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5 Things to Understand About Credit Before Applying for Cards

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Credit cards are one of the easiest and quickest ways to earn points and miles — from sign-up bonuses to earning points on everyday spending and even getting some pretty neat perks on top of it all. It’s easy to get carried away with all of the options that are available, and it seems like issuers are coming out with new and better sign-up bonuses all the time. However, there are some definite pitfalls to the credit card game, so you have to play smart in order to come out ahead. The rules for understanding how your credit score works aren’t that difficult, but it does take some time to understand what’s involved and how your score can be impacted.

No matter if you’re new to the travel-rewards game or a seasoned rewards traveler, there are some things you need to know to ensure you can maximize on rewards credit cards that can get you traveling around the world for nearly free. Here are the five things you need to understand about your credit:

1. Know Your FICO Score

A variety of factors contribute to your FICO score, which most lenders use to determine your creditworthiness.
A variety of factors contribute to your FICO score, which most lenders use to determine your creditworthiness.

After your Social Security number, your FICO credit score is perhaps the most important number assigned to you — not to mention the most important part of your credit history. Yet, many people don’t know where to look for it. Because it’s such a vital part of your credit, you should know what goes into determining the score and what yours is to make sure there are no errors. There are a number of ways to check your FICO score for free, as well as utilizing AnnualCreditReport.com, so that should be one of the first things you check before applying for a rewards credit card.

Your FICO score is used by most lenders to determine your creditworthiness, but it by no means guarantees a decision. Even if you have a perfect score, you could still get declined for a specific card — and in that case, you’re best off calling the company for reconsideration. As you can see in the chart up top, your FICO score is comprised of: 35% payment history, 30% amounts owed, 15% length of credit history, 10% new credit and 10% types of credit used. By maintaining your FICO score, you’ll be well on your way to getting approved for a rewards credit card and start earning points and miles.

2. Don’t Carry a Balance

Pay your statement in full each month!
Pay your statement in full each month! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This is pretty straightforward: If you carry a balance on your credit card, your score will drop. And, the interest paid will negate the value of any miles and points you earned on the card. Despite those obvious downsides, according to a 2014 Gallup poll on credit card use, about half of all American users carry a balance on their cards at least some of the time. And while these numbers have declined over the past 10 years, about one-third of credit card users still say they carry a credit card balance every month. To me, that’s crazy! If you’re going to get a travel-rewards credit card — especially a charge card — it’s extremely important to pay your statement off in full to make sure you’re not only keeping your FICO score in check, but also maximizing your rewards output.

There are plenty of cards with 0% intro APRs, such as the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card (0% APR for 12 months and 12.24%-22.24% variable APR after that on purchases), the Capital One Spark Miles Select for Business (0% APR for 9 months and 13.24%-21.24% variable APR after that on purchases) and the Chase Slate (0% intro APR for 15 months then 13.24%-23.24% variable APR after that), which also has a $0 introductory balance transfer fee when you transfer a balance during the first 60 days your account is open. You must get rid of your credit card debt before getting new credit cards. If you’ll be too tempted to spend beyond your means if you have new credit cards, then they’re not for you.

3. Know Each Issuer’s Rules

Chase is one of the stricter issuers.
Chase is one of the stricter issuers.

Knowing the rules and requirements of each issuer is an important part of being successful with rewards credit cards. Each issuer has different rules that are important to keep in mind as far as benefits for sign-up bonuses and other perks. For example, Chase will not let you get Chase Sapphire PreferredChase Freedom or Ink Plus if you’ve gotten five or more cards in the past 24 months. So, it’s best to start with the Chase trifecta that earns you transferable points before you get a bunch of other cards, as you know you’ll have those three without having to worry about the issuer’s five-card restriction in the future.

Other issuers have specific restrictions as well. For example, American Express tightened up its sign-up bonuses in 2014 to allow cardmembers to receive a sign-up bonus only once, whereas it used to be that you could get the sign-up bonus again if you canceled a card and didn’t have it open for at least 12 months. Bank of America allows you to apply for a card and receive the bonus more than once — and some people have even been successful in getting the bonus again while their first account was still open. Citi allows you to earn a sign-up bonus on a given credit card multiple times, however there’s a mandatory waiting period between canceling and re-applying (for Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, Citi ThankYou Premier Card and Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard, the period is 18 months). I’d suggest looking at which sign-up bonuses will give you the most bang for your buck and applying for your high-priority cards sooner, as well as spacing your applications out.

4. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Only sign up for cards with minimum spending requirements you can comfortably meet.
Only sign up for cards with minimum spending requirements you can comfortably meet. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Minimum spending requirements can add up quickly, which is important to keep in mind when you see an amazing sign-up bonus and don’t take into account the amount of money you have to spend in order to get those points. In the past, we’ve seen some pretty astronomical sign-up bonus minimum spending requirements, such as the 100,000-mile sign-up bonus for the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard after spending a whopping $10,000 in the first three months (the offer has since dropped to 50,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months).

It’s important to not get caught up in the flashy sign-up bonuses without thinking about the pressure you’re putting on yourself financially to meet the spending requirements. There are many ways to reach that requirement, such as by purchasing gift cards and using Venmo, but it could also cost you if you don’t meet the mark. When you sign up for a credit card, the clock starts ticking when you get approved and not when you activate a card, so plan accordingly. Another thing to take into consideration is that the annual fee you might have to pay on a credit card does not count toward the minimum spend requirement. Don’t bite off more than you can chew when it comes to minimum spending requirements — it’s not worth it in the long run to jeopardize carrying a balance and stressing you out financially.

5. Personal vs. Business Cards

Business-credit-cards-featured-shutterstock-166865777

I think one of the most common misconceptions about rewards credit cards is that there’s a huge difference between personal cards and business cards and that you have to own a large business in order to get a business card, which is entirely untrue. In fact, business cards are meant for small businesses — even ones that are just starting and want to separate business expenses from personal — as well as for individuals to use on a personal level. Just because a card is labeled as a business card shouldn’t stop you from applying. Business sign-up bonuses can be huge, and the benefit of opening a business credit card is that even though it’ll count as an inquiry on your personal account, the credit line will sit on a business credit report. So, it will not affect utilization on your personal line, which — as we learned above — is a huge factor of your credit score.

It’s worth noting, though, that business credit cards are not protected under the same consumer protection laws, and APRs are generally higher. But, again, you shouldn’t be carrying balances on points-earning cards anyway. I’m a big fan of the Chase Ink Plus, The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN and the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express, although there are many business cards that can be great for personal use. Don’t shy away from signing up for a business card, as they can offer you huge sign-up bonuses that are oftentimes worth signing up for.

Bottom Line

No matter if you’re a beginner in the points and miles hobby or a seasoned award traveler, there are some things that are definitely worth knowing before signing up for a new credit card. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep track of your FICO score, as it’s the leading determinant of your creditworthiness when applying for a new card. That being said, you never want to carry a balance, especially on a charge card, and you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew when it comes to minimum spending requirements. It’s easy to be distracted by big sign-up bonuses, but always keep an eye out for the best deal available, whether that be a personal or business card, and keep track of each issuer’s rules. By keeping these points (no pun intended) in mind, you should be well on your way to credit card approval and traveling around the world for nearly free!

Do you have any other tips about understanding your credit before applying for a new rewards credit card? Share in the comments below!

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • 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
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit