It could happen to you: improperly activated OneVanilla cards

There are a few situations that are guaranteed to strike horror into the heart of any travel hacker: denied boarding on a cabotage fare; having to make or change a reservation through a BA call center; making a United connection in Chicago.

If you manufacture spend, you may lose sleep over closed bank accounts or American Express financial reviews, but there's no worse possibility than your money just...disappearing.

Last week, I bought an improperly activated OneVanilla card. Now that the situation has been resolved, I want to share my experience.

Why are OneVanilla cards improperly activated?

In the last few years, I've purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars in OneVanilla prepaid debit cards. While they're not as useful as they once were, due to the recent inconvenience of using them at Walmart and new limits on Evolve Money bill payments, for example, they're still useful for Serve loads at Family Dollar store locations and other debit transactions, like grocery store money orders (where available) and Kmart bill payments.

On Thursday, for the first time, next to the OneVanilla card on my receipt, instead of the word "ACTIVATED" I saw the word "ACCEPTED," and below that the phrase "PREPAID CARD ACTIVATION WILL OCCUR WITHIN 24 HOURS:"

It's impossible to say for sure why the card was improperly activated, but in hindsight one thing has assumed greater importance in my mind: while purchasing the cards, I somehow ran up against the $5,000 daily CVS purchase limit, even though this was my first purchase at CVS that day. Whether it was a computer error or a function of the daily cutoff time CVS's servers use, it was an ill omen.

What to do if your card is improperly activated

Sure enough, when I attempted to check the card's balance online and over the phone, the system responded that no such card existed.

I remembered reading reports from some folks on FlyerTalk that their cards sometimes weren't immediately activated, so I waited the full 24 hours before calling into the number on the back of my OneVanilla card: 1-877-770-6408.

It was a fairly simple matter to reach an actual person, to whom I explained the situation. He looked up the OneVanilla card's number, saw it was improperly activated, and then needed to collect some information:

  • The date and time of the purchase;
  • the STR# number from the receipt;
  • the last four digits of the card's packaging (also available on the receipt);
  • the address and phone number of the store where I purchased the card.

Finally, he asked that I fax or e-mail a copy of the receipt and my driver's license. I opted to e-mail the documents to the address he provided,

While the customer service representative said the activation process could take up to 3 business days, I found my OneVanilla card had been activated by this morning, or a day before the self-imposed deadline he gave me.

While for some reason I was still unable to use the OneVanilla card at Family Dollar this morning (a problem I've had once before), I was able to fund an Amazon Payment with it, and consider this particular case "closed."

Lessons learned and reinforced

While my fairly meticulous bookkeeping made this situation a minor annoyance, rather than a catastrophe, it certainly drove home the importance of tracking every dollar of manufactured spend until it's safely ensconced in an FDIC-insured bank account or has posted as a payment to a credit card.

Here are three more tips to keep yourself out of trouble:

  • Check receipts immediately to make sure they correspond to the packaging of the cards you purchased. After opening the packaging, write down the last four digits of the card number (I write the digits directly on the packaging);
  • If a card hasn't activated properly, point it out to the cashier immediately and see if they can resolve it in-store. If not, note the cashier's name in case you later need to file a chargeback with your credit card company;
  • The sooner you contact the prepaid card issuer, the sooner the problem can be resolved. Don't just hope an improperly activated card will eventually be activated.

5 ways to unload OneVanilla cards without a trip to Walmart

Well, my post yesterday minimizing the changes to OneVanilla acceptance at Walmart did not win me any friends. Let's see if I can take another crack at it.

You're annoyed, nervous, confused, and frustrated by the strange errors you keep getting at Walmart, but love earning 5% cash back at pharmacies and gas stations that sell OneVanilla cards. Here are 5 ways to use OneVanilla prepaid debit cards that still work.

Amazon Payments

An Amazon Payments account can make up to $1,000 in outgoing payments per calendar month. I typically save that bandwidth till the end of the month, then use it to liquidate any odd amounts I still have lying around on prepaid cards or, if none, use it to hit high-spend thresholds or minimum spending requirements.

To keep from having a $1 hold placed on your OneVanilla card, use an incorrect expiration date when adding the card to Amazon Payments. After the card has been successfully added, change the expiration date to the one found on the card.

Evolve Money

OneVanilla cards can still be used on Evolve Money. Find your billers, start slow, making sure each payment posts correctly and on time, and enjoy.

Grocery store money orders

While often more expensive than Walmart's $0.70 money orders, and with lower limits, many grocery stores also allow PIN-enabled debit cards to be used to buy money orders. Take a walk around town to see which stores play along, although be careful: many grocery stores apply much more scrutiny to frequent, large transactions than Walmart does.

Load Serve cards at Family Dollar

Grab a Vanilla Reload Network reload card from the gift card rack, bring it to the front, let the cashier scan it, swipe your Serve card, choose the amount of your load and swipe your OneVanilla card. There's no fee.

Trade up and out

If you have local stores that accept debit, but not credit cards, for non-Vanilla PIN-enabled debit cards, you may find it worthwhile to buy Vanilla prepaid debit cards using a credit card and then convert them to non-Vanilla debit cards. Your costs will be higher, but the benefits may still outweigh those costs (paying, for example, $10.90 for $25.20 in cash back).

Using OneVanilla cards at Walmart has become (slightly) trickier

Over the weekend, a number of reports appeared of new problems encountered when users attempted to use OneVanilla prepaid debit cards at Walmart store locations. Now that I'm back from my quick vacation, I had a chance today to get over to Walmart and see what the fuss was all about.

Incidentally, I'm aware that there are multiple point-of-sale systems installed across the country and that individual stores and managers can impose their own restrictions, so my datapoints won't be relevant to everyone. This is not a conclusive study, it's a first glance at the situation, a workaround that worked for me, and some further observations.

The bad news is, the problems are real. The good news is, I found them to be pretty trivial.

Buy money orders "customer-first"

In my last post on Walmart point-of-sale system updates, I reported that:

It's now my belief that at some Walmart store locations with the new(est) software, split-tender transactions for money orders can still be processed "cashier first." Bill payment transactions, on the other hand, can only be processed "customer first."

Based on my experience today, I now believe that money orders must now also be processed "customer first," at least when using OneVanilla cards.

As a reminder, that means the customer must get all the way through to submitting their PIN before the cashier submits the amount of a split tender.

When my cashier submitted the amount of the split tender first, on the other hand, then after entering the OneVanilla card's PIN the system returned an "Alternative Payment Required" error.  

Problems with all-Vanilla transactions

After figuring out the above, I decided to see if I could buy a money order with only a single OneVanilla card. Even though I told the cashier to hold off on his end until after I had entered my PIN, the terminal still returned the "Alternative Payment Required" error.

While I may have been experiencing cashier error, out of an abundance of caution and laziness I'll continue combining Vanillas with other PIN-enabled cards, like my PayPal Debit MasterCards.

The final-swipe theory

The relevant FlyerTalk thread already has thousands of datapoints and plenty of speculation about why this particular brand of card causes us so much grief. One theory floated there that has a certain amount of charm to it is the idea that OneVanilla cards can't be used for the final swipe in a PIN-based transaction. That certainly fits with my experience above: when using a single OneVanilla card, it's inherently also the last card to be used and returns an error.

While it will require further experimentation, if the problem really is related to swipe order, a customer desperate to use exclusively OneVanilla cards (and not other PIN-enabled debit cards, like those sold at grocery stores or office supply stores) could use (up to 4) OneVanilla cards, while being sure to leave a small balance that could then be paid for with cash.


I'll obviously continue reporting if I see any further changes to the OneVanilla landscape, but for now, I'm remaining calm. I'll continue buying OneVanilla cards as long as it makes sense to do so, while being sure not to carry more than I can comfortably unload without Walmart, should the situation there suddenly worsen.

Meanwhile, I'd love to hear from readers: have you noticed any patterns in your recent OneVanilla successes and failures?