This piece was last updated on July 31, 2023 to reflect current credit card details.

If you’re ready for your very first credit card, kudos for doing your research before accepting the first offer you receive. Credit cards aren’t created equal. Even among starter credit cards, terms and benefits vary. Here’s everything you need to know to help you pick the right card for your situation.

How to get a credit card for the first time

Before you start applying, be sure you have a good understanding of the basics of credit. You should know how credit card interest works (and how to avoid paying it), as well as how credit scores work and why they matter.

Once you feel confident about using your first card, it’s time to start weighing your options. If you’re a credit newcomer, you probably won’t have access to most credit cards because issuers don’t have the data to assess how much of a credit risk you are. Still, there are a couple of ways you can get access to your first credit card account.

Here’s what you need to know about how to get a credit card for the first time:

Become an authorized user

A great way to get your feet wet is to become an authorized user on somebody else’s credit card account. You’ll have some access to the account, but the primary cardholder will be responsible for making payments. This is a great option if you’re younger than 18. Credit card issuers can’t offer you their products unless you’re 18 or older, but many allow cardholders to add a minor as an authorized user.

If your parents add you to one of their credit cards, their credit usage will show up on your credit report, which will help you gain valuable credit history quickly. But there is a caveat: By piggybacking on someone else’s account, you’re relying on their on-time payments to boost your score. If your parent (or whomever else you ask) doesn’t always use credit cards responsibly, having your name on their account could do more harm to your score than good.

You don’t even need to have a card in your name or use it all — as long as your name is on the account, you’re an authorized user. But, this could also be a good opportunity to practice being a responsible cardholder. Talk to your parents about an amount they’re comfortable with you spending each month and pay them each month to account for what you spent. This can help you get into the habit of making monthly credit card payments.

Get a starter credit card

If you’re over 18, you don’t have to ask your guardian for help if you don’t want to. But as noted, credit card issuers have no way of checking how responsible with your debt you are if you have limited or no credit history. For that reason, they can only offer you their “safe” options, which might not be too exciting. But these cards serve as a gateway to better credit — and better credit card products.

These options include store credit cards, student credit cards, secured credit cards and credit cards designed for borrowers with no credit or low credit scores. Beware, however, that quite a few cards targeting people with bad credit don’t offer favorable terms. For instance, there’s no point in paying an annual fee for a card that doesn’t offer rewards, especially if it’s a secured card (meaning you’ve paid a deposit to apply for it).

Identify important cardholder benefits

Even after you identify what type of credit card you think will work best for you, you’ll want to compare different options within that category. All credit card companies offer different perks to their cardholders, so it’s worth shopping around until you find some options that work best for you.

For example, if you love to travel, you’ll want to find a credit card that offers great travel rewards and perks such as lounge access and hotel upgrades. You also don’t want to get stuck with a credit card that charges a foreign transaction fee if you are an avid traveler. If you aren’t a big traveler, everyday cardholder perks might be more valuable.

While you are browsing credit cards, consider which rewards will benefit you most. Do you want a credit card that offers cash back or do you want to stockpile points and miles? Do you want to save on interest with an introductory 0 percent APR period or do you want a juicy welcome bonus? What about cellphone insurance, travel accident insurance or primary auto rental coverage? The right credit card can really help you earn while you spend, so carefully consider what will benefit you the most.

How to use a credit card wisely

Once you have a credit card, you’ll want to start forming good credit habits. Here’s how to use your credit card wisely.

Don’t charge anything you can’t afford

Using credit cards to make large purchases is a great way to earn a lot of rewards quickly, but you should only make big purchases (or really any purchases) with a credit card if you know you can afford to pay your bill off at the end of the month.

Carrying a balance on your credit card can lead to really expensive interest payments that will make your purchases cost more than you intended to pay for them. If you need to borrow money for a large expense that you know you won’t be able to pay off right now, it may be worthwhile to look into a personal loan, which is likely to have a much lower interest rate, with a set repayment plan.

Don’t carry a balance without a plan

There may be times where you decide paying interest rates and fees are worth being able to carry a balance on your card for the short term. If you must carry a balance, it’s important you only do so with a plan in place to pay off your debt before it begins to grow and become unmanageable.

Track your spending all month long

It’s easy to swipe your credit card in a store or type in the number when checking out online, but it’s also just as easy to forget what you used your credit card to purchase throughout the month.

Keep track of your spending all month long so you aren’t hit with a surprise bill. You can do this manually, in a notebook or spreadsheet or use an app designed to track spending. Most credit card companies and banks have apps that link up with your account, making it easy to review your spending. But kicking it old school with pen and paper works just as well.

Best credit cards for beginners

There are many credit cards targeting people who haven’t yet achieved good scores (or any scores at all). Here are a few notable options:

The Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card

  • Rewards rate: None
  • Welcome offer: None
  • Annual fee: $0

The Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card is a wonderful option for building credit, no matter if you’re new to credit or rebuilding it after making some credit card mistakes. It’s a secured card, so it’s easy to qualify for, no matter your credit situation. You pay a required deposit (up to $200) and get a credit line. After six months of on-time payments, Capital One automatically reviews your credit limit and may increase it. This is good for your credit score if you keep your spending at the same level. After building a history of on-time payments, you may be able to upgrade to one of the issuer’s rewards cards.

The Capital One Platinum Credit Card

  • Rewards rate: None
  • Welcome offer: None
  • Annual fee: $0

Alternatively, you can apply for the Capital One Platinum Credit Card, which is similar to the Capital One Platinum Secured card, but requires no deposit. The card is designed for those with a limited credit history, and if you’re new to credit, you may have a good chance of qualifying.

Discover it® Secured Credit Card

  • Rewards rate: Earn 2 percent cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter (then 1 percent back) and unlimited 1 percent cash back on all other purchases
  • Welcome offer: Discover will match all the cash back earned at the end of your first year
  • Annual fee: $0

Another great card to look into is the Discover it® Secured Credit Card. This unicorn of a secured card earns rewards — 2 percent cash back at restaurants and gas stations (up to $1,000 in combined spending per quarter, then 1 percent back) and 1 percent cash back on everything else — and charges no annual fee. Moreover, the issuer matches all the cash back you earn in your first year as a cardholder, thanks to Discover’s famous Cashback Match™ offer.

Discover it® Student Cash Back

  • Rewards rate: Earn 5 percent cash back on each quarter’s activated rotating categories (on up to $1,500 in combined purchases, then 1 percent back) and 1 percent cash back on all other purchases
  • Welcome offer: Discover will match all the cash back earned at the end of your first year
  • Annual fee: $0

If you’re currently working on your degree, you may get an even better deal from Discover in the form of the Discover it® Student Cash Back. Available to students, this card earns 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter made in various rotating categories (after activation), then 1 percent back. You’ll also earn 1 percent cash back on all other purchases (it’s basically a student version of the popular Discover it® Cash Back).

The bottom line

These aren’t the only decent options to consider. You can head over to CardMatch to check card offers tailored to your credit profile. This tool only shows offers that you have a good chance of qualifying for, so it’s a good place to start.

Getting your first credit card is exciting, but be sure you’re choosing from the best starter cards. Find one that offers favorable terms and gets you the most you can get with your credit situation. And once the card is in your wallet, practice good credit habits. You’ll be thanking yourself for years to come.