How Unemployment Debit Cards Work

By Erica Gellerman
July 19, 2020

Gone are the days of waiting to receive an unemployment check in the mail. 

Unemployment departments now use cheaper and more efficient methods of getting benefit payments to you. One of these methods is with an unemployment debit card. 

If you’ve just applied for unemployment benefits or received a card, this guide has all the details on how unemployment debit cards work. 

  1. How do unemployment debit cards work?
  2. Can I pay bills with my unemployment debit card?
  3. When do unemployment benefits get deposited
  4. What if I lose my unemployment debit card?
  5. Where can I get more information?

How do unemployment debit cards work?

When you sign up for unemployment benefits, you usually can decide how to receive your payments. One payment method is via direct debit payments made to your bank account. Another is via debit cards

If you choose to be paid with a debit card (or if you don’t provide direct deposit information), the card will be mailed to you. Once you receive it, you’ll need to activate it and set up your PIN to use the card. 

Once your card is set up, you can use it just like other debit cards. For example, you can make purchases, withdraw cash, pay bills, and more. But, once all of the money on the card has been spent, you can’t use it again until you receive another unemployment payment deposited onto your card. 

Can I pay bills with my unemployment debit card?

An unemployment debit card comes with spending flexibility. This means you can use it to pay for the things you need. For example, you can use your card for the following:  

  • Purchases and cashback. You can use your unemployment debit card to buy things and receive cash from an ATM. For example, if you have a ReliaCard for your Texas unemployment, your card will be a Visa debit card. You can use it to make purchases or withdraw money anywhere that Visa is accepted. To make purchases or get cashback, you’ll need to select “debit” and enter your PIN.  While this is similar to how most debit cards work, there is one exception. Many unemployment debit cards don’t allow you to pay for gas at the pump to avoid the risk of overdraft. You’ll need to go inside and pay.
  • Paying bills online. If you need to pay bills online, like your utilities or phone bill, you can do that with your unemployment debit card.  If the debit card offers it, you can also set up online bill pay. For example, the Texas US Bank ReliaCard offers an online bill pay option.
  • Withdrawing cash from an ATM. You can use your unemployment debit card to get cash using an ATM. But, beware: there may be fees if you withdraw money from a bank that is out of network. For this reason, it’s important to read the fine print on your state unemployment card before using it at an ATM.  For example, the KeyBank debit card used for unemployment benefits in Illinois doesn’t charge fees when used at an ATM within the KeyBank or Allpoint networks. But, if you use an out-of-network ATM, you may be hit with a fee.  The ReliaCard in Texas, on the other hand, allows you to withdraw money for free at US Bank, Allpoint, SUM, or MoneyPass ATMs.
  • Transferring money to your bank account. If you want to move your unemployment funds off your debit card and into your bank account, you have the option to do this.  Transferring funds can be helpful when it comes to paying bills that you generally can’t pay with a debit card, like your rent or mortgage.  Before you make a transfer, however, check with the card issuer to see if they charge fees. For example, the Texas ReliaCard allows you to make two transfers to your bank account each month for free. Any additional transfers that month will be charged $2.

When do unemployment benefits get deposited

You can expect to receive your unemployment benefits onto your debit card weekly or biweekly, depending on your state’s unemployment benefit payment schedule. 

For example, Texas and Illinois pay their unemployment benefits on a bi-weekly basis, so you should receive payments on your debit card every two weeks. Georgia pays on a weekly basis, so you can expect to receive payment on your debit card each week.

If you want to check the balance on your card, there are a number of ways to do that. You can check your balance at an ATM or online with your card issuer. Your card issuer may also offer the option to sign up for text alerts. 

Another important note: Before you start using your card to spend money, it’s a good idea to tweak your budget. When you’re unemployed, you’ll want your cash to stretch as far as it can. 

What if I lose my unemployment debit card?

You can request a replacement card if your card is lost or stolen. To do so, you’ll likely need to contact customer service for the debit card, not your unemployment agency. 

For example, Texas residents will need to call the US Bank Reliacard customer service. California residents will need to call the Bank of America EDD Debit card customer service. 

If you lose your card or it’s stolen, call for a replacement card immediately — your remaining balance will be transferred to a new card. But keep track of these cards. Many states offer the first replacement card each year for free but will charge for subsequent replacement cards. 

Where can I get more information?

Your state unemployment office will have information about their unemployment card and FAQs specific to your state. While most unemployment debit cards work in a similar way, there may be differences with fees and payment schedules. 

We know that managing your money right now can be stressful. This is why it’s important to understand your unemployment benefits and use your unemployment debit card wisely. From there, you can put together a financial plan to help you get through this. And remember: You got this. 

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Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and creator of TheWorthProject.co. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker.

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