How to apply for a credit card and get approved

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Having a credit card is helpful for many reasons, and being able to get your preferred credit card starts with having a great application.

In this guide, we’ll dive into these important steps you should take to make sure you submit the best credit card application possible:

  1. Know your credit score
  2. Think about your needs
  3. Check for pre-approval
  4. Be prepared for the impact on your credit
  5. Have a repayment strategy

Read on to learn more about how to apply for a credit card and how to increase your chances of approval.

How to apply for a credit card

A successful credit card application will require some prep work on your part. The following steps will help you gather information to put your best application forward.

1. Know your credit score

Credit scores are used by issuers to determine your creditworthiness. Most credit cards have a score requirement. If you’re just starting out with credit and don’t have a score yet, you’ll want to look for a credit card that requires no credit history. These cards will help you build up your credit score so that you can apply for better cards in the future. Once you’ve built up your credit score to the good to excellent credit range (670-850), you’ll have more options, including rewards cards.

To gain access to your credit score, you can purchase it from any of the major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Experian offers a free FICO credit score with FICO’s monitoring service. But before you pay for access to your score, check if you already have it for free from one of your other credit cards. Many issuers offer free access to your FICO score or VantageScore through your account. You can check to see if your issuer offers this as a perk by checking its website, calling customer service or just exploring your online account or credit issuer’s app.

It’s also important to keep an eye on your credit report, as this is what your credit score is based on. Make sure you check it thoroughly for errors. You can dispute credit report errors if you find them. Normally, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can request a free credit from each bureau weekly through April 2022.

2. Think about your needs

Once you know what cards you might qualify for based on your credit score, it’s time to think about what your needs are for a credit card. Are you looking to earn cash back or earn travel rewards? Maybe building credit is your highest priority. There are lots of cards that will cater to each of these needs and more.

Each card also comes with its own terms and conditions, including fees and interest rates. Check to see if the card you’re interested in has an annual fee and think about whether the annual fee would be worth it to you. Many rewards cards have an annual fee attached to them. Will you be able to earn enough rewards on your card to offset the fee?

Also, consider whether you will be carrying a balance on your card or if you will be paying off your purchases in full. If you plan to carry a balance, the interest rate on your card will have a big impact on your monthly payments. You’ll want to look for cards with a low interest rate or cards that offer 0 percent intro APR  for a limited period.
Learn more: Tips on how to choose your next credit card

3. Check for pre-approval

Before you apply for a card, check to see if you can be pre-approved. Bankrate’s CardMatch™ tool is a free resource that will match you with personalized offers through a pre-qualification process that involves a soft credit inquiry. This is a great way to see if you qualify for a credit card before applying since every application involves a hard credit inquiry that temporarily lowers your credit score.

Prequalification—or preapproval—requires a soft inquiry into your credit report to see if you meet the issuer’s criteria for opening an account. A soft inquiry has no effect on your credit score. Keep in mind, however, that being preapproved does not guarantee you will get the card you are applying for.

4. Be prepared for the impact on your credit

Most of the time, applying for a credit card will trigger a hard inquiry into your credit report, which means that the card issuer will pull your credit report to check your creditworthiness. A hard inquiry will cause your credit score to go down a bit, but the effect is only short-term. The maximum amount of time a hard inquiry will stay on your report is two years.

If you apply for a credit card and your application is rejected, it’s important to time your next application well. One hard inquiry on your report is a pretty neutral occurrence in the long term. However, multiple credit card applications in a short period of time, and their attendant hard inquiries on your report, will be a red flag for card issuers.

5. Have a repayment strategy

Having a credit card comes with the responsibility of making payments. Making late payments or minimum payments opens you up to interest charges and fees, in addition to potentially hurting your credit score. For that reason, the best way to pay your credit card bill is on time and in full.

Before you apply, make sure you have included your credit card payments in your budget. Lastly, check to see if the credit card you are applying for allows for autopay (most do) to help streamline the payment process.

Information you need to apply for a credit card

Before you apply, it’s best to make sure you have all the information you need for your application. By knowing exactly what you need before you apply, the process will be smoother and you’ll have a better idea of your chances of approval.

Here are some of the key pieces of information to have on hand:

  • Full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Social Security number
  • Annual income

This information will serve as the basis for your application. However, be prepared to provide more details. For example, your card issuer may want to know how long you have been at your address and if you own or rent. They may also ask about your current employer and main source of income. You can also include your spouse’s or partner’s income in the application process, as long as you have “reasonable access” to it.

You can also use an EIN (employer identification number) if you’re applying for a business credit card and your business is considered big enough. Keep in mind that business credit cards may still ask for your Social Security number during the application process as well.

Where do you apply for a credit card?

When you decide to put in your application, you have a few options. The easiest way to submit your application is through the issuer’s website. How long it takes to be approved for a credit card varies, but submitting your credit card application online will give you the quickest response. You may even be approved instantly.

Another perk of applying online is the convenience of placing your application from anywhere at any time. You can also shop around and compare different credit cards online to make the best choice before you apply.

Other options for placing your application are to apply in person, over the phone or through the mail. Applying in person also yields a quick response to the approval of your application and you have the advantage of being able to ask questions in real-time. However, it may be tricky to find physical locations for some card providers and you’ll only be able to apply during business hours.

Applying over the phone will also offer a fairly quick response about your application, but you will have to apply during business hours. And with phone applications, you may have the added hassle of hold times.

Applying through the mail is by far the least efficient of all of the options. You will have to wait for your application to arrive at the issuer and also wait for it to mail back a response, which could take weeks.

What to do if your application is denied

If you find that despite your efforts, your credit card application is denied, it’s not the end of the world. It’s possible your application didn’t go through for a number of reasons, like a low credit score, low income or negative credit history.

If you’re unsure as to why your application was rejected, lenders are required to tell you why, due to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This is called an adverse action notice, and it typically arrives seven to 10 days after your denied application.

If you’ve been denied multiple times, it won’t hurt your credit score. However, multiple hard inquiries during the application process will knock your score down a few points. Before you apply for a new card, make sure you know the minimum requirements and why you’ve been rejected before, so you don’t get hit with another hard inquiry and a denied application.

If you keep getting denied, go back to your initial research and look at what other options are on the table, like applying for a secured credit card to help build up your credit score.

Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
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