I was looking for a banking alternative and stumbled across Bluebird by American Express. I was weary at first, especially because they aren't FDIC insured and basically operate like a pre-paid card. But, I did my research and decided to try it out. The first thing I noticed what that there aren't fees like traditional pre-paid cards. You don't have annual maintenance fees taking up your funds and you aren't charged for direct deposit. So already it was off to a good start. I have now used it for four months.
How To Get Started
You sign up online or you can sign up at a local Walmart. I did online. You cannot fund your account until you receive your Bluebird card in the mail. I like this, because then there is no risk of someone intercepting it and draining the account. The card did take about 10 business days to get here.
Once the card arrives you can fund the account. You can do that via linked bank accounts (similar to PayPal) or to a debit card. I like this feature because you can get an instant deposit by charging another debit card. But, you're limited to $100 per day.
I will say that when you transfer money from PayPal to Bluebird it's really fast. I used to transfer money on a Saturday from PayPal to a traditional bank account and it wouldn't arrive until Tuesday. With Bluebird it shows up Monday morning. When I transfer during the week, it takes just two days.
Features/How It Works
They took being a bank alternative seriously. You can get free checks for opening an account, have your paycheck and IRS refund direct deposited, and you even have online bill pay. But, anything you pay for is automatically deducted right then and there. This ensures you don't bounce a check. If you do write a check, you must pre-authorize it through the site. You're then given a pre-auth code that you write on the check. So, it's slow and really you can't write a check in-person anywhere. I just use this feature to pay bills though. For the most part I use their online bill pay and never write a physical check -- much easier.
A Few Drawbacks
One issue is their website. It's really slow and sometimes the bill pay feature doesn't work. It just freezes. Also, if you write a check and pre-authorize it, you can't take it back. I accidentally paid a bill twice and couldn't cancel the check. So I was stuck sending that $100. You can't edit any bill pay and when you add payees in the bill pay feature, you can't use characters (like "." or ","or &) which is hard. But, these are all small errors.
Lastly, you cannot do ACH debits from the account. So, you can't set up automatic bill payments with your providers (cable, debt, etc.) because Bluebird won't allow them to automatically charge the account. You can, have them automatically charge your debit card each month -- but not all creditors do that.
Their customer service is really friendly, but some of them can be hard to understand -- American Express outsources I think. So, if you have a question, I recommend looking online before calling in.
Despite these logistical issues, I would still recommend Bluebird by American Express. It's convenient, great if you have poor credit and works just like a bank. I like how bill pay and checks automatically deduct. You dont have to keep a check register, because everything is deducted right then and there -- including at the gas pump -- so you always have your balance. I think it's also great for teens who are just learning banking responsibilities.