EBT Cards

An Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT card is a plastic card issued by a state’s social services department as a way of distributing federal monetary benefits to qualifying participants.

Your EBT balance reflects the amount of benefit dollars you have in your account, and like any debit card, the balance reduces as you spend your monthly allotment. EBT cards are used in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. EBT has been implemented in all states as of June 2004. Each state issues its own EBT card accounts and provides ways to check EBT balance amounts from your phone or other device.

EBT food stamps are the most common reason for a state to issue one of these flexible spending cards. Study the sections below to learn more about EBT cards, how to use them and how to keep your card safe from fraudulent use.

What agency issues EBT cards?

After processing an EBT application for food assistance benefits, each state’s social services department works in cooperation with federal agencies to issue an EBT card. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) are agencies that administer the various nutrition assistance programs provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Because the food stamp program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most common reason to have an EBT card, they are sometimes referred to as a food stamp card.

When are EBT cards issued?

An EBT account is created when a person applies for government food assistance. There is no need to apply for EBT as though it were a separate service. An electronic card is the only way that SNAP benefits are distributed today, so all qualifying applicants will automatically receive a card. Getting a SNAP EBT card is the final step in the application process. You will receive your food stamp card after applying for benefits, having an interview with a social services caseworker and getting your application approved.

Related Article: What can I buy with food stamps?

Other people who may receive an EBT card include those who become eligible for D-SNAP, the USDA’s emergency food assistance program for disaster victims. In most cases, qualifying applicants can receive an EBT food stamp card within 72 hours of applying, compared to the usual 30 days or more to process a regular application. Although regular food stamp cards are issued to low-income individuals, D-SNAP is offered to people along a wider income bracket due to how quickly hunger can become an issue following a disaster.

How to Use Your EBT Card

To use your SNAP EBT card, first make sure you are shopping at an authorized SNAP retailer. The USDA maintains a current interactive map showing all authorized SNAP EBT merchants within each state. These locations usually have a sign on the door that indicate they accept EBT cards as payment. Authorized SNAP EBT retailers can easily be found nationwide and may include the following:

  • Grocery stores
  • Combination grocery/retail stores, such as Walmart and Target
  • Military commissaries
  • Wholesale clubs, such as Costco or Sam’s Club
  • Non-profit food buying cooperatives
  • Farmers markets or produce stands
  • Convenience stores
  • Bodegas and other ethnic community supermarkets

Even though you will use your EBT card for payment, shop as you normally would for your household’s groceries. When the cashier finishes scanning your items, swipe your EBT card through the credit card reader, the same way you would use a debit card. Enter your EBT account personal identification number (PIN) when prompted.

In larger retail locations, the cash register should automatically isolate any items that are not payable with SNAP EBT benefits, such as diapers, detergent or paper towels. You will see a separate total for these items after your EBT card pays for your eligible food items. You may then pay for the non-EBT items with cash or a debit/credit card. Your receipt should show your new EBT account balance.

If you are shopping at a bodega or farmers market that accepts SNAP EBT, the cashier may ask you to separate food items from non-food items and perform two separate transactions. As long as the store uses authorized EBT card readers, you should still receive a receipt printed with your new balance.

How to Find Your Current EBT Card Balance

It is important to check EBT balance status regularly, so that you do not run out of benefits before the month ends. Staying on top of your EBT balance can also help you avoid embarrassing situations at the grocery store, such as having to put items back after trying to purchase more food than you can afford.

It is easy to keep track of your EBT balance. In addition to finding your EBT balance printed on receipts, SNAP participants may check EBT balance online via the same account used to apply for food assistance benefits. Simply log into your state’s social services web portal and choose the “check EBT balance” option. Some states also allow users to check EBT balance limits on ATMs.

Tips for Safeguarding Your EBT Card

You should protect your EBT card the same way you would safeguard your cash, credit card or debit card. Only share your SNAP EBT PIN with trustworthy family members or close friends who might need to go grocery shopping for you. You may wish to change the PIN on your EBT account after permitting another person to use it on your behalf.

An EBT card will be valid as long as you continue to qualify for SNAP EBT food stamp benefits. You can extend the life of your food stamp card by following these suggestions:

  • Store your EBT card securely in your wallet or a credit card holder. Do not carry it loose in a pocket or bag.
  • Do not scratch the black magnetic stripe on the back of the food stamp card.
  • Do not bend your plastic card.
  • Refrain from storing your EBT card near magnetic sources, including TVs, computers and refrigerator magnets. Even magnetic fasteners on clothing, purses and wallets can damage the information programmed onto your EBT card.

Some states require EBT cards to include a photo of the holder to help prevent fraudulent use of these valuable benefits. Certain states also allow SNAP EBT participants to name an authorized representative, such as a spouse or adult child. This authorized representative will be issued an EBT card in his or her own name that is linked to the primary holder’s account.

Related Article: Food Stamps Fraud

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