expired Balances
If your prepaid card does expire, you are still entitled to the unused funds for up to 5 years based on federal law. Here are some tips for recovering expired balances:
- Call or email the card issuer – Ask about their expired card policy and how to get your funds back.
- Visit the card website – There may be instructions on how to recover expired balances.
- Submit a written request – Mail a request with the card number and identification to the issuer.
- Exchange in stores – Retailer prepaid cards can often be exchanged in stores for new plastic.
As long as you contact the card provider, they are legally required to honor your prepaid funds for at least 5 years from purchase or load.
Ways Prepaid Cards Expire
While federal law mandates at least a 5-year expiration period, prepaid cards themselves can become unusable in other ways sooner. Here are some examples:
Card Plastic Expires
The plastic prepaid card itself may carry an expiration date imprinted on it, such as 3 years from issue. This means the card will no longer work at cash registers after that date.
However, the unused balance remains valid for 5 years under federal law. You would need to contact the provider for replacement plastic with the same funds.
Card Fees Deplete Balance
After 12 months of inactivity, prepaid card providers can start charging fees like:
- Monthly maintenance fees
- Dormancy fees
- Low balance fees
If enough fees accrue that the card balance hits zero, the card becomes unusable. But this generally only happens if the card goes unused for a year or more.
Security Holds Expire
Merchants like gas stations, hotels, and rental cars often pre-authorize more funds than the actual purchase amount. This temporarily puts a “hold” on those prepaid card funds.
If not finalized into a charge, these holds expire and free up the funds after a few days. But until they expire, your available balance is reduced.
Lost or Stolen Cards
Of course if you physically lose your prepaid card or it is stolen, you no longer have access to the funds. This can happen long before the funds legally expire.
In this case, contact the provider immediately to report it lost/stolen and request a replacement card with unused funds transferred.
Avoiding Prepaid Card Expiration
To avoid losing access to your prepaid funds, here are some tips:
- Use the card at least annually – Making even a small purchase once a year prevents inactivity expiration.
- Register the card – Maintain your contact info in case the card is lost or stolen.
- Avoid holds – Don’t let gas stations or hotels pre-authorize more funds than you plan to spend.
- Track the expiration date – Note when the plastic expires so you can request a replacement if needed.
- Monitor fees – Check statements so inactivity fees don’t inadvertently zero out your balance.
As long as you use the card occasionally and keep your information current, you can often avoid premature expiration.
Prepaid Card Funds Expiration Date Examples
To help illustrate when unused funds can legally expire, here are some prepaid card examples:
Store Gift Card
- Purchased: January 1, 2022
- Legal Expiration: January 1, 2027 (5 years from purchase)
Store gift cards are protected for at least 5 years under federal law before balances can expire.
Visa Prepaid Card
- Purchase Date: March 1, 2020
- Last Load Date: December 15, 2022
- Legal Expiration: December 15, 2027 (5 years from last load)
General spending prepaid cards must honor 5 years from the card’s last reload date.
American Express Serve
- Issue Date: May 1, 2021
- Expiration Date: May 1, 2024
- Funds Valid Through: May 1, 2027 (3 years after expiration)
A branded bank prepaid card can expire sooner but must honor unused funds for 3 years beyond that.
State Gift Card Laws
While federal law mandates minimum gift card expirations, some states have even stricter laws:
|State||Gift Card Expiration|
|California||No expiration for store gift cards|
|Colorado||No expiration for store gift cards|
So if you purchase a gift card in a state like California or Colorado, state law may prohibit it from ever legally expiring, regardless of what’s printed on the card.
International Prepaid Card Expiration
Prepaid card regulations can vary by country outside the United States:
- Canada – Prepaid cards generally expire after 5 years due to provincial consumer protection laws.
- United Kingdom – Gift cards and vouchers can expire as soon as 12 months based on 2011 consumer regulations.
- Australia – Prepaid card expiry is not regulated federally, so timeframes vary by provider.
So be sure to check the laws in your specific country if purchasing prepaid cards or gift cards internationally.
In summary, unused funds on prepaid cards are protected under federal law in the United States for at least 5 years from purchase or last load. The card plastic itself may carry a shorter expiration and no longer work at cash registers after that date. But the underlying funds remain valid for 5 years if recovered from the provider.
To avoid losing access to prepaid balances, use your card periodically, register it, and keep contact information current with the provider. With proper maintenance, you can often avoid premature expiration issues.