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So you’re ready to join the ranks of the 189 million Americans with credit cards, and just one question remains — how do you apply for a credit card?
The good news is that the process is simple, and your options are many. You can apply for your first credit card in person, by mail, on the phone, or online, and if your credit is good, you’ll have your pick of a variety of cards and banking institutions.
Whether you’re wondering where to start, or looking for tips on using your new card responsibly, here’s everything you need to know to apply for a credit card for the first time.
What is a credit card?
When you first opened your bank account, you likely received a debit card, which allows you to spend money you’ve already deposited. A credit card is similar, except that it allows you to spend borrowed funds, up to a set credit limit. It also often comes with an annual fee, and the potential to earn perks like cash back, travel rewards, or airline miles on certain purchases.
If you pay off the entire balance of your credit card each month, it will function much like a debit card. But if you carry a balance — meaning more money goes out than comes back in — you’ll need to pay interest on the difference, unless your card has a 0% introductory APR period.
Over time, factors like steady on-time payments, income increases, and frequent use of your card can increase your credit limit, expanding your spending power.
Who can apply for a credit card?
As long as you’re over the age of 18, with a credit history, a source of income, and a Social Security number, you should be able to apply for a credit card. And even those without extensive credit histories can apply for a starter credit card or a secured credit card to begin building up the necessary foundation.
How to get a credit card
So how do you get one? As mentioned above, there are plenty of different methods you can use to apply — most folks have likely received a credit card offer in the mail, and you can also apply by phone or in person.
We’re going to walk you through the online application method, however, not only because it’s the easiest, but because online credit card research will serve you no matter how you end up applying. (After all, the offers that are sent to you aren’t necessarily the best ones for you, they’re just the ones that the credit card companies are most interested in selling right now.)
1. Check your credit score
Checking your credit score before applying for a credit card means you’ll be fully educated about the kinds of interest rates you can expect from your offers, and the rewards you could qualify for. The number will be somewhere between 300 and 850, with anything over 670 considered “good”, and you can check your score with credit-reporting bureaus Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
You’ll also want to take a look at your recent credit inquiries, which are temporary flags on your report triggered by recent credit checks. Applying for too many cards in a short time period means multiple inquiries are hitting your report at once, which can lower your score.
2. Compare offers
Do your research to find out which card is best for you, paying special attention to annual fees and interest rates. We recommend starting with this list of the best credit cards available now. Make sure to pay attention to ongoing rewards as well as any sign-up bonus offered to new cardholders.
Or, if nothing in particular catches your eye, it’s always a good idea to ask your friends about cards they like, or recommend one you like to them, as both parties tend to get rewarded when you convince someone new to sign up. Just make sure to use the provided code, so you get to claim your referral bonus.
3. Fill out an online application
Once you’ve made your selection, look for an “Apply Now” button on the site, and it should take you directly to an application. Questions may differ slightly, but be prepared to provide a combination of biographical and financial info including your name, address, and Social Security number, as well as annual income, monthly expenses, and the balance in your existing bank account(s).
4. Submit your application
Once you’ve submitted your application, it’s time to sit back and wait for a decision. Some issuers are faster than others, but typically you should hear back one way or another within 10 to 14 business days.
5. Receive your card
If you’re approved, you should receive your new credit card within another 10 to 14 business days, although it’s often possible to expedite delivery for certain extenuating circumstances. From there, you’ll need to activate your card, and then you’re free to start making purchases.
Use your credit card responsibly
Moving from a debit card to a credit card is a crucial transition, as sudden access to all those borrowed funds can produce a temptation to overspend. But experts recommend treating your credit card more like a debit card — utilize it for big purchases, yes, but do your absolute best to pay your balance in full every month, or you could end up paying a fortune in interest.
According to Debt.org, the average American household carries $8,398 in credit card debt. That may not sound like a lot, but with the average credit card interest rate hovering around 15%, that number generates $1,259 in interest every year. It’s a lot of incentive to stay on top of your payments, stick to your budget, and live within your means, tempting as that skyrocketing credit limit might be.
Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.
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Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they’re subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.
Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. What you decide to do with your money is up to you. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.