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If you’re looking into getting your first credit card, you might be overwhelmed by how much you don’t know. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know, from checking your credit score to choosing between rewards cards.
Before you get started
You probably won’t qualify for some cards
If you’re just starting out with credit, you can’t assume you’ll be approved for any card you’re interested in. If you have bad credit or no credit at all, your credit card options are limited. The top rewards credit cards require a credit score in the “good” range, which starts at 670 for the FICO credit scoring model.
The reason the best credit cards might not offer you a welcome mat is that when you apply for a card, the issuer reviews your credit report before making a decision to approve or reject your application. If there isn’t enough evidence that you’re a good borrower, they’ll determine you’re too risky to lend credit to and deny your application.
You can check your credit for free
Check your credit score before you start shopping around. Fortunately, there are a few ways to check your credit score for free and without lowering your score.
Capital One’s CreditWise program, American Express’s MyCredit Guide and Chase’s Credit Journey are available to all consumers whether you’re a customer or not, and they all let you review your credit score and report.
Once you know where you stand, you can apply for cards within the appropriate credit range or choose to work on improving your score before you apply.
When you’re selecting a card
Secured credit cards are easier to get
If you have fair or bad credit, a secured credit card offers a foot in the door. Secured credit cards are easier to obtain because they require a refundable security deposit. Typically, your credit limit will be equal to the amount of money you supply, and most lenders require a minimum of around $200.
For this reason, secured credit cards aren’t for those who need to borrow money. But it can be good option if you have a little bit of cash you can stow away in exchange for an opportunity to build your credit from the ground up.
Here are our picks for the best secured credit cards.
The two major types of rewards: cash back and travel points
If you have good credit, you can probably get approved for a rewards credit card. There are two major types of credit card rewards to choose from: cash back and travel points. Cash back is a simple concept. You get a percentage of every purchase returned to you. It’s like a small discount.
For example, the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card gives 2 percent cash rewards back on purchases. If you spend $100 on the card, you could get $2 in cash rewards. You can redeem cash rewards as credit that reduces your bill, or you may be able to get it deposited directly to your bank account.
Travel rewards are a little more complicated, especially for first-time credit card users. With a travel card, you earn points or miles that you can then redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises, among other travel purchases.
For example, the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card offers 1.25 miles per dollar spent on every purchase. You can then use those miles to book travel deals through Capital One’s travel portal or even cover the cost of travel-related purchases you’ve made elsewhere.
Here are our picks for the best rewards credit cards.
When you’re applying
Applying for too many cards will hurt your credit
If you apply for lots of credit cards in a short time, you run the risk of having several inquiries on your credit report. That can decrease your credit score and look risky to other lenders, making it more difficult to get approved for credit.
We recommend applying for just one credit card at a time and waiting two months to apply for another one. That gives your credit score time to recover from hard inquiries while allowing you to make an informed decision about which cards you want to add to your wallet.
What counts as income on a credit card application?
When you apply for a credit card, you will need to complete an online application (or paper application, if you are applying through mail or a branch) and provide your income. Though you don’t need a certain income to get a credit card, the number you provide can affect both your approval and your credit limit.
If you’re over 21, you can list any income that you have “reasonable expectation of access” to. That means, in addition to your salary from your full-time job, you can include a spouse’s income (if you have access to that money), allowances from a parent and freelance or side-gig income. For students, income on a credit card application can even include scholarship and grant money that’s left over after you pay for tuition and other school expenses.
After you’re approved
Two things you need to do to build credit
Credit scores are calculated using mathematical models. The most common model, FICO, uses five main factors, each weighted differently. Payment history and credit utilization account for a combined 65 percent of your credit score, while other factors such as length of credit history (15 percent), credit mix (10 percent) and new credit (10 percent) have a lower impact.
The first factor, payment history, takes into account whether you’ve been paying your bills on time. It’s a simple concept, but over a third of your score is determined by this factor. If autopay is an option, take advantage of it.
The second factor, amounts owed or credit utilization, accounts for 30 percent of your credit score. This is the ratio of your total credit card debt to your total available credit (your credit limit), and you want it to be low. For example, having a balance of $500 when you have a credit limit of $1,000 gives you a 50 percent utilization ratio. There’s no set number that’s too high, but a good rule of thumb is to keep it below 30 percent at any given time.
Never carry a balance if you can avoid it
If you’ve ever heard that carrying a small balance on your credit card is good for your credit, you should know that’s a myth. There’s no benefit to doing that, and the downside is you’ll accrue interest on that balance, even if it is tiny.
It’s best to use your credit card like a debit card, only buying things you can pay for outright. That way you never struggle to pay your bill in full each month. If you end up unable to pay the bill in full, pay at least the minimum required by the due date. You will start accruing interest charges on whatever’s left over, but it’s better than not paying anything and suffering severe credit score damage from a late payment.
Consider upgrading your credit card instead of canceling it
After using your first credit card responsibly for some time, your credit score will likely improve, helping you qualify for a better class of credit cards. What you don’t want to do is close the credit card account because it will erase that credit line from your credit report. There’s no reason to close it unless you’re being charged fees for keeping the account open.
There are two better choices. The first is to apply for whatever new credit card you want but keep the old card open, perhaps tucking it away in the back of your wallet. The other is to call your current credit card issuer and ask if you can upgrade to a better credit card with that same issuer. This shouldn’t require a new application or credit pull. In some cases, you may even receive a lower interest rate or a higher credit limit.
The bottom line
Getting started with credit cards can be scary, but it is also a key part of getting acquainted with credit. Start small. You might want to get a basic, no-annual-fee card to start and use it for small purchases. The important thing is to build a solid payment history that will help you qualify for top-tier rewards cards in the future.