a customer paying for his merchandise with a gift card

Gift Cards and Gift Certificates

Before you buy or use one these, ask about hidden fees and charges.

Gift Cards and Gift Certificates

During each holiday season, Americans will spend tens of billions of dollars on gift cards and gift certificates. Gift cards are popular because they take away the awkwardness of giving money while still allowing the receiver to choose their own present.

There are two types of gift cards, bank gift cards and retailer gift cards. Bank gift cards can be used at many locations but come with high fees. Retailer gift cards can only be used in specific stores or chains of stores but do not have fees.


Bank gift cards are issued by American Express, Discover, MasterCard, and Visa. They can be used at most stores that accept these credit cards. Some bank gift cards can also be used at ATM’s to receive cash.


Banks usually charge fees for their gift cards. These fees can cut into the value of your gift. Here are some common fees:

Purchase fees: A fee you pay in addition to the amount of money you put on the card.

Monthly fees: The bank may charge a monthly maintenance fee. This fee is deducted from the value remaining on the bank card.

Inactivity fees: Are applied when the card is not used for a certain time period, like 6 months. Check with the bank as time periods may vary.

Transaction fees: Some banks charge fees if the card is used to withdraw cash from an ATM. Others charge fees if a high number of transactions are made on the card.

Other fees: The card may also be charged for balance inquiries or replacement of a lost or stolen card.

As a general rule, the sooner you spend a bank gift card, and the fewer places you spend it at, the more value you’ll get from the card.

Expiration Dates

Most bank gift cards have an expiration date. When buying or receiving a bank gift card, find out when the card expires. Some expired cards can be renewed for a fee. If not, the balance goes to the bank when the card expires.


Retailers issue gift cards and gift certificates for use at their stores. These cards and certificates rarely have expiration dates or fees.

No Expiration

Retailer gift cards and gift certificates do not expire. The only exceptions are gift cards for a specific food product, or for a business or charity promotion. If a gift card or gift certificate has an expiration date, it must be printed on the front of the card or certificate.

Exchanges for cash

Whether you can exchange a gift card or certificate for cash depends on the store’s refund policy. When you make a purchase for less than the full amount on the gift card, the store can choose to give you the balance of the card amount in cash, or simply leave the remaining balance on the card. If the remaining balance is less than $10, the store must give you the value in cash if you ask for it. Ask the store what their refund policy is before buying a gift card.

Inactivity fees

Some gift cards are “reloadable” which means you can add more money onto the card if you want to. Reloadable cards may have dormant or inactivity fees. These fees are allowed if the card balance is $5 or less, or if there has been no activity for 24 months in a row. If a gift card has an inactivity fee, it must be written on the card.

Problems and complaints

If you have a problem with a gift card, contact the store or bank that issued the card. If the problem is not resolved, contact us for help.

County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. Last change: May 23, 2017

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