You can sign up for a credit card by filling out an application by mail or online. You can also see if you’re pre-approved before applying. That may sound easy, but getting approved for a credit card once you apply typically requires years of responsible credit use. That’s because credit card issuers will review your credit history to determine whether you meet their criteria for the card before accepting or denying your application. It’d be wise to get familiar with your credit score — and how to improve it if you need to — before applying, but you do have options if you have little to no credit history.

Here’s what to do if you’re looking to sign up for a credit card:

1. Review the basic requirements before signing up

2. Learn how credit card companies view first-time cardholders

3. Explore what to do if you have no credit history

4. Begin your credit card search with these 6 considerations

1. Review the Basic Requirements Before Signing Up

Not everyone can sign up for a credit card and get one. There are a number of requirements you’ll have to meet to be considered. Here are four of the most important:

  • Age: First, you need to be old enough to get a credit card. Ever since the passage of the federal Credit CARD Act of 2009, which limited the ability of credit card companies to offer credit to young people, most credit card issuers require borrowers to be 21 years old, or 18 at minimum. If you’re 18-20 years old, you will need to have a verifiable source of independent income, unless you are simply becoming an authorized user on the account of someone who is 21 or older (like a parent). There are also student rewards cards for young adults who qualify.
  • Income: Credit card issuers want to know that you have your own source of income to be able to pay your bills. Until a few years ago, credit card issuers were allowed to consider an applicant’s overall household income as part of the application process, but now you can only include your parents’ or household partner’s income on your credit card application if you have “reasonable expectation of access” to that income, such as via regular deposits into a shared account. Card issuers will evaluate whether your monthly income is sufficient to make payments on your credit limit. They might offer you a lower credit limit to start with, and then over time increase the limit as you demonstrate the ability to pay your bills responsibly.
  • Low Debt: Credit card issuers want to know how much debt you have so they can evaluate whether your debt is manageable at your income level. A good rule of thumb is to use only a small percentage of your available credit — which is measured by your credit utilization ratio. If you already have a credit card or line of credit or loans under your name, you may want to try paying down your existing debts before applying for new credit cards.
  • Credit Score: Credit card issuers evaluate your credit history and the likelihood you’ll be able to pay your bills by looking at your credit score. If you have never had a credit card or taken out a loan before, you might not have any credit history. If that’s you, you have options—read on.

2. Learn How Credit Card Companies View First-Time Cardholders

If you’ve never had a credit card before, the first thing to realize is that, with each credit application, a credit card company assesses your complete financial picture — including your credit report, income, and expenses — and extends you an offer based on that picture. So if you’ve responsibly managed other forms of credit in the past, you may qualify.

But if you’re starting out with no credit history at all, you may be a risk in the eyes of the credit card issuer because it can’t gauge your ability to make payments on time. The good news is that you have options to build your credit responsibly, and you might be surprised at how fast you can do so.

3. Explore What to do if You Have No Credit History

Your first option is to applying for a student credit card to help build your credit history with responsible use.

A second option is to apply for a secured credit card. If you’re approved, a secured credit card requires a security deposit equal to your line of credit. You can use this kind of card as a tool to build your credit by making payments every month by the due date.

You can also become an authorized user on someone’s account, such as a parent or spouse. Authorized users have the ability to make purchases and pay down a balance on the account, while building a credit history in the process.

Look at building your credit like building a house. First-time options like these help you build a foundation, and each on-time payment is its own sturdy brick. Once a strong foundation is laid, you can build on that by graduating to or applying for cards with more attractive rewards and interest rates.

4. Begin Your Credit Card Search with These 6 Considerations

If you’ve decided to sign up for a credit card, here’s what you need to consider to find the right fit.

  • Why You Want the Card. First thing’s first: you need to figure out what your goal is for getting a new credit card. Are you hoping to use it to build your credit history? Do you want to take advantage of a promotional APR offer? Are you hoping to transfer a balance to your new card at a lower interest rate? Understanding what purpose the card will serve can help you target your search.
  • Your Credit Score. Some credit cards are geared toward people with excellent credit, while others may be more appropriate for someone with good or fair credit. Familiarizing yourself with what’s in your credit report can help you know where you stand and search accordingly. Everyone in the U.S. can access their credit report for free once every twelve months from each of the three main credit bureaus.
  • Rewards. A rewards credit card can be a valuable tool for earning points, miles or cash back on purchases. Generally, the more you charge to your card, the more rewards you can earn. Note that some rewards cards come with an annual fee.
  • Type of Rewards: Someone who does a lot of flying, for example, may want a travel rewards card. If you make most of your credit card purchases at the grocery store, on the other hand, a cash back credit card might make more sense. You also have to consider the rewards program structure. For instance, does the card offer a flat rewards rate on every purchase or are the rewards tiered, offering more for certain types of purchases? Is your potential to earn rewards unlimited or is there a cap?
  • Fees and APR. There is sometimes a trade-off for earning rewards in the form of an annual fee. If you’d prefer to avoid a fee or if you’re more interested in taking advantage of an introductory promotional APR offer, rewards may take a backseat. If the card has a high APR, that could make purchases more expensive if you don’t pay off your balance in full each month.
  • Introductory Bonuses: Many rewards cards offer an introductory rewards bonus for new members. Earning the bonus typically involves meeting a minimum spend requirement. For example, you may have to charge $3,000 in the first three months to earn 30,000 bonus points. If you’re interested in a particular card because of the bonus offer, you need to be clear on whether you can meet the minimum spending requirement if there is one. You should also read the fine print to see if there are any exclusions on who qualifies.

Signing up for a credit card can be an exciting way to gain access to credit and start building a positive credit history. Smart moves like researching for the best card and, once you’re approved, automating payments so that funds are automatically debited from your checking account each month can set you up for success. Make sure you monitor your statements, as well as your credit report periodically, to ensure that there are no errors or surprises.

Originally published June 14, 2017.

Updated July 20, 2020.

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