How to Apply For a Credit Card for the First Time

Photo to accompany story about choosing your first credit card. Getty Images

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The economic recession caused by COVID-19 has made lenders more conservative in approving lines of credit. This means if your credit score isn’t good, it will be more difficult for you to get approved for a credit card right now. 

“It’s so much harder to get a new credit card or other type of loan now than it was six months ago,”  says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. 

For first-time credit card consumers, qualifying for a card can be extra tricky. Not only has the pandemic changed credit card standards, but a young person with little to no credit may already have a tough time qualifying.

Even so, applying for a credit card can be stress-free when you have all of the right information. Follow these steps to land a credit card.

1. Check Your Credit

Your credit score and credit report are key metrics used by credit lenders to determine your creditworthiness. Your credit report is a record of your financial history, and your credit score is a numerical score based on that report. You can check your credit report for free once per year. 

Knowing your credit score and understanding what goes into it is a good first step toward applying for and using credit cards. The better your credit score, the more likely you are to get approved for new cards and the best interest rates.

2. Improve Your Credit

Some cards will require you to have better credit than others, and, if you have poor or little credit history, you might not be able to get a card right now, or you might not qualify for the best interest rate. But don’t worry, there are sure-fire ways to build your credit, even if you have bad or no credit history. Here are some options to consider for first-timers:

Try a student credit card

Student Credit cards are designed for college students with little-to-no credit history and lower-income than a working adult. They typically have low credit limits and higher interest, but can be a good starting point to building positive credit. You have a better chance of getting approved for a student credit card from a major credit card issuer with no credit history compared to non-student cards. 

Look for a retail credit card

Retail, or store, credit cards are designed to offer frequent shoppers rewards or discounts for spending money at a specific store. Unlike student credit cards, a retail credit card can only be used at the store it’s opened under. Retail credit cards tend to have more relaxed approval standards than other traditional credit cards — because stores benefit from increased consumer spending. If you do a lot of spending in one place, a retail credit card can be a good way to start building your credit with purchases you were already going to make. You could earn discounts or rewards, as well.

Get a co-signer or become an authorized user

Getting a co-signer on a credit card can help you get approved for credit cards that might otherwise be difficult. Becoming a co-signer means someone, generally with established and good credit, takes on the legal responsibility of your debt if you don’t pay. Because of this promise, lenders will often approve co-signed accounts even if they would not have approved the individual. An authorized user works differently. An authorized user is someone who holds a card to an existing line of credit. The authorized user is not legally responsible for any repayment on the account and defers to the primary account holder. Becoming an authorized user is an excellent way to build your credit.

3. Shop Around

Credit cards can offer different types of rewards and benefits tailored to specific categories of spending. Some reward frequent travelers who charge their airline, rental car, and hotel purchases to their cards. Others are designed for frequent shoppers of online or in-person retailers. Still others help people save on everyday purchases from gas to groceries. With this in mind, here are some of the more common credit card types available:

Cash-back credit cards

Cash-back credit cards offer a straightforward rewards system. Using your credit card to buy certain items can earn you money, plain and simple. Some cards offer a flat rate on all purchases, like 2% back on everything you buy. Others have a tiered system, like 3% back on groceries, 2% on gas, and 1% on all your other purchases. Cash-back credit cards can be a good option if you use your credit card for everyday spending. 

Points-based cards

Points can be redeemed for dollars, but how many points you earn for certain items depends on the card’s rewards structure and redemption value. It’s important to note that points can’t always be directly redeemed for cash. Some cards may only let you redeem points for things like travel or gift cards, and redeeming for statement credits is often most equivalent to cash value. 

Miles

Some airlines offer rewards in the form of miles that can be redeemed when you’re booking your first post-pandemic travel. Some miles-based credit cards start with points— a certain number of points can be redeemed for a certain amount of airline miles. If you don’t travel very often, a cash-back or points-based card might be a better option

For first-timers, some of the more lucrative rewards cards can be harder to qualify for. Start with a basic credit card first to build up your credit score, then try for a better offer. 

“The objective is to graduate to a better product,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation of Credit Counseling. You may not qualify for the best rates and terms to start with, says McClary.  But, it’s a starting point to credit-building.

4. Apply

Don’t forget to consider cards from community banks or credit unions in your area. These cards often offer comparable rewards to major issuer cards, but may be easier to qualify for, especially if you already have an account history with the bank. Before you apply, compare all the card offers you find, factoring details such as your spending habits, likelihood of approval, access to branch locations, and long-term card use into your decision. 

Once you’ve chosen your card, online-only or otherwise, you can usually apply entirely online. Have all of your information readily available, like your social security number. Make sure you include all sources of income on your application to improve your debt-to-income ratio, a factor that can impact your creditworthiness. 

5. Don’t Panic If You Get Denied

The economic recession caused by COVID-19 has made borrowers more conservative in approving lines of credit. Depending on your credit score, it could be more difficult for you to get approved right now.

Multiple applications within a short time frame can temporarily hurt your credit score, as well, so you should be selective about any card applications you submit. Take time to find a card that offers the best chance of approval and fits your needs before you apply.

Bottom Line

Once you have a credit card, responsible usage to begin building your positive credit history is key.

Once you have a credit card in hand, “only spend what you can pay off in full every month,” says Matt Sheridan, CFA, and senior lecturer at the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business Department of Finance. 

The most important thing you can do for your credit is to make payments on time. Payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score. In addition, if you’re late, you can be charged fees at the discretion of your creditor, adding to your existing balance. If you’re more than 30 days late on a credit card payment, it will stay on your credit report for up to seven years.

Pay attention to when your payments are due, your credit limit, and how you could be subject to additional fees by your issuer. “Set a monthly calendar reminder to make payments prior to the due date,” says Sheridan. Automatic payment is also a great way to stay on top of on-time payments.