American Express gift cards – good for givers and recipients?

Gift cards are a great way to reward employees, give your kid some birthday money, please a hard-to-shop-for person who has everything, and help brand-new parents who need everything.

All the card networks, some banks and many retailers offer prepaid gift cards. Yet American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) has some of the most customizable, high-limit and easy-to-order options out there. Read on to find out why – and to compare AmEx’s offers with competitors.

Types of American Express gift cards

American Express’s gift cards come in three main flavors:

1. Personal gift cards

Anyone can buy these for $3.95 each, and they come in a variety of designs. You can buy these in person at participating retailers, although you’ll be limited to the denominations and designs in stock.

If you’re ordering online, the denominations you can get depend on the design you choose. In general, however, you can get a card loaded with between $25 and $3,000 and can order up to $5,000 in cards at a time.

These cards also have a personalization option, which allows you to emboss the recipient’s name on the card.
2. Business gift cards

These cards are meant for businesses looking to reward employees and customers, as per these terms and conditions:

American Express Gift Cards Business Purchase Terms and Conditions 2014-07-22 13-54-54

The cost per card is $3.95, and these cards can be purchased only online. For the recipient, there’s no difference between the personal cards and business cards. But, from the purchaser’s perspective, the per-order max is much larger ($75,000 vs. $5,000 for the personal cards).

Plus, the business cards allow for a custom message to be added. So, if you want to give 200 employees (or clients) $50 gift cards that all say “Happy Holidays,” ordering AmEx business gift cards allows you to do that.

3. eGift cards

Only current AmEx cardmembers can order these, and you must purchase them online. The cost per card is $2.95, and you can put up to $100 on each “card” (essentially an email with a card number that allows the recipient to make online purchases). With eGift cards, you’re limited to $250 worth of cards per seven-day period.

Use our chart to quickly compare your three options:

Compare American Express gift cards
Who can purchaseCost per cardMax per cardMax per orderPurchasing with Membership RewardsPersonalization/customization options
AmEx personal gift cardsAny consumer$3.95$3,000$5,000Redemption value = half a cent per point (5,000 points = $25 card). Can pay for part or all of order with MR points (1,000-point minimum required).Can emboss recipient's first name, middle initial and last name (up to 21 characters).
AmEx business gift cardsCompanies, businesses or other corporate entities$3.95$3,000$75,000Can emboss 2-line custom message. Form message ("Congratulations," "Thank you," etc.) on first line and up to 21 characters on second line.
eGift cardsAmerican Express cardmembers$2.95$100$250 per 7-day periodup to 350 characters) to email containing eGift card.

Important terms

  • The cards are not reloadable.
  • You can’t use them at ATMs.
  • AmEx gift cards are not available to residents of Vermont and Hawaii.
  • You can use Membership Rewards points to pay for the entire or partial cost of the gift cards.
  • Shipping charges will apply if you’re ordering physical cards. Currently, shipping costs range from $5.95 to $15.95, depending on how fast you need the cards.
  • Besides the purchase fee, there are no other fees for inactivity, purchases, etc.
  • All cards have a “good thru” date, but you can request a free replacement if that date passes by calling 1-877-287-4438 for personal and eGift cards and 1-800-297-7327 for business gift cards.
  • If your card is lost or stolen, you’ll be refunded for any funds used after you report the theft – but not before:

Lost stolen gift card

The competition

Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and various banks and retailers offer gift cards. Because it’s always smart to check out the competition, here’s a run-down of what’s out there:

Vanilla Visa gift cards: You can find these at checkout in many drugstores and supermarkets. You can get them in $25, $50 and $100 denominations, and the activation fee is between $4.95 and $7.95. There are no after-purchase fees, such as inactivity fees.

Discover gift cards: Next to American Express, Discover presents the most gift card options. However, ONLY Discover cardholders can purchase them. Discover has business gift cards, personal gift cards and eGift cards. The per-order maximum is 20 cards (up to $3,000) per 7-day period, and the per-card maximum is $500. The cards cost $3.95 each, and a maintenance fee of $2.50 is deducted from the balance after 12 months of non-use. If you’re OK with standard shipping, it’s free. You can also customize cards with a personal message (four lines, up to 160 characters) and name.

U.S. Bank gift cards: Each Visa gift card costs $3.95 at branches and $6.95 online. You can load up to $500 on each card. If the recipient doesn’t use the card for 12 consecutive months after issue, a $2.50 inactivity fee will be deducted from the balance.

Visa and MasterCard gift cards: These can be purchased at certain bank branches and partner bank websites. Visa has a list of its vendors here, and MasterCard has one here. Check with the vendor for purchase costs and fees.

Are American Express gift cards a good option?

American Express’s gift cards have some of the lowest purchase fees out there – and, unlike some other gift cards, you won’t have to worry about the recipient getting hit with an inactivity fee down the road. The only other cost to worry about is the shipping fee if you’re ordering physical cards — and these costs can be pretty high for a single card. Yet, because the shipping fee is per order (not per card), it’s still pretty cost-effective if you’re buying in bulk.

The customization options are a nice touch as well and can make gift cards (often called an “impersonal” gift) a little more personal.

With these gift cards, American Express is catering to those who need to make big online orders, whether that’s a single card with a big balance (up to $3,000) or hundreds of cards with smaller balances. Other gift card providers cut you off with a relatively low per-card maximum or restrict the number of cars you can get at once, meaning large corporate orders are out of the question. Amex gift card payment options

Perhaps the biggest advantage of these cards, however, is that practically everyone can get them (see your online payment options to the right). Only the eGift cards are restricted to AmEx cardmembers. The physical cards can be purchased online with Visa, MasterCard, AmEx and Discover, and there’s no need to visit a branch, go to the store or be an American Express cardmember.

If you’re wondering how American Express is making money on these cards while keeping costs low for purchasers, it’s the swipe fees – the amount merchants pay whenever one of these cards is used. If a company places a huge order and gives out 500 of these cards to all its employees, American Express makes money when those lucky recipients go shopping.

It’s true that some merchants may not accept American Express. But so many do nowadays, that givers can rest assured they’re giving a nice, usable gift.

The bottom line…

While there are plenty of gift card options out there, American Express’s gift cards are relatively low-cost, easy to get online and convenient for large orders.

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