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Don’t submit a credit card application without first doing your research. Be sure to understand your current credit situation so you have an idea of what you’ll qualify for, and look for a card that suits both your credit level and lifestyle.
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Despite what you may have heard, credit cards aren’t evil.
And if you want to build credit — which will help you qualify for a mortgage or a car loan in the future — credit cards are one of the best ways to get started.
But you shouldn’t just apply for cards willy-nilly. Here’s how to strategically (and, fingers crossed, successfully) apply for a credit card.
The credit card application process is pretty straightforward. Choose a card, provide the information requested by the issuer, and wait for the issuer’s decision — approval or denial. Just make sure you choose a card that complements your financial situation.
Here’s a simple overview of how it works:
You’ll probably be approved or denied as soon as you submit your application. In some cases, however, you may be asked to provide additional information.
Credit card issuers use a variety of information in order to determine whether you qualify for a card. The exact information requested may vary by application. Before you apply for a card, make sure you have the following details on hand:
You’ll often (but not always) need a bank account to apply for a credit card, too.
Contrary to common belief, you don’t have a single credit score: you have dozens. And they’ll determine which credit cards you qualify for.
Your credit scores are based on factors like whether you make your monthly payments on time during each billing cycle, how long your credit accounts have been open, and how much of your available credit you use.
They’re based on your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus — TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian — and they vary because each bureau has slightly different information about you.
The most common type of score is from FICO. Luckily, you don’t need to pay for access: here’s how to check free credit scores from FICO and other brands.
While you’re at it, you should also check your credit reports by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com, which offers one free report per bureau per year, or by using issuer-provided services to monitor your credit reports for free. If you see any errors, contact the bureau (and wait until it corrects the mistake before applying for new credit).
There’s no magic credit score that will get you a credit card, as each card has its own approval requirements.
But once you’re familiar with your credit profile, it’s easier to narrow the field and find the right card for you.
Credit cards are available from a range of banks (Citi, Capital One, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) and networks (Visa, American Express, Mastercard, and Discover).
There are also many different types of cards to choose from, including:
If you have bad credit or a limited credit history, you might not qualify for a rewards credit card right away.
Instead, you can focus on repairing your credit or building your creditworthiness with one of the credit cards from the “limited or no credit history” category. By using it responsibly, you’ll eventually be able to get whichever rewards card tickles your fancy.
In addition to the perks, you should compare the annual fees of the credit cards you’re considering. If you’re in the market for your first credit card, we recommend getting one without an annual fee. You’ll want to keep the credit card account open for a long time, ideally forever, without having to worry about getting enough value to justify the fee. (Remember: longer credit history = better credit scores.)
You can also take a look at interest rates. While lower interest is better, we recommend completely paying off your credit card’s statement balance by the due date each month. If you do that, you won’t pay any interest all on purchases, rendering the interest rates somewhat inconsequential.
Keep an eye out for “intro APRs,” which are interest rates that last for a certain time after your account opening. You might see, for example, that a card has 0% APR for the first year.
Introductory purchase APRs can be helpful if you need to pay off a big purchase over several months. Or, if you have existing debt, you may want to use an introductory balance transfer APR offer to reduce the amount of interest you’re paying each month. In either case, you should strive to totally pay off your debt before the introductory APR period ends to avoid or reduce the amount of interest you’ll pay.
Once you’ve decided which cards might work for you, check with the issuers to see if you “pre-qualify” for any of them.
Here’s how this works:
Whereas soft inquiries don’t affect your credit, hard inquiries will cause a slight dip. Check for pre-qualified offers first so you’ll only apply for credit cards for which you have a decent chance of being approved. This will result in fewer hard inquiries on your credit reports (and therefore keep your scores as high as possible).
Almost there! You’ve chosen the card that’s right for you, and are ready to fill out your credit card application.
Here’s how to complete the application process online:
In many cases, the issuer will instantly approve or deny you when you submit your application. Some of the time, however, it’ll alert you by mail within a few weeks. If the issuer has additional questions about your application, someone may call you, then approve or deny you on the phone.
For most of us — regardless of whether we have “bad” or “good” credit — there will come a day when a credit card application is declined.
The first step you can take is to call up the credit card issuer’s “reconsideration line.” Just like it sounds, this customer service department will take a second look at your credit card application. If you have any negative or unusual entries on your credit reports, this can give you a chance to explain them.
You can also apply for a credit card from your local bank or credit union. If you have a good relationship with the institution, it might be more willing to work with you.
No luck? Don’t start haphazardly applying for new cards, as that will just ding your credit further. The best thing to do is work on building credit.
Here are a few ways to make yourself a more attractive borrower:
Just remember: building good credit doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, diligence, and self-control.
The best time to apply for a credit card is when it makes the most sense for your financial situation. Here are a few examples of when it might be wise to apply:
When you finally get that piece of plastic in your hands, it might feel like the hard work is over — but in reality, it’s just begun. It’s now time to use your credit card responsibly.
As we mentioned earlier, we recommend only spending what you can pay off in full each month to avoid all interest charges. Then you’ll be able to take advantage of your card’s rewards program and credit-building ability without paying an extra cent!
Even if your new card doesn’t offer a lot of rewards, spending responsibly will allow you to build your credit and, eventually, choose from any of the best credit cards on the market.
Susan is a freelance writer who specializes in turning complex financial topics into engaging and accessible articles. She's been writing about personal finance for six years, and was previously the senior writer at The Penny Hoarder and a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Her personal finance writing has also appeared in publications like MarketWatch and Lifehacker.
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