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How to buy the best gift cards

They're a great last-minute present idea, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. 

how to buy the best gift card
Last updated: 18 November 2019

Gift cards make a convenient present, especially when you can buy them online or pick one up at the supermarket or your local Australia Post outlet. 

And there's sure to be plenty of gift cards bought before 25 December for that quick and easy Christmas present – in fact, Australians spend up to $2.5bn on gift cards each year.

But they've also been the subject of numerous complaints to CHOICE over the years, particularly around premature expiry.

Despite recent reforms to expiry dates, there are still some pitfalls you should be aware of so that you gift card doesn't end up being worthless. 

Here's how to make sure you get the most out of a gift card you buy or receive.

woman using gift card for shopping online

You have at least three years to use your gift card or voucher.

Three year expiry now mandatory across Australia

In a CHOICE member survey from 2014, 60% of respondents had problems with gift cards, and premature expiry was the biggest issue. 

One in three of the 735 respondents had lost the full value of at least one gift card in the previous three years.

We campaigned for a long time to get expiry periods on gift cards extended, and in March 2018, NSW imposed a minimum three-year expiry date on most gift cards and vouchers. 

Similar laws came in across Australia on 1 November 2019 – a welcome change that should go a long way toward preventing the most common gift card trap.

This reform will help consumers ensure that they get value for money when it comes to gift cards

CHOICE head of policy and government relations Julia Steward says the reform is a win for consumers. 

"This reform will help consumers ensure that they get value for money when it comes to gift cards."

The new national laws state that most gift cards and vouchers must come with:

  • a mandatory 3-year minimum expiry period
  • no fees charged after your purchase (excluding some processing of payment fees such as overseas transaction fees and booking fees)
  • a prominently displayed expiry date – either the full date or a period of time. (If the expiry date is shown as a period of time, it must also include the date it was supplied.)

If the gift card or voucher doesn't expire, this fact must also be prominently displayed. 

There are some exceptions to the new law, for example cards that can be reloaded or topped up, and gift vouchers that are for a product or service that's available for a limited time, such as entry to a concert or exhibition. For more examples, visit the Australian Consumer Law's new gift card laws website.

Gift cards checklist

Expiry date

  • Choose a card that doesn't expire...
  • ...or go for one with the longest expiry date you can find (most gift cards and vouchers now have a minimum three-year expiry date)
  • Some gift cards allow a grace period after the expiry date or allow you to exchange an expired card for a new one.

Balance

  • Ideally, you'd like to be able to check the card balance easily in-store, online or via phone. 

Transactions

  • Look for a card that allows you to use it for an unlimited number of transactions until you've spent the whole amount. 
  • Minimum spend amounts can be an issue, especially if the retailer doesn't give change, as there may be an amount left on the card that you can't use.

Lost or stolen cards

  • Treat your gift card like cash – if you lose it, it's gone.
  • However, some retailers allow you to cancel and reissue a lost card, sometimes for a fee. Conditions apply, so hold on to your receipts for gift cards and jot down details such as the card number.

Restrictions

  • You can usually only use a gift card in a specific store, so choose carefully – respondents to our gift card member survey told us the worst cards were for stores they don't shop in.
  • Cards that can be used in a group of stores are better, such as the Coles & Myer group or Wish (Woolworths) gift cards.
  • Shopping centre cards can be used in an even wider variety of stores, but beware: they may not be accepted by all stores in the centre. 
  • EFTPOS and Visa/MasterCard gift cards can be used at almost any retailer.

Fees and charges

  • Fees are mainly a problem with Visa and MasterCard gift cards. Most retailer cards have no fees.
  • Some cards charge an issue fee.
  • Others may charge a fee for extending the expiry period or reinstating lost or stolen cards.
  • Once a gift card is issued, a business can't charge any post-purchase fees.

However, a business can still charge a fee to cover the cost of processing a payment, such as overseas transactions fees, booking fees and payment surcharge fees. 

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