The Best Credit Cards - Top Offers & Reviews 2020

Bankrate does the research to help you compare today’s best credit cards and top credit card offers, from travel and cash back to business and balance transfers. We focus on the features that matter: rewards programs, affordable APR, welcome offers and more. Choose a category below and find your best credit card from our partners today.

Best credit cards of 2020

credit card zero-interest category Top 0 Interest Cards

Citi Image

Recommended Credit Score

Excellent (740 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Citi's secure website

Citi® Double Cash Card

Rewards Rate:
Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
0% intro for 18 months on Balance Transfers
Regular APR:
13.99% - 23.99% (Variable)

Card Details

  • Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
  • To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time.
  • Balance Transfer Offer: 0% intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 13.99% - 23.99%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Balance Transfers do not earn cash back.
  • If you transfer a balance, interest will be charged on your purchases unless you pay your entire balance (including balance transfers) by the due date each month.
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 13.99% - 23.99% based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card balance-transfer category Balance Transfer

Best balance transfer card for excellent credit

Citi Image

Recommended Credit Score

Excellent (740 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Citi's secure website

Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card

Rewards Rate:
N/A
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
0% for 18 months on Purchases
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
0% for 18 months on Balance Transfers
Regular APR:
14.74% - 24.74% (Variable)

Card Details

  • 0% Intro APR for 18 months on purchases from date of account opening and 0% Intro APR for 18 months on balance transfers from date of first transfer. After that the variable APR will be 14.74% - 24.74%, based on your creditworthiness. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
  • Get free access to your FICO® Score online.
  • With Citi Entertainment®, get special access to purchase tickets to thousands of events, including concerts, sporting events, dining experiences and more.
  • Shop with confidence knowing that you have dependable protection benefits, including $0 Liability on Unauthorized Purchases and Citi® Identity Theft Solutions.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 14.74% - 24.74%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card cash-back category Top Cash Back Cards

Citi Image

Recommended Credit Score

Excellent (740 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Citi's secure website

Citi® Double Cash Card

Rewards Rate:
Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
0% intro for 18 months on Balance Transfers
Regular APR:
13.99% - 23.99% (Variable)

Card Details

  • Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
  • To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time.
  • Balance Transfer Offer: 0% intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 13.99% - 23.99%, based on your creditworthiness.
  • Balance Transfers do not earn cash back.
  • If you transfer a balance, interest will be charged on your purchases unless you pay your entire balance (including balance transfers) by the due date each month.
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 13.99% - 23.99% based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card no-annual-fee category Top No Annual Fee Cards

Best for everyday spending

Chase Image

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent (670 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Chase's secure website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

Rewards Rate:
Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year. Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
Welcome Offer:
Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
0% Intro APR on Purchases for 15 months
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
14.99 - 23.74% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases, then a variable APR of 14.99 - 23.74%.
  • No annual fee
  • No minimum to redeem for cash back
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card travel category Top Travel Cards

Best for flexible redemptions

Chase Image

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent (670 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Chase's secure website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Rewards Rate:
Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel. 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide. 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Welcome Offer:
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
Annual Fee:
$95
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
15.99%-22.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card rewards category Top Rewards Cards

Best for earning on everyday spending

Citi Image

Recommended Credit Score

Excellent (740 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Citi's secure website

Citi Rewards+℠ Card

Rewards Rate:
Earn 2X ThankYou® Points at Supermarkets and Gas Stations for the first $6,000 per year and then 1X Points thereafter. Earn 1X ThankYou® Points on All Other Purchases.
Welcome Offer:
Earn 15,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in purchases with your card within 3 months of account opening; redeemable for $150 in gift cards at thankyou.com
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
0% intro for 15 months on Purchases
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
0% intro for 15 months on Balance Transfers
Regular APR:
13.49% - 23.49% (Variable)

Card Details

  • The Citi Rewards+℠ Card - the only credit card that automatically rounds up to the nearest 10 points on every purchase - with no cap.
  • Earn 15,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in purchases with your card within 3 months of account opening; redeemable for $150 in gift cards at thankyou.com
  • 0% Intro APR on balance transfers and purchases for 15 months. After that, the variable APR will be 13.49% - 23.49%, based on your creditworthiness. Balance transfer fee — either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
  • Earn 2X ThankYou® Points at Supermarkets and Gas Stations for the first $6,000 per year and then 1X Points thereafter. Plus, earn 1X ThankYou® Points on All Other Purchases.
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 13.49% - 23.49%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card student category Top Student Cards

Best for students with no credit history

Deserve Image

Recommended Credit Score

No Credit History

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Deserve's secure website

Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students

Rewards Rate:
1% unlimited cash back on All purchases
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
18.74% Variable

Card Details

  • Receive one year of Amazon Prime Student on Deserve after spending $500 in the first three billing cycles with your EDU card (Lifetime Value of $59).
  • Earn 1% Cash Back on all purchases with your Deserve EDU Mastercard. Once approved, you'll automatically start earning cash back on all purchases.
  • Feel secure with cell phone protection up to $600.
  • No deposit required. No annual fees.
  • No international transaction fees on purchases abroad so you can travel with confidence.
  • No Social Security Number required for international students to apply.
  • Refer A Friend Program: Refer anyone to Deserve using your personal referral code. Upon approval, card activation and use, you'll receive $30 and so will your referral. Referral bonuses are unlimited!
  • Manage and track your spending, set automatic payments and securely freeze your card all through one easy to use app.
  • See if you prequalify with no impact to your credit score in minutes.
  • Deserve Mastercards are issued by Celtic Bank, Member FDIC.
  • Enjoy Mastercard Platinum Benefits intended to make your life easier like Mastercard ID Theft Prevention™ and Master Rental®.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card excellent-credit category Top Cards for Excellent Credit

Best for flexible redemptions

Chase Image

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent (670 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Chase's secure website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Rewards Rate:
Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel. 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide. 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Welcome Offer:
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
Annual Fee:
$95
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
15.99%-22.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card good-credit category Top Cards for Good Credit

Best for family cash back with no annual fee

American Express Image

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent (670 - 850)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On American Express's secure website

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Rewards Rate:
3% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%). 2% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores. 1% back on other purchases
Welcome Offer:
Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
Annual Fee:
$0
Purchase Intro APR:
0% on purchases for 15 months
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
13.99%-23.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Earn a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
  • 3% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).
  • 2% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores.
  • 1% back on other purchases.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 15 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, 13.99% to 23.99%.
  • Plan It® gives the option to select purchases of $100 or more to split up into monthly payments with a fixed fee and no interest.
  • Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.
  • No annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.

credit card fair-credit category Top Cards for Fair Credit

Best for high rewards in select categories

Credit One Bank Image

Recommended Credit Score

Fair to Good (580 - 740)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Credit One Bank's secure website

Credit One Bank® Platinum Rewards Visa

Rewards Rate:
Get 5% cash back rewards on the first $5,000 of eligible gas, grocery, internet, cable, satellite TV, and mobile phone service purchases each year, and then 1% thereafter. 1% cash back rewards on all other purchases. Terms Apply.
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$95
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
23.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Get 5% cash back rewards on the first $5,000 of eligible gas, grocery, internet, cable, satellite TV, and mobile phone service purchases each year, and then 1% thereafter. Plus 1% cash back rewards on all other purchases, terms apply
  • Zero Fraud Liability protects you from unauthorized charges
  • Get free access to your Experian credit score online, terms apply
  • Automatically earn More Cash Back Rewards for using your Credit One Bank card at participating merchants, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
Terms and Restrictions Apply

Best for repairing your credit score

Credit One Bank Image

Recommended Credit Score

Bad to Fair (300 - 670)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Credit One Bank's secure website

Credit One Bank® Unsecured Visa® for Rebuilding Credit

Rewards Rate:
N/A
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0 - $99
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
17.99% to 23.99% Variable

Card Details

  • See if you Pre-Qualify without harming your credit score. Find the card that's right for you in less than 60 seconds.
  • CreditOneBank.com and the Credit One Bank mobile app makes it easy to access and manage all your account information and make payments whether you're at home or on-the-go.
  • Know you're protected from unauthorized charges with Zero Fraud Liability—included with every Credit One Bank account
  • Take advantage of free online access to your Experian credit score and credit report summary so you can track the key factors impacting your credit health. Terms apply.
  • Give your credit a boost with credit line increase opportunities, a fee may apply.
  • Eligible purchases such as gas, groceries, mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV will automatically earn 1% cash back rewards. Terms apply.
  • Always know what's happening with your account with custom email and text alerts to remind you about your payment due date, notify you when a payment posts, or warn you if your available credit runs low.
  • Customize your card by selecting a unique design from Credit One Bank's card gallery. There are more than 20 options to choose from. A fee may apply.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

credit card no-credit-history category Top Cards for No Credit History

Best for high credit limit potential

Jasper Image

Recommended Credit Score

No Credit History

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Jasper's secure website

The Jasper Mastercard®

Rewards Rate:
N/A
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0*
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
15.49% (variable)

Card Details

  • Special Promotion: Apply by Aug 31st, 2020, to receive a $50 gift card upon activation. Use promo code: RVJASPER *terms apply
  • No annual fee*, no security deposit, up to a $5k credit limit
  • All the benefits of a premium Mastercard®
  • Unique autopay settings, push notifications, and utilization alerts that help you manage your account and build your credit
  • No credit history required if you don’t already have one (proof of income required to apply)
  • Not for credit repair
  • Issued by WebBank, Member FDIC
  • * To learn more, review the Jasper fee schedule.

credit card bad-credit category Top Cards for Poor Credit

Best unsecured credit card with rewards

Credit One Bank Image

Recommended Credit Score

Bad to Fair (300 - 670)

A FICO score/credit score is used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any financial product.

Apply Now On Credit One Bank's secure website

Credit One Bank® Visa® Credit Card

Rewards Rate:
Get 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases including gas, groceries, and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV, terms apply.
Welcome Offer:
N/A
Annual Fee:
$0 - $99
Purchase Intro APR:
N/A
Balance Transfer Intro APR:
N/A
Regular APR:
17.99% to 23.99% Variable

Card Details

  • Find the card that's right for you without affecting your credit score.
  • Show off your personality by selecting from a variety of card designs, a fee may apply.
  • Get 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases including gas, groceries, and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV, terms apply.
  • Set up custom email or text alerts so you'll always be aware of your payment due date, when your payment posts, or if your available credit runs low.
  • Don't get stuck with a payment date that doesn't work with your schedule. Credit One Bank allows you to choose your monthly payment due date. Terms apply.
  • Take advantage of free online access to your Experian credit score and credit report summary so you can track the key factors impacting your credit health. Terms apply.
  • Credit One Bank evaluates every account for credit line increase opportunities. We'll let you know as soon as you're eligible for a higher credit line.
  • Know you're protected from unauthorized charges with Zero Fraud Liability—included with every Credit One Bank account.
Terms and Restrictions Apply

Find the credit card you’ve been looking for

The right credit card can play an important role in helping you achieve your financial goals responsibly. But how do you choose among the hundreds of credit cards and offers available on today’s market?

Don’t feel overwhelmed. Bankrate is here to help.

Do you want to earn cash back on everyday purchases? Upgrade your travel experience? Manage different kinds of consumer debt? Build or repair your credit? Whatever your objective might be, our expert analysis of leading offers from our credit card partners can guide you in the right direction.

Our experts evaluate top cards in all the major categories — including rewards, cash back, travel and business — and narrow down the list to a select few.

A complete guide to choosing and using credit cards

‘Why should I get a credit card?’

You might find the answer in a concept that keeps inching closer to reality: the cashless society. Credit cards play a big role in this trend, which is evident in the number of chip readers, online payment portals and digital wallet interfaces most of us encounter every day.

Bankrate.com recently surveyed credit card users to find out how they often used their cards on purchases that could earn rewards. One of the findings was that owners of rewards cards who don’t carry a balance from month to month paid for these purchases with their cards a lot more often than with cash or a debit card:

Type of purchase Paid with rewards credit card Paid with cash or debit card
Groceries 56% 44%
Restaurants 57% 43%
Gas 63% 37%
Airfare 85% 15%
Hotel 84% 16%

Technology has made using credit much more convenient than in the past, and credit cards also feature built-in incentives such as:

  • Security features that reduce your vulnerability to fraudulent charges
  • Rewards programs that earn cash back, travel discounts and more
  • Tools that help you build or repair your credit

So, should you get a credit card? The answer depends on your personal financial situation, your financial goals and other factors.

Do you need to build up your credit profile? Do you have responsible spending habits? Is the card for personal use or for your business? Do you want to earn rewards that will help you maximize the value of your spending? These are some of the questions you should answer as you compare the best credit card offers.

When credit cards are used responsibly and to their full potential, they can provide convenience and value you don’t get with other payment methods. To reap these benefits, you’ll first need to choose the right card and then use it the right way.

How to choose a credit card that’s right for you

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all credit card, and the sheer number of options can make it difficult to figure out exactly which one represents the best option for you.

We recommend using one of two methods to narrow down your choices:

  1. How to choose a card by category
  2. How to choose a card by credit score

Generally speaking, the category method is well-suited for people with a solid credit history and a specific goal in mind: earning cash back, collecting points/miles to offset the cost of travel and so on.

The credit score might work well for two types of people: one, those who are focused on building their credit history or improving their credit score; and two, those who already have a good or excellent credit score and would like to upgrade from their current card and possibly qualify for a lower annual percentage rate (APR).

How to choose a card by category

If you’re choosing a card according to category, you’re probably interested in a card with a rewards program that matches your spending habits. Today’s credit cards cover a lot of territory for different types of consumers, including:

The budget-minded shopper

You can earn cash back on everyday purchases, and more, with a cash back rewards card. While some cards earn a fixed percentage on every eligible purchase, others offer tiered categories with higher rates tailored to specialty areas such as:

Seasonal shoppers whose spending habits change with the calendar might benefit from a rotating category card. This type of card earns bonus cash back rates on certain types of purchases at three-month intervals throughout the year.

The frequent traveler

If you want to earn miles and points to help offset the cost of travel, a travel rewards card should probably be at the top of your list.

Travel credit cards feature perks and benefits specifically designed to make the journey easier and more affordable, including:

  • Access to private airport lounges
  • TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee credits
  • Baggage insurance

Many travel cards earn rewards on airfare, hotels and other expenses, no matter how you fly or where you stay. However, your options also include co-branded cards geared toward travelers loyal to particular airlines or hotel chains.

The small business owner

Business credit cards can benefit people who own or operate small businesses in a number of ways.

With a cash back card for business, you can earn a flat percentage on general purchases or a higher rate on specialty categories such as office supplies. A business travel card that earns miles or points can help you reduce your costs for airfare, hotel stays and transit.

Like travel cards, many business rewards cards also offer specialized features and benefits such as:

  • Higher credit limits than consumer cards
  • Tools to help you manage expenses
  • Free additional cards for employees

The debt manager

Two types of credit card features specifically address debt and interest: balance transfers and introductory zero-interest offers on purchases.

A balance transfer involves moving debt from one type of credit account to a new one — in this case, a balance transfer credit card. The best balance transfer cards offer an introductory period of zero-interest that you can use to pay off the transferred debt while temporarily avoiding interest.

Cards with zero-interest offers on purchases also provide a temporary window of 0% APR, making them useful for large purchases that would be difficult to pay off in a single billing cycle. Once the intro period ends, however, the APR will change to the card’s regular variable range.

The credit-builder

Used responsibly, the right cards can help you establish a credit history and improve your credit score — all while providing a convenient and secure method of payment for all kinds of expenses. Many issuers offer credit cards for people who have less than perfect credit scores or no credit history at all. Categories for credit-builders include:

You’ll find some overlap between the no-credit-history category and the student category, since many students lack a true credit history before getting their first card. A number of student cards don’t require a credit history or a good credit score to apply.

The categories of bad credit and secured cards also overlap to an extent. A secured card requires an upfront deposit, which will then serve as your credit limit. Deposits are refundable over time as long as you’ve established a good record of on-time payments. By providing the deposit, a consumer with bad credit is essentially putting up collateral so that the issuer faces less risk in issuing the secured card.

The student

A young adult can get a head-start on life’s financial journey with a student credit card. The best student credit cards have features tailored to this specific type of consumer, including:

  • Relaxed credit requirements. You might not need a good or excellent credit score (or even a credit history at all) to qualify.
  • Features designed for you. To cite just one example, how about an annual statement credit that rewards you for maintaining a high GPA?
  • Less emphasis on annual fees. For someone who doesn’t yet have a career or annual income, a card that doesn’t charge an annual fee makes a lot of sense.

How to choose a card by credit score

Your credit score helps determine your qualifications for credit cards and other types of loans. Although scores can vary by credit bureau, credit card issuers and online marketplaces commonly use recommended credit scores to help consumers get an idea of which cards they might qualify for.

For example, each credit card available through Bankrate.com has a recommended credit score, with the range of scores defined as:

A fifth category, No Credit History, covers credit cards for students and others who have little or no experience in using credit.

Check your score before you begin

Checking your credit score can be surprisingly easy, and it might not even cost you anything. Your options include:

  • The three major U.S. credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion
  • The Fair Isaac Corporation, creator of the FICO score
  • Your bank or credit union
  • Credit card issuers, through the FICO Score Open Access program

Knowing your score will give you a better idea of which cards are within your reach, credit-wise.

Focus on your goals as a user of credit

If you choose a card according to your credit score, it’s helpful to keep some objectives in mind.

  • No credit history — To establish your credit profile
  • Bad credit or fair credit — To improve your credit score
  • Good credit or excellent credit — To take advantage of rewards programs and lower APRs as you responsibly maintain your credit score

Even if you already have good credit, achieving an excellent credit score is a worthwhile pursuit. The higher your credit score, the more likely you are to receive favorable terms on any kind of credit application — from cards to car loans to mortgages.

How do you apply for a credit card?

Although online applications are increasingly common, you might find yourself replying to an offer you receive in the mail or in person at your bank. Whether you apply with a pen or an internet browser, you’ll need to remember a few tips.

Check your credit score

Before you start filling out applications, or even shopping around, you should find out your current credit score.

Knowing your credit score will give you a better idea of:

  • Which cards you’re most likely to qualify for. On Bankrate.com, for example, each card offered by our partners has a Recommended Credit Score that you can use as a guideline.
  • The APR you might be offered. The higher your credit score, the more likely you are to get a lower APR.)

You can check your credit score through any the major credit bureaus, the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), or possibly through your bank.

Have your information ready

The obvious blanks you’ll need to fill include:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Social Security number

You should also be ready to provide additional information such as:

  • Annual income
  • Monthly rent or mortgage payments
  • Current bank accounts

Your wait time will vary

The response time to your application will depend on several factors, including your credit status and whether you’ve applied online or offline.

With online applications, it could take as little as a few minutes or as long as several days to find out. If you apply by mail, the issuer’s mailed response could take a week or more.

Frequently asked questions about credit cards

You don’t have to be a credit card expert to get the most out of your particular card, but it does help to understand some of the basics. Here are some essential questions about credit cards, and their answers.

What does a credit card actually do?

A credit card is a payment method that serves as a line of credit and lets you make purchases now while paying for them later. Unlike cash, you don’t pay upfront. Unlike checks or debit cards, you don’t pay with money that you’ve already deposited into an account.

Physically, credit cards are flat, thin pieces of plastic or metal that can be scanned by electronic readers. You can also use them for digital transactions by entering your account number and other identifying information into an online portal.

Credit cards are typically issued by banks and financial services companies. According to the American Bankers Association, the number of open credit card accounts in the United States has reached an estimated 370 million.

What is credit card APR and why does it matter?

Interest charges are calculated differently with credit cards than with other forms of credit, such as car loans or mortgages. If you carry an unpaid balance on your card past the payment due date, you’ll have to pay interest charges in the form of APR.

Each month, you have the opportunity to pay a minimum payment, your full balance or an amount in between. While most cards don’t require you to pay off your balance in full each month, it’s the only way to avoid paying interest. Bankrate recommends paying off your entire balance every month.

However, carrying a balance may be unavoidable in certain cases. If you expect to carry a balance, it’s worth looking at cards offering a 0% introductory APR. Just make sure that you’ll pay off the full balance by the end of the 0% APR period.

How do you qualify for a credit card?

The more creditworthy you are, the better your chances of meeting an issuer’s requirements. Issuers determine which credit cards you qualify for based on your creditworthiness — primarily your credit score. Top-tier credit cards generally require credit scores in the Good to Excellent range, measured by the FICO scoring model as 670-850.

Substantially improving your credit is a task months or years in the making. If your credit score falls short of the 670-850 FICO range, don’t wait to start building it up. Here are two steps you can take immediately:

  1. Pay your bills on time. It’s not just about avoiding late fees and interest charges. A good record of paying what you owe makes you look more responsible in the eyes of a lender.
  2. Keep your credit utilization on the low side. Think of credit utilization as the relationship between two numbers: the amount of credit you have available and how much of it you’re using. Try to keep the second number at 30% or less of the first, since good credit utilization shows lenders that you know how to avoid getting over-extended.

If you start improving a subpar credit score today, you could increase your chances of qualifying for a top credit card substantially.

Does applying for a credit card hurt your credit score?

A credit card application could have a negative (but temporary and relatively small) effect on your credit score. Getting approved for a credit card or other type of credit account requires some scrutiny of your track record as a borrower. The process can involve two types of credit checks:

  • A “hard” inquiry, when the lender pulls your credit report to make a decision about whether to lend to you.
  • A “soft” inquiry, when the lender checks your credit as part of a preliminary screening. Pre-qualified credit card offers involve soft credit inquiries, so keep an eye out cards that offer pre-qualification.

A hard inquiry can subtract a few points from your credit score temporarily, while a soft inquiry usually has no effect. You’ll want to limit the number of hard inquiries on your credit report, so be as selective as possible about which credit cards you apply for.

How we score and review Bankrate’s top credit cards

Every card that we highlight has been rated on a scale of 1-5 stars. The most important factors in determining the score for our top picks include:

APR

Affordable interest rates are essential to great credit card offers. If you ever need to carry over part of your balance (hopefully not all of it) from one month to another, a lower APR should lower the total cost.

Rewards programs

The best programs for earning cash back, points or miles offer generous rewards rates and flexible redemption options. Some reward programs also include online shopping portals where you can find discounts on popular merchandise.

Introductory 0% APR offers

A zero-percent APR offer — essentially a temporary reprieve from interest — could make it much less expensive to pay off a big purchase or a balance transfer. The best offers last several months, a year or even longer before the regular APR applies.

Fees

A low cost of ownership is another key element of a great credit card. The total burden of fees should be low. If a card does charge an annual fee, it should also offer rewards and benefits that can help offset that cost.

Essential reading for credit card users

If you’re looking for more information on how credit cards can help you reach your financial goals, check out some of our top resource articles:


Senior Editor Barry Bridges has been writing about credit cards, personal loans, mortgages and other personal finance products since 2017. Before joining Bankrate, he was an award-winning newspaper journalist in his native North Carolina. Send your questions about credit cards (and fantasy baseball) to bbridges@bankrate.com.

This editorial content is not provided or commissioned by any of the referenced financial institutions or companies. Opinions, analysis, reviews or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any financial institutions or companies, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such entity. All products or services are presented without warranty. Bankrate.com is an independent, advertising-supported publisher and comparison service. This post contains references to our partners, and Bankrate may be compensated in exchange for featured placement of certain sponsored products and services, or your clicking on certain links posted on this website.

* See the online application for details about terms and conditions for these offers. Every reasonable effort has been made to maintain accurate information. However all credit card information is presented without warranty. After you click on the offer you desire you will be directed to the credit card issuer's web site where you can review the terms and conditions for your selected offer.