It’s been just over a year since SEPTA rolled out the Key as its main form of fare payment. Since then, the transit authority has continuously grown the list of features that the swipe card can perform. The Key has already replaced paper transfers and Regional Rail fare. In the future, officials are considering adapting it to pay for PPA fares, too.

Now added to that list of features: your SEPTA Key can actually work as a debit card.

That’s been promised as a future perk for years, but it’s finally active. Backed by MasterCard, the functionality went live in spring of this year, though SEPTA only really started promoting it last month. You can set it up (choose a PIN, etc.) using the Key website.

The card isn’t linked to any specific bank account, which means you don’t even need a bank account to turn your Key card into a debit card.

In the Philly area, roughly 4 percent of people are “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have a checking or savings account. For them, this could make a difference — people without a bank account often incur extra fees when cashing checks and paying bills and miss out on opportunities for loans because they don’t have a documented financial history.

How does money get on the card, then? You can load funds a few different ways:

  • Automatically with Direct Deposit — your full paycheck can be deposited via ACH
  • Transferred from your bank account — if you set up a connection, you can transfer money from your regular checking or savings via the Key website
  •  In person — you can load cold hard cash at SEPTA fare kiosks and sales offices, plus participating retail locations

Voila, your Key-turned-debit-card can be used anywhere that accepts MasterCard.

One important rule: You’ve got to load a minimum of $5 onto the Key card.

The fine print

Will your money disappear into the SEPTA abyss? The transit authority insists it won’t. In fact, electronically, your MasterCard is totally separate from your SEPTA Travel Wallet (that’s where your fare money is stored).

But beware: there are a handful of fees associated with the Key that might sneak up on you.

  • $4.95 per month if you don’t keep at least $650 on the Key OR post 20 transactions per month
  • $4.95 if you need to replace the card
  • $3 per paper transaction summary, which will be mailed to you
  • $1 per bank transfer
  • $2 per reload at SEPTA fare kiosk or sales office
  • Between $2.95 and $4.95 per reload at a third party retail location
  • $1.95 per ATM withdrawal
  • $0.95 per declined ATM withdrawal/balance inquiry

Exactly how much money can you store on the Key card? And how much can you spend?

The contract is a little murky on those points — it states in one section that you can’t keep more than $1,000 on the Key at one time. But at another point, the contract states you’re good to keep $10,000 on the Key and spend up to $2,500 per day.

Pressed for clarification, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said he doesn’t know. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

No complaints…so far

So far, SEPTA counts 212 Key cards on which passengers have loaded independent funds for retail use. Out of those, 71 people liked the feature enough to do a reload, so far.

There have been a total of 282 retail transactions using the SEPTA Key — and, believe it or not, zero formal complaints.

Busch told Billy Penn that SEPTA hasn’t received any feedback at all (positive or negative) on the Key’s MasterCard functionality. He attributes that to the newness of the feature.

“We would expect it to take some more time before we hear from customers about their experiences,” Busch said. “We will closely monitor all feedback received and assist customers with questions they have moving forward.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...