American Express Campus Edition


Is this a worthy alternative to Vanilla Reload cards? 


For many months, the following proposed experiment has been listed in the Frequent Miler Laboratory:

Amex Prepaid College Edition: Try to reload at campus Barnes & Noble using credit card or B&N gift card.

The American Express Campus Edition Prepaid Card is very similar to the American Express Prepaid card that I’ve written about many times (for example, see “One card to rule them all”).  However, this card is marketed towards University students and is distributed through Barnes & Noble campus bookstores.  Further, unlike regular Amex prepaid cards, these cards can be reloaded at campus bookstore registers.

I was interested in this card for a few reasons:

First, it is very easy to buy Barnes & Noble gift cards at a discount.  For example, currently lists many second-hand B&N gift cards for 12% off.  So, if it were possible to load the Amex with a gift card, one could essentially save 12% off everything! 

Second, this looked like a potential alternative to buying Vanilla Reload cards as a way to earn 5X everywhere (again, see “One card to rule them all”).  My thought was that one could buy Vanilla Visa cards (not reload cards) for 5X points, and use them to load these Amex cards.  The advantages of moving value from the Visa cards to these would be: 1) The Amex cards would be registered to your name and address and so could more easily be used online; 2) The Amex cards permit ATM withdrawals; and 3) The Amex cards are reloadable and can hold more value so you won’t risk being stuck with multiple cards with very small balances.

Preparing for the experiment

I ordered a free Campus Edition card via the Amex website.  Weeks later, I received an email saying the following:

Dear Frequent Miler,

Thank you for choosing the American Express Campus Edition Card. Unfortunately, we could not complete your order 12345 for the following reason:


I called to ask what was up and was told that sometimes they have errors in the system that checks your identity.  The call center agent told me to simply try again.  So I did.  Weeks later I received the same error: undefined.  So, I tried a third time.  Finally, it was approved!

Dear Frequent Miler,

Congratulations! Your American Express Campus Edition Card has been approved. We are processing your order and we will send you an e-mail when your Card is shipped. Please activate your Card once you receive it.

I received the card in the mail about a week later.  I then ran out to buy a Barnes & Noble gift card, and a $500 Prepaid Visa for this experiment.  Just for the heck of it, I also tried to use a Vanilla Reload card to load money to this card, but it didn’t work.

Campus bookstore experiment

I stopped by my local campus B&N bookstore to conduct this experiment.  I handed my reloadable Amex card to the cashier and told her I’d like to load money to it.  She stared at me blankly then told me that they could only load Barnes & Noble gift cards.  I told her how this was supposed to work, but she didn’t believe me.  Was there anyone else here who could help me?  No.  Finally, I brought her over to the enormous American Express Campus Edition display in the center of their store to show her that American Express, at least, believes that these cards can be loaded at the register.  Finally she was willing to give it a try.

The cashier fiddled with the register for a bit until I suggested that she simply swipe my card and see what happens.  She did so and then was prompted to ask me how much I wanted loaded to my card.  I stupidly hadn’t looked up the maximum load amount beforehand.  I suggested $1000 (the actual maximum is $500).  She balked and said that with gift cards the most they could do was $200.  I suggested she try $500 anyway, but she seemed too scared to do so.  I gave in and agreed to $200.

I was charged a $3.95 load fee, so the total came to $203.95.  I handed the cashier my $25 B&N gift card and asked her to use that first for payment.  She didn’t hesitate, but after several attempts she decided that the register wouldn’t allow it.  I swiped my Vanilla Visa instead.  That time, it processed without issue.


From the limited experiment I ran, I now believe the following to be true:

  • No, you cannot load Campus Edition prepaid cards with B&N gift cards
  • Yes, you can load Campus Edition prepaid cards with credit cards, including prepaid cards and Visa/MC/Amex gift cards.

Of course, results may vary at other locations.

Card limits and fees

Here is some useful information about the card:

  • No annual or monthly fees
  • First ATM withdrawal per month is free (other than the fee charged by the ATM owner).  All other ATM withdrawals cost $2.
  • At campus bookstores, you may load any amount from $25 to $500 onto your Card.  It appears that you must be at a campus bookstore, not at just any Barnes & Noble store (although I didn’t test that theory).
  • When loading the card at a campus bookstore, you will be charged a $3.95 fee.
  • The FAQ specifically says that bookstores may accept credit, debit or cash.
  • You cannot exceed a balance of $1,000 at anytime.
  • You cannot use a credit card to load the prepaid card online.  You can only do this at a campus bookstore.
  • Just like other American Express prepaid cards, these cards cannot be used for debit transactions despite the fact that you are given a PIN code.  The PIN is for ATM use only.

For more information, you read the Campus Edition FAQ here.


Leveraging the deal

Citi Forward: The Citi Forward card automatically gives 5 points per dollar for all bookstore purchases.  It would be very interesting to see if the Forward would give 5X for loading the campus addition card.  Be very careful though: Citi is much more aggressive than any other bank in treating transactions like these as cash advances.  If it treats this as a cash advance, then you won’t get points and, worse, you’ll be charged hefty fees.  Anyone up for trying this experiment?

5X everywhere: Another use for this prepaid card is for people who want to do the “one card to rule them all” trick, but can’t find Vanilla Reload cards in stock.  The alternative here is to buy $500 Vanilla Visa cards at office supply stores (Office Depot usually carries them) and then use those cards to load the Campus Edition cards at a campus bookstore.  Note that with this approach you would be paying more than twice as much as with a Vanilla Reload card.  Vanilla Reload cards cost only $3.95 each and there is no further fee to apply the value to a prepaid card.  Vanilla Visa cards, on the other hand, cost $4.95 each and then there is a $3.95 fee to use the card to load up the Campus Edition card.  So, if you buy and load a $500 card, you will have spent 1.78% of its value in fees. 

6X everywhere: Similar to the 5X everywhere plan, you could use the Blue Cash Preferred card (which gives 6% cash back for groceries) to buy $500 Visa cards at a grocery store.  Or, you could use one of the American Express Hilton cards which give 6X points at groceries, drug stores, and gas stations to do the same.  Then, you could go to a campus bookstore to move the money from the Visa card to the Campus Edition Amex card.  Keep in mind that you will incur multiple fees amounting to at least 1.78%.  If you buy and load smaller amounts, your fee percentage will be higher.  Also, keep in mind that if your goal is to cash out via ATMs, ATM fees will add to your costs.

Liquidate small gift cards: Visa, MasterCard, and Amex gift cards can be a hassle to use, especially when their value drops low.  If you have a number of gift cards like this, you could theoretically ask to load $500 to the Campus Edition Amex and use multiple bank gift cards to pay for it.  I didn’t specifically test this scenario, but I believe it would work.  Once you’ve moved the value to the Campus Edition Amex you can cash out via ATMs.

Is it worth it?

The hassle factor with this opportunity is pretty high.  First, you need to have ready access to a campus B&N bookstore.  Second, you may need to overcome the fact that cashiers have no idea how to handle these cards.  Third, the $1000 balance limit on these cards make them a far cry from being the “One card to rule them all.”  There are certainly better deals out there, but for some people, and under some circumstances, this still could be a good deal.

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