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As economic uncertainty lingers — with inflation and interest rates rising — consumers may begin to experience periods of unemployment. While it’s important to be cautious about amassing large amounts of high-interest debt in a period of financial instability, a credit card can offer financial backup while you job hunt.
Being unemployed doesn’t disqualify you from credit card approval. While issuers do ask for your income, you may offer alternative forms of income on your application. You should also keep other options for building and maintaining credit in mind while unemployed, which may be safer or more attainable than a credit card.
How to qualify for a credit card
When you apply for a credit card, credit issuers use a number of factors found in your credit report to determine your creditworthiness and will ask for additional information, such as name, address and income, on your application.
In order to approve you for a credit card, issuers must assess whether the risk of issuing you credit aligns with their requirements. If you have a history of managing payments well and keeping accounts current, your credit score will reflect your creditworthiness. And your income helps issuers determine your debt-to-income ratio, which may predict your ability to make payments. This ratio will also help determine your credit limit if you are approved for a credit card.
What qualifies as income?
Your income does play a part in your credit application, but income is not just the paycheck you receive from a job. Income may be more loosely defined as any money you receive consistently.
This means there are other forms of income you can provide to help you qualify if you are currently unemployed. The 2009 Credit CARD Act allows anyone over the age of 21 to list any income to which they will have reasonable expectation of access, including income from your spouse or partner, funds accessed through a shared account and unemployment benefits. If you have investments, those returns may count towards your income. And if you receive Social Security payments, those can be included, as well.
Credit card options if you can’t qualify on your own
If you aren’t able to qualify for a credit card on your own, you still have options for accessing credit. Here are some other pathways to credit while you are unemployed.
Become an authorized user
Becoming an authorized user on someone’s credit card account can help you build your credit score, while accessing someone else’s line of credit. As an authorized user, you will have access to a credit card through the primary cardholder. Before you do this, take some time to learn how being an authorized user affects your credit.
While you’re not legally obligated to pay any balances on the credit card, you will likely have an agreement with the primary cardholder about how payments need to be made. You should make sure the primary cardholder is responsible about making payments on the account in full and on time. You won’t be legally obligated to pay, but missed payments could negatively affect your credit score.
Become a co-applicant
In the past, you could apply for a credit card with a co-signer if you were applying with Bank of America, USAA or U.S. Bank. But none of these card issuers allow co-signers on credit cards anymore. You can, however, still be a co-applicant on Bank of America credit cards.
While not the same as applying for a credit card with a co-signer, being a co-applicant still allows you to share a line of credit with another person. The way this works: Once approved for a Bank of America credit card, someone can request to add you as a co-applicant to their newly-issued credit account. If accepted, the two of you will share legal responsibility for all charges made to the card.
Secured credit cards
Secured credit cards can be easier to get than unsecured credit cards because they require a deposit, which acts as your credit limit. Your credit score and income may be less influential factors than they are for most cards. Instead, your ability to guarantee the required deposit is essential. If you do decide to go this route, look for a secured card with low fees and read the terms carefully. You should also ensure that your payments are reported to the credit bureaus so you can continue building good credit.
You may also choose to apply for a joint credit card account with someone, such as your spouse. With a joint account, both potential cardholders apply and undergo a credit check. However, income is considered jointly.
The primary downside to opening a joint account is that your options are much more limited. Few credit card companies offer joint accounts. It’s also important to understand the obligations of joint accounts before applying for one. While both parties share the responsibility of making payments, both parties will also take the blow for any missed payments.
The bottom line
Unemployment can present some financial uncertainty, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get a credit card and continue to build your credit. If your debt-to-income ratio and payment history are solid, and you can list alternative forms of income, you may be able to qualify for a new card and use it as a line of credit to hold you over.
If a new card isn’t possible, consider becoming an authorized user or building credit with a secured credit card. As long as you avoid taking on debts you can’t pay off, you can still reap the benefits of having a credit card — until that next job comes along.