The best credit cards for active-duty military

Nov 11, 2019

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When your recruiter was selling you on joining the US military, they probably never mentioned all of the credit card and travel benefits available to you once you entered active duty — but maybe they should have. Until I reached my four-year mark in the military, I had no idea what the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and the Military Lending Act (MLA) were, let alone the impact that they had on me. I wish I had the knowledge that I do now so that I could have leveraged the benefits available to me from the day that I entered active duty. Whether you’re just starting out on active duty, getting called up on active orders in the National Guard or Reserves or have been on active duty for years, you can benefit from this information. This guide will review the best military credit cards and it will also explain how to maximize the SCRA and MLA benefits for yourself and your family.

The Best Credit Cards for Military Members in 2019:

Now let’s take a closer look at some of the incredible benefits and built-in perks that these cards have to offer, along with the relevant details for active duty service members:

The Platinum Card from American Express

  • Waived $550 annual fee and authorized user fee for those covered under SCRA (see rates & fees)
  • Extremely supportive of the military and great customer service to prove it
  • Spouses may get annual fees waived for their own accounts under certain circumstances, but it’s best to call and find out, as individual experiences and answers from American Express customer service vary significantly.
  • How? Here is the link to the Amex SCRA eligibility page.
  • For more information on the Amex Platinum, read our review.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • Waived $450 annual fee for those covered under MLA (this means dependents too!) as long as you opened the account after Sep. 20, 2017
  • If you opened the account before Sep. 20, 2017, but after you were already on active duty, and are a resident of Ohio, Louisiana or Pennsylvania, just send Chase your Leave and Earnings Statement proving residency and it will waive the annual fee.
  • How? Call Chase’s very helpful military specialist line at 1-800-235-9978
  • For more information on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, read our review.

Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card

  • Waived $450 annual fee (see rates & fees) with the same stipulations as the Amex Platinum
  • The card is offering a generous welcome bonus of 75,000 point welcome bonus after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • With all of the traveling that US service members do, you should definitely have a hotel card that earns valuable points.
  • How? Here is the link to the Amex SCRA eligibility page.
  • For more information on the Bonvoy Brilliant, read our review.

Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express

  • Waived $450 annual fee ($550 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020) (see rates & fees) with the same stipulations as the Amex Platinum and the Bonvoy Brilliant
  • With most official government travel being on Delta, you could earn Delta elite status quicker by holding this card and adding your TDY trip miles to your SkyMiles account.
  • 20% off in-flight purchases on Delta.
  • For more information on the Delta Reserve, read our review.

Of course, there are more credit cards that are beneficial to US service members than those that I highlighted in this article. These are just a sample of the premium credit cards you should consider looking into if you’re eligible for waived annual fees and other perks.

SCRA and MLA Basics

In addition to determining which credit card is right for you, you’ll likely want to know some SCRA and MLA basics to better understand financial coverage and benefits for yourself and for your family.

The SCRA was designed to provide service members relief from financial burdens while serving on active duty in the US military. Of note, the SCRA puts a 6% cap on interest rates charged to service members on debts incurred prior to entering active duty. Some credit card companies, like American Express, have chosen to go above and beyond the requirements of the SCRA by waiving annual fees on cards. An in-depth look at everything that the SCRA covers can be found here.

The MLA protects service members as well as their dependents from certain lending practices. The highlight of the MLA is the implementation of the Military Annual Percentage Rate (MAPR) regulation. This prevents creditors from exceeding 36% annually in total credit-related charges to covered borrowers under the MLA. The MLA has been amended multiple times since it was enacted in 2006, which expanded what credit services were covered in an attempt to prevent credit agencies from shifting and hiding fees. This expansion of covered services prompted many credit card companies to waive annual fees in order to avoid complication. You can find an in-depth explanation of the MLA here.

So who is covered by the SCRA and MLA?

      • Active duty soldiers of all military branches
      • Reserve soldiers on federal active duty
      • National Guard soldiers on Title 32 (federal) orders exceeding 30 days
      • Coast Guard personnel on Title 14 orders exceeding 30 days
      • Any dependent of the above covered which include:
        • Spouse
        • Children under age 21
        • Children under age 23 who are enrolled full time at an approved institution of higher learning and dependent (or dependent at the time of the member’s or former member’s death) on a covered member for over one-half of their support

Lastly, for these regulations to apply you must meet the above conditions at the time that you become obligated on a credit transaction or open an account. Additionally, once you no longer meet the above conditions, your accounts will no longer be covered and annual fees will resume.

If you are still unsure, or if you want to see for yourself that you or your dependents are covered, you can check out the SCRA and MLA websites to verify eligibility. Note that dependents only fall under the MLA and will not appear under SCRA searches. These services are completely free of charge, so do not pay an online service to verify eligibility. Below is what you should see if you are eligible.

Once your dependent is verified on the MLA record search, you can refer them to your credit card and potentially end up with:

      • A referral bonus
      • A minimum spend bonus
      • Two waived annual fees
      • Well over $1,000 saved depending on the credit card

Some service members have stated that no action was required of them once they opened a new account. Below is an example of the letter you or your dependent may receive from Chase if you are covered under the MLA. Additionally, there are links and phone numbers listed with the credit cards below that will lead you to accessing your benefits.

If you aren’t eligible under the SCRA and have a Chase account, you may receive a letter like this:

Bottom Line

If I could speak to my past self when I first joined the US Army, I would have jumped on the SCRA and MLA benefit train the day that I entered active duty. If you’re a responsible borrower and have the credit score to support it, there is no reason that you should not be reaping these benefits while on active duty.

Featured image by Aviation-Images/Getty Images

For rates & fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.
For rates & fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex, click here.
For rates & fees of the Delta Reserve Amex, click here.

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CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

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

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