The Credit Card Journey: From Applying to Buying

  1. How do I choose a credit card/ Types of Applications
  2. Apply For Your Card
  3. Get Your Card
  4. Use Your Card

Getting your first credit card is a big step, so it’s important to start your credit card journey on the right foot. Credit cards differ from debit cards. They offer the opportunity to build credit history and earn you rewards. Here are some tips to help make your experience a positive one, from good types of credit cards to apply for to using your card wisely.

How do I choose a credit card?

In order to choose a card, it helps to know the different types of applications, rewards offerings, fees associated with the card and lastly the tools that can help you manage your account.

Credit card fees vary, so it’s important to evaluate how you’ll use your card and the fees that could be associated with it. For example, if you plan to travel a lot, you’ll want a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees should all be clearly documented when you’re applying for your card. There are plenty of credit cards without annual fees or other types of fees.

Different credit card issuers provide different tools to help you manage your credit card. Tools will vary by issuer and should be considered before applying to ensure that you have the tools you need to manage your spending and make your payments on time.

Types of Applications

traditional card

Traditional Card

An unsecured, traditional credit card that you can apply for on your own if you have good credit and sufficient income (income requirements vary by credit card issuers). This is the ideal card to apply for and use. However, if you are new to credit, you may not qualify for this type of card just yet. Some credit card issuers offer student credit cards specifically designed for college students who have limited or no credit history that have lower income requirements.


Secured Card

When a traditional card is not an option available to you, a secured credit card can be a great solution to building the good credit you need to ultimately obtain a traditional credit card. A secured credit card requires that you put down a deposit which typically determines your credit limit (for example, a $200 deposit gets you a $200 credit limit). After that, the card works just like a traditional credit card and allows you to build credit.

Types of Rewards


Cash Back

Some credit cards reward you for using them by giving cash back incentives for everyday purchases.



With some credit cards, you can earn frequent flyer miles or rewards points when you travel or when you spend.



Some credit cards offer reward points that can then be redeemed for a variety of items, including merchandise, gift cards or cash back.



Some credit cards don’t offer any rewards or incentive programs at all.

Types of Fees


Annual Fees

If an annual fee is a term of your card, you will be charged that fee each year for using the card.


Foreign Transaction Fees

Foreign transaction fees are charged on purchases made in a foreign currency, or on purchases that involve a foreign bank.


Balance Transfer Fees

Balance transfer fees are charged when you transfer a balance from one account to another.


Late Payment Fees

Late payment fees are charged when you miss paying at least the minimum payment by the payment deadline.


Insufficient Funds Fees

Insufficient funds fees can be charged by both your credit card company and your financial institution.


Cash Advance Fees

A flat fee or percentage may be added any time you withdraw cash using your credit card. While a cash advance fee is typically a percentage of the amount withdrawn – the interest rate is usually higher than the standard purchase rate.

Types of Tools


Spend Analyzer

A personal finance tool that gives you a fast, easy way to see how you’re really spending on your card—so you can make smart spending choices.


Automatic Bill Payment

A convenient feature you can opt into that automatically pays your bills ensuring you never miss a payment.


Paydown Planner

A Paydown Planner tool helps you plan to pay off your entire account balance or just simply make it more manageable.


Payment Alerts

Receive mobile and e-mail alerts that help remind you when payments are due.


Credit Score

Some issuers provide free Credit Scores on your statements or online. These are based on information from your credit report, and knowing your score can help you can stay on top of your credit and avoid surprises.


Spend Management Tools

Spend management tools help you monitor your spending and make paying off your balance more manageable.


Resource Centers

Resource centers provide valuable information to help you learn about credit.

Not sure where to research? The Internet is a great tool to help you explore your options. Check out these sites to research different credit cards:


It’s important to start your credit card journey on the right foot.

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What do I need to apply?

After you’ve weighed your options and decided which card best fits your needs, you can start an application. Follow these steps to make the application process easier. 

Step 1: Gather the information needed to apply, such as your:

  • Social security number
  • Current address
  • Current employer
  • Total annual gross income – the amount of money you earn in a year before taxes
  • Length of employment at current job
  • Information on any of your bank accounts (checking and savings)
  • If you are applying for a student credit card you may need information such as: school name, graduation date, and area of study for school verification

Step 2: Decide how you want to apply. Regulations require that if you are under 21, you must apply in writing (online or paper application), so you cannot apply over the phone.

What do I do when I get my credit card?

After you’ve been approved, the credit card company will issue your credit card to you through the mail. When you receive your card, here’s what you should do.

Step 1: Activate the card. Instructions for activation will be included with your card.
Step 2: Ensure your account information is accurate, including your full name, address and contact information, and review your assigned credit line to know how much you have available to you.
Step 3: Read your Card Agreement and other Terms and Conditions. The Card Agreement explains how your account balance is calculated and what your annual percentage rate, or APR is, so it is important for you to read this information before you start using the card.
Step 4: Sign the back of the card.
Step 5: Sign up for online account management, become familiar with the online tools offered and set your preferences for bill payment reminders, spending alerts and automatic payments.
Step 6: You are ready to use your card at the store. If asked at the counter if your card is debit or credit, select “credit.”

How do I use my card correctly?

Here are some best practices to follow when using your card:

  • Keep your card in a safe place.
  • Determine when you’d like to use your credit card, such as for gas, groceries, or strictly for special purchases like a vacation.
  • Make sure you can afford each purchase before you buy. Credit cards are not a way to live beyond your means.
  • Pay off as much of your balance as you can by the payment due date. If you can, try to pay your balance in full to avoid finance charges.
  • Always stay well within your credit limit, and don’t spend all the available credit on your credit card.
  • Try to avoid cash advances. Cash advances are when you use your credit card like a debit card and withdraw money from your account. Usually, there are fees associated with cash advances, and interest will start to accrue immediately at the cash advance APR.

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.

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