Key takeaways

  • The first step to getting a credit card when you have bad credit is checking your credit score.
  • Consider applying for secured credit cards, which typically require lower credit scores to qualify, or a credit card specifically designed for those with bad credit. You can also look into store cards if you're loyal to a particular brand.
  • Lastly, you can consider becoming an authorized user on someone else's credit card, meaning activity on the account is reported under your name as well as the main accountholder's.

The best way to improve your credit score is by proving you can use credit responsibly. But if you have bad credit, you might find it difficult to get lenders to offer you new credit accounts. Knowing how to get a credit card with a bad credit score is essential to rebuilding your credit.

It’s a good idea to have at least one credit card, even if you have bad credit. Credit cards offer more consumer protections than debit cards, for example, giving you more online shopping security.

Credit cards also give you the ability to make purchases right away and pay them off when your statement is due — and if you pay off your statement before your grace period ends, you won’t pay interest on your purchases. Many credit cards even offer rewards, helping you save money as you shop.

But how do you get a credit card with bad credit? And what are the best credit cards for people with bad credit? We’ve got advice on how to find a credit card with bad credit, as well as tips to help you build your credit after you get approved.

Check your credit score

Even if you’re sure your credit score is less than ideal, you should find out the exact number and the quality range it falls within. You might actually have fair credit, which can qualify you for many more credit cards than bad credit.

And if you truly have bad credit, it’s important to know that so that you don’t apply for cards you’re not likely to qualify for. Each application will trigger a hard credit inquiry, which typically dings your score by a few points. Hard inquiries aren’t inherently bad, but it’s important to be intentional about when you trigger them.

You can get your credit score for free in a few ways.

  • Most big banks and credit card issuers, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Capital One, offer free credit scores to their customers. If you have an existing banking or credit relationship, check if the institution offers free credit scores.
  • MyCredit Guide is a tool created by American Express that provides your TransUnion credit score and report for free. You don’t have to be an American Express customer to use it.
  • Credit bureau Experian provides monthly Vantage 3.0 credit scores if you sign up for its free credit monitoring service. You may also purchase your score from any of the big three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Transunion) or FICO.

Apply for a secured credit card

A secured credit card is one of the best options for people with bad credit. That said, these cards come with a caveat: You have to put down a security deposit before you’ll be able to use the card. In many cases, your line of credit will be equal to the deposit you put down. This means that if you make a $100 deposit, you’ll receive a secured credit card with a $100 credit limit.

Once you have a secured credit card, make sure to make on-time payments each month and avoid exceeding your credit limit. If you want to use it to build your credit score and graduate from a secured card to an unsecured card, you’ll need to prove that you can manage small amounts of credit responsibly. It matters less how much credit you have and more how well you use your available credit. That means keeping your credit utilization rate below 30 percent, if possible — which can be trickly if you have a small credit limit.

The best secured credit cards connect you with apps and educational tools to help you quickly build credit.

Pros of secured credit cards

  • You’ll get access to credit, which can otherwise be difficult for those with a low credit score or no credit history.
  • You can build your credit score through responsible credit use.
  • You may graduate to an unsecured (standard) credit card after you’ve proven your ability to manage credit.

Cons of secured credit cards

  • Issuers require a security deposit.
  • They offer a low credit limit, usually equal to your deposit.
  • Issuers charge high interest rates, making it expensive to carry a balance on the card.
  • They present limited opportunity to earn rewards on purchases.
  • Some issuers don’t report the status of secured cards to credit bureaus — make sure your potential issuer does before you apply.

Apply for a credit card specifically designed for poor credit

There are many credit cards specifically designed for people with poor credit. Some of these cards are secured credit cards, but others are standard credit cards that you’ll be able to access without having to put down a security deposit.

Credit cards for people with bad credit tend to have low credit limits, but if you use your card responsibly, you can work toward good credit — and you might even get upgraded to a better credit card.

The best credit cards for bad credit help you to build your credit score while earning rewards on everyday purchases.

Pros of credit cards for bad credit

  • You have access to credit without a security deposit.
  • You can build your credit score through responsible credit use.
  • There’s a potential to graduate to a better credit card after demonstrating responsible use.
  • You can earn rewards on purchases.

Cons of credit cards for bad credit

  • They typically have a low credit limit, making it difficult to finance large purchases on your card.
  • Bad credit cards come with high interest rates.
  • You can rack up debt if you spend more than you can pay off each billing cycle.

Open a store card

If you’re wondering how to get a credit card with bad credit, the answer might be as close as your nearest checkout lane. Retail credit cards tend to have more lenient application requirements than other types of credit cards, which means that you might be able to qualify for a store credit card even if your credit isn’t very good.

That said, just because retailers offer credit cards for people with bad credit doesn’t mean that store credit cards are necessarily your best option. Most retail credit cards charge significantly higher interest rates than standard credit cards, and your retail credit card might include a deferred interest plan that could cost you a lot more money than you realize.

If you’re thinking about applying for a store card, read our guide to whether or not store cards are worth it.

Pros of retail credit cards

  • You have a better chance of getting approved than a regular credit card, even with poor credit.
  • As with the other options, there’s the opportunity to build your credit score through responsible use.
  • You can earn discounts and rewards.

Cons of retail credit cards

  • Retail credit cards often charge high interest rates.
  • Rewards are often retailer-specific, making store credit cards less flexible than standard credit cards.

Become an authorized user on someone else’s card

If you want to build your credit score without having to be responsible for your own line of credit, you might want to consider becoming an authorized user on someone else’s credit card. Becoming an authorized user is a great way to piggyback on a spouse’s or parent’s good credit habits. If they use their credit card responsibly, your credit score could go up.

What does that mean? Many credit card issuers report authorized user accounts to the three major credit bureaus. When the primary user makes an on-time payment, it gets recorded as an on-time payment in your credit report as well. You can also benefit from the primary user’s credit utilization ratio and length of credit history.

If someone you trust is willing to make you an authorized user, suggest that they add you to their rewards credit card. Why? Because authorized users earn rewards on every qualifying purchase — so together, you can rack up even more points.

Pros of becoming an authorized user

  • It lets you build credit without being responsible for your own credit card.
  • You can get started even if you have no credit history.
  • Parents can add teens as authorized users to give them a credit-building head start.

Cons of becoming an authorized user

  • If the credit card issuer doesn’t report authorized user accounts to the credit bureaus, your credit score won’t improve.
  • If the primary user doesn’t manage their credit account responsibly, your credit score won’t improve (and may even go down).
  • Since both you and the primary user are drawing from the same line of credit, you’ll need to check in with each other to ensure you aren’t overspending your shared credit limit.

FAQs about getting a card with bad credit

  • You don’t need a specific credit score to get a credit card, as there are various options for people with bad credit and even no credit — typically in the form of a secured or student card.
  • It is possible to get an unsecured credit card with bad credit, including a score score of 550. But the higher your score, the better your options will be (especially in terms of rewards rates, interest rates and annual fees).
  • You can work to improve your credit score by consistently paying your existing card bills on time, lowering your credit utilization ratio and practicing other healthy credit card habits. If you don’t yet own a credit card, you can consider getting a credit builder loan or applying for a personal loan, among other options.

The bottom line

Bad credit limits your credit card options, but there are plenty of accessible credit-builder cards on the market. First, check your credit score to make sure you actually have bad credit. Then, apply for a card that’s geared toward your credit range and start using it responsibly.

If you can’t find a credit card that meets your needs, consider becoming an authorized user. This way, you can build your credit score until you qualify for the cards you’re interested in.