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Credit Card Fees Aren't Always Bad ... Here's Why

Hunting for a credit card with as few fees as possible isn't necessarily the right approach. More critical, experts say: the types of fees charged.
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Credit Cards seen in a file photo on March 9 2013.Andrew Matthews / Zuma Press
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Just how fee-laden is your credit card? It may not matter much.

The average credit card has six different fees, according to a new analysis of 100 major cards. The most fee-laden cards have 12, and just one of the cards assessed had no fees whatsoever. (See charts below for a rundown of the cards with the most and fewest.)

"This points out how different credit card issuers and different cards can be, and drives home the importance of shopping around," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at

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The fee landscape for credit cards has gotten friendlier in recent years. "Consumers are so much more protected than they were before the CARD Act" of 2009, said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for That legislation included several provisions aimed at reducing fees, such as requiring set end-of-day payment deadlines to limit late fees. Still, she said, "There are always other fees."

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Some are more prevalent than others: 99 percent of the cards charge a late payment fee (typically $35), according to the analysis, while 77 percent tack on a foreign transaction fee (about 3 percent per purchase). On the rare side, only 5 percent of cards penalize cardholders who exceed their credit limit, and 5 percent charge a fee for expedited payment via phone.

But hunting for a card with as few fees as possible isn't necessarily the right approach. More critical: the types of fees. "It's important that you know yourself," said Schulz. Someone who sets up automatic payments, for example, won't need to be worried about either late payment or expedited phone payment fees. But if you travel abroad, picking a card with a foreign transaction fee would be an expensive misstep.

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Even an annual fee often isn't a deal-breaker. "The knee-jerk reaction when it comes to credit card fees is that you should always avoid them, which is not always true," said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Cards with annual fees tend to have higher credit limits, which can be a boon for your score, he said.

Fee-carrying cards often have richer rewards, as a way to justify the fee. "In the grand scheme of things, you might net ahead, even considerably ahead, because of what you're earning in the rewards program," he said. That value, again, comes down to assessing your habits. Ulzheimer said his $450-a-year American Express Delta Reserve card is a bargain, compared to the $2,000-plus he'd otherwise pay for perks like lounge access, flight upgrades and companion tickets.

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Keep in mind that issuers are often willing to waive or reduce fees if you just ask, said Schulz. According to the new analysis, 40 percent of the annual fee carrying cards waive that charge for the first year. And last year, a site survey of 987 card-carrying adults found that of those who had asked for a late payment fee waiver, 86 percent got one. "You might be successful more often than you might think," he said.