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Shelley Hunter

How to Activate Visa® and Mastercard® Gift Cards

If you receive a Visa gift card or a Mastercard gift card, you’ll have to activate it before the card works. Get gift card activation tips below.

What is Gift Card Activation?

Gift card activation can be a little confusing because we use the word “activation” differently depending on where you buy the gift card. But it’s really simple.

When you buy a gift card at the store (whether it is a retailer, restaurant, Visa or Mastercard gift card), you take the gift card to the cash register and ask the cashier to load money onto the card. The cashier takes the card, activates it and loads the dollar amount requested onto the card. Now the card is ready to use.

If you buy the gift card online, however, the recipient may be asked to activate the card once it is received. The card is valid and the balance purchased is on the card, but the card may not work until you go through the process of activating it. This is a security measure.

CLICK HERE: To Activate a Visa or Mastercard Gift Card from GiftCards.com.

Why Activate a Gift Card?

To simplify things in my mind, I think of a gift card as a temporary bank account. When I open a checking account at the bank, for example, the bank gives me an account number and a debit card that allows me to spend the money in that account. Gift cards work similarly. When I buy a gift card, the gift card issuer creates a temporary account to hold the funds deposited and I hold the plastic gift card or egift card in order to use those funds.

You have to activate the gift card so the temporary account can be set up and prepared to receive withdrawal transactions and, in some cases, additional deposits. If you don’t activate the gift card, payment transactions will be declined because the temporary bank account is not ready or is not linked to the card number you have.

As noted above, sometimes the recipient of a gift card has to activate it before the card can be used. This is particularly true of bank-issued gift cards that arrive in the mail. Although activation requires an extra step on the part of the gift card receiver, the process allows the gift card issuer time to run fraud prevention checks such as making sure the gift card was not purchased with a stolen credit card.

How to Activate a Gift Card

Visa gift cards, Mastercard gift cards, Discover® gift cards and other bank-issued gift cards typically come with activation instructions. Those instructions often include a link to a website address or a telephone number to call. Cards purchased at GiftCards.com are delivered with an instruction sheet and a shorter set of instructions on a sticker across the front of the gift card.

To activate a gift card, you will need to have the gift card account number and the card verification number (CVN) from the card itself. The gift card account number is typically 16-digits and embossed on the front of the gift card, while the CVN is typically printed on the back of the card, to the right of the signature.

What to Expect After You Activate a Gift Card

After you activate the gift card, it should be ready to use. I have seen some cases where a gift card issuer imposes a waiting period after purchase, meaning the gift card may not be usable for up to 24-48 hours even though it has been activated. This waiting period gives the gift card issuer time to ensure the gift card has been purchased legitimately and is not part of a gift card scam like described above.

After activating a card, it’s a good idea to check to see there are any gift card fees to know about and what the gift card expiration is. In many cases, you will be able to use the full balance of a gift card as long as you use the card at least once every 12 months. (But I always advise using gift cards as soon as possible. The longer you hold onto the card, the higher the likelihood that you’ll lose the gift card or forget to use it. Then you will be charged fees and the balance will eventually drop to zero without you getting to enjoy the balance.)

If you need help remembering to use your gift card in a timely manner, try these tricks to help you remember to use your gift cards.

When Can I Throw a Gift Card Away?

Remember that temporary bank account? The gift card is the key to accessing funds in the account. So you should hang onto the gift card until you’re sure the funds are gone and no money will go back into the account.

One way money goes back into the account is when you return an item purchased with a gift card. Say, for example, you have a gift card worth $25 and you use it to buy a sweater for $25. The temporary gift card account is now $0 so you throw the gift card away. But a week later, you decide to return the sweater. Unless you tell the cashier otherwise, the refund will likely be put back onto the card used for the original purchase. Now your temporary bank account has $25, but you no longer have the gift card to access the funds.

So again, just remember to hold onto the gift card until you’re sure you are not going to return an item or you’ll be able to put returned merchandise onto a different card. This problem doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen.

Why do I Need to Register the Gift Card?

You are not required to register a gift card, but I suggest that you do for two reasons. The first is that you’ll want to update the name and address on the gift card so the card can be used online. Since most website validate that the card used to pay for merchandise matches the name and shipping address of the order (another fraud protection measure), you’ll want to make sure your card is correct. Secondly, registering the gift card will help you if the card is ever lost or stolen. If you happen to lose the card, you can just log into your account to check the balance of the card, see where it has been used, and order a replacement if possible. If you lose the card but don’t know what the card number, expiration date, and CVN are, you could be out of luck.

Ok, that’s it. What other questions do you have about gift card activation? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be sure to answer your question as soon as I get a chance.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend

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