The Direct Express Card

Updated: March 30, 2021
In this Article

    The Direct Express Debit MasterCard card is an alternative way to receive federal and VA benefits, even if you do not have a bank account. Department of Veteran Affairs payments such VA disability benefits, pensions, and survivors’ benefits plus Federal benefits such as Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are required to receive your payment electronically. Veterans must either have the money deposited directly to a bank or credit union account or have the money deposited each month on a DirectExpress prepaid debit card.

    There are many different paths for those leaving military service. Some troops retire or separate and move on to find lucrative careers in the public or private sector. Some leave a life in uniform to pursue higher education using benefits such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill and the Forever GI Bill.

    But not all veterans follow more traditional post-military service paths. Some may find it hard to re-integrate, others may not be interested in the same kinds of life experiences others pursue. And still others may suffer from personal issues that keep them from some of the same experiences their peers may have after their life in uniform.

    Whatever the reasons, there are enough of those who qualify for certain federal benefits – and not just VA federal benefits – but are what some consider to be “underbanked” and don’t have a bank account or other means of accepting benefit payments from the federal government.

    That creates a huge problem for those trying to get assistance.

    Fortunately, the Direct Express (DE) Card allows the card holder to receive those federal benefits without a bank account.

    It’s an important resource for those who need it and the power of such resources to help veterans should not be underestimated–many of us take the ability to open and maintain a bank account for granted but not everyone is capable of doing so.

    Direct Express Stimulus Check Payments

    The IRS will pays Stimulus payments automatically to the existing Direct Express card accounts of most eligible Veterans, Social Security, SSI, and Railroad Retirement Board recipients. Veterans with Direct Express cards and who filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return should visit the IRS Economic Impact Payments site for more information on how they will receive their payments.

    What to Know

    • Most eligible Veterans, Social Security, SSI, and Railroad Retirement Board recipients will receive their payments to their Direct Express card by early May.
    • Direct Express card fees will not change.
    • In addition to the free withdrawal for each benefit payment deposit, cardholders will receive one free ATM withdrawal for their Economic Impact Payment deposit.
    • If an Economic Impact Payment is sent to an ac-count that is closed or no longer active, then the payment will be returned and the IRS will reissue the payment.
    • All federal benefit payments will continue to be made on time.
    • The IRS will mail a letter about the Economic Impact Payment to the recipient’s last known address within 15 days after the payment is made.
    • Only current Direct Express cardholders are eligible to receive Economic Impact Payments on their card.
    • Direct Express cardholders can sign up for stimulus payment text or email alerts and view deposit information by logging into their Direct Express account.


    The Direct Express Program: A 21st-Century Innovation

    In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Treasury unveiled the prepaid debit card program Direct Express for Social Security payments and other federal benefits. A Treasury Department press release states, the program was created to provide a safe alternative to paper checks.

    “People without bank accounts now have a user-friendly, practical alternative to paper checks for their monthly federal benefit payments,” said FMS Commissioner Judith Tillman, who was quoted in the press release. Since then this program provides what is essentially a pre-paid debit card for those who wish to accept payments outside a traditional bank or credit union.

    How The Direct Express Card Works

    As mentioned above, DE is for federal benefits, and not only those you can get through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Using this card, you can receive benefits including but not necessarily limited to:

    • Social Security
    • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
    • Veterans assistance

    According to the Treasury Department official site, more than four million beneficiaries of Social Security and SSI do not have bank accounts. Signing up for Direct Express means any benefits you are entitled to–Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, VA payments, or other federal benefits–get automatically deposited in the user’s account on the scheduled payment date.

    One user-friendly aspect of the Direct Express® card? Cutting out usage fees. There is no cost to sign up for the program, there are no monthly fees, and according to the official site, “While there are fees for some optional transactions, it is possible to use the card for free” using free cash back options with purchases, “or free cash withdrawals through bank or credit union tellers,” according to the official site.

    Direct Express users also get “one free ATM cash withdrawal in the United States for each benefit payment deposit posted onto an account”.

    Who Is Required To Use Direct Express?

    DE is an option to receive benefits, but some programs require electronic payments of some kind–paper checks are not allowed. DE is not THE required method of payment for certain federal benefits, but if you don’t have a bank account, DE is a good alternative and possibly your only option, depending on circumstances.

    Federal benefits which require electronic deposit of some kind (including the DE option):

    • Veterans Affairs
    • Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
    • Social Security
    • Supplemental Security Income
    • Railroad Retirement Board
    • Department of Labor ( for Black Lung benefits)

    How To Sign Up For Direct Express

    Those who receive VA payments or any benefit that requires an electronic payment rather than paper checks should visit the Direct Express official website to apply. Applications are also available to be initiated by phone. Call 1-800-333-1795.

    Using Your Direct Express Card

    Some wonder if they need to contact their benefits providers after signing up for Direct Express; this is not necessary as the federal agencies you receive payments from will be automatically updated with the information needed to pay you via DE. This promise is reflected on the official site; ”Direct Express will automatically provide the agency the information it needs to send your benefit payments to your account.”

    You can use a Direct Express card at any terminal that accepts MasterCard transactions. Direct Express literature says you may use your card at any location that displays the MasterCard logo including banks and credit unions.

    Using Direct Express To Pay For Retail Items

    You can use a DE card when paying for groceries, gas, services, or any other need the same way you would use an ATM card. You will be given a PIN number or be asked to create a PIN number at sign-up time; this is the number you will use to check out with after swiping or inserting the DE card. At the time of this writing, there is no fee for cash back from participating merchants.

    However, the DE card does NOT carry overdraft protection and you cannot spend more on the card than your available balance.

    Finding An ATM That Accepts Direct Express Cards

    Did you know that the DE program includes an ATM locator feature on the official site? You can use this online search tool to find an ATM near you. The same page the ATM locator is on also features a list of fee-free ATMs you can use to avoid service charges where applicable.

    Tax Refunds Via Direct Express Are Not Possible

    The DE official site states that at the time of this writing, federal income tax refunds are not paid via Direct Express. Those payments are arranged at tax filing time and you will be required to make arrangements that are acceptable to the Internal Revenue Service. Learn more at

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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