Minimum font-size for credit card fine-print

The new US credit-card bill specifies a minimum type-size and a list of approved fonts for the terms and conditions, to replace the mind-clouding teeny-weeny eye-strain-o-rama font that normally fills a Bible-sized tome that accompanies your standard credit card.
Section 122 of the Truth in Lending Act (U.S.C. 1632) is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:

"(d) Minimum type-size and font requirement for credit card applications and disclosures. -All written information, provisions, and terms in or on any application, solicitation, contract, or agreement for any credit card account under an open end consumer credit plan, and all written information included in or on any disclosure required under this chapter with respect to any such account, shall appear-

"(1) in not less than 12-point type; and

"(2) in any font other than a font which the Board has designated, in regulations under this section, as a font that inhibits readability.".

H. R. 627 (via Kottke)


  1. WHOA 12 point is MASSIVE–this is a good sign, as even if they compromise it down to 8pt or so, still very readable. Bargain big, always.

  2. 12 point type is actually quite large. I would have thought the minimum size would be closer to 8. I wonder if there are tracking and leading requirements too? Poor tracking and leading could seriously hinder legibility.

  3. Is that a good thing? Maybe for the U.S. Postal Service, but I don’t see this as a plus for consumers since the legalese is unreadable.

    Anyone who has an IRA or 401K gets mailings of dense legalese every few months explaining the details of their plans: I still have no effing clue what any of it is.

    But like I said at the outset, now the postal service will get more business. Heck, just today I got a notice from a CC card company I deal with that their privacy terms have changed. Hooray! Did I read it? No. It makes no difference.

    Printed by CC company.
    Shoved in an envelope.
    Bulk mailed via multiple forms of transportation.
    Opened and ripped to shreds and placed in the recycling bin.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that.

  4. It can be in 24 point font, or 72 point font. The average American simply won’t read it.

    I was in a bank a few months ago, setting up a new account. Part of the process involved registering me for their on-line banking system. The clerk used the computer on her desk, having me type in a username and password. Next came the screen where I was to accept the ToS and Privacy Policy–the typical text window with the little tiny scroll bar and volumes of text, with the big “Accept” and “Do Not Accept” button under it.

    “Do you want me to click Accept?” she asked me.

    “No. I haven’t had a chance to read through the document. How could I possibly accept something I haven’t even read?”

    She just looked at me for a good 10 seconds. “But, you have to click Accept! It’s the only way to set up the account!”

    I got the distinct impression that I was the first person to ever refuse to agree without reading the fine print.

    An almost identical thing happened the last time I renewed my cell phone contract. The fellow was not only surprised, but downright affronted that I took the time to read through the loooooong ToS agreement printed out in tiny font on a strip of cash register receipt paper before signing it.

    Bottom line: the problem isn’t too small a font. It’s a deep-rooted culture that deems it excessively persnickety, quixotic, or downright rude to actually read what you are signing.

  5. But did it say anything about it not being in Klingon huh? Yeah, betcha didn’t think of that did ya.

    Jinx! Since we said the same thing essentially.

    If you think that’s something, the only time I ever felt it was truly worth my time to read fine print was when my mother and father were hospitalized two different times. The end results? The clerks whoever the idiots were with the clipboards leaned into me harder and gave me more crap because I dared give them grief over that.

    Golly gee. My mom and dad are being hospitalized and I should just gloss over this form so you can get out at 5:00pm.

    The problem is America is a litigious society and nobody trusts anyone. Thus this garbage.

  7. @ Jack: Jinx! Since we said the same thing essentially.

    Ha ha, you are right! Except from different perspectives. I was on the side of the nerd minority who insists on reading these things, and you were in the sensible camp who have better things to do with their time.

    For the record: Like you, I don’t read everything sent to me by my retirement fund. There’s a limit to my patience. I do, however, “opt-out” of every privacy policy change that comes my way. Learn to scan for the opt-out option; it’s generally pretty easy.

    Also for the record: I would gladly pay for an unaffiliated subscription service (think Consumer Reports for EULAs and TOSs) which read, digested, and translated these lengthy contracts into digestible prose.

  8. I was once one of those people that gave others the “benefit of the doubt.” I didn’t read the TOS of a web hosting company a couple years ago and signed up for a year of e-commerce hosting for $1100. They basically fubar’d the entire thing so badly that I finally had to say, wow, thanks for your effort, but clearly you aren’t set up to do what you promised to do. I was basically lied to by a sales rep (again, my naivete) and the company could not fulfill it’s promises. The catch? They didn’t refund me. The TOS said “no refunds.” A filed with the district attorney of Delaware and they sided with the company. $1100 for nothing. They seemed so legit, too…sigh.

    1. How many homeowners don’t even know whether their mortgages are fixed or adjustable?

  9. Size 12 is not massive if you have poor eyesight.

    But I think this issue is never going to go away until we address the style of small print writing. The size is not the main problem.

    If contracts had to pass a comsumer test before being enforcable I think that’d be a great move. If it’s put before a jury of random citizens, and only 5% of them understand what it says, then the company has to rewrite it.

    This might give too much power to consumers, but I think ‘dumbing down’ contracts would be great. It might actually put pressure on companies to avoid business models which rely on complicated contracts.

  10. @Antinous: How many homeowners don’t even know whether their mortgages are fixed or adjustable?

    I would hope that even people who read nothing else would read the fine print on something like this! Even the most book-hating, anti-intellectual All-Amurican ought to have at least a couple of neurons telling him that it’s in his best interest to do a bit of research before signing a 30-year mortgage…

    However, I always tend to overestimate my fellow human beings. sigh

  11. I concur that font size is probably not the issue. I read the terms of service I was agreeing to for an airline ticket the other day. A brief quotation:


    Yes, I agreed to it. I have no idea what it means. More than that, even if I knew what terms like “end-on-end” mean, it says in one place they are permitted, later that they are not. Most of it is not even written in complete sentences.

    I agree that we have a cultural problem. The contracts are not expected to be read, nor are they actually read. So all manner of dubious requirement is inserted (mandatory binding arbitration being one). Fundamentally, there is a power mismatch between the consumer and the business–they have only to write one document, and can hire a dozen lawyers to do it, while we have to read dozens and have (most of us anyway) no legal training.

    A solution might be to create a collection of specific contracts or contract terms, which can be summarized by third parties. Require that all non-negotiated contracts be either signed face-to-face (maybe even notarized) or be one of the standard contracts with simple, clear, short descriptions.

    Creative Commons has done a wonderful job of describing their contracts in a few words (even icons). I would love to see banks, credit card companies, etc. be required to do the same thing.

  12. @13 Hans:

    Yes, mandatory binding arbitration is a huge problem, and a real sign of the power mismatch between the consumer and the business.

    The fundamental mismatch is that the business is able to present the consumer with a contract which is entirely non-negotiable (just try crossing out anything in a TOS and getting a clerk or manager to initial it!) but the consumer is not able to present a similar contract of any kind.

    Before he started running for president, Ralph Nader used to advocate for large, organized “consumer unions” which would be able to leverage this kind of bargaining power with corporations. I feel like the time is still very ripe for this idea.

    What if a million people who wanted a credit card got together and wrote up their acceptable terms, then offered their business to any credit card company willing to meet them?

  13. How many more trees are we going to kill to increase the font size of a document no one reads?

    Given the number of credit cards in America and the number of new terms the banks are constantly adding, this could be a serious blow for tree-huggers everywhere.

    Doesn’t the magic of the Interwebs let us view and print any document, in any typeface and size, anywhere, any time?

    More to the point, though, this is one instance where improved disclosure is not the solution. The problem is not a lack of transparency in lending. The problem is that the entire banking system is rigged against consumers, who have no choice but to participate in it. The contracts are adhesion contracts, which lack mutual assent. In theory, they are illegal as a matter of law.

    This is an amusing example of political theatrics. Instead of doing something useful – bringing back usury laws, relaxing bankruptcy laws, nationalizing the banks, contracting the economy – Congress is giving us a show. Specifying font sizes and approved fonts for contracts that are already illegal? Who do they think they’re kidding? This is what passes for change in Corporate America.

    I bet the paper lobby was behind it.

  14. I’m wondering whether anyone has designed a font deliberately optimised (pessimised?) to be difficult to read legalese in whilst looking respectably businesslike.

  15. ACB: It wouldn’t be hard to use already existing ‘respectful’ typefaces to do that, but it would be a bit obvious. Small print standardly goes against the normal rules used to make type easily legible though: it has long line widths, little white space around it, no paragraphs. Often the titles and subtitles, if there are any, are in the same format as the body text. This achieves what you’re talking about much more subtly, because most people don’t think the layout of text make have a big diffrence to its legibility.

  16. I want to know what in the heck:

    “(2) in any font other than a font which the Board has designated, in regulations under this section, as a font that inhibits readability.”.


  17. At least if its largely, borrowers won’t be able to carp about the “fine print” after they default. Btw, the reason no one reads that stuff is because they know they can walk away if the going gets rough, like many are now doing, leaving the rest of us to subsidize their extravagance.

  18. #4 @ Jack – There was also a section in the house version of the bill that required terms to be posted on line. So, while this doesn’t solve the problem of contracts not being written in english, we should at least be a little greener in our legalese.

    I have to say that I don’t really care for this law, however. I’m one of those people that never pays a credit card fee and gets a decent rewards program. When a credit card company tries to screw me – and they always do – I call them up and tell them to stop or close the account. They always back down. The only thing I see this bill doing to me is making my bargaining with credit card companies that much harder. It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts to these new laws.

  19. I hope the standards also specify that the fine print can’t be in all CAPS, which is unreadable in any font in any size. All CAPS drive my astigmatism crazy.

  20. For reference, 12-point type is generally what you’ll see in newspaper body copy (though some go to 10.5 or 11).

    Of course, that reference may not mean much these days…

  21. Here’s hoping the massive 12-point limit will force Credit Card companies to be more concise. They’re not going to want to spend extra in printing costs to get all their mumbo-jumbo across multiple pages in the at-least doubled font size to what they are used to.

    Get to the point!!

  22. Interesting…

    I’m an artist who’s made a lot of prints over the years with 4 point Times and very condensed leading on very large pieces of paper – as I was told at the time that was the smallest size not to have been successfully contested in a contract dispute in the UK – so I was in theory working with a font or material at the edge of legality as well as legibility.

    We have a different relationship to text at that smaller scale – I think we look at it like an object first (The Small Print…). It’s a decision to enter and read it that’s not just to do with the length of the text but a shift of mode – the way that we read it seems to take place in a more private space than a larger font (think of the self-consciousness if you try to read the full list of credits on a movie poster in the subway) – perhaps because two people would not normally be capable of reading small print at the same time. My work certainly would trade off that discernible shift from viewing to reading – and that sense of becoming implicated in the processes of that text before we’ve even finished the first word (let alone digested and agreed to terms and conditions).
    Nice link.

  23. @4, ah, but see if companies want to keep costs down, they’ll have to simplify the legalese so more can fit on the page. Simplifying will of course enable anyone to read it.

    The more I read about this idea, the better is sounds.

  24. This is bad for a number of reasons:

    – it’s just going to increase the amount of pages, which means a large environmental impact from cutting down trees to increased delivery costs.

    – new costs, as always, will be passed onto the consumer. they’re not going to cut down and make things more efficient — they’ll find new surcharges and ways to bill.

    – this doesn’t solve any actual issue of rights or understandability – it just feigns addressing these issues by printing things larger.

    A real solution would be:

    – Enact a law that tightly regulates the industry , especially where the predatory issues are.

    – Enact a law that limits how long the contracts can be

    – Enact a law that requires non-legal plain-text descriptions of the contract, so people understand what it means without having an expert present.

    This is just ripping a piece of old, dirty, masking tape off of something and putting it on a cut and saying “Um, look, band aid!”


    Ha ha, you are right! Except from different perspectives. I was on the side of the nerd minority who insists on reading these things, and you were in the sensible camp who have better things to do with their time.

    Well, my attitude is simple: If it’s an established company and an established product, I’m not too worried. But if I ask for one thing and then an attempt is made to up-sell me, I don’t read the document… I ask questions…

    Case in point: Washington Mutual Bank.

    4-5 years ago I wanted to open a basic account there, and the second they asked about the amount I had they suddenly lit up and the next thing you know the account rep has her “friend” there attempting to up-sell me into another type of account. I don’t need to read the terms to realize these folks are trying to fleece me. And you know what type of account they wanted me to go into? One that was tied to the mortgage business WaMU was so hot on at the time…

    I left the bank with my normal account and the implication by not going into this “new” account I was tossing my money away.

    Now WaMU is gone and my money is fine.

    Also, as far as an Internet hosting contracts go, sorry but the fine print has nothing to do with real experience. Especially with a hosting service. Just do research online and read up on experiences and then ask questions before you sign up.

    My general attitude is that consumers need to “grow a pair” and reading contracts is not always the best way to do this. You need to ask questions and ask questions and keep on asking questions and research things before you sign and then ask again.

    You’ll learn more that way. And you can also read the salesman/seller to better make sure you’re dealing with people who will work with you. Because if they won’t deal with you before the transaction, there is no way they will work with you after the fact.

  26. #22, Inkstain:

    In typography, point has a very distinct meaning: 1/72nd of an inch.

    …except when it doesn’t. The wikipedia link above gives loads of different sizes that have been used as a typographic point, from 188 to 400um.

    I admit that 1/72″ is (by far) the most common meaning, I just find it odd that legislation would use this unit without defining it more precisely.

  27. Several pages of type @ 12 pt will be too expensive to print. They will have to edit it down and make it simpler just to make it fit on a single page or less. So yes, this is a good thing: the end result will be more straightforward, readable legalese that people might actually read!

  28. How about just regulating the types of agreements that can be made so that the CC industries have to pick a standard one and can’t arbitrarily change the text of the agreement. So Suzie will have Standard Plan A and Jenny will have Standard Plan B and the only two things the CC companies can specify when they sign these two up would be the limit and the rate. Take away all the complications.

  29. “…except when it doesn’t. The wikipedia link above gives loads of different sizes that have been used as a typographic point, from 188 to 400um.

    I admit that 1/72″ is (by far) the most common meaning, I just find it odd that legislation would use this unit without defining it more precisely.”

    Emphasis being *have been* used. Despite what many people think of the legal system, common definition of words apply unless otherwise stated, and appealing to definitions of a point that are decades out of use isn’t going to get you victory by technicality.

    And regardless, the non-standard definitions of a point are only fractions of a percent different than the standard ones. It would be almost impossible to discern the difference.

  30. The fundamental mismatch is that the business is able to present the consumer with a contract which is entirely non-negotiable (just try crossing out anything in a TOS and getting a clerk or manager to initial it!) but the consumer is not able to present a similar contract of any kind.

    You sometimes get a clerk clueless enough to initial them — I did it once with t-mo, but it wasn’t a case where it mattered.

  31. @#26 Jack: My general attitude is that consumers need to “grow a pair” and reading contracts is not always the best way to do this. You need to ask questions

    Which only works if the clerk/salesperson is both really knowledgeable and scrupulously honest.

    I recently purchased some flooring for a home improvement project, and the sales person (the long-time owner of the flooring store, who certainly knew his business) outright lied to me about the conditions of the warranty. He was very convincing, but I read the fine print anyway and when I pointed out the discrepancy he just shrugged.

    The cell phone EULA I mentioned earlier specifically stated that its terms were binding and anything the salesperson might claim or promise was not.

    Yes, asking lots of questions is a very valuable tool, but at the end of the day the only thing binding about the agreement is the written contract.

  32. I find it curious that the Act says nothing about kerning or horizontal compression. This seems like an omission that gives credit card companies a way to still make text largely unreadable. I just went into InDesign and adjusted text at 12 points but with 60% horizontal compression. Technically, it was readable, but it hurt my eyes. A stronger provision would have specified a font (e.g., Times), a point size, interline spacing AND a requirement that the text not be kerned or compressed in any way. Trust me, the lenders are going to compress their text!

  33. Point number 2 essentially creates an incentive for the creation of new, unreadable, fonts.

    I think they would’ve required that companies use specific fonts that have already been approved, but the way that it reads a new font unreadable in nature but not designated as such, would be perfectly fine- very strange.

  34. They _also_ ought to include a rule that requires that each individual contract contain a URL which locates the text of that individual contract in an XML-based format (ODF?). It should also probably include some kind of digest or hash to let you identify if it has been changed.

    That way, if you have a computer you can download the text and read it at whatever font size you want (or use it in a text-to-speech program or whatever)

  35. #41 my read is that “Hey, if you catch us with a bad font until it is added to the “Board’s” bad font list we can use what we want. Oh, and we own the Board. Ha ha.

    I have come to the conclusion that while “The consumer will decide.” may sell well to some, those who offer it are incapable of seeing that the consumer is deciding: By going to Congress after the consumer is left with no choice but pay up. The sad part is that Congress is owned by the same people doing the sales pitch, and in the end what we get as a Public Law (are secret laws Public Laws? Only a lawyer would know for sure.) that is a whitewash job over the real issues. That’s why Cox is bending over to offer me a la cart TV channels. Oh I’m sorry, they want to “give” me HBO for a year, not trade the Spanish channels or the shopping channels, or the sports channels for CNN or something else I could use.

  36. Legibility and readability depend on much more than point size. Kerning, tracking, leading, line length, typeface, and color/contrast are equally important.

    Since MS Word only gives you easy control over point size and typeface, that’s all most people are aware of. A quick read of the Wikipedia entry on typography would be nice before legislating in details:

  37. #30 et al.

    Just because you make the point size bigger, thereby making the company use fewer words doesn’t mean it can’t look utterly uncomprehensible.

    You don’t need lots of words to bamboozle, you just need fewer words that don’t make all that much sense. If an unscrupulous company really wants to screw you over they’ll think of a way.

    Haha, the Recaptcha here was “mansions monetary”

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