Credit card basics: The ins and outs of plastic


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There are plenty of reasons to apply for a credit card, including convenience, the ability to track your spending and the chance to earn rewards such as travel points or cash back on your purchases.

But the types of credit cards you should apply for—and are likely to be approved for—depends largely on your credit history. Whether you’re a credit newbie or a long-time credit user, here’s how to get the best credit card for you.

Know your score

Before filling out any applications, check your credit report. You can get a free copy of your credit report and score from, which can help you see how much credit you already have, how much you’ve used and whether you pay your bills on time. These are just a few of the factors used to compute your credit score, a number generally ranging from 300 to 850. The higher your number, the greater your credit worthiness and the more likely lenders are to approve your application for a credit card.

How to get a credit card if you have no credit history

If you’ve never owned a credit card, you may have little to no credit history for lenders to review. This makes qualifying for a card difficult, but not impossible. Here are several options to consider:

  • If you’re a young person or still a student, ask a parent to co-sign your application. One note: Your co-signer will also be responsible for any debt you rack up.
  • Check with your bank or credit union where you have an established customer relationship to see if they will offer you a card.
  • Apply for a card offered by a retailer such as a department store. These cards tend to have more relaxed qualifying standards.

How to get a credit card if you have bad credit

If your credit score is low—say, below 600—many credit card companies may decline your application. Fortunately, there are alternatives if you have bad credit. For instance, consider applying for a secured card. These cards require you to make a cash deposit with the lender and has a lower qualifying threshold.

A secured card gives you the chance to rebuild your credit history by making on-time payments and keeping your credit usage low—less than 30 percent of your credit limit. Paying your bills on time will quickly put you on the path to building a solid credit history. After a few months, check your credit report again to see if your score has improved. If it has, you might qualify for a traditional unsecured credit card.

You have solid credit? Consider your spending needs

If you have a good credit score (generally 700 or greater), how to get a credit card comes down to choosing the best card for your spending and credit habits. If you tend to carry a balance from month to month, look for a card with low interest rates. If you pay your balance in full each month, consider getting a rewards card.

To pick the best one, track where you spend the most money—such as groceries, gas or travel—and get a card that will offer you points or cash back in those spending categories. Not only will your new credit card provide you with convenience and protection, you’ll get some great perks as well.