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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen takes you through the main credit card issuers, highlighting the key application rules you need to keep in mind when you decide to apply for a new card.
Credit cards can play a huge role in your overall points and miles strategy. Taking advantage of top card offers can boost your account balances quickly, requiring minimal effort on your end. However, it’s important to develop a game plan for these card applications, and to recognize that it isn’t as easy to get approved for these cards as it has been in the past.
If you’re relatively new to the points and miles hobby, you may be a bit gun-shy when it comes to applying for new credit cards. I currently have 16 active travel rewards credit cards in my wallet, and just about every week I hear something along the lines of, “Aren’t you afraid that all of those applications will kill your credit score?” It’s true that every application will temporarily lower your score as a result of a new hard inquiry on your profile, but there are many other things that go into calculating your credit score.
Still, you want to make sure that your applications have a high probability of being approved. Though I’ve never been denied for a credit card, I would hate to “waste” a hard inquiry on my account only to not get approved. This would definitely have a negative impact on my score; the small drop from the hard inquiry wouldn’t be offset by an increase in my overall available credit.
For today’s analysis, I’ll look at three main factors to consider as you plan your application strategy for each individual issuer:
- Number of cards
- Number and timing of applications
- Sign-up bonuses
Number of cards
American Express is one of the more restrictive issuers when it comes to how many credit cards you can have in your name. You’re only allowed to have a total of four Amex credit cards open at any one time. This includes both personal cards and business cards, but does not include charge cards (like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express or The Platinum Card from American Express).
Charge cards don’t have a fixed spending limit but must be paid in full every month. Credit cards, on the other hand, have a fixed credit limit but do allow you to carry a balance from month to month. However, I strongly discourage you from doing this, and it actually tops my list of 10 commandments for travel rewards credit cards. Carrying a balance and accruing interest will more than negate any points or miles you earn on the card, and it will also have a negative impact on your credit score.
Number and timing of applications
American Express doesn’t have any hard-and-fast rules for applications. However, I did find a number of data points that may help you decide how to apply:
- You can apply for two cards in a single day — one credit and one charge card. However, many reports indicate that at least one application will likely be put on hold as a fraud-prevention mechanism, especially if you’re applying for two credit cards (though some have been instantly approved for a credit and charge card on the same day). In addition, there’s no guarantee that those applications will be combined into a single hard inquiry on your credit report, so it may not be worth it.
- You may be able to get approved for more than two cards in a 90-day period. However, most of these reports were a combination of credit and charge cards, so the general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t apply for three or more credit cards within three months.
In the past, American Express would allow you to earn sign-up bonuses multiple times on the exact same card. The general restriction was that you had to wait at least 12 months between canceling a card and applying for that same card again. Otherwise you wouldn’t be eligible for the sign-up bonus. For example, if you applied for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express back in 2010 and canceled it in May 2012, you could apply for it again in June 2013 and still be eligible for the sign-up bonus.
However, last year American Express began restricting these sign-up bonuses. You’re now only eligible to earn a sign-up bonus on a personal card once, no matter how long it’s been since you applied. In fact, the language of these restrictions makes it seem like you may not be eligible for a sign-up bonus if you have any American Express card open at the time of application.
For example here’s the specific language from the offer terms page for the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card:
“If we identify you as currently having an American Express® Card account, you may not be eligible for this welcome bonus offer. This offer is also not available to applicants who have or have had this product.”
The second sentence is relatively clear; if you currently have (or have had) this particular card, you are not eligible to earn the sign-up bonus (currently 25,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership). However, the first sentence makes me even more nervous. Since I currently have the Hilton HHonors Card from American Express, does this mean that I can’t earn the bonus on this card?
Fortunately, the vast majority of reports indicate that you should still be eligible for the bonus as long as you haven’t had the specific card for which you are applying in the past. Still, this restriction was a definitely devaluation and really hurts those who may be interested in opening a card again for completely legitimate purposes.
Keep in mind that these restrictions currently apply solely to personal American Express cards. If you’re looking at a small-business credit card from American Express, you’re still able to earn the sign-up bonus as a past cardholder. For example, here’s the language from the offer terms on The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN:
“Welcome bonus offer not available to applicants who have or have had this product within the last 12 months.”
In addition, these cards are also considered separate products, so you can apply for the business card and still be eligible for the sign-up bonus on the personal card (and vice versa).
Number of cards
From my personal experience and research online, it appears that Chase doesn’t formally limit the number of credit cards you have. However, it will restrict how much total credit is extended to you. For example, let’s say you have four Chase credit cards with $25,000 credit lines on each, and Chase has determined that you should only have a total spending limit of $100,000. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be immediately approved for another credit card. This isn’t due to the fact that it’s your fifth card; it’s simply a function of Chase deciding that you should only have a combined credit line of $100,000 across all of your accounts.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost if this happens. You can call Chase’s reconsideration line (1-888-245-0625) within a few days of your application and offer to shift around credit lines to get approval. You’ll then have five credit cards with the same $100,000 of total credit.
Number and timing of applications
There isn’t a formal, consistent policy that limits the number or timing of your applications with Chase. I’ve read that the general rule of thumb is one personal and one business card within 90 days, but I’ve also read reports of applicants being approved for two personal cards in a single month. If you manage to get approved for two personal cards on the same day, it’s likely that you will only have one hard inquiry on your account (business cards typically pull from a different department). Again, though, the big limitation is how much overall credit Chase will extend to you based on your credit history and profile.
However, there is one major exception to this rule. As of earlier this year, applications for cards that accrue Ultimate Rewards points have been automatically declined if you’ve opened five or more credit cards with any issuer over the previous 24 months. This was a major driver behind TPG’s post on 5 Reasons to Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred Now. This has always been the first card I recommend to family and friends (and it topped my list of best starter cards), and this unfortunate new restriction has pushed it even higher for new hobbyists.
Chase is significantly less restrictive than American Express when it comes to sign-up bonuses. While I didn’t look at the offer terms for every Chase card out there, I did look at several (including the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card) and found the same language when it comes to sign-up bonuses:
“This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this consumer credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this consumer credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this consumer credit card within the last 24 months.”
In other words, you must cancel a card before reapplying for it, but you don’t need to wait two years to apply. The 24-month waiting period starts when you receive the sign-up bonus, not when you cancel the card.
Number of cards
Like Chase, Citi typically doesn’t limit the number of credit cards you’re allowed to have. Instead, the issuer uses the same approach of limiting your overall credit extended across all of your cards. Once you’ve reached that point, you’ll likely be given the “application pending” notice when you apply for a new card, and a quick call to Citi’s reconsideration line (1-800-695-5171) should help you get approved by moving some credit from one card to the new one.
Number and timing of applications
Unlike American Express and Chase, Citi has very specific rules for how frequently you can apply for new credit cards. There are slightly different rules for personal and business cards:
- You can only apply for one personal card every eight days and no more than two in a 65-day window.
- You can only apply for one business card every 95 days.
These rules make it impossible to combine hard inquiries on your credit report.
Citi is another issuer that does allow you to earn a sign-up bonus multiple times on a given credit card. However, there’s a mandatory waiting period between canceling and re-applying that you must follow. I again didn’t check out every Citi-issued card, but the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, Citi ThankYou Premier Card and Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard all include the following in their respective offer terms:
“(Insert currency/sign-up bonus here) not available if you have had a (insert specific credit card here) opened or closed in the past 18 months.”
This requirement is unfortunately a bit more restrictive than Chase’s, as you must cancel your existing card and then wait at least 18 months from that date to reapply and be eligible for the sign-up bonus. However, it’s still a significant step above American Express’ draconian policy of limiting these bonuses to once per card in your lifetime.
Credit cards and their respective sign-up bonuses are a terrific way to boost your loyalty account balances quickly, and applying for these cards tends to have a relatively small impact on your overall credit score. Nevertheless, you still want to make sure you’re avoiding simple mistakes that can cost you in the long run, and I hope that this information helps you plan out your credit card applications going forward.
What are your experiences with these three card issuers?
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards