Woman holds a credit card and looks at a laptop screen with her partner

Credit Cards for Beginners

Last Updated: October 16, 2023
8 min read

Key points about: your first credit card

  1. Getting approved for a credit card depends on several factors, including your credit score and income.

  2. Credit cards for beginners include student cards and secured cards.

  3. Paying your credit card bill on time and in full each month is one of the best ways to establish responsible financial habits.

Credit cards can be powerful financial tools. You can use a card to earn rewards, get access to helpful features, and pay for purchases over time. But credit cards can also be confusing, especially for first-time users.

Before you get your first card, find out what you’ll need to apply, which type of credit card could be a good fit, and how to get the most out of your card once it’s in your wallet.

What you should know before applying for your first credit card

Credit card companies don’t approve every application, and your ability to get a card can depend on your credit score, income, and other factors. You’ll also need to meet the minimum requirements for the card.

Generally, these are the things you need to get a credit card:

  • A U.S. address.

  • To be at least 18 years old. 

  • A Social Security Number: Some credit card issuers accept Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers as an alternative.

  • Income: Applicants who are under 21 years old must have an independent ability to repay the loan to qualify for their own credit card.

Assuming you can meet the credit card issuer’s requirements, there are a few steps you can take to get ready to apply.

Check your credit score

You can check your credit score to get a sense of which cards you may qualify for. However, if you’ve never had a loan or credit card, or been an authorized user on someone else’s credit card, you might not be “scorable.” Don’t worry if that’s the case—some credit cards are designed to help you get started.

Calculate your income

Credit card applications will ask for your income, which the card issuer can use to help determine your ability to pay.

Your income can come from a variety of sources, such as wages, salary, or tips you currently earn or can reasonably expect to earn. Other examples include bonus pay, commissions, and income from rental property, interest, dividends, and retirement benefits paid. If you’re 21 or older, you can also include another person’s income that’s available to you. If you are under 21, for example, you may be able to include income regularly deposited into your account, including a joint account. You may be able to also include the income and assets of your spouse or domestic partner if you live in one of the following Community Property States: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin.

Compare credit card features and fees

You don’t have to apply for a credit card from a financial institution where you already have an account. It could be worthwhile to compare several credit cards before applying. Consider the cards’ rewards, benefits, fees, and potential interest rates.

See if you’re pre-approved

When you submit a new credit card application, the resulting credit check could add a hard inquiry to your credit report, which could impact your credit score. Before applying, see if the credit card issuer will let you submit a pre-approval request. The results can show you which cards you’ll likely qualify for without impacting your credit score. But if you apply for a pre-approved offer, the credit card issuer will likely place a hard inquiry on your credit report.

See if you're pre-approved

With no harm to your credit score5

Starter credit cards for beginners

Many people open their first credit card when they don’t have a high income or long (if any) credit history. Knowing this, credit card issuers offer several types of credit cards that could be good starter credit cards.

Student credit cards

student credit card works just like a regular credit card, but it’s only available to students who are enrolled in higher education programs. These generally don’t require a strong credit score or high income, and many student cards don’t have annual fees. Some of the best student card options include rewards and student-specific perks.

Did you know?

Discover® offers student credit cards that can let you earn cash back rewards and benefits designed for college students, and build a credit history1 while you’re in college. If your credit journey is just beginning, see which Discover Card may be right for you.

Secured credit card

secured credit card requires you to send the card issuer a refundable security deposit after you’ve been approved for an account. Your credit line will equal your deposit amount, starting at $200.2 The card issuer can apply the deposit to the unpaid balance if the cardholder doesn’t pay their bills.

Generally, you’ll get the full deposit back when you close your account as long as you’ve paid off the entire balance. And with the Discover it® Secured credit card, you can get your deposit back after six consecutive months of on-time payments and maintaining good status on all your credit accounts, and if you qualify, we’ll increase your credit line.3

Store credit cards

Retail or store credit cards are another starter option. However, the cards tend to have low credit limits and high interest rates. Also, with some store cards, you’ll only be able to use the card at the associated store.

Authorized users on someone else’s credit card

Instead of applying for a card on your own, you could ask a trusted friend or family member to add you as an authorized user on one of their credit cards. As an authorized user, you may receive a physical card that’s connected to the account, but discuss the arrangement with the primary cardmember before you use it so they’re aware of any charges to the account. While you may be using the card, the primary cardmember is still responsible for the bill.

Some credit card issuers report credit card accounts to the credit bureaus under both the primary and authorized users’ names. An authorized user account might help you build credit history when the account is used responsibly, which may help you qualify for a credit card of your own. However, if the person doesn’t responsibly use their card, they could wind up harming your credit because the negative activity will be reported to your credit report.

Tips for getting the most out of your first credit card

Learning how to use a credit card wisely can take time. As a rule of thumb, it can be smart to treat it like a debit card—don’t use it to buy something you can’t afford to purchase with cash. But you’ll also want to know the ins and outs of your card and learn how interest works, in case you need to pay off the balance over time.

Pay the bill on time and in full

Paying your credit card bill on time can help build responsible financial habits. To count as an on-time payment, you need to make at least the minimum payment by the due date. Missing the due date can lead to a late payment fee. And falling 30 or more days past due can lead to a late payment on your credit report, which may hurt your credit score.

Most credit cards offer a grace period, which means you won’t pay any interest on your purchases if you pay the balance in full and on time every month. However, if you pay less than the full credit card statement balance, the remaining balance will “carry” or “roll” over to the next billing statement. Once this happens, the rolled-over balance and your purchases start to accrue interest daily.

Use your card, but keep a low balance

Unless you track your budget closely, you might be surprised to find that the small purchases you made throughout the month turned into a big bill. Consider setting up a budgeting app or using your card issuer’s mobile app to keep an eye on your balance.

A low balance can be helpful in several ways. First, it can help ensure you’ll be able to pay your bill in full and avoid paying interest on purchases. Additionally, your balance relative to your card’s credit limit, known as the utilization rate, can be an important factor in your credit score. A low “utilization rate,” such as under 30%, can be best for your credit scores.

Learn about the card’s rewards and benefits

If your card is part of a rewards program or offers cardmember benefits, learn about the programs to make sure you’re not missing out on valuable perks. For example, Discover cards come with a spend analyzer and Freeze it®, which you can use to freeze your account to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers in seconds with our mobile app or website.4

Should a credit beginner apply for more than one starter credit card?

Credit cards may offer different rewards or perks, which can make opening more than one card tempting. However, it’s also easy to overspend or accidentally miss a payment if you’re trying to manage multiple credit cards. It might make sense for you to start with one card and only apply for another once you’ve mastered your first card. 

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  1. Build credit with responsible use: Discover reports your credit history to the three major credit bureaus so it can help build your credit if used responsibly. Late payments, delinquencies or other derogatory activity with your credit card accounts and loans may adversely impact your ability to build credit.

  2. Minimum Security Deposit: If approved, you must make a minimum security deposit of $200 (or more, in increments of $100 up to $2,500), which will equal your requested credit limit. Discover will determine your maximum credit limit by your income and ability to pay.

  3. Getting your deposit back: Monthly reviews start your seventh month as a customer. We will refund your security deposit if you have made all payments on time for the last six consecutive billing cycles on all your Discover accounts including any loans, and you've remained in "good status" on all credit accounts you are responsible for whether they are Discover accounts or not. "Good status" means: (1) your credit report shows no delinquencies, charge-offs, repossessions, or bankruptcies for the six months prior to our review; and (2) your Discover secured card is not in a prohibited status at the time of our review, including, but not limited to: closed, revoked, suspended, subject to tax levy, garnishment, deceased, lost/stolen, or fraud. Monthly reviews may be delayed if you change your payment due date. We typically process your refund in 2-3 business days based on your delivery preference. If you close your account and pay in full, we'll return your deposit within two billing cycles plus ten days.

  4. Freeze it®: When you freeze your account, Discover will not authorize new purchases, cash advances or balance transfers (including checks). However, some activity will continue including charges from merchants where your card is stored or billed regularly, as well as returns, credits, dispute adjustments, delayed authorizations (such as some transit purchases), payments, Discover protection product fees, other account fees, interest, rewards redemptions and certain other exempted transactions.

  5. No Credit Impact for Pre-Approval: There is no hard inquiry to your credit report to check if you’re pre-approved. If you’re pre-approved, and you move forward with submitting an application for the credit card, it will result in a hard inquiry which may impact your credit score. Receiving a pre-approval offer does not guarantee approval. Applicants applying without a social security number are not eligible to receive pre-approval offers. Card applicants cannot be pre-approved for the NHL Discover Card.
  • Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.