Credit cards are a great financial tool to have; when used responsibly, they can protect you and your purchases while rewarding your regular spending. But when you’re first starting out and apply for new credit cards, you might find nobody will approve you. Even if you have a good credit score, lenders want to see some credit history before they’ll approve you.
That conundrum can cause beginners to have a tough time. In order to build credit, you need credit. In order to get credit, you need to build credit.
Many issuers recognize this catch-22 and offer several products for beginners to start off with. Here’s a guide on how to find your best first credit card.
Check your credit
Before you apply for any beginner credit cards, make sure you check your credit history. Even if you haven’t had a credit card or loan in the past, you’ll want to ensure that everything on your credit report is accurate. You can get a copy of your report from each of the three credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com once annually. Request your reports and check to make sure everything looks correct. If you spot an inaccuracy, dispute it.
You can also use any of several websites for free access to your credit score. Many credit card issuers offer free credit score checks even if you’re not a cardholder.
Knowing your credit score and everything that’s in your credit report can help you make a more informed decision about which credit card to apply for. Some issuers will give guidelines about what kind of credit profile they’re looking for with certain products. Matching those guidelines to your credit profile improves your chances of approval.
Check for prequalified and preapproved offers
If you already have a relationship with a bank, you may receive prequalified or preapproved offers. You can ask about them next time you’re in a branch doing your regular banking. Most issuers have prequalified offer checks on their websites as well.
It’s important to note that prequalified offers don’t guarantee approval. It just means your credit profile matches the standards the issuer is generally looking for to approve you for that product. Prequalified checks can help narrow down which credit cards you should consider applying for.
A preapproval is a strong sign the credit card issuer will approve you for that card if you choose to apply. These offers are generally reserved for existing customers, but if you have a large amount on deposit at a bank, you may get a preapproval for one of their credit cards if you ask a banker to check for you.
These checks can expedite the search for a beginner credit card, but don’t be too eager to take the first offer you see. Many beginner credit cards can have high fees and no rewards. There could be better options. Don’t worry; your preapprovals aren’t going anywhere.
You don’t have to apply for a secured credit card or store credit card
Common advice for people looking to build credit is to apply for a secured credit card or a store credit card. This is good advice for people with bad marks on their credit history preventing them from getting approved for typical unsecured credit cards. For people who simply have no credit history, it’s in their best interest to apply for a regular unsecured card first.
Beginners will have a tough time getting an application approved by some issuers without any credit history. However, other issuers are much more lenient and have products specifically for consumers with little or no prior credit. Most issuers have credit cards specifically targeted toward students with limited incomes, which make for great beginner credit cards.
Find a credit card that fits your profile and offers good rewards to start off with. It’s also beneficial to find a credit card with no annual fee. If you apply and get denied, be sure to call the reconsideration line to help them approve you.
An unsecured credit card offers a few big advantages over a secured credit card. Most importantly, it doesn’t require you to put down a deposit to establish a line of credit. Secondly, unsecured credit cards generally offer better rewards. And finally, the fees on unsecured cards are usually lower compared to secured credit cards.
Unlike many store credit cards, regular unsecured credit cards can be used pretty much anywhere. If you want to maximize the protection benefits of your credit card, don’t be afraid to apply for an unsecured credit card. Just make sure it’s the right product for your credit profile.
Build credit responsibly
After you get your beginner credit card, it’s time to start to build credit in a slow and responsible manner. You want to eventually start qualifying for credit cards with the best sign-up bonuses and ongoing rewards in order to maximize the value of holding a credit card. Those cards are reserved for people with excellent credit. Ideally, you’ll only need one beginner-type credit card.
Keep these tips in mind after you get your first credit card:
- Don’t spend any more than you can afford to pay off at the end of the month. Credit cards aimed at consumers with limited credit history have relatively high interest rates and fees. Avoid these by paying off your bill on time and in full every month. Paying on time is also a huge factor in determining your credit score.
- Keep your credit utilization low. Try not to max out your credit limit even if you’re capable of paying the whole balance on time. Credit utilization — the ratio of debt to credit — is a major factor in your credit score. Keeping it relatively low — under 20% — will help boost your credit score fast.
- Read the fine print and educate yourself. Taking the time to learn about the added benefits that come with your credit card can pay off in the long run. From purchase protection to rental car insurance, there are plenty of benefits that credit cardholders forego every day just because they don’t know about them.
- Wait before applying for that next credit card. While you may be eager to get one of the better credit card products available, don’t be too eager. Wait at least six months to establish a credit history, as issuers want to see you can use credit responsibly. Also, applying for too many lines of credit in a short period of time is a signal of increased risk for lenders. It makes you seem desperate for credit.
- Don’t cancel your first credit card. Another factor that goes into your credit score is the average age of accounts. Your first credit card will help keep that number high as you apply for new credit cards in the future. Ideally, you’ll have gotten a card with no annual fee. If your card does have an annual fee, read this before cancelling it.
With these tips you should be well on your way to establishing a strong credit history and getting approved for the credit cards you really want. It can be hard when you’re first starting out, but the effort to find a good first credit card will pay off in the long run.
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Adam Levy has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.