Key takeaways

  • If you don’t have a good credit score, you will likely not qualify for the most rewarding credit cards and you should be flexible about your choices.
  • Be strategic about applying for a credit card that is likely to approve you, since too many credit inquiries in a short span of time will likely bring down your credit score.
  • Once you get a credit card, use it responsibly and build up your credit so that you will eventually score a rewards card that gives you more.

Rewards credit cards can help you save money with cash back, points or miles on every purchase. But they can also be among the most difficult cards to qualify for.

These cards, especially ones with the most premium rewards values, are typically geared toward consumers with good to excellent credit, or a FICO score of 670 or higher. If your credit score isn’t that great, you may have difficulty getting approved.

That’s why it’s smart to be strategic before you apply, and choose the cards you believe you can qualify for with your credit. Before you apply for any new card, it’s important to check your credit score to see where you stand and your chances of qualifying based on the credit range determined by the issuer. Each new credit application will trigger a hard inquiry on your credit report, so it’s best to minimize rejected applications.

Even so, there are rewards credit card options you can access if you’re still working toward great credit, and ways you can start boosting your score today to more easily qualify for high-value cards in the future. Read on to learn what you can do to begin earning rewards on your credit card purchases, even if you don’t have great credit right now.

Level your expectations

It is possible to get a rewards credit card without stellar credit. You just need to keep your mind open and know what to look for — and keep working to improve your credit.

You likely won’t qualify for the best rewards cards without good or excellent credit. You can, however, qualify for some lower-tier rewards credit cards that will let you earn something on your spending. They’ll likely offer fewer perks and cardholder benefits. But they’re a good starting point and you can use a card you qualify for today to build a great score that will make you eligible for more rewarding cards in the future.

Be flexible about rewards type

If your credit is fair or poor, you’ll also need to be flexible in terms of the type of rewards you earn. You may not earn airline miles in the exact frequent flier program you want, or earn points in a top flexible rewards program like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards.

Rewards credit cards for fair credit or bad credit may only let you earn cash back, which is certainly better than nothing.

Choose a card you can qualify for

Your credit score can tell you a lot about the types of cards you may be able to access.

If you have a fair credit score (any FICO score from 580 to 669), there are several rewards cards you may be able to get approved for right away. You may even be able to find a decent travel rewards card with only fair credit.

If your credit score is considered poor according to FICO standards (579 or below), then you may need to consider alternative card types, like secured credit cards that require a cash deposit as collateral or store credit cards that let you rack up rewards with a specific retailer. Both secured credit cards and store credit cards tend to be considerably easier to qualify for when compared to traditional unsecured credit cards from issuers like Chase or American Express.

Even if you have no credit at all, there are some rewards credit card options that can help you learn responsible credit use while getting rewarded for your spending. With these cards, you can begin building the credit foundation you’ll need to move on to more rewarding credit cards. In fact, rewards cards for people with no credit history often build rewards structures around on-time payments and other good practices.

If you choose any of these card types, make sure you practice good credit habits that will help you build your score and stay out of debt. They generally charge very high interest rates that can result in quickly mounting debt balances (and easily outpace rewards value) if you’re not careful.

Build your credit to earn better rewards

If you want access to the top rewards credit cards, it’s worth spending some time building your credit score before you apply. Some steps you can take to build credit include:

  • Become an authorized user on a trusted friend or family member’s credit card — as long as they practice good credit habits and have a strong credit history already.
  • Use credit-building tools like Experian Boost to build credit using rent and utility payments.
  • Make sure all your bills are paid on time or early to improve your payment history.
  • Pay down any existing debt to lower your credit utilization rate.
  • Monitor your credit reports from all three bureaus for errors, which you can do for free using

The bottom line

You can earn credit card rewards even if your credit score needs some work. Just be prepared to be flexible in terms of the type of rewards you earn and the card you apply for. While you may not qualify for the most premium rewards cards, you can find a card you like and use it responsibly to build great credit over time.

After taking some time to practice responsible spending and build a history of on-time credit card payments, you may be able to qualify for the best rewards cards available today and start maximizing points and cash back.