The 6 best starter cards for building your credit

Mar 7, 2021

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Starting from scratch with credit cards can be a daunting task. At TPG, we want to give you the confidence to take control of your financial journey — wherever you might happen to be. Remember that everyone started as a beginner at one point or another.

From sharing simple rules to stay out of card debt to debunking myths about your credit score, we’re here to help along the way. And whether you’re building credit from the get-go — or looking to rebuild — this guide will help you consider the best credit card for you.

New to the credit card world? Sign up for our daily newsletter and check out our beginner’s guide.

Today, let’s take a closer look at six of the best starter cards for building your credit to bring more stability to your financial future. From entry-level first cards to secured cards, these products will help those who lack an extensive credit profile, or need to repair some financial mistakes from the past.

Note: The Discover it Secured is not currently available through The Points Guy and the information about it may be out of date.

In This Post

Comparing the best cards to build credit

Card Best for Bonus Annual fee
Capital One Platinum Credit Card Establishing credit None $0
Chase Freedom Unlimited Future value $200 bonus after spending $500 in the first three months $0
Discover it Secured Credit Card Beginner rewards At the end of your first year, Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned $0
Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students Students None $0
Citi® Double Cash Card Flat-rate cash back None $0
OpenSky Secured Visa Credit Card No credit check None $35

The information for the Capital One Platinum, Discover it Secured, Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card for students has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

As you can see, these cards run the gamut from household names like Chase to much more niche players in the secured card landscape. Let’s take a closer look at each of these cards to see which may fit the bill for you.

Best cards to build credit

Capital One Platinum Credit Card: Best for establishing credit

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards: None.

Who should apply: Whether you’re just starting out, or would like to build up your credit, the Capital One Platinum Credit Card is a practical card for many looking to elevate their credit profile. In fact, Capital One designates (and markets) the Platinum for consumers with average credit. Taken directly from the Capital One website, this card is a fit for you if:

“I have limited credit history. I’ve had my own credit card or other credit for less than 3 years (including students, people new to the U.S., or authorized users on someone else’s credit card).”

When you have an average credit score or a short credit history, you likely won’t be accepted for reward or travel cards that require good to excellent credit for approval. Therefore, there’s no need to shoot for the stars just yet if the likelihood of getting a card is low.

It’s likely in your best interest to open a card — even a basic one — to get positive information flowing into your credit reports and to start building up a credit history.

Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for future value

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: $200 bonus after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening

Rewards: Earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining (including takeout) and drugstores and 1.5% on all other purchases.

Who should apply: The Chase Freedom Unlimited may be a good fit if you already have some credit history. It’s also a dynamic starter card because it pairs very well with other Chase cards.

When you have this card by itself, you’ll earn no less than 1.5% cash back on all purchases in addition to bonus points for specific categories. Cardholders can earn 5% on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services, and 3% on drugstore purchases.

And because you can transfer your points into an Ultimate Rewards account, the points earned by the Chase Freedom Unlimited are worth 2 cents apiece if you link the card to a higher-end Ultimate Rewards-earning card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Related: How to transfer Ultimate Rewards points between accounts

When you combine the rewards you earn on the Freedom Unlimited with your other Ultimate Rewards-earning cards, you can then transfer the points you earn with it to one of Chase’s airline and hotel partners or redeem them for added value directly in the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Ultimate Rewards points are some of the most valuable points when it comes to redeeming for travel.

Discover it Secured Credit Card: Best for beginner rewards

Earn rewards at restaurants with this Discover card. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)
Earn rewards at restaurants with this Discover card. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: At the end of your first year, Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned.

Rewards: 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in purchases each quarter, and unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Who should apply: The Discover it Secured is one of the few secured credit cards that earns rewards. To open it, you must provide a deposit of either $200 for a credit line of that size, or $500 for a credit line of $500. With this card, you can earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in purchases each quarter you enroll and 1% cash back on everything else. Plus, Discover will match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year. This means you can earn rewards while you work to build your credit by using your card responsibly and paying your bill each month.

As a cardholder, you also get to check your FICO score for free and you won’t pay any foreign transaction fees when you use your card abroad. After you’ve been a cardholder for eight months, Discover will automatically review your account monthly to see if you are eligible to get your security deposit back and may consider converting you to an unsecured card. Discover also will waive the late payment penalty fee the first time you pay late.

Related: Your ultimate guide to Discover cards

Bank of America Cash® Rewards credit card for Students: Best for students

(Photo by Parinda Yatha / EyeEm / Getty Images.)
(Photo by Parinda Yatha/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Sign-up bonus: None

Rewards rates: 3% cash back in the category of your choice and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (on up to $2,500 in combined spending each quarter on choice category, grocery stores and wholesale clubs, then 1%); 1% on all other purchases.

Who should apply: The Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students is unique in that it offers plenty of flexibility in its award earning structure. It merits consideration if you want a cash-back card that you don’t need to replace when you graduate from college.

The card has a 3-2-1 cash-back system, and the cardholder can select which category they want to earn a 3% bonus on each month. Your options include gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores, home improvement and furnishings. The card also earns a consistent 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 1% elsewhere.

However, it’s important to note that the 3% and 2% bonus categories are limited to your first $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter. Once you reach that threshold in a quarter, all your purchases revert to 1% cash back.

Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for flat-rate cash back

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards: Earn 2% cash back on every purchase (1% when you buy, plus 1% as you pay).

Who should apply: If you’re looking to earn a solid cash-back return on everyday purchases beyond your first year, you may want to consider the Citi Double Cash Card. As its name suggests, the card earns 2% cash back on all purchases (1% when you buy, plus 1% as you pay off your statement). While other mid-tier credit cards may have more valuable perks, 2% back on everything leads the pack in terms of the best no-annual-fee credit cards. Plus, there’s no limit on the amount of cash back you can earn.

Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, opening the Double Cash card now can unlock more valuable rewards in the future. Cardholders who also have the Citi Premier® Card or Citi Prestige® Card can effectively convert their Double Cash earnings into fully transferable Citi ThankYou points — which TPG values at 1.7 cents apiece. As a result, this unlocks the ability to transfer your points to airline partners and redeem for flights. If you value simplicity with no restricting categories to keep track of or enroll in, a respectable 2% earning rate and no annual fees, the Citi Double Cash Card is a compelling choice.

Related: What credit score do you need to get the Citi Double Cash Card?

Just note that the Citi® Double Cash Card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, so you won’t want to use it outside of the U.S.

The information for the Citi Prestige card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

OpenSky Secured Visa Credit Card: Best for no credit check

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards: None.

Who should apply: Looking to build credit and don’t mind paying a nominal annual fee? While this card lacks any perks or rewards, the OpenSky Secured Visa Credit Card reports your payment activity to all three major credit bureaus, helping you boost your credit score when paying your balance off each month. With an easy approval process, this card may provide the key to a better financial path.

This is a foundational starter card meant for individuals that are looking to build credit by making on-time payments. In terms of secured cards, the OpenSky Visa is one of the few that you can qualify for without a bank account or credit check. That means if you’re grappling with past financial mistakes, or just have bad to poor credit, this is a card that might be on your radar. Additionally, those without any credit history, like students, can start their credit from scratch.

Related: OpenSky Secured Visa Card Review

Doing so will also open opportunities for car loans and mortgages with lower interest rates. This makes a secured card, such as the OpenSky Visa, a much better option than using cash or prepaid cards, since those payment methods don’t help in prospering credit.

Bottom line

If you’re looking to build or repair your credit with a credit card, you’ll want to make sure the card you get will report your payment activity to the credit bureaus. All of the cards described in this guide do so.

Related: 5 ways to use cards responsibly

Your credit report (which includes your payment history, accounts and more stats about your relationships with lenders) and credit score are what lenders look at when deciding to approve you for lines of credit. This includes things like mortgages, small business loans, car loans, credit cards and even apartment rentals. The higher your score, the more likely you are to be approved and the better your interest rates on accounts will be.

Credit cards aren’t the only way to build credit, but they are one of the easiest ways. If used responsibly, credit cards can be a useful financial tool and get you on your way to building good credit.

Related: 7 things to understand about credit before applying for cards

Additional reporting by Juan Ruiz.

Featured photo by kizilkayaphotos via Getty Images.

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*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 80K bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20K bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
  • $250 Annual Fee
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  • Earn 1X mile on all other purchases
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Regular APR
16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.