A Must-Know Guide to EBT Cards

May 7th 2016

EBT cards are a valuable tool to help people in need of assistance. They have many restrictions and conditions, so understanding them is important.

What Are EBT Cards?

EBT cards are essentially just a tool the government uses to provide benefits to people. The most common program that uses them is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, colloquially called food stamps. However, some families receive cash assistance benefits on their EBT cards as well.

EBT cards work similarly to any other credit or debit card, except the government automatically deposits the appropriate amount of money on them once a month. They also automatically prevent the user from buying nonapproved items, which sometimes requires the user to pay for part of his purchase with the EBT card and part with another form of payment. Users are not generally required to use the entire balance every month, and any unused money rolls over to the next month.

What Can You Buy?

The specific items people can buy with EBT cards vary depending on which program they are using. Cash assistance programs generally have few restrictions and can be used for nonfood items. People with SNAP can only use the funds for actual food items. There are not many restrictions on what kinds of food they can buy, although the cards cannot be used for hot or prepared foods, such as rotisserie chicken from the deli counter in a grocery store. They can be used for beverages but not alcoholic ones. EBT cards can also be used to purchase certain plants and seeds for use in gardens if the gardens provide food.

EBT cards can only be used with merchants who accept them, although most stores that sell food take them. These include convenience stores, traditional groceries and some farmers' markets.

Who Is Eligible?

Anyone who is eligible for a program that uses EBT cards can get the card itself. There are some programs with fairly restrictive eligibility requirements, such as cash assistance programs and Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which provides assistance to low-income families with young children.

SNAP benefits are more widely available, although they are subject to income restrictions. Any adult who is a citizen or legal resident can apply, regardless of marital status or whether children are involved. The application asks about income, dependents, assets and other factors to ensure the applicant meets the financial guidelines.


Electronic benefit transfer cards, most commonly known as EBT cards or food stamps, are a common sight in grocery stores. They allow many needy individuals and families to purchase food they might otherwise not be able to afford. However, there are many myths and misunderstandings about what EBT cards are and how they work. Although the specific rules can vary by state, there are some general principles to remember.

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