Most Common Reasons Why Your Debit Card Is Not Working

Millennial Money has partnered with CardRatings and creditcards.com for our coverage of credit card products. Millennial Money, CardRatings and creditcards.com may receive a commission from card issuers. This site does not include all financial companies or financial offers.

Taylor just went to buy snacks at the convenience store. Unfortunately, her Visa card was declined during the transaction. Yikes!

This situation happens frequently, sending account holders into a panic trying to figure out what went wrong. It can be especially embarrassing when the situation happens in public—in front of coworkers or friends. 

Keep reading to learn why a debit card may stop working, and how you can avoid the situation.

Top Reasons Why Your Debit Card May Not Be Working

Here are some of the most common reasons why your debit card might not be working.

  1. Insufficient funds
  2. Fraud prevention
  3. International purchases
  4. You closed the account
  5. The card is damaged
  6. The ATM is damaged
  7. You’re swiping the card backward
  8. You’re using the wrong card
  9. You haven’t activated the card yet
  10. The pin number was changed
  11. The vendor is having network trouble
  12. The card number is wrong
  13. Someone else deactivated your account

1. Insufficient funds 

One of the most common reasons a debit card transaction fails is because there are insufficient funds in the checking account

You may go out to dinner when you only have $40 in your bank account and end up spending $50 on the meal. When this happens, the financial institution or card issuer may decline the transaction. You may also get hit with an overage fee from the bank or credit union. 

That’s why it’s important to keep a running tab on how much is in your account to avoid complications. 

One easy way to make sure you always have enough money in your account is to add a checking account buffer: a layer of emergency funds that provides overdraft protection. Having a checking account buffer of $500 will make sure you never overdraw your account.

2. Fraud prevention

When a bank suspects fraudulent activity on an account, they may shut the account down temporarily for security.

This can happen when you purchase a large-ticket item in a different state where you’ve done no prior business. When this happens, call the bank, inform them of the situation, and give them some card information in order to get the hold removed.

In some cases, they may just cancel your existing card and send you a replacement card.

3. International purchases 

A bank may also decline an international purchase if you travel without telling them. 

If you travel to Europe but don’t inform your bank, you could be in for a rude awakening if you try to make a purchase or withdraw cash. 

Never assume anything when traveling. Call to tell the bank where you’re going beforehand just to be safe. 

4. You closed the account

Customers who have more than one bank could shut down an account but retain the card and accidentally attempt to make a debit transaction using the wrong card.

When this happens, the card company simply declines the transaction. You shouldn’t get penalized if this is done in error. However, if you get repeated declined debit card transactions, you may receive a notification from the bank.

The best thing to do is shred a credit card when you’re done using it, both for security purposes and to avoid confusion.

5. The card is damaged 

Debit cards can easily get damaged, especially if you use them often. Sometimes cards can get damaged from swiping too many times. They may also get bent or cracked by going through the washing machine or drier. 

Your debit card can get damaged and stop working at any time. When that happens, you’ll need to replace it. 

Make sure to check with your bank when signing up and determine whether they charge for replacement debit cards. Some banks charge fees for this service, so keep that in mind when shopping for banks. 

6. The ATM is damaged 

An ATM can get damaged and require servicing.

If an ATM declines your card, find another local machine and test it to see if it’s the card or the machine. You can also try calling the bank to see if your account is in good standing.

It’s also a good idea to tell the manager when this happens so they can slap an “out of order” sign on the machine and have it serviced. Informing a store manager about a broken ATM can reduce frustration for other customers. Pay it forward!

7. You’re swiping the card backward

If you’re swiping a debit card at a kiosk, it usually means you’re in a rush to drink your coffee, pump gas, or access your money. When people are in a hurry, they’re liable to make silly errors! 

So if your transaction gets declined, make sure you’re following instructions and putting the card in the machine correctly. It could be a simple user error. 

8. You’re using the wrong card 

It’s also a good idea to check what card you’re using before you go to make a purchase. Cards often look alike and it’s easy to get them confused.

You may get your debit card confused with a store credit card or gift card. Using the wrong card for a purchase is an easy way to get your finances mixed up, creating confusion when you’re looking over your monthly statements at the end of a billing cycle. 

9. You haven’t activated the card yet

Banks sometimes send new cards in the mail with updated security features. When this happens, it’s important to destroy your old card and switch over to the new one. 

If your new card gets declined, it could be because you haven’t activated it yet. The first thing you should do when getting a new debit card is to activate it online or over the phone. 

Then, go ahead and shred the old card so nobody can use it.

10. The pin number was changed 

A personal identification number (PIN) is a security feature that protects the account holder from fraud. 

One reason debit transactions get declined is that cardholders use the wrong PIN number.

Users can change PINs from time to time, so it’s important to remember your PIN if and when you update it. If you have a joint account holder, that person may have the authority to update the PIN as well. 

11. The vendor is having network trouble

Cards may also be impacted by vendor network issues with their service provider. 

For example, the vendor’s point of sale (POS) system or card reader may be unable to access connectivity to the host’s network. This may result in the card getting denied.

12. The card number is wrong 

It’s very easy to enter an account number incorrectly when making an online purchase. 

If a card should get declined online, make sure to read the number back to make sure you’re entering the right number, expiration date, and security code. 

It’s also a good idea to check whether your name and address match the one on file.

13. Someone else deactivated your account

If you have a joint account, it’s possible the other account holder shut down your account.

Unfortunately, there’s little you can do in this situation short of taking legal action to get your money back. 

If someone shuts down your account or removes you from an account, the bank is liable to be barred from giving you any information. You may have to ask the joint account holder directly. This can sometimes happen after a messy break-up or divorce. 

Tips for Avoiding Debit Card Issues

Always carry backup funds

Never leave the house without backup funds in your pocket. In addition to your debit card, this means always having a credit card or two on hand and some cash tucked away in a secure location. 

TIP: If you’ve never had a credit card before, check out our list of the Best First Credit Cards.

Just imagine being out some night in New York City or Chicago and your debit card stops working when you try to check out. Disastrous!

Or, you may go out to a fancy dinner and try to pay your bill… only to get rejected. 

In either scenario, it’s always good to have backup funds on hand to cover yourself.

Check your pockets 

Make sure to check your pockets when doing laundry so you don’t accidentally wash or dry your wallet. Putting your wallet through a wash/dry cycle could damage the card and force you to start looking for a new one.

Set travel alerts

It may be a pain, sure. But you should always inform the bank before taking a trip so that you don’t wind up having your account closed for protection. 

It only takes a few minutes. Some banks also allow you to manage travel alerts online or via mobile apps for convenience. 

Best Debit Card Alternatives 

Here’s a breakdown of what you should be using on a daily basis in addition to debit cards.

Cash 

Most places today still accept cash payments. Paying with cash is quick, easy, and safe because it can’t get denied. 

Just remember that cash can make you vulnerable in some cases: you could get robbed or misplace your wallet. 

When this happens, cash assets usually disappear… unless a nice, honest person finds your property and chooses to return it. 

If you carry cash, consider keeping it in a safe place like a money clip, which gets attached to an article of clothing to prevent it from disappearing without a trace. Unfortunately, banks won’t help you if your cash money goes missing. 

Mobile payment apps 

It’s also a good idea to download some mobile payment apps on your smartphone as many businesses now accept them.

Some of the top apps include Venmo, Google Pay, Zelle, Cash App, and Apple Pay. Oftentimes, consumers will have different apps on their phones for various purposes.

Credit cards 

Consider opening a credit card or two if your credit is in good shape and you’re responsible about spending.

Credit cards from issuers like MasterCard or American Express can be useful when debit cards stop working, as they can usually work at kiosks and merchant POS systems. 

Just remember to carefully track what you spend and pay your full balance at the end of the month to avoid going into debt.

Credit cards can help you build credit. They can also come with great rewards and cashback options. For best results, shop around and explore some of the various cards on the market. 

Check out our list of the Best Credit Cards in 2021.

Prepaid debit cards

Some people avoid using their debit cards altogether and instead load money onto prepaid debit cards to save money. 

These cards can help with budgeting. They can also prove to be great for emergency situations in which you can’t access a debit card. 

Prepaid debit cards can be purchased from retailers or banks.

Checks 

Carrying around a checkbook is not advisable. However, checks can come in handy in some situations—like when you want to put a deposit down on your first home. 

One tactic is to carry just one or two extra checks in your wallet or purse. This way, you’ll be ready on the off chance you need to use a check. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is a daily spending limit?

Just because you have a certain amount of money in your bank account doesn’t mean you can freely access it at any time. Banks also keep a certain amount of money on hand to fund transactions, limiting what customers can take out at any given time. 

Banks tend to vary in terms of what they allow customers to withdraw, so it’s important to check with each institution in advance. Often, daily debit purchase limits are much higher than ATM withdrawals. 

What is multifactor authentication?

Multifactor authentication (MFA) is a security strategy banks use to protect customers from fraudulent logins. This is commonly used with online banking and mobile banking

MFA typically requires sending an SMS password to a linked phone number and asking the customer to enter it at login. This creates an extra step, but it goes a long way toward protecting an account from hacking. 

Do I need an ATM card?

It’s a good idea to have an ATM card so that you can access your money while you’re out and about. Some places also only accept cash, requiring ATM withdrawals. 

Checking, savings, and money market accounts usually come with ATM card access.

The Bottom Line 

It’s important not to panic when a debit card fails. There are many reasons why it happens, some of which are out of your control. 

The best thing you can do is try to figure out what caused the failure as quickly as possible. Call the bank immediately to see if it’s something that you did or if an external event caused the denial. Waiting and hoping the situation will fix itself is not a good idea. 

Remember: You alone are responsible for your finances. Always carry a debit card backup like cash or a credit card so you can get out of a mess if it happens.

As Cervantes once wrote, being prepared is half the victory. By having a Plan B and even a Plan C, you’ll be able to cover your expenses and avoid potentially embarrassing situations. 

Additional Disclosures: Millennial Money has partnered with CardRatings and creditcards.com for our coverage of credit card products. Millennial Money, CardRatings and creditcards.com may receive a commission from card issuers. This site does not include all financial companies or financial offers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

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