The best credit cards for active duty military
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There are plenty of discounts and benefits available to members of the military while on active duty. Some are highly advertised, while others are hidden in plain sight. On top of all the travel perks and discounts offered to those in the military, the ability to hold some of the best credit cards on the market without paying annual fees has been my favorite perk.
After several years in the military, neither myself nor my colleagues had any idea what the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and the Military Lending Act (MLA) were. I wish I had then the knowledge I have now during all of my years of service so I could have leveraged those programs and other benefits available to me from the day that I entered active duty.
Whether you’re just starting out on active duty; are 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 will also explain how to maximize the SCRA and MLA benefits for yourself and your family.
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The best credit cards for military members in 2020:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for travel benefits and lounge access
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for annual travel credit
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Best for Marriott stays
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card: Best for flying Delta
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Best for Hilton stays
SCRA and MLA basics
In addition to determining which credit card is right for you, you’ll need to know some SCRA and MLA basics to better understand the 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 U.S. military. Of note, the SCRA puts a 6% cap on interest rates charged to service members on debts incurred prior to entering active duty. An in-depth look at everything 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 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 complications. 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
Additionally, any dependent of the above including:
- Children under the age of 21
- Children under the age of 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. And once you no longer meet the above conditions, your accounts will no longer be covered and annual fees will resume.
Some credit card companies, such as American Express, have chosen to go above and beyond the requirements of the SCRA and MLA by waiving annual fees on cards. There was a recent change in the way American Express processes annual fee waivers and benefits for military card members. You need request the right relief, either MLA or SCRA, based on the account open date and your entry date into service. More info on requesting relief under the SCRA or MLA is covered at the bottom of this article.
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the incredible benefits and built-in perks these cards have to offer, along with the relevant details for active duty service members:
- Waived $550 annual fee (see rates & fees) and authorized user fee for those covered under SCRA or MLA.
- The card is offering a generous welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases within the first three months — or as many as 125,000 points to targeted individuals through the CardMatch Tool. (offers can change at any time)
- Up to $200 annual airline fee credit
- Up to $100 annual Saks Fifth Avenue credit, and up to $200 annual Uber credit
- Amex Centurion Lounge access for the cardholder and up to two included guests
- Unlimited Priority Pass Lounge Access
- Delta Sky Club Access (when flying a same-day, Delta-operated flight)
- 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.
- Terms apply
For more information on the Amex Platinum, read our card review.
- Waived $550 annual fee for those covered under MLA (this means dependents, too!) as long as you opened the account after Sept. 20, 2017.
- The card is offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 transferable Ultimate Rewards points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.
- $300 annual travel credit
- Unlimited Priority Pass airport lounge and eligible airport restaurant access
- $120 in combined DoorDash credit in 2020 and 2021
- If you opened the account before Sept. 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 card review.
- Waived $450 annual fee (see rates & fees) with the same stipulations as the Amex Platinum
- The card is offering a welcome bonus up to 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn an additional 25,000 bonus points after your first anniversary of Card Membership. Offer Expires 1/13/2021.
- Automatic Marriott Gold elite status
- Complimentary Platinum Elite status with your Card for the 2021 status year. Offer Expires 1/13/2021.
- Up to $300 annual statement credit for eligible Marriott purchases
- Unlimited Priority Pass airport lounge access
- Terms apply
For more information on the Bonvoy Brilliant, read our card review.
- Waived $550 annual fee (see rates and fees) with the same stipulations as the Amex Platinum and the Bonvoy Brilliant.
- Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
- With most official government travel being on Delta, you could earn Delta elite status faster by holding this card and adding your TDY trip miles to your SkyMiles account
- Delta Sky Club and Centurion Lounge access (when flying Delta on same day operated flight)
- Annual companion pass valid on select flights in economy or first class at each renewal
- 20% off in-flight purchases on Delta
- Terms apply
For more information on the Delta Reserve Card, read our review.
- Waived $450 annual fee (see rates & fees) with the same stipulations as the Amex Platinum and the Bonvoy Brilliant
- The card is offering a generous welcome bonus of 150,000 Hilton points after you use your new card to make $4,000 in purchases within the first three months.
- Instant Hilton Honors Diamond elite status
- Up to $250 annual airline fee credit
- Up to $250 annual resort credit
- Unlimited Priority Pass airport lounge access
- Terms apply
For more information, read the card review.
Of course, there are more credit cards that are beneficial to U.S. service members than just those 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.
Related: Best rewards credit cards of 2020
Getting your SCRA and MLA benefits right
It can be confusing to make sure you are eligible for and requesting the right benefits under the right law. If you are still unsure if you or your dependents are eligible, 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 him or her to a credit card you have 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 in order to get the waived annual fee. 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 your benefits.
If you aren’t eligible under the SCRA and have a Chase account, you may receive a letter like this:
There are very generous benefits available to the military community. However, you must be a responsible borrower and have the credit score to support opening new accounts. Military life can be stressful and tracking finances while changing addresses every two to three years can be difficult. If you can manage it and keep your credit journey organized, there’s no reason you shouldn’t heap these rewards while on active duty.
- Why the Amex Platinum is best for military members
- How to maximize credit card annual credits from home
- Veteran’s Day deals and discounts
- Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits for military members
Featured image by Mark Edward Atkinson/Tracey Lee/Getty Images)
Additional reporting by Richard Kerr
For rates & fees of the Amex Platinum, click here.
For rates & fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Amex, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire card, please click here.
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