A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing Your First Credit Card

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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. 

Check out these options if you’re considering opening your first credit card. 

Credit Card Options for First-Timers

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.  

How to open: To open a student credit card, you‘ll need to show proof of college enrollment, social security number, and a verifiable source of income. For ages 18-21, you’ll need an adult co-signer or independently prove you earn enough income to pay back the debt.  

Where to get it: Start your search with your existing bank or credit union. Apply with your bank online, over the phone, or in person. Your previous banking relationship can help you qualify for the best offer. Compare this offer with an online search of “student credit cards.” 

ProsCons
If you are a college student, you have a better chance of qualifying with little-to-no credit. Typically has high interest.
It can help build credit history (If used responsibly). Typically has a high annual fee. 
Potential upgrade to a regular credit card after a period of responsible use.  

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. 

How to open: To open a retail credit card, you’ll need to provide information like your social security number, address, and other personal details. You can submit retail credit card applications in person at most stores that offer them, or online. 

Where to get it: Many retailers will tout their store credit card offerings at check-out, but you can also check their website for the most up-to-date offers. Look at places you shop often or spend the most as a starting point. 

ProsCons
Easier approval with a lower credit score or less credit history.Can only be used at that specific retailer, limiting your use. 
Earn rewards at places you already shop and save money.Come with higher interest rates and fees than standard  credit cards.
Can help build credit history (If used responsibly). Lower credit limit.

Bank Credit Card

A good place to start your credit card search is checking out what options are available at your brick-and-mortar bank, especially if you’re worried about accessibility to your account. Bank cards can give you the comfort of visiting a branch in-person to discuss things like transaction history or transferring funds if you’re uncomfortable with having an online-only experience. Bank credit cards can be more difficult to get with a low credit score or little-to-no history, but already having a relationship at a bank, with a checking or savings account, can help. 

How to open: Most banks offer multiple types of credit cards tailored to different types of spending. You can visit a local branch in person to discuss your options, call on the phone, or research online. You will need to provide your personal information such as name, date of birth, social security number, address, and employment information. 

Where to get it: Check out your local bank or credit union to see what options might be available for you. You can apply online, over the phone, or in person. 

ProsCons
In-person customer service at a branch, if you want it.Approval can be more difficult if you have poor credit or less credit history.
The approval process can be easier if you have an existing account at the bank.
Usually offer higher credit limits.

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. 

Pro Tip

If you can, set your cards up for automatic payment. This way, your full balance will be paid on time each month, and you never have to worry about forgetting to pay it.

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. 

How to open: If you have someone willing to co-sign a credit card for you, there are limited issuer options available. However, almost all credit cards will let you have an authorized user on the account. Ask the primary cardholder to inquire with their bank about the process of accepting you as an authorized user.

Where to get it: To become an authorized user, you’ll have to defer to the credit card the primary cardholder already has. You will be issued a secondary credit card that accesses their line of credit. 

ProsCons
Access to lines of credit you probably couldn’t access otherwise.If you fail to use your credit card responsibly, it can negatively impact your co-signer or the primary cardholder of an authorized user situation.
Can help build credit history (If used responsibly). 

Secured Credit Card

To get a secured credit card, you have to pay cash upfront in the form of a security deposit. This deposit will act as your credit limit. Because your money is held as collateral or something  the bank can take if you fail to make payments, it’s usually easier to get approved for a secured credit card.

How to open: To apply for a secured credit card, you first make a cash security deposit at the same bank as your secured card. Then you can apply for a secured credit card.

Where to get it: Not all banks will offer secured-credit cards, but quite a few of the larger banks do. Find an issuer you like so you don’t have to close the original account when you can upgrade to another card, which can negatively impact your credit score

ProsCons
Easy approval since the bank has your security deposit.Have to deposit cash upfront.
Can help build credit history (If used responsibly). Credit limit is dependent on how much you pay in your deposit. 

Use Your Credit Card Responsibly

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

“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. 

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 sure-fire way to stay on top of on-time payments.