Just about every online casino and bingo operator offers a “free” introductory bonus for joining their sites. From the site promotors’ point of view, it’s a no-brainer. The idea is to entice you to spend your hard-earned cash with them, rather than another site. After all, games are much the same wherever you play them, so any way of differentiating themselves from the competition and encouraging you to be loyal to them is, from their point of view, brilliant.

Really, there are two different kinds of introductory bonus. There is the free, “no deposit” cash, where you are given, usually a tenner, but sometimes more, just for signing up. This must be spent on games on the site. Or there is the deposit related bonus, where you are given money to spend on the games on site as a proportion of the amount you pay in. For example, a matched deposit offer (or 100% bonus) means that if you pay in £10, the site will give you another £10 to play with as well. Many sites offer far more: up to £60 in additional bonus cash to go with your tenner. There is usually a minimum deposit amount (£5 or £10 is typical) and a maximum too.

Sounds like a good deal. What’s the catch? Well, of course, you are right to be a little cautious, because nothing is ever truly “free”. There is indeed a catch, and that catch is what the sites like to call “wagering requirements”. Typically, for bingo, you will be required to spend around 4 x up to 10 x your deposit + bonus before you can withdraw any winnings. So if the requirement is 4 x, and you deposit a tenner, you will need to wager at least £80 (4 x £20) before cashing out. If you choose to play on slots, the requirement is higher, because the operators’ profit margin is lower on slots. So if you use your bonus to pay for spins, the requirement will typically be 10 x or even 20 x your deposit + bonus.

For casino sites, the requirement is usually around 30 x to 40 x your bonus, and sometimes your deposit + bonus. This is again because the profit margins for slots are slimmer. Furthermore, if you use your bonus cash to play casino table games, spending here does not usually count 100% toward your requirement, so you have to spend even more.

It is worth noting that the TV casinos charge even more. Some demand that you pay in at least 99 x your deposit + bonus. Deposit £10 and claim your “free” £20, and you would have to deposit the best part of £3,000 before making a claim (well someone has to pay for the studio, the presenters and all that TV time).

And remember that free “no deposit” offer we mentioned. These usually come with further strings attached, called conversion rates. These mean that even if you win when spending your bonus money, your prize will be capped, typically at around 4 x your bonus. So accept a free tenner, and your winnings will be limited to £40 maximum. Any further amounts will most likely be void.

What’s more, most sites (and indeed the TV casinos) also put a time limit on things too, so you will generally need to fulfil your wagering requirements within 28 days.

So, with all these strings attached, from the player’s point of view, is it all worth it? It can be, so long as you are fully aware of the terms and conditions and are happy that you can fulfil them. After all, it really is extra money you wouldn’t have had to play with otherwise. But the strings mean that you are effectively committed to spending much more of your own cash than you may have realised.

Always remember that if you are not happy with the terms, sites will invariably give you the option of refusing the bonus. Some will make this easy; others will require a fair bit of faffing and form filling before you can reject their kind offer.

But always check the terms and conditions before signing up. These are accessed in a variety of ways according to the specific site you are visiting, but usually via a link on the promotion details. Some sites are a bit naughty and make you wade through their main Terms & Conditions pages to find them. Many consider this tactic to be a bit of a warning flag: the best sites are clear and up front about their rules and regulations.

Remember that you are in control. You don’t have to tick that box, (or untick it, whichever the case may be). You decide if you want the bonus or not. Besides, there is also a further consideration. Some sites (only a very small minority at the moment, but slowly growing) offer a bonus with no wagering requirements at all. Yes, apart from a commitment from you to agree to “fair gaming”, you can claim your winnings as soon as you have made a deposit and played with some of your own cash. You can’t withdraw the accrual bonus cash, but you can claim any winnings derived from using them, without any further commitment of any kind.

So always remember, you have a choice.