How to Get a Credit Card

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, around 70% of adults in the U.S. have at least one credit card and there are almost 700 million open credit card accounts. 

While the sheer volume of choices and card terminology might make you swear off plastic altogether, the process of getting a credit card is simple. And the potential benefits of getting the right credit card make it well worth the effort. 

Keep reading to learn how to pick the right card for you, increase your odds of getting approved, and start using it to your financial advantage.

Erika Taught Me

  • Find out your credit score to know what types of cards you’ll likely qualify for
  • Choose a card that fits your needs
  • Apply and then use the card responsibly

Choose the type of credit card you want

The process of getting a credit card should always start with identifying why you want one. What’s your goal? Are you hoping to build up your credit score? Save money while you travel? Gradually pay off that organic latex mattress at no interest?

Carefully considering what you’d like to achieve with your card will help you filter the options and choose the right card for your needs. Below are the main types of credit cards available: 

  • Secured credit cards help consumers with low credit scores or no credit history improve their credit. To qualify for a secured card, you have to make a cash deposit, which typically determines the credit limit you’re given.
  • Student credit cards are available to students enrolled in college or an equivalent program, and they have less credit score and income requirements than regular credit cards.
  • Cash back cards earn a small percentage of cash on purchases. A card may earn a given percentage for any purchase you make as well as a larger percentage in specific purchase categories (like groceries, restaurants, or gas).
  • Travel credit cards have features like airport lounge access, waived foreign transaction fees, and travel insurance. Travel card purchases typically earn points that can be redeemed for flights or hotel stays. 
  • Balance transfer cards have introductory offers for balance transfers. They allow you to move your debt from a loan (or another credit card account) to a new card. Balance transfer offers will have a 0% intro balance transfer APR for a while, typically six to 24 months.
  • Business credit cards help business owners separate their personal and business expenses and may earn rewards points or cash back on business-oriented spending, like internet, shipping, or advertising. 

Here's more on the different types of credit cards.

Find out what you’ll qualify for

No matter what your credit score is, you’ll probably be able to qualify for at least a secured credit card, provided you have a couple hundred bucks for a refundable deposit. However, an unsecured credit card with more attractive features will have more stringent requirements.

Unfortunately, not all card issuers publicly reveal their credit score and income expectations. And, to complicate matters further, applying for a credit card results in a hard inquiry (aka “hard pull”) on your credit, so you want to apply for cards selectively.

Juan Ruiz, a travel journalist and credit card expert, advises applicants to get a strong sense of where their credit stands by using free online services.

“Apps or sites like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame can give you your credit score without a hard pull,” said Ruiz. “While there’s no way to predict an approval, you can improve your odds of approval with a high credit score (usually above 720) and solid income.” 

If your credit score is below 720, you can likely still get approved for a credit card aimed at those with fair to good credit. While it likely won’t offer as good rewards or as many perks, you’ve got to start somewhere and you can use this first card to gradually improve your score until you’re ready for more feature-packed credit cards. 

Many major issuers also offer opportunities to get pre-approved for credit cards. Preapproval, or prequalification, involves a soft inquiry so it won’t impact your credit score. While approval isn’t guaranteed, the process can still give you a good understanding of what cards you’re likely to get approved for and can spare you shooting your shot (and taking a small credit score hit) with credit cards currently out of your league.

Related: When should you get a credit card

Do some credit card research

Once you’ve determined the type of card you want and will likely qualify for, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and see what’s out there. Whether you’re looking at the card suite of a brand-new fintech or the household name bank you’ve been with for years, there are a few terms and conditions you should take note of when considering credit cards.

Annual percentage rates

The annual percentage rate (APR) is an extra charge added to any portion of your card balance that you don’t pay off every month. A card may have both a promotional APR that lasts for a limited period (like 0% for 15 months) and a regular rate APR that will kick in after the promotional period ends.

Most credit cards in the U.S. have variable rather than fixed APRs, meaning the rate will fluctuate over time. Some card issuers will list several potential APRs that you might be assigned depending on your credit score, with high scores qualifying for the lowest APR available and vice versa. 

Credit card fees

Like APR charges, credit card fees can erode a credit card’s net benefit. A few of the most significant credit card fees to look out for include:

  • Annual fees: This is what you might pay yearly just to use the card. Basic credit cards may charge no annual fee. Some upscale travel credit cards charge annual fees over $600.
  • Late payment fees: Many cards charge a late fee of up to $40 if you don’t make at least your minimum balance payment by the due date. 
  • Foreign transaction fees: These are usually 3% of each purchase you make that’s not in USD. If you plan to travel abroad, a card that charges foreign transaction fees is a no-go. 

Related: Best no-annual-fee credit cards

Welcome offers 

Issuers often try to entice you by offering a big bonus of cash or rewards points. To qualify for the bonus you need to hit a minimum spend requirement with the card in a given time. This can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Generally within the first three to six months of account opening.

Look for welcome bonuses with low spending minimums based on your regular, day-to-day purchase habits within the time allotted. Spending beyond your means to earn a welcome bonus is not a good idea. Any interest that accrues on a hefty balance you can’t afford to pay off at the end of the month will quickly eat into whatever rewards you earn.

Here's our list of the best credit card welcome offers.

Cashback and rewards rates

A cashback or rewards card will usually provide a “flat” earn rate on every purchase you make. These may also offer higher rates for purchases in certain spending categories. Cash back rates can range from 1% to 6% of the purchase amount. Travel rewards cards can offer from 1X to 10X points on different purchases, depending on the category.

Take a look at your monthly budget and try to find a card that rewards you in the category where you spend the most. A card with a high earning rate on groceries may be the smartest choice, assuming you cook at home a lot. Other popular bonus categories include dining, travel, and gas. Some offer rotating rewards categories, meaning the bonus rate applies to different types of purchases that change each quarter. While these typically require more oversight, they do offer a way to earn higher rewards on more niche categories, like home improvement and superstore purchases.

Here's our list of the best credit cards

Woman holding credit card and laptop. Guide how to get a credit card.

Submit an application

You can apply for a credit card online, over the phone, or in one of the issuer’s branches (if they have any). Card applications are relatively short and can take just a few minutes to complete if you prepare beforehand.

How to apply for a credit card

Wherever or however you apply, you should have the following info at the ready:

  • Name, date of birth, and Social Security number
  • Street and mailing addresses
  • Phone number and email address
  • Monthly rent/mortgage payment
  • Employment status (employed, self-employed, unemployed, or retired)
  • Gross annual income
  • Details of any authorized users you’d like to add, including name, date of birth, and possibly Social Security number

What counts as income for credit card applications?

While most of the aforementioned terms are fairly straightforward, “gross annual income” is one ambiguity that trips up a lot of card applicants. To maximize your chances of approval, be sure to tally up all your income sources, including:

  • Regular salary
  • Bonuses
  • Side hustle money
  • Savings interest
  • Dividends and capital gains
  • Rental income
  • Retirement benefits
  • Alimony or child support

You can base your gross annual income on what you’ve earned historically or what you expect to earn in the coming year.

You can also generally include total household income. Rather than individual income, you can include your spouse or partner’s income or that of any other adult living in the same home, such as a parent.

Use the card responsibly

Credit cards are often glamorized as life-hacking strips of wunderplastic. But they can do you more harm than good if you don’t mind the cardinal credit card rules.

Keep a close eye on your charges

A 2023 report from credit bureau TransUnion found that credit cards are the most common instrument of digital fraud. According to Margaret Poe, TransUnion’s head of consumer credit education, damage from credit card fraud can be curtailed with regular account maintenance.

“Protective measures should include reviewing account statements when you get them and looking for any charges that are unfamiliar,” said Poe. “ Most banks and lenders provide online access to accounts. It may be best to check at least once a week, even for accounts you don’t use often.”

Report any unusual account activity to your credit card issuer immediately. You can do this over the phone or sometimes through their app or online. They will investigate the suspicious activity and likely send you a new card with a new card number for your security.

Pay on time, in full, every month

One of the most important parts of responsible credit card use is paying your bill on time and in full each month. You can avoid added interest charges on your balance and won’t end up paying more for your purchases. It also means that credit card rewards will truly be rewarding — mounting interest charges will quickly erase them, otherwise.

Consider this: The average credit card interest rate is hovering around 20% as of September 2023. At that rate, a $3,000 balance carried for one month will incur over $50 in interest charges.

If you absolutely must carry a balance, always make at least your minimum payment, as missing a card payment entirely can cut more than 80 points off your credit score. But if you find yourself carrying a balance more than once or twice a year, it might be a sign that you should revert to paying with debit or cash until your credit card debt is repaid and you’re on stronger financial footing.

FAQs

Does applying for a credit card affect your credit score?

According to Poe, “Applying for a credit card will typically result in a hard inquiry on your credit report. This new credit activity can have a temporary negative impact on your credit score.” 

FICO reports that, for most consumers, a single hard inquiry will knock less than five points off their FICO credit scores (out of a total score that ranges from 300 to 850). Though Poe points out that the effect will vary slightly, its influence will always be minor relative to other credit actions you can take. 

“Hard inquiries are not one of the most influential credit score factors, and the impact of hard inquiries on credit scores tends to lessen over time,” she said.

How long does it take to get a credit card?

Your credit card application may be processed and approved within a matter of minutes. It generally takes seven to 10 business days for a card to arrive at your home address. Some issuers may offer rush delivery within one to two business days.

Can I apply for more than one credit card at a time?

Technically, you can apply for as many credit cards as you want. But it’s ill-advised. 

“Applying for too many cards at once may raise red flags with issuers. You want to take it slow and apply for one to two at a time and wait several months more if you plan on opening more cards,” said Ruiz.

Restraint becomes crucial for individuals seeking significant loans, as the brief credit score decline from numerous card applications may impact loan terms and approval prospects.

“Auto loans and mortgages are two of the most important and costly financial decisions people make. And even a small increase in the interest rate could cost thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the loan. Popular advice is to refrain from opening new lines of credit in the months preceding and during the loan application process,” said Poe.

Read more: How many credit cards should I have?

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I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.