Illustration a holiday greeting cars with a gift card inside

As the holiday season shifts into high gear, many last-minute shoppers face the great Christmas conundrum: Is a gift card an okay gift to give, or is it viewed as too impersonal, proof of my lack of imagination and effort?

Turns out that giving a gift card can be a great choice. According to a 2018 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey of 1,004 U.S. adults, 49 percent of Americans had received a gift card within the past 12 months.

Though some admitted they would prefer something else—perhaps a nicely wrapped item bought in a store—more than half of Americans said they strongly or somewhat like receiving a gift card.

“It makes for a great gift because the recipient can get exactly what she wants and go shopping after the holiday rush," said Courtney Jespersen, a consumer savings expert at financial website NerdWallet.

Dawn Hebein of Hanover Park, Ill., said she enjoys both giving and receiving gift cards. A student at a nearby community college and a mom, Hebein had bought a number of gift cards already—a spa gift card for her mother-in-law, and gift cards to stores such as Target and Starbucks for her children’s teachers.

Keep in mind, though, that not all gift cards are alike, said Shelley Hunter, a gift card expert with She said you can either give a gift card for a particular store, such as Target, Ann Taylor, or Apple, or you can give a general purpose gift card, such as one from American Express or Visa.

According to the Consumer Reports survey, 60 percent of Americans preferred general purpose cards, which can be used almost anywhere. 

Tips to Make Using a Gift Card Easy

Though Americans said they like getting gift cards, about 59 percent of respondents also reported having problems with their cards, according to the Consumer Reports survey.

But if you take certain steps, you can reduce headaches down the road. 

Go to 
Consumer Reports' Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

More on Giving Gifts

Tell the recipient to use the gift card quickly. "The biggest mistake gift card recipients make is to put their cards in a drawer and forget about them," said Trae Bodge, who runs the shopping-advice website True Trae. Almost $1 billion in gift card value wasn't spent in 2015, according to the latest data from the market research firm CEB, now part of Gartner. Bodge said to keep your gift cards in your wallet or purse so that if you happen to be in the right store and see something you want, you'll have quick and easy access to them.

Make sure the card is easy to use. About 16 percent of Americans said they were unable to use the gift card due to their location. So if you buy a store card, make sure that the store has a location near the recipient's home, and find out whether it can also be used online.

And check whether the recipient can track the balance on the card. About 18 percent of Americans said they had trouble determining the remaining value on the card after they started using it—one reason that so many cards may go unused. Some online card issuers let you track the card's balance on their websites—a nice feature.

Cover any fees, if possible, in advance. In our survey, Americans quibbled about paying activation fees. Hebein, for example, once received a supermarket gift card that came with a $5 fee. She said when she used the card for the first time, the fee was deducted from the gift card balance. "It wasn't the end of the word, but it was unexpected,” she said.

You can prevent such unexpected surprises by either paying the recipient for the activation fee or getting a card that doesn't come with one.

Also, try to avoid getting a card that charges inactivity fees. Some gift cards from Visa, for instance, charge inactivity fees if you don't use the card for one year, and then try to put it toward a purchase.

If the gift card you buy does charge such a fee, you can at least notify the recipient so that she uses up the balance before any fee can be applied.

Give a card that can be replaced in case it's lost or stolen. The Federal Trade Commission has warned that some issuers won't replace lost or stolen gift cards but others will, for a fee. Whether you are buying the card as a gift or have received one, it's a good idea to jot down the card number just in case the issuer needs it. Also, keep the original purchase receipt in case you need to report the card as lost or stolen, the FTC advised. Some issuers require the receipt to provide a replacement card with the remaining balance that wasn't stolen by the thief.

Hunter said it's also a good idea to add gift cards to a mobile wallet or to take a picture of the front and back of the gift cards with your smartphone. That way, you can keep the images on your phone until you’ve used the full value of your gift cards.

Last, even if you end up giving a gift card that the recipient can't use, not all is lost. You or the recipient can always regift the card to someone who would be better able to use it.

You can also try to sell it for cash at a gift card exchange, Hunter says. Sites such as CardpoolRaise, and SaveYa will help you find a buyer. You won’t get the full value of the gift card, but having some money to spend is better than a gift card that won’t get used, Hunter said.