Credit card information: The basics you need to know

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Whether you’re paying for groceries or shopping online, using a credit card is an integral part of everyday life for many people. But how well do you know and understand the terms of your credit card—and what do they even mean?

Understanding this common information, as well as how to use your credit card, are essential if you want to get the most out of all your card has to offer and avoid debt and mistakes detrimental to your credit. Here’s a mini glossary of some basic terms you may come across when using your credit card.

Credit card information

Credit cards are financial tools, and understanding how they work will help you maintain and build upon your experience while using them.

There is important information found on the card itself that you’ll be asked for when making purchases, logging into accounts and adding cards to mobile wallets. Here are some of the key pieces of credit card information you may be asked to provide and where to find each.

Credit card number

Your credit card number is a 15- or 16-digit number that is usually embossed or printed on the front of your credit card toward the bottom, though it’s becoming increasingly common for issuers to print the card number on the back.

Cardholder name

The cardholder name is also embossed or printed on the front of the credit card toward the bottom. The name on the card should match a government-issued ID for the cardholder. Most often it is a complete name but may appear as the first initial and the last name.

Expiration date

The expiration date is generally found on the front of the card between the card number and cardholder name. Expiration dates display the month and year the credit card expires, but the actual expiration date is usually the final day of the month listed.

CVV or security code

This is the three-digit number located on the back of your credit card (near the signature box) under the magnetic strip. If you have an American Express card, the CVV is a four-digit code located on the front of your card.

Important credit card terms

Besides the terms we’ve already discussed, it’s important to understand certain credit card terminology to be able to manage your credit cards wisely.

Balance transfer

When you move a balance from one card to another, you’re doing a balance transfer. Balance transfer credit cards typically offer an intro APR on balance transfers, which can be an excellent method of debt consolidation.

Billing cycle

A billing cycle is the length of time between the last and the current statement dates. A typical billing cycle is 30 days. According to the CARD Act, your due date must be at least 21 days from the end of the billing cycle.

Cash advance

Not all transactions on your credit card are treated equally. For example, you have an option to withdraw cash from your credit card, but this type of withdrawal will be considered a cash advance. A cash advance begins accruing interest immediately and has its own terms, APR and fees.

Grace period

The period between the end of a billing cycle and the payment due date is the grace period. During this time, an issuer doesn’t charge you interest. If you pay off your balance by the due date, you’ll avoid interest charges.

Minimum payment

The minimum payment is the lowest amount that you can pay on a balance to keep your account in good standing. Paying less than the minimum amount will be reported as a missed payment to credit bureaus. Minimum payments are determined based on your current balance and interest rate.

Rewards

Rewards can come in the form of points, miles or cash back. The amount of rewards you earn will depend on the bonus categories for your rewards credit card and the points structure.

Generally, the rewards you earn will pool together in your account until you choose to redeem them. Your total rewards balance and the amount of rewards available for redemption will appear on your statement.

Account information

In addition to the identifying information found on the card itself and the general terms, you should be familiar with your card’s account information.

You can find your account information on your paper billing statement or when you log in to your online account. This information can help you know when to make payments, keep you updated with your account balance and credit limit and redeem any rewards you may have earned.

Some of your account information is reported to credit bureaus as a part of your credit report, which shows your active account history and helps determine your credit score.

Credit limit

Your credit limit is the amount of credit you have been approved for by your card issuer. To keep your account in good standing, your balance should remain under your credit limit. It’s a best practice to use no more than 30 percent of your credit limit at a time to keep a healthy credit score. However, keeping your credit card balances as low as possible is ideal.

Current balance

Your current balance is the total amount of credit you have used at the time of billing. It will include charges you’ve made, balance transfers, cash advances and convenience checks. Interest is applied to your balance if you don’t pay in full each statement cycle and may be different for various kinds of charges.

Interest (APR)

Your interest rate is determined by your APR (or annual percentage rate) and added to your balance at the end of a billing cycle. You can check your billing statement to keep up with your current interest rate. Note that it’s called an APR because it is the total annual amount you would be charged in interest, so your actual interest rate on a given month is usually only about a twelfth of this number. It can be complicated to calculate exactly how much you’ll owe on your own, but your statement should outline it clearly—or you can use a credit card payoff calculator to do the math for you.

Note that when we speak about a card’s APR, we usually mean purchase APR—the interest you pay on regular purchases. However, they are other types of interest rates to be aware of, including:

  • Introductory APR: This is a promotional APR that can apply to purchases or balance transfers for a limited period. Zero-interest credit cards usually give you between 12 and 18 months of 0 percent intro APR.
  • Cash advance APR: As we’ve mentioned, cash advances come with their own terms, including APR. Generally, the cash advance APR is higher and doesn’t offer a grace period.
  • Penalty APR: This is typically the most expensive APR and applies to missed and returned payments. As you may have guessed, this is the APR you want to avoid ever getting charged.

Note that an APR can be variable or fixed. A variable APR is more common and changes based on the prime rate (the interest rate banks use to calculate how much to charge their best, most trustworthy clients). A fixed APR, on the other hand, is locked.

Credit card fees

You’ll also come across various types of credit card fees. It’s best to get acquainted with all of them to avoid unexpected charges.

Annual fee

Premium credit cards (and even a few not-so-premium ones) often come with annual fees. An issuer charges an annual fee each year for holding the card, although some cards may waive it for the first year.

Balance transfer fee

A balance transfer may save you a lot of money on interest, but the transaction itself isn’t free. When you transfer a balance from one card to another, the issuer will typically charge you a balance transfer fee of 3 to 5 percent. The fee minimums can also vary from $5 to $10.

Cash advance fee

A cash advance is an expensive transaction in more than one way. Not only do you have to pay a higher interest rate that starts accumulating immediately, but you’re also charged a cash advance fee.

A typical cash advance fee is around 5% or $10 per transaction.

Foreign transaction fee

Before you go on a trip abroad, check which of your cards charge foreign transaction fees. A foreign transaction fee is charged on purchases you make outside of the U.S. It’s usually around 3 percent per transaction, which means such fees can add up rather fast.

Late payment fee

Missing a payment on your credit card is never good news, especially considering that you’ll be charged a late payment fee.

The first time you miss a payment, a late payment fee may be lower (up to $29, depending on the card). However, subsequent missed payments may cost you up to $40 per billing cycle.

Know your credit card terms

A credit card is a useful financial tool, but it can be a danger to your financial health if you misuse it. To avoid that, make sure you understand your credit card’s terms so that you know what to expect with each transaction and payment you make.

Written by
Ana Staples
Credit Cards Reporter and Young Credit Analyst
Ana Staples is a reporter for Bankrate and an expert on all things credit basics and personal finance for the younger generation.
Edited by
Senior Editor, Credit Card Product News