Using a credit card can come with many benefits, including convenient and secure payments, rewards, perks, and building and maintaining a good credit history. If you're new to credit and searching for your first credit card, your options may be limited.
But figuring out how to get a credit card for the first time doesn't have to be a daunting experience. Here are some steps you can take as you learn how to choose your first credit card and make the most of your everyday spending.
1. Know the requirements
If you have a limited credit history or no credit history at all, your credit card options will be limited. Even student and secured credit cards, designed for new-to-credit borrowers, have some requirements you need to meet.
While those criteria can vary depending on the card, here are some general guidelines.
You'll need to be at least 18 years old to apply for a credit card on your own. If you're still a minor, your only option is to have a parent add you as an authorized user on their credit card account.
Most credit cards are designed for U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a Social Security number.
However, some credit cards, including the Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card and the BankAmericard® Secured Credit Card, allow you to apply with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), which nonresident and resident aliens can obtain. Some card issuers may even accept a passport.
Some starter credit cards don't require a credit history when you apply. For instance, the Chase Freedom Rise℠ Credit Card gives you better approval odds if you have a balance of $250 or more in a Chase checking account, and the Petal® 2 Visa® Credit Card uses your bank account information to determine your eligibility.
But with other options, you'll need at least some credit history to get approved. If you're a college student, you may establish a credit history by making interest-only payments on your student loans or asking a loved one to add you as an authorized user on their credit card.
You can also try to apply with a co-signer. While major card issuers generally don't allow it, you may have some luck with a local credit union.
Gone are the days of credit card companies handing out free pizza and credit card applications to starving students on college campuses. Since the Credit CARD Act of 2009 was passed, credit card companies are required by law to evaluate your ability to repay any debt you incur.
If you're under the age of 21, you must prove that you have sufficient independent income to make your payments. Once you reach 21, however, card issuers will also consider other income sources, such as spousal income, allowances from parents, scholarships and grants.
2. Know your options
There's a wide variety of credit cards available to first-timers, but not all of them are created equal. As you do your research, here are some options to consider:
Student credit cards: Most student credit cards have no annual fee, and they also offer rewards on your everyday purchases — with the Discover it® Student Cash Back, for instance, you can get up to 5% on everyday spending. Keep in mind, though, that you may need to prove your enrollment status to get approved. They don't require a security deposit.
Secured credit cards: Secured credit cards require you to put up a security deposit, usually starting at $200 or $300, equal to your desired credit limit. In many cases, you won't get that deposit back until you close your account — and closing a credit card can negatively impact your credit. As a result, focus on options like the Discover it® Secured and the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card, which offer to return your deposit if you use the account responsibly, effectively converting it to an unsecured card.
Other starter cards: Historically, unsecured starter credit cards have come with high interest rates and fees. But in recent years, options and terms have improved. The Freedom Rise and Petal 2 cards are two examples, along with the Mission Lane Visa® Credit Card. The Super Card, which acts as a debit-hybrid card, is another option that doesn't even require a credit check.
3. Compare credit card features and terms
As you consider all the different available options, here are some factors to consider to ensure you get the best first credit card for you:
Fees and interest: Most of the best starter credit cards don't charge an annual fee, so if you come across one that does, keep looking. Unfortunately, these cards often charge high interest rates — the Super Card is one exception because it links your card to your checking account and pulls payments automatically.
Rewards: Try to focus on credit cards that offer rewards on your everyday purchases. These can come in the form of a flat earning rate on every purchase or a tiered approach, where certain spending categories earn more cash back or points.
Credit reporting: Most major starter credit cards report your account activity to all three credit bureaus, which is crucial for effective credit-building. If you come across a card that issuer that doesn't specify that it reports to all three credit bureaus, skip it.
Deposit requirements: If you're focused on secured cards, some are more flexible than others with deposit rules. With the Capital One Platinum Secured, for instance, you could get a credit limit of $200 with a deposit of as low as $49. You can also qualify for credit limit increases without making an additional deposit and get your deposit back without needing to close your account.
Prequalification options: Some credit card issuers allow you to get prequalified for a card before you submit an official application. This process can give you a good idea of your approval odds without impacting your credit score.
4. Submit your application
Once you decide which card is right for you, you can typically submit an application online. This process only takes a few minutes, and you can expect to get a decision within seconds of your submission.
Again, requirements can vary, but here are some general guidelines for what you'll need to provide on your credit card application:
Date of birth
Social Security number or ITIN
Gross annual income
With some cards, there may be extra requirements. For example, a student credit card issuer may also ask you to provide information about your school enrollment, and a card issuer that considers your bank account activity may ask you to link your account.
5. Set up your account
If you're approved, you'll typically receive the card in the mail in a week or two, though some card issuers like Capital One and Citi may allow you to create virtual card numbers through your online account to use for online purchases before you get your physical card.
Be sure to set up a bank account for monthly payments, keep your balance low, and pay your bill on time and in full every month.
What to do if you're denied
Taking your time to research credit cards based on your credit profile and income can make it easier to avoid getting denied. Prequalification can also help, but it's not a guarantee.
If you do get denied, the card issuer will send you a letter detailing the reasons. Review the letter to determine your next steps. In the meantime, consider whether the card was a good match based on your credit profile and shop around for other options that may be a better match.
That said, try to avoid applying for multiple credit cards too quickly because each application will result in a hard credit inquiry. One inquiry on its own won't impact your credit score much, but multiple inquiries in a short period can have a compounding negative effect.
Figuring out how to get a credit card for the first time can feel overwhelming, but with these guidelines, you'll have the information you need to determine which card is the best fit based on your financial situation, credit history, and preferences.
While it may be tempting to go with the first decent offer you see, take your time to shop around and compare several cards to maximize the overall value you get out of the experience.