Key takeaways

  • Check your credit score before applying for a credit card, as it can affect your chances of approval and the types of cards you qualify for.
  • There are four broad types of credit cards to choose from depending on your goals: credit-building cards, balance transfer cards, low-interest cards and rewards cards.
  • Analyze your spending habits and financial goals ahead of choosing a credit card by reviewing your end-of-year credit card summary or bank budgeting tools. This helps you find the credit cards most relevant to you.
  • Familiarize yourself with a credit card's ongoing interest rates and fees before applying, as these can impact the overall cost of using the card.

There’s no lack of options when you decide you want a new credit card. And when you’re bombarded with mail offers, advertisements and emails urging you to apply, making that decision can quickly get overwhelming. So if you’re not sure what to look for in a credit card or how to choose the right credit card for your lifestyle, these tips will help you narrow it down.

Your next credit card should be personalized to your needs — because that’s what makes it the right card for you. We’ll help you figure out what perks to keep an eye out for, as well as how to choose between rewards cards and whether the annual fees for them are worth it.

Check your credit score

Before deciding what kind of credit card you should get, it’s important to check your credit score first. Why? Because the strength of your credit score could potentially reduce or expand your options.

The credit score needed for certain cards and credit card issuers varies widely. Most of the top rewards credit cards require at least good credit, but there are also cards for people with just fair credit and for consumers who have no credit or a limited credit history.

You can check your credit score for free before starting your search for a card to help you decide which applications are worth your time. If your credit doesn’t look as good as you hoped, spend some time improving it before applying for a credit card. The most effective and easiest ways to improve credit include paying all your bills on time (or early) and paying down debt to lower your credit utilization.

Even if you have great credit and your pick of the best cards available, avoid applying for too many cards at once. Any time you apply for a new credit card, you’ll incur a hard pull on your credit report, which will temporarily drop your credit score by up to 10 points. Additionally, several hard pulls in a short time could hurt your chances of approval for cards in the near future.

Decide what you want your credit card to do for you

Once you know which types of cards you can qualify for, it’s time to research options. What do you want a credit card to do for you? You don’t have to choose just one type of credit card either.

Often, there’s a card that can help you fulfill multiple goals, like credit building and earning rewards or financing a new purchase and traveling more. But generally, credit cards tend to fall into certain categories that revolve around specific goals:

Bankrate Insight
Not sure which type of card fits you best? Find out with Bankrate’s Spender Type Tool.

Credit-building cards can help you improve your credit score

Responsibly using any credit card will improve your credit score over time, but some card issuers offer credit cards specifically designed for people with bad credit or limited credit history. They tend to be relatively easy to qualify for.

Look for credit-building cards that offer free FICO credit score access, credit limit increase reviews and paths to upgrade to a better card. These features are industry standards that help people improve their credit.

Credit-building cards come in a few basic types — most notably secured credit cards, unsecured credit-building cards and student credit cards.

Secured cards work like traditional credit cards, with one major difference: They require a security deposit when you open the account. Your deposit typically becomes your credit limit and is refundable when you close the card or upgrade to an unsecured card.

Unsecured credit-building cards do not require a security deposit. With no deposit required, lenders typically rely on a consumer’s credit score for approval. As a result, unsecured credit-building cards may be more difficult to obtain than a secured card.

Student credit cards are designed to help college students build their credit. Since most college students have little to no credit history, qualifying for one of these cards is typically fairly easy. The cards often come with lower credit limits and higher annual percentage rates (APRs). However, they may also offer perks and rewards — like the ability to earn cash back — that are not typically found on other types of credit-building cards.

Balance transfer credit cards can help you pay off existing debt

Balance transfer credit cards are an ideal choice if you need to pay off credit card debt. By transferring debt from one or more cards to a balance transfer card that offers a 0 percent intro APR, you can chip away at your balance without worrying about interest charges. Be sure to have a payoff plan in place before you start, as any balance that remains at the end of your intro APR period will be subject to the card’s regular APR.

If your current credit card has a high interest rate, a good balance transfer card with a low or 0 percent introductory APR can be a lifesaver as you work to pay down your debt efficiently and at a lower cost.


Money tip: Look for balance transfer credit cards that have at least 15 to 18 months of zero interest to help you save money on interest.

Low-interest credit cards can help you finance a big purchase

A low-interest credit card is a good fit if you need to finance expenses over time while minimizing interest charges. These cards tend to come in two major forms, offering either a lower ongoing rate than the average credit card APR or a 0 percent introductory APR on new purchases.

A card with a promotional APR on purchases makes the most sense if you have major expenses — such as buying new furniture, moving or a renovation — on the horizon. These cards allow you to pay off expenses over time while avoiding interest. Promotional APRs on new purchases typically last 12 to 21 months, after which any remaining balance is subject to the card’s regular APR.

Meanwhile, if you think you’ll carry a balance after the promotional APR period, or if you generally carry a balance from time to time, you should focus less on the introductory rate and more on the ongoing APR. Some of the best low-interest cards offer variable APR ranges that start around 17 percent. That might not sound low, but the average credit card APR is now more than 20 percent.

Bankrate Tip
If you’re looking for a low-interest credit card, you may want to start your search at credit unions or small banks. Those issuers charge credit card interest rates that were 8 to 10 percentage points lower than the 25 largest banks, according to a 2024 report from the CFPB.

Credit requirements for these cards vary, but you’ll usually need at least good credit to secure a decent ongoing APR.

Rewards credit cards can allow you to earn cash back, points or miles

Typically reserved for people with good and excellent credit scores, rewards credit cards are best suited to people who don’t need to worry about building credit and want to earn cash back or points via sign-up bonuses and purchases.

You have several types of rewards credit cards to consider:

  • Cash back cards. These typically earn a percentage back on your spending, which you can redeem for a direct deposit, statement credit or a check.
  • Points-earning cards. When you want versatility in how you redeem your rewards, a points card might be the best choice. Accumulate points instead of dollars as you spend. You generally have the option to redeem your points for cash back, travel, merchandise and more.
  • Miles-earning cards. Aspiring jetsetter? Rack up airline miles as you spend. You can redeem them for flights, usually with a particular brand or or partner airline.

If you’re comparing two cash back cards, consider your normal spending habits. Cards that earn elevated cash back on categories like groceries or gas are great for on-the-go families, while flat-rate cash back cards may be better for people who want a straightforward rewards strategy.

The amount of rewards you earn on each purchase can vary, but the best flat-rate cash back cards earn at least 2 percent cash back on all purchases. Others earn up to 5 percent back (or more) on bonus categories and 1 percent on everything else.

Meanwhile, rewards cards are great for people who want to bank points or miles for their next trip. Look for cards that earn more points and miles in categories you spend the most in — at least 3X points or miles per dollar. Like cash back cards, however, straightforward travel cards that offer 1X to 1.5X points or miles per dollar on all purchases are also available.

Analyze your current spending

What do you spend the most money on? You could make an estimate, but you don’t have to.

An often overlooked method of choosing a credit card is reviewing your highest spending categories on your current credit card.

A quick way to see this info is reviewing your year-end credit card summary. This separates your purchases by category throughout the year, plus it shows what you’ve paid in interest and fees. Knowing where your money goes is crucial when you want to find the right credit card.

For example, if you have a credit card with the highest rewards rate for gas and grocery purchases, but you spend mostly at restaurants and take the metro everywhere, then you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Or if you carry a balance throughout the year and see a high amount of total interest on your summary, it may be helpful for you to go with a low interest credit card or balance transfer card.


Money tip: Don’t have a credit card yet? That’s OK — most banks have an online budgeting feature with similar functions for breaking down your checking account spending.

To get the most out of your next credit card, it should fit your spending and goals — not the other way around.

Pick the card that offers the best value

Beyond the type of credit card, we recommend choosing a credit card with benefits and features that are relevant to you. Here are some perks to look for:

Secured and student credit cards

  • Credit line increases: When considering a secured credit card, look for options that reward responsible usage with periodic credit line increases. That usually means updating your income regularly with your card issuer, but the potential improvement to your credit score is worth it.
  • Graduation: The ultimate goal of getting a secured credit card or a student card is to eventually have good enough credit to get an unsecured card. Some cards make this transition easier by allowing you to graduate to an unsecured card when your credit improves or when you graduate college — no new application needed.

Low interest and 0 percent APR credit cards

  • Length of introductory 0 percent offer: No credit card offers 0 percent interest indefinitely, but you can find some top cards offering 0 percent introductory periods that are up to 21 months long.
  • No penalty APR or late fees: If you fall behind on your payments, some credit card companies charge costly fees or a penalty APR. If you’re still new to credit cards and don’t want a costly consequence for being late on a payment, consider looking for a card without these fees.

Rewards cards

  • Type of rewards: There are many types of credit card rewards, including cash back, airline miles and points. Cash back is simplest for most, but you may get more bang for your buck by redeeming points or airline miles.
  • Low required spending: Some rewards cards require you to meet a certain spending limit before qualifying for bonuses or special offers. If you are considering a rewards card and want to earn its sign-up bonus, for instance, take note of the spending requirement to make sure you can cross that threshold without overspending.
  • No (or low) annual fee: Rewards cards offer the best perks, but many have annual fees. The rewards will often outweigh the burden of an annual fee, but there are also plenty of cards with no yearly fee.

Familiarize yourself with interest rates and fees

Credit card issuers make money through interest and fees. Federal law requires that all credit cards disclose their interest rate fees in advance, so it’s important to research these added costs before applying for a new card.

Interest rates

Interest rates on credit cards can vary significantly. Some cards may offer interest rates below the current average, while others may charge considerably more. A card’s APR should be a defining factor in your decision-making process, especially if you think you may have to carry a balance.


Different types of credit cards charge various fees. Some of the most common you may encounter include:

  • Annual fee: Many credit cards come with annual fees that typically range anywhere from $95 to $550 and higher. Some issuers will also waive their annual fees in the first year of card ownership, and sometimes you can get that fee waived just by asking.
  • Balance transfer fee: If you already have a credit card and you’re struggling to pay off high-interest credit card debt, a balance transfer card could be a good option for you. Balance transfer fees are typically 3 percent to 5 percent of your transfer amount, often with a minimum of $5 to $10.
  • Late payment fee: If you pay your credit card statement late, you could be charged a late payment fee. These fees differ depending on the issuer and the number of times you have paid your balance late.
  • Cash advance fee: A cash advance is when you take money out of an ATM using your credit card. Cash advances should be avoided whenever possible. Fees associated with cash advances can be high — typically 3 percent to 5 percent of the amount withdrawn. You’ll also be charged interest on a cash advance right away, often at a higher rate than your regular APR.
  • Foreign transaction fee: When you use your credit card for any purchases in foreign currency, whether outside the U.S. or shopping online from home, you may be charged a foreign transaction fee. These fees typically cost around 3 percent per transaction. If you’re an avid traveler, consider credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

The bottom line

With so many different types of credit cards available, it can be hard to find the right one for your needs. Once you determine which features, benefits and goals you want to aim for, you can start narrowing down your options and the decision becomes easier. If you still want some help choosing the right credit card, Bankrate’s CardMatch tool can do some of the heavy lifting for you by finding credit cards that fit your credit profile and goals.