Which Gift Cards Are Easiest to Use with a PIN?

I talked on Wednesday about the recent ability to assign a PIN to some prepaid debit cards, making it possible to use them to reload a Bluebird card at physical Walmart stores. At the time I had only tried using a gift card issued by U.S. Bank National Association, purchased at a QFC (Kroger) supermarket. But I have done more research this week that you may find useful if you decide to use this as part of your own strategy for manufactured spend.

Some of what I share may be old hat to the rest of you, but given that we can’t buy Vanilla Reloads anywhere near my home or even get American Express for Target, I’m still learning. I hope you’ll be gentle if I’ve overlooked something significant. ;)

Load Online or In Stores?

First, I want to address a couple readers’ questions about the distinction between loading Bluebird online vs. at a physical Walmart. You can load up to $100 per day online, or up to $1,000 per day at a physical store. The cap remains $5,000 per month, so loading online would only allow you to use about 60% of your card’s potential. Furthermore, loading online involves a $2 fee per load but in-store loads are free.

Bluebird App

One nice benefit is that online loads do not require a PIN, only that your card be registered with your address. You can do this online pretty easily from a mobile phone.

Look for U.S. Bank Visa Gift Cards

US BankSecond, I have been buying and testing gift cards from a variety of stores with locations in the Seattle area. To cut to the chase, U.S. Bank N.A. cards remain the easiest to use. I have only found these at QFC. Safeway also sells some, but only as MasterCards. I have heard some say that the MasterCard versions are not easy to use with a PIN, and I have only done my tests with Visa gift cards. At some point I may go through the list and try those, too.

To set the PIN for a U.S. Bank card, you just call the phone number on the back, key in your card’s number and security code printed on the back, and then key in your new PIN. It’s that simple. You can do it from in your car after purchasing the cards and then go directly to Walmart.

MetaBank Cards Can Be Used Online or In Stores

I eventually found a way to set a PIN on cards issued by MetaBank. You can also register them with your full address very easily online. I did this from my iPhone’s browser and then transferred funds using the Bluebird iPhone app (the Bluebird mobile website kept crashing). You can find MetaBank cards in more stores, including Office Max and Bartell Drugs. Staples and Safeway sell MetaBank Visa cards and  U.S. Bank MasterCards.

MetaBank

One thing to watch for when purchasing MetaBank cards is that the $200 card has a higher activation fee: $6.95 instead of $5.95. In order to reduce your costs, you’ll want to buy a $200 gift card instead of 2 x $100 gift cards at an office supply store. But at Safeway I saw that variable load cards were available with limits as high as $500 for only $5.95. I have no idea why the fixed-value $200 cards are the only ones with a higher fee, and I did not see the variable load cards at Office Max.

UPDATE: This post from Dans Deals is where I learned you can assign a PIN to MetaBank cards. I hadn’t tried calling yet and only used the online portal. I called the number on the back (888-524-1283), keyed in all the details, and was able to set a PIN by choosing option 5. But Staples is very inconvenient for me and I can easily get U.S. Bank gift cards.

Vanilla Visa Cards are Worthless

I found Vanilla Visa gift cards at Office Depot and Rite Aid. In fact, my local Office Depot had stacks of $500 cards available, and I thought I had hit a gold mine! But the purchase would not go through, and then a manager came over and complained that they should never have been put on the floor. She was planning to throw them away after I left with my measly $100 card ($200 was out of stock).

Vanilla has a weird way of setting a PIN. It says that you can set the PIN at the point of sale, by choosing “Debit” when you swipe your card. Whatever PIN you enter will be set as the card’s new PIN, although you can still reset it online. Unfortunately, this process never worked for me. I tried reloading at Walmart, and the register refused to process the charge. I tried to buy a candy bar first and process it as debit to set the PIN, but the register automatically processed it as credit without giving me an option.

So I decided to see if I could set the PIN somewhere else. Gas stations almost always let you choose debit or credit when pumping gas. I went through the motions at my neighborhood Chevron, choosing “Debit” and swiping my card. It still refused the card. I don’t know what I’m missing here, but I’ll need to do more research to figure out how Vanilla expects me to use their gift cards.

Vanilla PIN

Finally, I tried to use my Vanilla Visa to reload my Bluebird online, as I did with MetaBank. Vanilla does allow you to register your card, but only with your ZIP code. That was apparently insufficient for Bluebird, which refused to link the card to my account. Only MetaBank let me register with my full address, though I admit I never bothered to try registering with U.S. Bank.

Is Paying Online Worth It?

So far the math does not look promising for earning Ultimate Rewards points with Visa gift cards and Bluebird. I have only found MetaBank and Vanilla Visa cards, and I have only been able to transfer funds from MetaBank. I originally had problems setting a PIN with MetaBank gift cards, so let’s use that as an example for someone with no nearby Walmart. If I buy a $200 card with a $6.95 activation fee I would make two $98 loads (plus a $2 load fee each time).

In this scenario, I would spend $206.95 and get back $196. My cost is $10.95 and I would earn 1,035 Ultimate Rewards points, for a cost per point of 1.06 cents. Certainly not bad. Valued at 2 cents each, that’s still close to a 89% gain. But my original post estimated a cost of only 0.595 cents per point.

Under another scenario, let’s say you can buy a $500 gift card at a supermarket using a Premier Rewards Gold card from American Express. The activation fee is a slightly lower $5.95, and you can make five daily loads of $98, each time with a $2 load fee. You would earn 1,012 Membership Rewards points from a $505.95 purchase and get back $490, for a net cost of $15.95. The cost per point would be 1.58 cents, also higher than my original estimate of 0.595 cents.

Without access to a Walmart, your costs increase dramatically and your manufacturing potential is capped at a lower amount. It remains possible to buy points at a cost below their redemption value, but I would not recommend loading online unless you have no other way. Just make the trip to Walmart and cut your costs in half.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • flyaway

    Hi Scott, I appreciate the informative article. I do work downtown Bellevue so a QFC only a couple of blocks away. If I use the ink for purchasing $500 gc at QFC, is that x2 for grocery spend or is gf excluded?

    • Scottrick

      Ink Bold/Plus doesn’t provide two points at grocery stores as far as I know; the bonus is for stand-alone gas stations. The American Express Premier Rewards Gold does provide two points at grocery stores.

  • zs58

    A quick perusal of the Factoria QFC didn’t yield any of the gift-box adorned Visa prepaid cards pictured in the post above – any idea if the QFC prepaid Visa cards will work?

    http://www.qfc.com/debit/Pages/default.aspx

    Also issued by USB, $500 max, $5.95 fee to load.

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t looked into that option yet. But, really, no US Bank Visa cards? I was just at the Factoria QFC this morning and was sure I saw them (didn’t buy any).

      • zs58

        Hmm – I will check again. Thanks!

        • magnus

          yup, i bought the variable Visa ($500) there a couple days ago and loaded BB at Walmart minutes later.

      • zs58

        You’re right, they’re there, I totally missed them. At the bottom of the display so they’re harder to see but they’re there. Thanks.

  • Ford

    Per Walmart Money Center employee, you can load the BB at any cash register, so don’t feel like you have to wait in a line to do this. Also, think about trying to load 2x$1,000 in a single trip by hitting a Walmart just before 12:00 EST, and then again immediately after, as I’ve been told this is when the $1k daily limit resets(so I’ve read, haven’t personally confirmed). Also…get your trusted sig o./spouse to get a card as well, it’s not like walmart cares who you’re giving your “debit” money to, so when you swipe and say you want to load the amount they probably won’t care if you use two cards 2 times…though they may wonder when you come back and do it again 5 minutes later. That’s my $4k load/Walmart trip idea.

    • chiyu71

      I can confirmed that you can load $1000 before and after 9PM PST

  • Joshy

    I’d say the best bet for this is if you have a walmart right near a staples like I do. Buy $200 visa gift card at staples+set pin on the phone on the way to walmart+load bluebird for free=profit?

  • http://twitter.com/satish_kumar Satish Kumar

    Scott, I was able to use Vanilla Visa to reload BB at my local walmart in Bellevue. It was the easiest of the GC lot for me, just go to the register ask the cashier to choose debit and enter a pin.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks for the suggestion. I did not specifically ask the cashier at Walmart to choose debit when processing my transaction. Since the one I currently favor has no ATM, I need to talk to the cashier anyway and will try this next time.

      • http://twitter.com/satish_kumar Satish Kumar

        Update: The PIN method did not work for me at the Factoria Walmart, although I was able to pay for a purchase with a pin, I wasn’t able to load BB. So I went over to the WM in Kelsey Creek and I was able to load it there with a PIN. Strange :)

  • ChrisPDX

    My interest in the GiftCard w/ PIN – Bluebird load in store at Walmart option at this time is not to meet needed spend but to be able to earn points or miles when paying my mortgage. Can you offer specific advice as to which credit cards would be best to use for the GiftCard purchase and other tips to maximize the ROI?

  • Elaine

    A while back Office Max had a deal to buy two $50 Mastercard giftcards for about $90. I don’t remember the terms exactly, but I bought a few intending to use them at Winco, a lower priced grocery store that only takes debit cards. The card is from US Bank. Although the cards say Gift Card / Debit, Winco demanded a PIN which I did not have. With the new development, I called the number I saw in MMS and was able to get a pin. When I tried to pay at Winco, it worked just fine. Since I shop there a few times a month to stock up on non-Costco items, I will start buying gift cards to cover all my Winco shopping.

    • Elaine

      BTW this is the number I used: 1 866 952 5653.

  • Devon

    Scott, how do asses a 2 cents per point value to UR points? I thought best value was 1.2 cents per point of you booked tracks thru UR site.

    • Scottrick

      Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.2 cents if you have a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold/Plus card and redeem them for revenue flights. I prefer to transfer them to United, and I value my United miles at 2 cents each. Other programs can probably get you at least 1.5 to 1.8 cents of value each.

  • Ben

    Would you be able to use a U.S. Bank Visa Gift Card or Prepaid card wherever normal Visa Gift Cards/Prepaid Cards are accepted?

    • Scottrick

      You can use any Visa card anywhere Visa is accepted.

  • Chanel @ La Viajera Morena

    Here in NYC today tried to purchase a money order at a post office would not go through with Vanilla Visa (+pin) and could not get cash back at CVS

    • http://hackmytrip.com Scott Mackenzie

      Vanilla Visas are tricky beasts. I’ve had some succeed and some fail. One trick seems to be to avoid registering the card online or over the phone. Just use it fresh out of the package.

      I usually buy the US Bank variety instead since they’re sold at my local QFC (Kroger).

  • abe

    Can I cash back with my normal blue Walmart gift card? It has a PIN but it isn’t visa or MasterCard.

    • Scottrick

      I’m not familiar with that card. My guess is no.

  • Steven

    Can i get money orders with the $500 Metabank visa if i put a pin?

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t tried it, but I assume so. My suggestion is to start with a smaller card to test it first.

  • Matt

    Were you able to load both the U.S. Bank and MetaBank Visa gift cards on your BB at the WM cashier line. I’ve been buying Mastercard gift cards and they only work at the kiosk, not the cashier line. Now that my local WM kiosk is broken, I need $200 gift cards that I can load to my BB in a regular cashier line.

    • Scottrick

      Interesting. I’ve not been able to load at the register, but the only Walmart I’ve been able to visit had a broken kiosk. I’ll have to try another store at the next opportunity.

  • vega25

    Scott, how do I cash out a OneVanilla Visa GC? Walmart today refused to let me load it to my BB. In and of it self, a pain. But right now I’d like my monies back. Please advise.

    • Scottrick

      You should be able to cash out most Visa gift cards on Amazon Payments. You may need to register the card online first with your name and address, but not always.

  • Christine

    Can you use the prepaid visas with a pin to buy things like money orders? Do they then work like a debit card?

    • Scottrick

      Yes, you can. As long as you can assign a PIN then you should be able to use it to purchase money orders. I’m also assuming that the merchant doesn’t want to inspect the card and turns it away because it says “gift card” on the front, but this is rare.

    • justthebest

      As of this weekend, WM will no longer accept GCs for MOs unless your name is on the GC. ; (

  • Luchex

    I bought today Vanilla MC at CVS and the WM KIOSK didn’t let me load it. It didn’t detect the card as a debit. I went to the store , activated with a pin , came back and still didn’t work. I don’t know what else to try. I wonder if the kiosk is programed to detect inhibit certain numbers for use as debit. Anybody had this experience? Solution?

    • Scottrick

      Possibly. I’ve had more luck with Visa cards than those with a MasterCard brand.

  • Luchex

    This is the kind of GC

  • john siphas

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  • yeshu

    Scott, where can I buy US Bank gift cards in the Midwest? Thanks in advance.

    • Scottrick

      I believe Kroger and Safeway have locations throughout the U.S. If you don’t see them in your area, go to the corporate website and look up the local brand name. Or just visit your local grocery store, drug store, or office supply store and see if they’ll let you buy them.