Last Updated On: August 30th, 2023
Few factors count toward a card’s overall value as much as quality. A folded edge, creased corner, or faded portrait could be the difference between a card worth some pocket change and the same card going for hundreds of dollars in gem mint condition.
Because of this, it’s important for collectors to be fully informed about ways to protect a valuable sports card. Two of the most common ways to protect your cards are using a Top Loader vs. Card Saver.
In this post, we’ll walk through Top Loaders vs. Card Savers, explaining the benefits and drawbacks of each, size guides to determine the best fit for small or large cards, which case is preferred by grading companies, and we’ll discuss alternative case types as well.
Let’s protect some cards!
Table of Contents
Overview of Top Loaders & Card Savers
Chances are, if you’ve been in the hobby for even a little time, you’ve encountered top loaders and card savers. At the most basic, both are designed to provide a barrier between the dangers of the outside world and a sports card, ideally to preserve its quality and condition.
What are Top Loaders?
Top loaders are one of the most common forms of card protection in the hobby. A 3″x4″ rectangle, top loaders are designed to be larger than the card they hold, so that the edges and corners of the card are encased and protected.
But protected by what, exactly? Top loaders are made of a rigid PVC plastic that prevents a card from bending, folding, or encountering any damage to its four corners.
Further, the top loader’s pouch doesn’t extend all the way out to the top loader’s edge. When you look at a top loader, you’ll see a small strip between its pouch and outer edge, which helps provide a little more protection by keeping the card away from the protector’s weaker edges.
How to Load a Card into a Top Loader
The name “top loader” comes directly from the way cards are inserted into it. The top of the case is open, creating a mouth that collectors can insert their card into (so that they are, quite literally, “top loading” the card). This top edge is the only edge that remains open and unsealed.
But before you even think about putting a raw card in the top loader, let’s take a step back. First, you’ll want to slide the card in a penny sleeve. The penny sleeve is a loose plastic pouch that generally conforms to the size specifications of a card. Essentially, it’s an added layer of protection that helps to keep dust and debris from landing onto the card from the open top.
Once you have your card inserted into a penny sleeve, you’re ready to put it in the top loader. The penny sleeve also adds a layer of protection between the top loader’s open mouth and the card’s corners, along with some additional friction when inside the top loader so that the card doesn’t shift easily. Be super careful to open the top loader wide when you put your card in so you don’t scuff up or bend any corners and edges!
There are several benefits to using a top loader versus a card saver. Here are a few:
A) Classic Look
The top loader’s uniform, easily stackable look is a classic. It makes for easy storage without taking up too much space.
B) Tougher Barrier
As we’ll see, the debate in strength between the top loader vs. card saver goes decisively to the former. Top loaders are rigid, meaning they’re less likely to bend and cause additional crease and fold damage to a card’s condition.
C) Great for PC and Shipping
It’s extremely common for sellers to ship cards in a top loader thanks to that rigid protective barrier. Additionally, the sleek design makes them excellent protectors for showing off a personal collection.
At 10 to 15 cents a case, top loaders are an excellent option from your wallet’s standpoint.
That said, there are a few cons to using top loaders. Let’s discuss:
A) PSA Will Steal Them
Here’s perhaps the biggest drawback behind top loaders: PSA frowns upon them. That’s not to say you can’t send PSA top loaded cards for grading, but they expressly prefer card savers (and will keep your top loader anyway). Additionally, PSA warns that cards sent in top loaders will experience delays in grading.
“For the protection of your items, you may want to insert your cards/tickets into a soft card sleeve or mylar before inserting into the Card Saver.
PSA advises against submitting in top loaders, hard acrylic cases or screw down holders.
Submissions received in these types of cases will experience delays in processing and the cases will not be returned with your submission.“– PSA
B) Open Mouth
The open mouth design poses a few flaws. First, dust and dirt can get into the card, which can then expose the card to the same. Second, if you drop a top loader, there’s nothing keeping the inserted card from flying out of the open mouth.
C) Penny Sleeves Needed
As mentioned, the proper way to keep cards in top loaders is to put them in a penny sleeve before. This means acquiring yet another protector, which means spending more money.
Best Brands of Top Loaders
Perhaps the most common top loader brand is Ultra PRO. These card holders are classics and come in an acid-free plastic, which prevents cards from losing color over time in storage.
But Ultra PRO isn’t alone. Another popular brand includes BCW, which produces combo packs that come with penny sleeves along with the top loaders. This saves collectors the hassle of buying two different protectors.
Outside of the big name brands, several highly-rated top loaders can be found on Amazon with free shipping, and fair prices.
Introduction to Card Savers
While top loaders come in many different brands, Card Saver is an example of a proprietary eponym. Essentially, this just means that there is an actual brand called “Card Saver” (by a company called Cardboard Gold) that started producing these protectors in 1991 and the design became so popular that any protector featuring that brand’s unique design began to be called a card saver. It’s like Band-Aids – there’s a brand named Band-Aid, but by and large the product is called a band-aid no matter which brand manufactured it.
Unlike top loaders, card savers are made of a “semi-rigid” Mylar plastic. That means that while the top loaders are virtually impossible to bend, there is a bit of give in the card savers.
The other key difference between a top loader vs. a card saver is dimension. While the top loaders are perfectly rectangular and are designed to be just a bit bigger than the dimensions of a normal sports card, card savers feature a ½’ lip, giving the card saver a longer top.
Additionally, and similar to top loaders, card savers come in a variety of sizes designed to fit the specific needs of an individual collector’s card (more on that in a moment!).
How to Load a Card into a Card Saver
Loading a card into a Card Saver isn’t all that much different from a top loader. But the functionality of the lip allows a collector to have a sort of “runway” to insert a card into a Card Saver, a feature missing from the lip-less top loader.
Check out this video for an easy how-to-insert guide:
A) PSA and BGS Approved
Arguably the biggest draw for Card Saver is the fact that it’s the only brand mentioned and preferred by PSA and Beckett by name. If you’re serious about getting raw cards graded (which also probably means you’re serious about flipping cards), then you’ll need to have card savers handy.
At just about 15 cents per card saver, they’re similar to top loaders in terms of affordability, making them excellent for any collector’s budget.
C) Easy Insertion
The lip works wonders for inserting cards into the card saver. While top loaders force you to get it just right when inserting, it’s easy to ride the card saver’s lip into its protective pouch.
A) Awkward Size
While the top loaders are nice and sleek rectangles meant to fit around a card, the card saver’s lip isn’t quite so eye-catching and has a tendency to break. In addition, that lip makes for an awkward fit when trying to store them, as many storage boxes are designed to fit top loader-esque protectors.
B) Semi-Rigid Plastic
Look, card savers are still rigid plastic, but only “semi-rigid.” That means they are indeed more susceptible to bending than top loaders. The semi-rigid plastic is also more prone to naturally bending in the middle over time, which will cause the card to form a crescent shape instead of its crisp straight edge.
Best Brands of Card Savers
Like we mentioned above, the original Card Savers come from one specific place: Cardboard Gold. Since 1991, Cardboard Gold has been producing its own take on the sports card protector, and has four varieties: Card Saver 1; Card Saver 2; Card Saver 3; and Card Saver 4 (more on the differences in a bit).
While other brands make “card savers,” they’re typically listed as a “semi-rigid card holder,” as is the case with BCW, another popular card saver brand.
Size Guide for Top Loaders and Card Savers
Given the vast number of card producers out there (and over the course of trading card history), it’s no surprise that cards come in all shapes and sizes. Patch cards are significantly thicker than standards, while Yugioh cards are slightly smaller than traditional sports cards.
But the ultimate goal is the same, right? Protect your cards! So whether you’re looking for the right card holder to protect a 1st Edition Pokemon Charizard or Charles Barkley rookie card from 1986 Fleer, we’ve got you covered below.
Different Types of Top Loaders
If you want to protect a sports card with a patch, you’ll need something a bit thicker than a standard top loader. Thankfully, Wolfgang Sport has an awesome guide for picking out the right top loader based on your specific needs. Here’s a summary guide:
Note: top loader cases are not typically measured in inches or millimeters when it comes to thickness. Rather, when you search top loaders, you’ll likely see the width measured in “points.” For reference, one point equals 0.001 inches (or 0.025 millimeters).
Top Loader Size Guide Table
|Size (points)||Also Known As||Ideal For||Buy on Amazon|
|20||“Most Common” or “Standard”||Fit for any standard, non-patch card. Also good for less-valuable cards.||Buy on Amazon|
|35||“Regular Card Holder”||NBA Panini Prizm cards||Buy on Amazon|
|55||“Thick Holder”||MLB Bowman Chrome Auto||Buy on Amazon|
|75||“Extra Thick Holder”||Most patch and jersey auto cards||Buy on Amazon|
|100||“Game-Used Size”||Larger patch and jersey cards||Buy on Amazon|
|120 or 130||“Memorabilia Size”||National Treasures and Flawless Brands; any game-used material like bats, jerseys, gloves, etc.||Buy on Amazon|
|180||“Super Thick Holder”||Suitable for largest patch cards||Buy on Amazon|
|260||“Super Thick Holder”||Also good for largest patch cards (e.g. helmet patch)||Buy on Amazon|
Different Types of Card Savers
When it comes to Card Savers, collectors have multiple sizes to choose from, including Type I, II, III, and IV from Cardboard Gold.
Type I has a width of 3.3″ and height of 4.875″, including the half-inch lip. Type II is a bit smaller, so it provides a more snug fit coming in at 3″x4.5″. Accordingly, the Type I Card Saver is more common as it offers a bit more flexibility in terms of space, and is the best card saver for grading cards with PSA (standard size cards, of course).
Type III is 3.33″ wide and 5.5″ tall, making them ideal for retro basketball and football cards called “tall boys.”
Type IV is 4.5″ wide and 7.125″ tall, making them the largest of the Card Saver brand, and best for other oversized cards up to 4″x6″ in size. They’re also suitable for thicker cards.
Top Loader vs. Card Saver Sizing Summary Table
When in doubt, make sure you measure your card to ensure that you get the right size protector. Also, never forget to pack a card in a penny sleeve before inserting in either a card saver or top loader.
Here’s a quick reference for each:
|Case Type||Size||Best Fit||Approx. Pricing||Buy on Amazon|
|Standard Top Loader||3.0″x4.0″ (thickness < 75 pts)||All standard size sports/trading cards||$24/200 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Thick Top Loader||3.0″x4.0″ (thickness >75 pts)||Patch, game-used material cards, National Treasures and Flawless brands||$14/25 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Top Loader Tobacco Size||1.4375″x2.625″||Mini Cards, usually from early age of sports cards (Prewar, Goudey’s, etc.)||$7/25 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Card Saver I||3.3″x4.875″||Standard cards sent in for grading||$30/200 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Card Saver II||3″x4.5″||Smaller, retro cards; also standard cards, but NOTE: will be a snugger fit than Card Saver I||$24/50 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Card Saver III||3.33″x5.5″||Tall Boy cards from the 1970s and 1980s||$28/100 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
|Card Saver IV||4.5″x7.125″||Thick or oversized cards up to 4″x6″ in size||$22/50 ct.||Buy on Amazon|
Choosing Between a Top Loader vs. Card Saver
The decision between top loader vs. card saver usually comes down to the individual collector’s specific aims. Will the card you’re looking to protect be more snug in a top loader? Are you looking to get a card graded? Is it a personal collection or a storefront? Here’s what to consider:
For Storage and Protection
- Top Loaders
By and large, the top loader is the way to go in terms of storage and protection, for a few reasons.
First, the rigid plastic is far more durable than the card saver’s semi-rigid holder. And with various thickness options to choose from, top loaders have you covered for just about any card from any era.
Second, it’s hard to beat the stack-ability of top loaders. The hard plastic and rectangular design also makes the cards more aesthetically pleasing when all in one place.
Finally, top loaders fit just about any case neatly, ranging from shoeboxes to professional storage containers. Again, the half-inch lip of the card saver adds just a bit of length, making it challenging to fit many of them in smaller-to-standard containers.
For more details about the best ways to store your cards, be sure to head over to our complete storage guide.
When Shipping Cards
- Both Card Savers or Top Loaders
Unless you’re shipping for the express purpose of getting a card graded (more on that below), both card savers and top loaders are excellent options for protection. It’s also very common for shippers to sandwich the holder between two pieces of cardboard, which adds another layer of protection. That cardboard is then taped to the holder using tape.
Additionally, using painter’s tape to seal the top of card savers and top loaders is a common practice, as it reduces the chances a card wiggles around during transit and can be removed without leaving behind sticky residue.
Finally, invest in the bubble mailer. It’s simply the best for peace of mind on both the seller and buyer’s end.
Looking for more tips? Check out our comprehensive shipping guide that includes a step-by-step shipping process.
When Grading Cards
- Card Savers
As noted above, PSA prefers cards be sent for grading in card savers, as does Beckett and CGC. In fact, PSA goes so far as to recommend against sending cards in top loaders. Beckett and CGC, meanwhile, do not expressly warn against the top loaders.
That said, neither PSA nor Beckett will flat-out reject cards that come in top loaders. During the hobby’s boom during the pandemic, Card Savers were tough to come by, as everyone wanted to send in cards for grading and, at the time, PSA only accepted Card Saver holders. That rule was temporarily lifted in 2020, which turned into a permanent lift thereafter.
Alternatives to Top Loaders and Card Savers
We’d be remiss not to touch on a few alternatives to top loaders and card savers when it comes to protecting your cards. Outside of cardboard boxes for storing large amounts of low-value cards, here are a few options for storing singles that are worth more than just a few pennies each:
ONE-TOUCH® Magnetic Card Holders
If you’ve come this far, you might be wondering how collectors can get around the “open mouth” situation at the upper edge of top loaders and card savers. Once upon a time, you would have needed an entire toolkit, with a screwdriver and nails to completely bury your card in plastic.
Then came the ONE-TOUCH Magentic card holder from Ultra PRO. Instead of twisting screws into the plastic encasing, the ONE-TOUCH relies on a magnetic bond between the two pieces of plastic holding the card. In addition, the card comes with “diamond corners” designed to keep the corners of cards from bending or fraying.
Sounds great, right? Two downsides. First: price. At $2.00 per case, it can become extremely expensive to put a massive collection in magnetic holders. Second: PSA treats these the same as top loaders, which is to say they don’t love them and will not return them with the graded card.
That said, the magnetic holder is great for keeping a collection’s high-end card protected. It may not be right for, say, an Anthony Edwards Prizm Base card, but for that Joe Montana in excellent condition, it’s a great option.
And then we get to graded slabs. A “slab” is the plastic casing that grading companies put the graded card into after analyzing it. And from a stack-ability, aesthetic, and value perspective, it’s hard to beat. By and large, graded cards sell for higher than raw cards. So there’s value-added from that standpoint that you aren’t getting with top loaders and card savers. And the slabs are all uniform, adding to their eye-catching value.
That’s great and all, but this is an article about protection, not beauty. And when it comes to protection, there is some reason to be concerned about slabs. Back in 2016, the Baseball Hall of Fame warned against slabs, stating that they actually break cards from their graded casing when they come to the Hall.
“There are other reasons why cards in slabs are removed,” Sue MacKay, director of Collections at the Hall of Fame Museum, said at the time. “For instance, thicker slabs require more storage space, but the main reason we do it is we’re just not sure if the slabs might eventually damage the cards.”
The primary concern deals with potentially damaging acids from the plastic slabs seeping into the card, fading them and discoloring them over time. This is especially problematic for vulnerable cards, like early baseball cards. On the flip side, any damage done to a card is likely to be extremely long-term; there’s no immediate danger of a card being in a slab.
Another downside, of course, is price. PSA charges anywhere from $15 to $600 per graded card, making the slab an extremely pricy proposition when compared to the 15-cent top loader. That said, slabbed cards aren’t going anywhere. They remain an industry standard and can considerably add to the value of one’s collection. If you’re keen on grading your cards, there are cheaper grading companies that start around just $8 per card.
With the dust settled between the battle of Top Loader vs. Card Saver, the verdict is about which is better: it all depends. If you’re building primarily a personal collection, top loaders are the way to go. But if you plan on shipping to PSA frequently for grading, card savers are almost definitely your best friend. But one thing is abundantly clear: use at least some form of protection for your cards – it’s a great way to preserve a card’s long term quality.