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How to qualify and apply for your first credit card

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Mayur Kakade/Getty Images
Teenage boy doing homework using laptop
Mayur Kakade/Getty Images
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Getting your first credit card can feel intimidating, but this is often the most important step to building the credit you’ll need later on in life. After all, having a credit card gives allows your on-time payments to be reported to the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This reporting combined with responsible credit card use can boost your credit score and add depth to your credit reports over time.

Read on to find out how to qualify and apply for your first credit card and which steps to take first.

Check your credit score

The best credit cards on the market today are typically only available to those with good to excellent credit, or FICO scores of 670 or above. Still, starter credit cards often come with decent perks. Some of the best options to consider are store credit cards, student credit cards and secured credit cards.

Either way, checking your credit score is a good first step. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to pay for it. There are several reputable services that allow you to check your credit score for free. Programs like Capital One’s CreditWise and Chase’s Credit Journey, for example, don’t even require you to pay or be an account holder.

See if you prequalify

Typically, being prequalified means that an issuer has conducted a soft credit check, and from that, it knows you’re likely to be approved for a specific credit card. Credit card offers you receive in the mail ofter are often prequalified.

You can also call any credit card issuer and ask for your prequalified offers, but that can be tedious. Bankrate’s CardMatch tool shows your prequalified offers from a variety of credit card issuers, which lets you focus on choosing the best card for yourself.

With basic information like your name, your address and the last four digits of your Social Security number, and you can find out if you have been targeted for any specific credit card offers.

The best part? Using the CardMatch tool does not result in a hard inquiry on your credit report. You simply use the tool to find out if you meet the basic requirements for approval set by credit card issuers, and you can decide whether you want to apply after that.

Check with your bank

If you have a long history with a bank or a credit union, consider exploring its credit card options. Your bank has a record of your financial transactions and a history of working with you already, so they may be more likely to approve you for credit than other financial institutions.

Call your bank or speak with your banker to find out if you are prequalified for any specific credit products. And remember, the worst they can say is “no.”

Make sure to list all your income on your application

Once you take steps to actually apply for a first credit card, you will need to do everything you can to increase your approval odds. This means filling out your credit card application accurately with all the information the company requests, but it also means knowing the laws regarding the types of income you can include.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), there are different rules for people under the age of 21. Specifically, card issuers are required to look only at your individual income if you’re under the age of 21—even if you have a spouse or partner 21 or older. However, this money can include:

  • Income you earn yourself through work or other means
  • Income or assets you earned from a company you own alone or jointly with someone else
  • Income or assets someone else regularly deposits into an account on which you are an account holder

If you’re at least 21 years old, on the other hand, the card issuer can consider money you earn yourself or income from a spouse or partner. In other words, you can list your total household income as your own on your credit application if you’re ages 21 or older — even if you are a stay-at-home spouse.

Consider the best starter credit cards

Once you’re ready to get your first credit card and start building credit, there are plenty of excellent starter cards to consider. Here are a few of our favorites.

Bank of America Unlimited Cash Rewards Secured Credit Card

The Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards Secured Credit Card requires a minimum security deposit of at least $200 to get started. However, there’s no annual fee, and cardholders can earn 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase they make. The security deposit is also fully refundable when the account is closed or upgraded in good standing.

This card also reports to the three credit bureaus, and cardholders get a free FICO credit score on their monthly statement.

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

College students can also check out the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One. This card comes with no annual fee, and applicants can gauge their approval odds without a hard inquiry on their credit reports.

Perks include earning a minimum of 1 percent cash back on all purchases, or 1.25 percent cash back when monthly bills are paid on time. Cardholders also earn unlimited 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, terms apply.

Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card

Finally, those with “fair” credit, or a FICO score of at least 580 and up to 669, can consider the Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card. This card does charge a $39 annual fee, yet those who choose it get to earn a flat 1.5 percent cash back for each dollar they spend.

Rewards can be redeemed for cash back, statement credits, gift cards and more. Cardholders can also qualify for automatic credit line reviews and the potential for a higher limit in as little as six months.

Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson writes expert content on personal finance, credit cards, loyalty and insurance topics. In addition to writing for Bankrate and CreditCards.com, Johnson does ongoing work for clients that include CNN, Forbes Advisor, LendingTree, Time Magazine and more.
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Part of  Guide to your first credit card