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What Happens To My Credit Card Bill When I Make A Return? How Credit Card Refunds Work

5 min read
Brendan Harkness By Brendan Harkness Jun 27, 2016 | Updated May 13, 2020

Wondering about cancelling travel plans due to the spread of COVID-19? Learn more about about credit card travel insurance, or see if your card offers return protection for certain purchases. Also, check out our page Credit Card Debt Relief During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is getting ongoing updates.

Are you suffering from buyer’s remorse because of some recent purchases you’ve made? Do you want to know how to cure it? Drive back to the mall and return some things.

As long as you’ve complied with the retailer’s return policy, when you return the item the retailer will generally issue a refund equal to the cost of the original purchase, whether you paid with cash or credit.

Here’s the quick version of what happens with your credit card when you make a return:

  1. The retailer issues a refund to your credit card account
  2. A credit for the refunded purchase will appear in your credit card transactions, usually up to one week later
  3. Cash back or points earned on the purchase are reversed

Keep reading to learn more about the process of making returns on purchases made with credit cards.

How Long Does a Credit Card Refund Take?

A refund for a returned item will not usually post to your credit card account instantly.

Instead it generally takes several business days, and potentially even up to a week, before a refunded purchase will appear on your credit card ledger and affect your card balance. Generally, when a refund is processed for a returned item within the same credit card billing cycle, you won’t be held responsible to make a payment on that specific charge.

If you were to return a purchase near or after the end of your billing cycle, the refund for the transaction might not show on your account before your next payment is due. Regardless of the timing of the purchase and the return, if you fail to make at least the minimum payment on your account prior to the due date then you could be penalized by your credit card company in the form of a late fee. You can’t skip making a minimum payment if there is any amount due to the card issuer, even if you expect to get a refund.

What If My Account Has a Zero Balance When I Make a Credit Card Return?

If your credit card has a zero balance when the return is processed, a credit is generally added to the account that can be applied to future purchases. If your card remains inactive with a negative balance for several months, the credit card issuer will likely send you a check for the credited funds. You can also call your credit card company to request that a check for the account credit be mailed to you, thus eliminating the wait.

If there is a balance on your credit card when a refund for a purchase from a previous billing cycle is issued, then the credit will simply be applied to your account, reducing your existing credit card balance.

If you made a purchase then carry a balance into another statement period you may be charged interest. When you make a return, that interest will not be refunded.

Consumers don’t always return items immediately or even within the same billing cycle. Sometimes it’s not even close. Months may pass between the date of the original purchase and the return of an item. You’ll still see the returned funds in your credit card account, but you’ll be on the hook for any interest that was charged in the meantime.

Insider tip

Can’t find your issuer’s phone number? Check out our listing of “Backdoor” Issuer Phone Numbers.

Are Rewards, Cash Back, and Signup Bonuses Returned Too?

It’s worth noting that when a purchase is returned and a refund is credited to your credit card account, any reward points or cash back you may have earned on the original purchase will be lost as well.

Credit card issuers have policies to deduct previously earned reward points or cash back credit from your account in the event that a refund is issued. Otherwise, if the policy were different, there would undoubtedly be a large number of consumers attempting to game the system by piling up reward points for large purchases, only to return the purchases at a future date and keep the rewards. This will not work.

Signup bonuses, commonly found on rewards and travel credit cards, generally follow this same rule. If you received a signup bonus based on purchases that you later return, you’ll likely also lose the signup bonus. Read the card agreement of your card to determine exactly how rewards will be handled with returns.

What if you make a purchase, earn some rewards, redeem those rewards, and then return the purchase? In that case you’ll likely wind up with a negative rewards balance. You’ll have to earn more rewards, getting back to zero, before you’ll end up with a positive rewards balance again.

Returns for Transactions in a Foreign Currency

If you bought something in a foreign currency, and then you return it, what happens?

This is another area that can be complicated, and depends on your card agreement, since it can vary from one card or issuer to another.

Many credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. If your card does, it’s possible you won’t get that fee back when you make a return. If you’re in this situation where a foreign transaction fee is not refunded, you may be able to call your credit card issuer and ask for a refund.

If a significant amount of time has passed since you made the purchase, the foreign currency may have gone up or down in value. Credit card companies usually use the current market value of the currency to determine how much is refunded when you make a return. That means you may lose or make money if the foreign currency has gone down or up in value since the original purchase.

Additionally, like many commodity markets, there is a spread for buying and selling currencies. That means it costs slightly more to buy a unit of currency than you would get for selling it at a given point in time. So, even if you make the purchase then immediately return it and your card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee, you may lose money.

Where Does The Money Actually Go?

When you buy something with a credit card, the retailer is actually starting the process of being paid by the credit card issuer, not by the consumer who is making the purchase. Normally, once the transaction is approved your amount of available credit is reduced, and you’ll be billed by the credit card company later.

At this point, whether you actually ever pay off your balance isn’t the retailer’s problem because they’ve already been paid. In the event that an item purchased with a credit card is returned, the retailer will issue a refund to your credit card account instead of issuing funds directly to you.

Remember, the merchant is actually paid by the credit card issuer during a credit card transaction and not by the consumer. This is why a consumer can’t receive a cash refund for a purchase that was originally made with a credit card.

Have any other questions about credit card returns that weren’t answered here? Contact us and ask!

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At a glance

When you return an item purchased with a credit card, the refund will generally post to your credit card account after a few business days. Just make sure you follow the store’s policy while making the return. Your card may provide additional protections for returns if the store refuses.

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