Can You Buy Stuff Online Without a Credit Card?

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Last week, Apple introduced OS X Lion, the newest version of its Mac operating system. Among the usual tech buzz about features, innovations and glitches was Apple’s striking choice to make OS X Lion  available only via the Mac App Store — you can’t buy the software on a CD at a store.

If you don’t have a credit card, you can buy an Apple gift card for the $29.99 cost of the upgrade and use that. (This page walks you through how to set up a Mac App Store account without a credit card.) Still, it raises the question: How can a consumer navigate in today’s increasingly digital retail universe without a credit card?

It’s a legitimate concern. Many people today have either sworn off credit cards in an effort to live more frugally or have had their access to credit restricted or even cut off due to the recession.

If you have a debit card, you can use that instead, but that’s not an ideal solution. If a merchant’s database is hacked and a cybercrook goes on a shopping spree with your number, it’s a much bigger hassle if they’re spending the contents of your checking account as opposed to your credit limit.

Another option is to buy a prepaid, general purpose, reloadable debit card. That’s going to come the closest to approximating a credit card shopping experience. The drawback is that prepaid cards can be expensive to use on account of the fees they charge.

(MORE: The Banks’ Great Plastic Hope: Prepaid Debit Cards)

We took a look at a few popular online shopping destinations to find out how easy (or not) it is to pay if you don’t have or don’t want to use a credit card.

iTunes: If you want to download music, movies or other media on iTunes without a credit card, the easiest way is to buy an iTunes gift card at a brick and mortar retailer. Unlike general-purpose prepaid cards, you’re not charged anything above the face value of the card.

Amazon: The bookseller-turned-web-behemoth is pretty accommodating to customers without credit cards. Buyers can make purchases through their checking accounts for almost anything on the site, including things sold by third-party sellers, with a few exceptions. Amazon also offers its Amazon Payments system, which essentially lets you use Amazon’s digital “cash register” to pay for items on a handful of other websites (shown here), giving web shoppers another option for online purchases without a credit card or debit card.

Groupon: Unfortunately for lovers of cut-rate hot air balloon rides and teeth-whitening services, a company rep for Groupon says you’ll need either a credit or debit card to snag Groupon’s daily deals.

PayPal: A slew of smaller retailers — not to mention giants like eBay — give customers the option of paying via PayPal, which in turn gives customers the option of making payments using their checking account information.