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Learn About EBT Cards

The electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card is an essential component of the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamps program. Every family approved to receive benefits is issued a card through which they receive, spend and manage their benefits. SNAP EBT cards often have additional, informal names that vary by state, such as “Quest Cards” in Washington or the “Common Benefit Identification Card” in New York.

The cards have proven to be an enormous step forward for benefits recipients. They provide unprecedented safety, efficiency and convenience for users. They also save the government and participating retailers large amounts of time and money, allowing more retailers to participate and enabling the SNAP program to better serve its customers.

EBT cards have been in use in some areas since the early 1980s, and they fully replaced paper food stamps nationally in the 1990s. Today, SNAP benefits are issued only through these cards and cannot be accessed through any other method.

How an EBT Card Works

The SNAP program assigns an EBT number and a corresponding card to every individual or family that it approves to receive benefits. Each month on the designated day, SNAP credits beneficiaries’ cards with the total funds they are due. Benefits become available to cardholders immediately upon deposit.

Cardholders can then spend their EBT benefits at participating retailers, ATMs and other qualifying venues by using their SNAP cards the same way they would a debit card. Benefits may be spent like regular money on qualifying items until the balance on the card runs out. Unused benefits remain on the card, rolling over from month to month.

How to Find Stores That Accept EBT Cards

The SNAP program assigns an EBT number and a corresponding card to every individual or family that it approves to receive benefits. Each month on the designated day, SNAP credits beneficiaries’ cards with the total funds they are due. Benefits become available to cardholders immediately upon deposit.

How to Apply for an EBT Card

SNAP applicants do not need to apply for EBT cards separately from SNAP. Applicants to SNAP, WIC and other participating programs will be automatically issued a card when they are approved for benefits. Some applications and published material may use the phrase “EBT application” interchangeably with the more accurate term “SNAP application.”

In most states, the most efficient way to request SNAP, WIC and other food assistance benefits is to apply for EBT online via the state’s official government website. Food assistance benefits may be listed under various departments, including Social Services, Human Services or Public Assistance, depending on the state.

Prospective applicants having difficulty finding the correct department are encouraged to use their states’ toll-free hotlines, online chat functions or other clearly marked “help” features. Assistance is also typically available from local government agencies and offices and public resources such as libraries.

In-person applications are not typically encouraged and may take longer to process. However, in some cases, eligible applicants receiving benefits under other state and federal programs may be assisted in walking through the SNAP application process by representatives of other state and Federal aid programs with whom they are working.

For more about applying for food stamps and receiving your EBT card, download our free guide today.

How to Check an EBT Balance

Since the widespread rollout of EBT food stamps cards in the 1990s, state and Federal governments have worked tirelessly to build strong support systems around them. Each new tool and support in the network has made the cards easier and more convenient for cardholders and participating retailers to use. Some of the biggest jumps forward in the system have been tools which allow recipients to check EBT balances easily at any time.

Most cardholders are extremely interested in verifying when fresh EBT funds have been added to their cards and in clarifying their new total balances when those funds are combined with whatever remaining funds rolled over from the previous month. To ensure that users can quickly and easily determine that their benefits have been deposited and see their new balances, the SNAP program launched an EBT food stamp app.

Cardholders can choose to track their benefits wherever they are via the mobile app, or can use the pre-existing online systems maintained by their home states if they prefer. For users with limited access to computers and mobile devices, states operate dedicated EBT phone number lines that cardholders can call at any time to get their balances.

Each state maintains its own websites and help lines. SNAP recipients can find links to these systems and instructions on how to check food stamp balance information in their informational packets, on their states’ main governmental websites or via their states’ helplines.

How to Replace a Lost EBT Card

A lost EBT card can be a serious problem for SNAP recipients, as they generally cannot spend their benefits without it. Lost cards that are misused can also lead to lost benefits, fraud investigations and other complications. As a result, program administrators strongly encourage recipients to treat their cards like cash or debit cards. That is, they should take great care not to lose them and to keep them secured where they cannot be misplaced, stolen or damaged.

In spite of recipients’ best efforts, however, there are occasions where beneficiaries will find themselves faced with a lost food stamp card. When this happens, it is essential that they notify their state SNAP authorities immediately upon discovering the card missing. This allows the state to cut off the card, preventing it from being fraudulently used by anyone else who may find it and protects the rightful cardholder from the resulting investigations of fraud and loss of benefits.

The EBT card replacement process may vary slightly from state to state. In most cases, however, the process consists of the following steps.

  1. Recipient notifies his or her state’s EBT office that the card is missing or believed stolen.
  2. The office cancels the card and rolls whatever benefits remained on it to a new card.
  3. The office mails the new card to the recipient. (Most cards arrive in seven to 10 days.)

In emergency cases, some state offices can provide new cards more quickly for recipients who visit in person. Recipients can expect to have a nominal fee deducted from their benefits to pay for the new card.

Recipients who lose more than one food stamp card over the course of a year may find themselves at risk of fraud investigation. They may be required to meet with SNAP representatives to explore why they are losing cards and whether additional assistance or oversight is necessary.

Free replacement cards are typically available without penalty for recipients who:

  • Initially received defective cards.
  • Did not receive their initial cards due to postal service errors.
  • Have changed their names, Social Security Numbers or other key personal indicators.
  • Qualify for special consideration due to disability, domestic violence and other situations.