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Common Questions About Using Your SNAP EBT Card

The SNAP program delivers monthly food benefit payments via an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which can be used at participating stores much like a debit card.

The Food Stamps Program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helps low-income families purchase nutritious food at participating stores. Back in the day, paper vouchers were sent to households through the mail.

These days, everything is done electronically. The SNAP program delivers monthly food benefit payments via an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which can be used at participating stores much like a debit card or ATM card. Are you wondering how to use an EBT card? Here is everything you need to know about receiving and using your SNAP EBT card to buy healthy food for your household.

7 Important Questions About Your SNAP EBT Card

  • What Is an EBT Card?
  • How Do I Get an EBT Card?
  • Where Can I Use My EBT Card?
  • What Can I Buy with an EBT Card?
  • How Do I Check the Balance of My EBT Card?
  • Can I Use My EBT Card Out of State?
  • What If My EBT Is Lost or Stolen?

Today’s Food Stamps program – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – no longer mails physical certificates, or “stamps,” to SNAP recipients. Instead, monthly food stamp benefit payments are automatically loaded onto an EBT card. Like a debit card, the EBT card can be used to buy food if there are enough funds in the account to cover the purchase.

Once you’re approved for SNAP benefits, your monthly assistance amount will automatically be loaded via direct deposit onto your EBT card. Typically, you need to recertify your SNAP benefits once a year. Near the end of each certification period, you’ll receive a notice from the SNAP program that it’s time to renew your benefits. At this point, you may need to verify or resubmit documentation to show that you still meet all the food stamps eligibility requirements.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common questions about Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

What Is an EBT Card?

An EBT card is just like a debit card or ATM card. The balance on the card is treated as cash, though you can only use it to purchase approved food items. Each month, the SNAP program will electronically deposit your monthly benefit amount onto your EBT card, and the cardholder can then use it to purchase groceries at participating stores. As long as the cash account balance on your card is sufficient to cover your purchase, you can continue using your card for SNAP-eligible items. Your EBT card will look very similar to a credit or debit card and can be kept within a wallet or purse for safekeeping.

How Do I Get an EBT Card?

You will receive an EBT card once you have applied for the SNAP program and been approved for benefits. To better understand the process, you can always reach out to your local SNAP office for detailed program information for your state. You can usually apply for food stamps benefits online, over the phone, or in person at your local SNAP office. You will need to provide detailed financial and personal information for every household member. A SNAP reviewer will determine whether you meet eligibility requirements.

To be approved for SNAP benefits, you must show that your household earns an income that places you below the federal poverty level. This federal government standard is updated each year and used to determine eligibility for many federal assistance programs. The federal poverty level varies according to household size. You will need to provide appropriate identification records for every household member, including records that verify everyone’s residence and citizenship status.

After your local SNAP office has received your application, you must also meet with a SNAP representative for an interview, which is often completed over the phone. During this interview, a SNAP reviewer will go over your application to verify the information. You may be requested to provide additional documentation if necessary.

After this process is complete and you are approved for food stamp benefits, you will receive an official notification letter from your state’s program. Within your SNAP approval letter, you will find a designated telephone number for setting up your EBT card. Once you call the number, an EBT system representative will verify your account information and help you set up a personal identification number. You will need to enter this PIN each time you use your EBT card.

After you set up your EBT account, you can begin using your EBT card to purchase food. In most cases, you can expect to have your SNAP benefits approved within 30 days from your original application date. In some situations, your local SNAP office may choose to expedite your application, which means you could see EBT benefits as quickly as seven days after submitting your application.

Where Can I Use My EBT Card?

You’ll find that EBT payments are accepted at many different types of participating stores. Many businesses will post some type of public notice or sign that says EBT cards are accepted. Most major grocery store chains will accept your EBT card, as will major retailers like Walmart and Target. Some pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens, will also accept EBT payment for eligible food items. You also can use an EBT card at some convenience stores/gas stations, farmers markets, and local food cooperatives. If you aren’t sure whether a food seller will accept your EBT card, you can look up the business using the online USDA SNAP Retailer Locator tool.

In many states, you also now can use your EBT card to make online grocery purchases. Keep in mind that you can only purchase eligible food items from approved online vendors such as Walmart and Amazon, among others. Make sure to check with your local SNAP program to find out more about online retailers that are approved under your specific program.

Once you have an account set up with an approved online retailer, you can simply choose the EBT payment option during checkout. If you have any trouble setting up your account or using your EBT card, it’s best to reach out to the online retailer’s customer service department for assistance.

What Can I Buy with an EBT Card?

It’s important to keep in mind that the philosophy behind the SNAP program is to help families have access to basic food items so they can prepare healthy meals at home. Certain types of foods are supported and encouraged by SNAP – these food groups are known as staple foods. Under these guidelines, almost any kind of common food item can be purchased with EBT benefits.

The following are considered eligible food items:

  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Breads, rice, and cereal
  • Ice and drinking water
  • Dairy products
  • Snacks and desserts
  • Accessory foods – like beverages, spices, condiments, sweeteners, etc.

SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase tobacco or alcohol, household cleaning supplies, paper products, or health and beauty products. Live animals are disqualified for EBT purchase, though if a live animal is slaughtered before purchase and removal from the seller’s premises, you may be able to use your SNAP benefits for its purchase.

There are a few types of foods that aren’t eligible for SNAP purchase. For example, pre-prepared or hot foods that are ready to eat immediately generally aren’t eligible for purchase with your EBT card. Fast food is usually not eligible, though some states may allow it. Remember, the goal of the food stamps program is to provide basic eligible food items that can be used to prepare meals for your household.

How Do I Check the Balance of My EBT Card?

One way to check your balance is to call the phone number on the back of your card. Many states offer web portals and mobile apps that allow you to log in and check the balance of your EBT card. You can use these resources to review recent transactions, report your card lost or stolen, and update your PIN. If your state does not offer either of these options, reach out to your local SNAP office to find out more about how to manage your EBT card.

Can I Use My EBT Card Out of State?

In most cases, you can use your EBT card out of state, at least temporarily. The only exception to this is in Puerto Rico. If you’re traveling, using your benefits temporarily in another state should not be an issue if the establishment is set up to take SNAP benefits. However, if you move to a different state, your benefits will not transfer with you. You will need to cancel your SNAP benefits in the state you’re leaving, then reapply through a SNAP office in the new state.

What If My EBT Is Lost or Stolen?

Once you’re approved for your benefits, make sure to keep your EBT card in a safe place where it’s unlikely to get lost. If something happens to your EBT card, you should treat the situation just like you would treat a lost or stolen credit card. Contact your local SNAP office immediately when you discover a missing card. Your EBT card will be canceled so that it can’t be used by anyone else and you will be issued a replacement card. You should receive a replacement EBT card within seven days of reporting your old one lost or stolen.

What Is a P-EBT card?

A Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or P-EBT card, is a direct result of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). The card functions much like a traditional EBT card for food stamps (SNAP) benefits.

This benefit is designed to ensure that children who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals under the National School Lunch Act or for food benefits under SNAP still have access to nutritious food, even if schools and child care centers are closed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a P-EBT card, temporary emergency assistance funds are loaded onto a card that can be used at participating retailers to buy food, much like a debit card.

The P-EBT program was developed early in the COVID-19 response, in March of 2020, and originally allowed states to provide roughly $250 to $450 per child in grocery benefits on P-EBT cards to make up for children’s missed meals. The program has since continued and expanded.

In January of 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased the P-EBT amount by 15 percent, providing additional funds for millions of children who were missing meals they would normally receive at school. This increase is extended for 2022 as well.

Retailers are required by law to accept and treat P-EBT benefits and households the same as they would SNAP benefits, which also are delivered via a debit card. The P-EBT program is administered separately by each state that participates in the program.

Who Is Eligible for a P-EBT Card?

Families with children are the intended recipients of P-EBT benefits, much like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP, and other assistance programs. Families with school-aged children are eligible if they normally would receive free or reduced-price school meals under the National School Lunch Program if not for school closures or reduced hours when schools are open and meals are available.

Families also are eligible if they have children under the age of six who receive SNAP benefits and would normally receive meals at a child care center that is closed for pandemic-related reasons. Eligibility applies to all families who received SNAP benefits at any time since Oct. 1, 2020.

If you think you’re eligible for P-EBT benefits, make sure to check your state’s website for details of its plan administration and to find out if there are particular steps you need to take to access these benefits. In many cases, you will automatically receive a P-EBT card if your household is already enrolled in NSLP and/or SNAP, or even another statewide program like Medicaid, but make sure to check on your state’s requirements.

What Can You Buy With a P-EBT Card?

You can use a P-EBT card at any SNAP-authorized retailer to purchase the same foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits. With its focus on healthy, nutritious food for children and their families, the SNAP program prioritizes items like fresh, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables, dairy, meats and poultry, bread, cereal, fish, and more.

These benefits also can be used to purchase seeds and plants that a family could plant to produce additional food. In fact, most food items can be purchased with a P-EBT card, except for ready-to-eat hot foods and live animals. P-EBT benefits cannot be used to purchase non-food household items such as cleaning supplies, pet foods, cosmetics, beer, wine, tobacco, or liquor.

P-EBT Card Prohibited Activities

As with SNAP benefits, there are several prohibited actions related to a P-EBT card. They include buying or selling P-EBT cards for cash or allowing someone to purchase ineligible items, like cigarettes, alcohol tobacco, paper products, or detergent, with a P-EBT card. Penalties for these violations typically include monetary penalties and disqualification from the program.

Using Your SNAP EBT Card

Your Electronic Benefits Transfer card is the only way to receive and spend your SNAP benefits. Each month, your benefits will be automatically deposited onto the card balance. Be sure to keep it in a safe place so that it doesn’t get lost or stolen. You can use it to cover eligible grocery purchases as long as your available balance has sufficient funds. If you have any other questions about your EBT card, make sure to reach out to your local SNAP office or log into your EBT portal to find out more.

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