I’ll just get this out of the way now—when it comes to getting cards graded for free, you can’t.
And no, this isn’t a clickbait headline or some trick I just pulled to get you to click into my website, because let’s face it, you’re asking the question anyway. I’m just providing a real answer because there doesn’t really seem to be one right now.
Now with that out of the way, let me rephrase that as you probably can’t get cards graded for free. And most likely not in the way you’re thinking.
Card grading is a service, just like dining out is a service provided by restaurants. If you asked the question “how do I get my dinner for free” 100 times, you’d probably be disappointed in the answer 99 of those times, if not all 100. Could you find a restaurant run by a buddy of yours who comps the bill? Sure. But you see what I’m getting at.
(I’d also like to mention that it’s not clear when PSA actually charges you for grading, and while we’d love to think it was in fact “free” because we aren’t charged up front, you’ll see the movement on your credit card once your submission is returned.)
Why? Well again, because grading is a service. You’re sending your cards off for professionals to grade them. (I’ve also heard many entry-level card collectors refer to the process as “minting” which, while not correct, could make a little sense since the process involves getting cards rated and hoping they are awarded a “mint” or “gem mint” designation.)
So, all of that said, let’s look at the positives, and while you can’t (most likely) get cards graded for free, there are ways to minimize your expenditure when getting cards graded in general.
I’ve also added an FAQ at the end of this post with common questions you might encounter when going through the card grading process.
How to Get Cards Graded
To get cards graded, you need to choose a grading company and then decide on the service level (how quickly you want the card graded and returned to you). Then, fill out the submission form, package the card, and then ship the package.
Here are the details:
1. Choose a Grading Service
Lucky for you, when it comes to having multiple service providers and sports card grading companies to choose from, one or maybe a couple of them are on the lower end of the price spectrum. This situation is When looking at the cost of grading a card, this is what you can expect:
- PSA: $50/card
- BGS: $35/card
- SGC: $30/card
(Of course, these numbers don’t tell the entire story, and there are actually prices lower than these, but they come with some caveats, which we will get into in a bit.)
Now, just for comparison’s sake, you can certainly get a card graded at $30 with SGC, but you also should probably consider your goals before doing so.
Meaning, there are a number of reasons to get a card graded. One of them is to increase the value of your card, and another is to beautify and protect your card for safe-keeping.
In this case, if you’re going to go with SGC, there is a very good chance the resale value of the card compared to what it would have been with PSA will be lower. So, on one hand, you’re saving money on the cost, but your value isn’t increasing as much as it could.
But if you’re simply grading to keep a card in your collection, and all you’re really concerned with is that cost and the look of the slab, then by all means go ahead!
2. Decide on a Service Level (Turnaround Time)
While we just listed prices above, there are actually a few ways to get prices even lower—but doing so requires a sacrifice on your end.
With PSA, $50 is for grading at the Economy level, which means your card will be returned 45-90 days after being processed. Have time? There is a Value option for $30 with a 90-120-day turnaround time, and a Bulk option for $20 with a 120-day turnaround time.
That said, to be able to get the $30, you’ll need to join the PSA Collector’s Club for $99 per year. There are more details, but you see what’s happening? As we make our way closer to the free or zero cost, there are stipulations and separate, upfront costs.
It’s not just PSA—for instance, you could grade for $25/card with BGS, but you’d have to sacrifice your subgrades for doing so, which again, will probably reduce the value of the card when compared to a card with subgrades.
3. Fill Out Grading Submission Forms
Every grading company is going to have a different process, but most of them revolve around creating an online account and then filling out some basic information about your cards, your address, etc.
For example, when grading with PSA, these are the different steps of the online submission process:
I encourage you to create an account and get a feel for the process yourself, but to summarize the different steps:
Item Type: This is where you choose the item you’ll be submitting. If cards, your item type will almost always be the first option (regular-sized)
Submission Type: Again, most of the time you’ll choose “grading” here. You might be wondering what a reholder is—I’ve detailed that here, only for CSG: CSG Reholder Info
Service Level: As mentioned above, the service level is how fast you want your card graded. Also note the “declared value” of your card is important here because you can only select certain levels based on that figure (more in the FAQs, but declared value is a value estimate of the item after it has been graded).
Item Entry: Here you simply type in and select the description of the card you’re grading.
The rest is pretty self-explanatory as you’ll need to fill out your shipping and payment info, review all of your details, and then submit. Note that you aren’t being charged at this time, and you aren’t held to the submission you fill out. Really, the formal process doesn’t begin until PSA receives your card(s), so you can go through and create a submission, and then simply not send the card if you’re not ready.
4. Package for Shipment
All that’s left to do now is package your card for shipment. Again, each grading service is going to have different guidelines. For PSA, it’s important to know that they prefer you submit your cards in Card Savers rather than Top Loaders. They will provide additional shipping guidance and details once you complete your online submission. I always recommend insuring your package as well.
Other Low-Cost Options
Given the above, if the cost is still simply too much for you, here are a few additional options.
Grade but Don’t Grade
OK, this one is a bit of a cop out, but you are looking for free, right? Well, how about “grading” your card yourself? There are a number of card scanner apps, which allow you to simply snap a photo of your card and then receive some sort of an idea of what it might grade.
I’ll say that these apps can vary greatly in the grade they assign based on lighting, angle, and more. Not to mention that if the app says your card is a GEM Mint 10, it doesn’t mean anything at all other than info for your own personal knowledge. You don’t get a slab or anything. And if you send that card into PSA, they use their own authentication process to assign it its true grade.
Slab but Don’t “Grade”
To take the above one step further, let’s say you do only only want to grade a card for your personal collection. Well, because some people use “grade” and “slab” interchangeably anyway, did you know you could buy “slabs” off Amazon?
(Don’t mind the fact that the slab says “Michael Jordan” yet pictures a football player.)
Anyway, if slabbing is in fact enough of a “grading” experience for you, then you’re all set. That said, it’s still not free, right?
Last but not least, a lot of the confusion around getting cards graded for free might stem from this PSA article, which while from 2010, seems to still pop-up when searching for an answer.
Interestingly enough, the article is advertising PSA’s Photograde™ Online, which was touted as “a free, new online service from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), helps hobbyists gain a better understanding of the PSA Grading Standards and how they apply to their cards by providing a visual tour.
Thus, it’s actually not a way to grade cards, but instead provides examples of what different grades might look like using high-res images of the same legendary baseball card. Really cool – and free – but again, not a true grading experience.
Anyway, if I come across a way to grade cards for free, I’ll run right back here and post my findings! If you do have some knowledge to share, feel free to contact me. Until then, feel free to consult the FAQ for more general card grading information:
PSA is the most popular grading company, with others like Beckett (BGS), SGC, and CSG falling in line behind them.
All grading companies are not created equal, with the main differences between them being turnaround time, costs, look and feel of the slab, and resale value.
Turnaround time is the estimate of the number of days it will take the grading company to grade your card submission. For example, an estimated turnaround time of 45 days means it will probably take around 45 days for your card to be graded and turned around back to you once it has been graded.
You’ll only want to think about the reholder service option once you have a graded card in your possession. Meaning, a reholder is taking a card out of a graded slab and replacing it with a newer slab. For example, when CSG updated the look of their slabs, the reholder service was a popular option.
PSA recommends you send cards to be graded in Card Saver I holders. You should also note the difference between Card Saver I and Card Saver II.
Declared value is how much you think the card will be worth once it has been graded. Thus, to arrive at a declared value, you must estimate the grade you think your card will receive and how much that graded card will be worth. (You can check out eBay sold card data to get a feel for value.) If you’re wrong, it’s usually OK unless you declare too low of a value and the actual value bumps your card into a higher service level tier.