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6 tips for applying for a credit card with bad credit

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Mom researching on laptop in kitchen
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Bad credit can make life unnecessarily complicated and costly. Any FICO score below 580 is considered “bad credit,” so you’ll face similar consequences whether your score is at 560, 515 or even lower than that.

Unfortunately, having poor credit also makes lenders and creditors believe you’re a high risk to lend to, meaning a higher likelihood of denied applications. This creates a cycle that makes it difficult to build credit. Without any sort of credit you can lean on to prove your creditworthiness, it’s easy to stay stuck where you’re at.

But there are strategies you can use to get approved for a credit card with a low credit score. While the tips we recommend won’t necessarily help you qualify for the best credit cards on the market right off the bat, they can help you get a credit card you can use to turn your situation around.

Consider the tips, suggestions and strategies outlined below.

Give Experian Boost a try

If your credit score is on the low end and you want to give it the biggest boost you can for the least amount of effort, give Experian Boost a try. This app helps you get credit for payments you make toward subscription services and utility bills you pay, and it can help improve your Experian credit score quickly.

Here’s how it works: Rent payments and utility bills do count toward your credit score, but due to systemic lapses in communication, information about those payments rarely makes it to the credit bureaus. Landlords and service providers typically don’t go through the trouble of reporting your bill payments. But Experian Boost can collect that alternative data and bring it to your credit report, which can raise your credit score almost instantly.

How much difference can it make? According to Experian, this free app helps the average user improve their FICO® Score 8 based on Experian Data by 13 points. However, some past users claim the app has helped them secure a boost up to 50 points or more within the span of a few months.

Consider a secured credit card

Whether you experiment with Experian Boost or not, you may have the most luck getting approved for a secured credit card with a low credit score. This type of credit card requires a cash deposit as collateral, yet your balances and payments are reported to the three credit bureaus. This means you have to secure your own line of credit with cash, but your payments can help increase your credit score over time.

One major benefit of secured credit cards is the fact that nearly anyone can get approved, poor credit or not. Also, note that your security deposit is fully refundable when you get to the point where you can upgrade or close your account in good standing.

Research credit cards for bad credit

There are credit cards that are made for people with bad credit, including secured and unsecured options. Even the best credit cards for bad credit tend to be light on benefits and heavy on fees and interest charges, but they can give you the chance to prove your creditworthiness when others won’t.

We already mentioned how secured credit cards are an option here, and you might be surprised to find that many secured cards offer rewards for spending with no annual fee. If you want a credit card for bad credit that doesn’t require a cash deposit, on the other hand, consider options like the Mission Lane Visa® Credit Card, which offers people with poor credit the opportunity to rebuild for an annual fee of $0-$59.

Apply for a retail credit card

Retail credit cards can be another option to consider if you have poor credit or no credit history at all. Cards in this niche are relatively easy to get approved for, although you’ll typically start out with a low credit limit at first.

That said, it’s worth noting that many store credit cards can only be used in one type of store or a specific brand of stores, which makes them unlike traditional Visa credit cards or Mastercard products. If you apply for a store card from Kohl’s, for example, you can only use it for purchases at Kohl’s.

On the upside, some store cards allow you to use them anywhere. Also, retail cards still report your credit balances and payments to the three credit bureaus. This means they can help you build credit when you use them responsibly, and all while you score special store discounts and other store card perks.

Prequalification

If you’re skittish about applying for a credit card with bad credit because you’re unsure whether you’ll be approved, you can also check for cards that let you get pre-qualified without a hard inquiry on your credit report.

As an example, both the Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card and the Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card let you check your approval odds and pre-qualify without a hard inquiry on your credit report. So does the Discover It® Secured Credit Card, which lets you begin building credit with a security deposit as low as $200.

If you’re not sure which card you want to apply for, you can also use Bankrate’s CardMatch tool. This free tool lets you see if you’re pre-qualified for any credit card offers with no hard inquiry on your credit reports.

Become an authorized user

Finally, you can inquire about becoming an authorized user on someone else’s credit card account. This strategy doesn’t actually require an application, but you’ll still end up with a credit card you can use and build credit with.

Becoming an authorized user is a good option if you have a family member or trusted family friend who has good credit and is willing to add you to their account.  Just keep in mind that the primary account holder is ultimately responsible for paying all charges and that you can easily ruin a good relationship if you use your authorized user card for purchases and don’t pay them off.

The bottom line

Your credit card options are typically limited when you have a low credit score, but that doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. There are plenty of ways to get access to credit that can help you boost your score, and some of your options may be more rewarding than you realize.

When you do get approved for a credit card, you should also remember that the one you get right now doesn’t have to be forever. With some patience and plenty of on-time payments made on your current card, you can improve your credit score and graduate to a better credit card with time.

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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