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How to find the best credit card for you in 2019
Credit cards, when used responsibly, can help you reach your financial goals., but choosing the right credit card can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of options — each with their own advantages and disadvantages, and credit card issuers are constantly updating their products. It can be hard to stay up to date on the best offers.
Whether you’re looking to upgrade your travel experiences, save on everyday purchases, consolidate debt or manage your business expenses, there is a credit card out there for you. That’s why the Bankrate team has compiled hours of research to help you navigate through the credit card selection process.
Table of contents
Bankrate’s review criteria for the best credit cards of 2019
Bankrate’s team of credit card experts compared 3,476 credit cards and 600 banks in the process of reviewing each credit card on our list of best credit cards of 2019. The most important factors in determining the score for our top picks were rewards, cash back rates, introductory 0% interest offer term lengths, balance transfer options, the opportunity to build credit, interest rates, and ownership fees.
Every card that we offer has been rated on a scale of 0-100, 100 being the top score. You can find more information about each card by clicking on the card names to read our in-depth reviews.
What are credit cards, and how do they work?
Put simply, credit cards act as a revolving line of credit that allows consumers to make purchases now and pay them off later. Each month, you have the opportunity to pay a minimum payment, your full balance, or an amount in between. While most cards don’t require you to pay off your balance in full each month, that is the only way to avoid paying interest fees on your purchase.
With over 450 million credit cards currently in circulation, it’s clearly a favorite payment method among both consumer and business owners. However, according to Experian’s survey, 42% of consumers listed the number one benefit to owning credit cards as “having a cushion for emergency expenses,” which means many cardholders might be missing out on rewards and perks that playing the credit card game can get them.
When credit cards are used to their full potential, they can help you pay off large purchases over time, earn rewards that can be redeemed for cash back or travel, build up or repair your credit score and so much more.
Recap: The best credit cards
Best for rewards and travel
The basics: If you’re looking for a way to earn travel rewards on every purchase, you should take a close look at the Capital One Venture. You’ll earn unlimited 2x miles on every purchase, plus 10x miles on thousands of hotels at hotels.com/venture (through January 2020). The Venture card also comes with an array of perks (including a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck® application fee credit) that most beginner travel cards can’t compete with. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, and the card offers a generous 50,000-mile sign-up bonus after you spend $3,000 within 3 months from account opening.
- Between the sign-up bonus, simple rewards structure and other perks, this card adds a lot of value to your wallet — without a hefty annual fee.
- Take advantage of Capital One’s more than 12 transfer partners to make the most out of redeeming your miles.
- Rewards are redeemed as a statement credit after you make a travel purchase, while other travel cards allow you to book travel directly with points/miles.
- You only have 90 days after each travel purchase to redeem mileage credits.
Best for cash back and 0% intro APR
The basics: The Quicksilver offers a simple way for you to earn cash back rewards — no fuss and no complicated rewards structure. You’ll earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, plus a one-time $150 cash bonus after spending $500 within the first 3 months. If you’re looking for simplicity in a cash back card, there are few in the category that match up to the Quicksilver.
- Earning rewards with the Quicksilver is simple, and it offers a lot of value to cardholders without charging an annual fee.
- If you’re looking at making a big purchase within the next few months, you can take advantage of 0% APR on purchases for 15 months. Just make sure you pay off your balance before the intro period is over, or you’ll be stuck paying a 16.24% – 26.24% variable APR.
- Heavy spenders in certain categories can find more value with a tiered or rotating-categories cash back credit card.
- Other cash back cards offer more ancillary perks. For example, the Capital One Savor Card offers premium dining and entertainment experiences as an added perk for cardholders.
- You can find other no-annual-fee cash back cards that offer a higher flat-rate rewards rate, such as the Citi Double Cash card.
Best for balance transfers
The basics: The Discover it® Balance Transfer allows cardholders to consolidate debt while still earning competitive rewards on new purchases — an uncommon combination in the balance transfer category. The card offers 0% APR for 18 months on all balance transfers made within that introductory period (14.24% – 25.24% variable thereafter), plus a generous rewards structure you won’t find with other BT cards. Upon enrollment, you’ll earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter based on Discover’s 2019 Cashback Calendar, plus 1% cash back on all other purchases. Discover also offers a unique anniversary feature — they’ll match the cash back you earn at the end of the first year of card ownership.
- This card offers long-term value. You can take advantage of the 18-month balance transfer offer, and continue to earn valuable rewards after you’ve paid off debt.
- Make sure you pay off any balance transfers within the 18-month introductory period, or you’ll have to pay up to a 25.24% APR in interest.
- You have to enroll for each quarter’s 5% cash back categories to reap rewards.
Best for business owners
The basics: The Capital One® Spark® Cash for Business is one of our absolute favorite business credit cards. You’ll earn unlimited 2% cash back on every purchase, plus a one-time $500 bonus if you spend $4,500 within the first 3 months. Other top business cards cap your rewards potential, but this card offers both an unlimited rewards structure and a competitive sign-up bonus. While there’s a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), small businesses can easily accrue enough rewards to offset the cost. Business owners also have access to free employee cards that earn cash back rewards, Visa Business benefits and other business travel perks.
- We love cards that make it easy to earn rewards. The generous flat rewards rate and competitive sign-up bonus make this cash back business card hard to beat.
- Make sure you’re spending at least $19,000 on the card each year in order to justify the $95 annual fee over Capital One® Spark® Cash Select for Business; that’s the threshold when your rewards with the Spark® Cash overtake the rewards you’ll earn with the no-fee and lower-rate Spark® Cash Select.
- If you are a frequent business traveler, you’ll find better value elsewhere.
Best for students
The basics: Most students have to choose between building credit and earning generous rewards when looking at a student-specific credit card. This isn’t the case with the Rewards+(SM) Student Card. You’ll earn 2x ThankYou® Points at supermarkets and gas stations on up to $6,000 in purchases each year, and 1x points on all other purchases. What really sets this card apart from the competition is its unique round-up feature. Every time you earn rewards, your points will round up to the nearest 10 (even on 2x points purchases). For example, if you buy a $4 coffee on campus, you’ll earn 10 points instead of just 4. If you fill up your tank for $36, you’ll get 80 points instead of 72. You’ll also earn a 2,500-point sign-up bonus after spending $500 within the first 3 months.
- The Citi Rewards+ and the Citi Rewards+ Student are the only two cards on the market that offer this round-up feature.
- Even though this is a student card, you earn the same rewards (with the exception of the lower sign-up bonus) as you would with the non-student option.
- The APR is slightly higher than average at 16.74% – 26.74% variable.
- You need good-to-excellent credit to be approved for the card, which can be hard for students with a limited credit history to attain.
- More traditional cash back cards offer better sign-up bonuses than this. If you have good-to-excellent credit, a non-student card will probably offer more value.
Best for excellent credit
The basics: If you enjoy going out for dinner, drinks and entertainment, you can’t beat the rewards you can earn with the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card. The card offers unlimited 4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% cash back at grocery stores and 1% cash back on all other purchases. You’ll also earn a one-time $500 cash bonus after spending $3,000 on purchases within 3 months of opening an account.
- It’s rare to find a card that offers unlimited 4% cash back in any category, especially not in categories as popular as dining and entertainment.
- You can offset the $95 annual fee (waived the first year) by spending just $200 on dining and entertainment purchases each month.
- If you have less-than-stellar credit, you may not be approved for this card.
- The 2% cash back at grocery stores does not include purchases made at superstores such as Walmart or Target.
Best for fair or bad credit
The basics: The Capital One® Platinum Credit Card is a great option if you’re looking to build up your credit without having to put down a hefty deposit on a secured credit card. While you won’t earn rewards with this card, it charges no annual fee and gives you an opportunity to raise your credit limit after making your first 5 timely payments in a row.
- This card holds no penalty APR, which is a great perk for those who have had trouble in the past making on-time payments.
- Capital One also offers a free Credit Wise tool to help teach you how spending affects your credit score.
- The card does charge a higher-than-average variable APR at 26.96%, so make sure to pay off your balance in full each month.
Best for no credit
The basics: With the Discover it® Student chrome, you’ll earn 2% on up to $1,000 in gas station and restaurant purchases each quarter, plus 1% cash back on all other purchases. As an added bonus, Discover will match the cash back you earn at the end of your first year, a feature you don’t find with student cards from other issuers. High-performing students will also receive a $20 statement credit every year you get a 3.0 GPA or higher for up to the next 5 years.
- It can be hard to find a solid rewards credit card when you have a slim credit profile, but the Discover it® Student chrome offers a way to build credit and earn some solid rewards without paying an annual fee.
- Discover will match the cash back you earn at the end of your first year, which can be more valuable than a sign-up bonus if you use your card frequently.
- If you don’t dine out or drive frequently, the 2% cash back bonus categories won’t add a lot of value to your wallet.
- The introductory balance transfer offer isn’t stellar.
Features to look for when comparing credit cards
Here are the features you should look at to determine which cards will offer you the best overall value.
- APR (annual percentage rate): APR represents the interest that a credit card issuer charges you if you carry a balance. Typically, issuers have a variable APR range (17.99% – 25.24% with the Capital One® Venture Rewards Credit Card, for example), and where each cardholder falls in that range will depend on your creditworthiness.
- Annual fee: Some credit cards require cardholders to pay an annual fee as the cost for holding the card. Typically, the higher the annual fee, the more value the card offers in regards to rewards, bonuses, perks and other benefits.
- Sign-up bonus: One incentive issuers often use to get you to apply for a credit card is offering a sign-up bonus. After spending a certain amount within a set period of time (typically within the first 3 months after you open an account), cardholders receive a one-time bonus in the form of points, miles, statement credit or cash bonus.
- Rewards structure: Easily one of the most important card features we look at is how cardholders can earn rewards. Different rewards structures cater to different spending habits and lifestyles, and how the card’s rewards system is set up is a large factor in determining which card is right for you.
- Perks and benefits: Each credit card on the market offers a set of perks for cardholders. A top-tier travel card might offer benefits such as lounge access, trip insurance, travel credits, TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credits and more. On the other hand, cash back credit cards might be more likely to offer access to presale tickets, online shopping portal discounts and more.
- Balance transfer terms: If you’re looking to consolidate debt, a balance transfer offer on a credit card can help you save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on interest payments.
- Customer experience: Each credit card issuer is different, from their mobile apps to their customer service options. Keep that in mind when considering which card should be added to your wallet.
Choosing the best credit card
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all credit card. The good news is that there is an abundance of cards to choose from, whether you’re looking to boost your credit score, earn cash back rewards or save up points and miles to fund your next vacation.
Rewards continues to be the top credit card feature that consumers look at when choosing a credit card, according to TSYS research.
Rewards as top credit card feature:
TSYS 2017 Consumer Payment Study
With so many different credit card rewards options, it can be hard to know exactly what type of credit card is right for you. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you’re comparing top offers.
Why are you looking for a credit card?
Are you looking to earn cash back rewards on everyday purchases? Are you a frequent traveler who wants to use rewards to fund your next vacation? Are you searching for a way to earn rewards on expenses for your small business? Do you need to build up your credit profile, plan for a large upcoming purchase or consolidate debt?
The best credit card for you will greatly depend on your answer to these questions. If you know you rarely travel, then top travel cards such as the Capital One Venture or Chase Sapphire Preferred won’t be a good fit for your needs. If one of your 2019 goals is to use points and miles to fund your trip to Europe, on the other hand, then a cash back card probably won’t give you as much value as top-tier travel cards.
As of 2017, cash back reigned king as the most preferred credit card rewards type — most likely due to the flexibility of cash back. Credit card issuers are beginning to take notice as well, offering more attractive cash back offers.
Preferred types of rewards:
- Cash back
- Gift card
TSYS 2017 Consumer Payment Study
What are your monthly spending habits?
Many cards offer bonus categories to help cardholders maximize earnings on certain kinds of expenses. These differ from card to card within each category. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers 2x points on travel and dining purchases while the Citi Rewards+ Card offers 2x points at gas stations and supermarkets. Knowing your spending habits can help you determine which card you can get the most value out of using.
If the majority of your budget is spent on dining and entertainment, the Capital One Savor should be at the top of your list. However, if you don’t have a particular spending category that monopolizes your budget, a flat-rate cash back card like the Capital One Quicksilver might be more up your alley.
Are you willing to pay an annual fee?
Many of the top-tier rewards cards charge annual fees. While the perks typically outweigh the cost, those who don’t have the budget bandwidth to take on premium annual fees should consider no-fee options.
If the card charges a $95 annual fee, you’ll need to spend an average of $400 each month (earning 2x points or 2% cash back on average) to offset the cost of the annual fee. If you don’t plan on using your card that often each month, you’ll be better off with a card boasting no annual fee. Some of Bankrate’s favorite cards offer innovative rewards structures and an array of perks without charging a hefty fee, including the Citi Rewards+ Card and the Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card.
How to qualify for the best credit cards
Issuers determine which credit cards you qualify for based on your creditworthiness — primarily your credit score. While there are 3 major credit bureaus, most issuers use your FICO score. (FICO bases your score on the data sent to the credit bureaus.)
Top-tier cards generally require good-to-excellent credit for approval. Your credit score will also play a role in how much interest you pay when you carry a balance on your card. The higher your credit score, the better cards you’ll have at your disposal and the less interest you’ll have to pay.
Now more than ever, it is important for you to have a high credit score to be approved for the best credit card. As credit card issuers continue to improve their products and offer better rewards rates and beneficial perks, they are becoming more selective in whom they approve.
Rejection rates over the past 3 years have been climbing, especially for those with credit scores below 680, The Federal Reserve of New York reported in October 2018.
Your credit score breakdown
FICO credit score is a number between 300 and 850, determined by five primary factors:
- Payment history. The most important factor of FICO’s scoring model is your payment history. Lenders want to know that they can trust you to make on-time payments each month.
- Credit utilization ratio. This is the second largest factor that goes into your FICO score, and it’s calculated by looking at how much you owe to all of your lenders compared to your available credit.
- Length of credit history. The longer you’ve been building credit, the more trustworthy you’ll be considered by lenders. This factor makes up 15% of your FICO score.
- New credit. Make sure you’re only opening new lines of credit when necessary — applying for multiple credit card accounts in a short period of time can deduct from your score.
- Types of credit. Lenders, issuers included, like to see a healthy mix of credit types. This factor only makes up 10% of your FICO score, but it’s important to try to have a balance of revolving (credit cards) and installment (mortgages or loans) credit types.
Improving your credit score
Building a high credit score takes time and consistent healthy habits. The most important things to remember are to pay your bills on time and try to keep your credit utilization ratio as low as possible. The rest of it is mainly just building up a strong payment history, healthy credit mix and long length of credit over time.
There is no shortcut to having a great credit score, but using your credit card responsibly can go a long way in helping you improve a less-than-stellar score.
Making the most out of your credit card
When used to your advantage, credit cards can help you reach your financial goals. Whether you want to pay off debt, save up rewards to pay for a big ticket item or use everyday expenses to help fund your travels, credit cards can be used as a tool to get you there.
Keeping a balance vs. paying off your card in full
Whenever possible, pay off your bill in full each month. That’s the best way to avoid having to pay interest rates on your purchases, and it keeps your credit utilization low.
However, there are times when holding a balance is unavoidable. If you know that you will have to carry a balance, it’s worth looking at cards offering a 0% introductory APR. These cards allow you to pay off purchases over time without paying interest. Just make sure that you’ll pay off the full balance by the end of the 0% APR period.
If you have a personal American Express credit card, you also have access to their Plan It(SM) feature, which allows you to choose a monthly payment plan for larger purchases. You’ll pay a fixed monthly fee rather than paying interest. While 0% APR cards offer a way to avoid interest and fees altogether, they only allow you to forgo interest payments for a certain amount of time. Plan It(SM) gives you a way to cut down on interest charges on large purchases made throughout the lifetime of your account.
Utilizing perks and benefits
If you’re paying an annual fee for a card, that cost takes into account perks and benefits offered by the credit card — and if you’re paying for them, you should use them. Typically, if you take full advantage of your card’s benefits, the card’s worth far outweighs any fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s $300 annual travel credit, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit and array of travel insurance coverages are worth far more than the $450 annual fee.
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