How to get started earning rewards with your first credit card

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We’ve all heard the saying “you have to walk before you run,” and that mindset applies to the points and miles space, too. Before you can conquer the world of points and miles, you have to take the first step — signing up for your very first credit card.

At TPG, we talk a lot about premium credit cards and the benefits they can give us — from excellent rewards rates to luxury perks when we travel. But these top-tier cards were not the very first ones we added to our wallets.

Today, I’m walking through some of my favorites to recommend to credit card beginners. They range from entry-level cards for fresh graduates or students who may lack an extensive credit profile to mid-tier cards for those who may have been authorized users on their parents’ cards but want their own card on which they can earn rewards.

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

Best first credit cards for 2020

The information for the Amex EveryDay 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.

Related: One card for every year I’ve been alive: My journey from college student to points pro

In This Post

Comparing the best first credit cards

Credit Card Bonus Rewards Rates Annual Fee
Chase Freedom Unlimited $200 bonus after spending $500 in the first three months, plus earn 5% back on the first $12,000 on groceries in your first account year (excluding Walmart and Target) 5% back on travel booked through Ultimate Rewards

3% back on dining and gas stations

1.5% cash back on all other purchases

$0
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card 20,000-mile bonus after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. 5x miles on car rentals and hotels booked and paid with the card through Capital One Travel

1.25x miles on all purchases

5x miles on Uber Eats through Jan. 31, 2020

$0
Citi® Double Cash Card  N/A  2% cash back on all purchases (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill) $0
Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card $200 after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. 3% cash back on dining

3% cash back on entertainment

2% cash back at grocery stores

Plus temporary bonus categories: 

5% cash back on Uber Eats through Jan. 31, 2021

3% cash back on select streaming services through Sept. 30, 2020

 $0
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card $200 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. 1.5% cash back on all purchases  $0
Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express 10,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply. 2x points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in purchases per year; then 1x)

20% more points on purchases when you use the card more than 20 times each month

$0
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. 5x points on Lyft

2x points on travel

2x points on dining

2x on groceries (up to $1,000 per month) through April 2021

$95

Now that you’ve seen a snapshot of these cards, let’s take a closer look at each one.

Best first-time credit cards

Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for future value

Sign-up bonus: $200 bonus after spending $500 in their first three months, plus earn 5% back on the first $12,000 on groceries in your first account year

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 5% back on travel booked through Ultimate Rewards, 3% back on dining and drug stores and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases

Why it’s a great first credit card: The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a great starter card (and the first on this list) because it’s buildable. When you have this card by itself, you’re earning at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases. However, as you get more comfortable with credit card rewards, this is an easy card to pair with other Chase cards to round out a more complete credit card strategy.

When you have this card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, you can combine the rewards you earn on the Freedom Unlimited with your other point balances to effectively convert the cash-back earnings into full-on Chase Ultimate Rewards points — which means you can transfer the points you earn on it to one of Chase’s 13 travel 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, and who doesn’t love free travel?

Read our full Chase Freedom Unlimited review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Freedom Unlimited

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for flexibility

(Photo by Eric Heglas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Heglas/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 20,000-mile bonus after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 5x on car rentals and hotels booked and paid with the card through Capital One Travel; 1.25x miles on all purchases; plus earn additional miles on some temporary bonus categories

Why it’s a great first credit card: When you’re first starting out in the credit card rewards game, juggling different bonus categories and trying to figure out the best redemption options can be confusing and time-consuming. The Capital One Venture makes earning travel rewards much simpler. While it does offer a handful of bonus categories, you’re always getting at least 1.25x Venture miles on every single purchase, and the redemption process for those miles is super simple. Generally, you get 5x on car rentals and hotels booked through Capital One Travel, but the card is also currently offering 5x on Uber Eats through Jan. 31, 2021.

You can redeem them at a fixed-value to cover travel (and temporarily some non-travel) purchases on your statement, which means you know you’re getting 1 cent per mile out of your rewards. However, as you get more advanced with travel and award charts, Capital One also lets you transfer your miles to its partners, where you could potentially get even more value.

Read our full Capital One VentureOne review for more details.

Citi Double Cash Card: Best for cash back

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

Sign-up bonus: N/A

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 2% back on all purchases — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill each month

Why it’s a great first credit card: Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, this is a great card to start with because it’s easy to pair later on when you start to dig into more transferable rewards currencies. Right off the bat, you’re earning 2% cash back on everything, which is a stellar flat rewards rate. That 2% adds up really quickly when you use this for most of your monthly expenses.

However, the Citi Double Cash is another card that allows you to convert those rewards into points when paired with an eligible card. If you have a Citi ThankYou point-earning card such as the Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Premier® Card, your rewards can become ThankYou points, which are more valuable than straight cash back due to their ability to be redeemed through the Citi travel portal or by transferring to partners. The one major downside to this card is that you don’t get a sign-up bonus.

Read our full Citi Double Cash Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Citi Double Cash Card

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.

Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for entertainment

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

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

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 3% cash back on dining and entertainment; 2% cash back at grocery stores; plus earn additional cash back on temporary bonus categories

Why it’s a great first credit card: The Capital One SavorOne is one of the most rewarding no-annual-fee cash back cards. You’re getting an excellent 3% on dining and entertainment — two incredibly broad and common bonus categories — on top of 2% back at grocery stores. Plus, right now you’ll get 5% back on Uber Eats (through Jan. 31, 2021) and 3% back on select streaming (through April 30, 2021). That’s a better earning rate than some cards that do charge an annual fee.

Capital One also has the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card, which comes with 4% cash back on dining and entertainment and 2% cash back at grocery stores in exchange for a $95 annual fee. However, for those who are brand new to the credit card market, the SavorOne is easier to be approved for and provides a lot of value without charging an annual fee — especially since you won’t pay foreign transaction fees when traveling outside the U.S.

Read our full Capital One SavorOne Card review for more details. 

The information for the Capital One Savor 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.

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for using abroad

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

Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase

Why it’s a great first credit card: If you’re hoping to stay in the cash-back rewards universe, the Quicksilver is a great beginner credit card. You’re getting cash back on every purchase, which makes it a simple and straightforward card to have in your wallet. It has no annual fee and even waives foreign transaction fees, too. Once you’re more comfortable with credit cards and credit card rewards, you can always add other cards with higher bonus category earnings to your lineup, but using the Quicksilver as a card for all spending that doesn’t fall into another bonus category is simple. Straight-forward and rewarding — what more can you ask for in a first credit card?

Read our full Capital One Quicksilver Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card

Amex EveryDay® Credit Card: Best for getting started with Amex

Welcome offer: 10,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $1,000 within the first three months of account opening. These points are valued at $200 based on TPG valuations. However, be sure to check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a higher bonus offer.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 2x points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in purchases per year; then 1x)

Why this is a great first credit card: This is a credit card for points-and-miles beginners because it earns valuable Membership Rewards without charging an annual fee. It earns 2x at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $6,000 spent each calendar year, then 1x) and 1x on everything else — plus you get a 20% bonus if you swipe it 20 times or more in a billing cycle. The fact that it earns Amex Membership Rewards points is a large part of its appeal. Like Citi ThankYou Points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can pool your rewards once you start earning more rewards with more premium Amex cards — and Amex points are some of the most valuable out there.

For example, you can transfer your Amex points to Delta, which frequently has flash sales to destinations all over the world, so you’re looking at an easy way to jump-start your free travels. You can also transfer your Amex Membership Rewards points to 19 airline and three hotel programs, including JetBlue and Marriott, to really get a lot of value out of them.

Read our full Amex EveryDay Credit Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Amex EveryDay Credit Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for travel rewards

Sign-up bonus: 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. TPG values this bonus at $1,200, depending on how you redeem them — either by transferring them to an airline or hotel, or directly through Chase’s travel portal.

Annual fee: $95

Rewards: Earn 5x on Lyft; 2x on all other travel and dining purchases; plus earn additional points on some temporary bonus categories.

Why it’s a great first credit card: If you’re an avid TPG reader, you know we recommend this card a lot — and with good reason. After all, it is one of the best credit cards on the market, and it even won Best Travel Rewards Credit Card in the 2020 TPG Awards. Those 2x points on dining and travel add up quickly — travel especially is a broad category and includes everything from Uber to public transit to (of course) flights. The points you’ll earn can be transferred to Chase’s various partners or redeemed for 1.25 cents each through Chase’s travel portal.

Right now, Chase is offering some perks for Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders, including new redemption options with the new Pay Yourself Back feature and a temporary grocery store bonus category through April 2021. However, keep in mind that the Chase Sapphire Preferred does typically require you to have at least a little bit of credit history and a decent credit score.

Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Cards for those with fair/bad credit

Your credit score is one of the primary factors issuers look at when deciding whether to approve you for a credit card. So what if you have fair or bad credit?

Unfortunately, you may not be able to be approved for the rewards credit cards listed above. However, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. There are plenty of credit cards for fair or bad credit you can apply for to help you improve your credit score before you apply for a rewards credit card.

Related: From debt to over 20 credit cards: the story of my personal finance journey

Credit One Bank® Visa® for Rebuilding Credit

If you have a lower credit score, the Credit One Bank Visa for Rebuilding Credit offers a way for you to repair your credit score over time while still offering you some of the benefits you get with a rewards credit card. It does charge an annaul fee — $0 to $95 for the first year, then $0 to $99 — based on your creditworthiness. The annual fee for the second and future years may be divided into 12 equal portions and one portion will be billed each month of the applicable year depending on your account.

The card earns 1% cash-back on eligible gas and groceries as well as your monthly mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV services.

Check out our guide to Credit One Bank credit cards for more details.

OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card

The OpenSky Secured Visa doesn’t come with a credit check, which means you can be approved even if you have fair or bad credit. You’ll pay a $35 annual fee and you’ll need a minimum of $200 for the security deposit. Subject to approval, you could potentially have a credit line of up to $3,000 (though this is a secured card, so you’ll have to have that much cash to put down as the deposit to cover the line of credit). The card also allows you to change your payment due date once per year to help you align your bill due dates with your schedule.

Check out our guide to the best secured credit cards for more details.

Discover it Secured

The Discover it Secured is one of the only secured credit cards out there that still earns rewards. You’ll put down a minimum of $200 as a security deposit (for a $200 credit limit), you’ll be able to 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. And just like Discover’s other rewards credit cards, the issuer will match the cash back you earn at the end of your first year.

Discover waives your first late payment penalty fee, and you’ll have access to your FICO credit score for free. After you’ve had the card for eight months, Discover will review your account to see if you are eligible to move to an unsecured card (and get your security deposit back).

Check out our guide to Discover credit cards for more details.

Why you should get a credit card

Using your debit card has virtually no point — pun intended. You’re spending money and not getting anything back in return. For all the money you spend on food, clothing, skincare, workout classes, transportation and everything else in your life, you could be earning valuable points or miles toward your next vacation. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we promise the points really do add up. Plus, one day you’re going to want to get a house or a car, and we guarantee some people in suits will be asking you for your credit score.

Related: The 5 credit cards this recent grad keeps in her wallet

Applying for your first real credit card is a big step towards financial freedom, and it’s also a way for you to start racking up valuable points and miles that you can use to start traveling the world for free. However, before we get into that, let’s set a few ground rules.

Related: Why a credit card is a smarter choice than a debit card

How credit cards work

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
The Conrad Bora Bora. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Travel credit cards can help you earn points and miles. In other words, these pieces of plastic (or metal) are putting you one step closer to a (mostly) free trip to your dream destination, wherever that might be.

There are many ways to pick up points and miles — from actually flying on airlines or staying at hotels to going through online shopping portals when making online purchases. However, the biggest and the best way is through sign-up bonuses and welcome offers. This is a fancy way of saying “if you spend a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time, you’ll earn a certain amount of points.”

Related: 3 mistakes people make when they get their first credit card

It varies from card to card, which we’ll break down shortly. Nothing happens if you don’t hit the minimum spending requirements to earn the bonus; you’ll just miss out on a big haul of points or miles. You will, though, get points for whatever spending you do put on it. Again, this varies from card to card.

A lot of credit cards will also offer bonus points for spending on certain categories of purchases. For example, if you get 3x points on dining and your dinner costs $15, you’d earn 45 points. 45 points won’t get you anywhere by themselves, but they do add up over time.

Of course, points and miles aren’t the only reason why having credit cards is important for your overall financial health. They also help you build credit.

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

Another option: becoming an authorized user

If you’re looking for a way to build credit but cannot apply for your own credit card, becoming an authorized user on someone else’s card is another option.

As an authorized user, you’re added to a primary credit cardholder’s account. You’ll receive a card with your name on it that is linked to the main account holder’s card. You can then use this card like they would their own — and some of the best cards for authorized users even offer perks.

When you are an authorized user, it helps you build up credit history before you apply for your own credit card. Just keep in mind that any charges you make are ultimately the legal responsibility of the primary accountholder, so you’ll need to make arrangements for how you’ll pay off your account, how much you can spend each month and more.

Related: Everything you need to know about authorized users

Why building credit is important

Someone checking their credit score on a smart phone
(Photo by cnythzl/Getty Images)

We live in a world where credit scores have a huge impact on your financial life. Your credit report (which includes your payment history, accounts and more fun stats about your past relationships with borrowing money) 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 possibly even apartment rentals. The better your score, the more likely you are to be approved — and the better your interest rates on accounts.

Credit cards aren’t the only way to build credit, but they are one of the easiest ways. And while we’re a bit biased here at TPG, it’s also one of the most rewarding and fun ways to build credit. How many people can say they are helping their long-term financial health while also funding their next tropical getaway?

Related: 6 things to do to improve your credit in 2020

Tips to use your credit card to your advantage

Having a credit card is just one part of the equation. You also need to manage it well — in fact, not using your card responsibly can actually hurt you.

If you take nothing else away from this article (or really, any article on the site) it’s this: Pay your bills on time and in full every, single month. Having a credit card is not Monopoly money in your pocket, and by not paying off your credit card in full, you’re negating the value of any points you earn. In short: Spend what you can afford. Period.

Related: Ten commandments for travel rewards credit cards

(Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)
When you use your credit card to your advantage, you could turn your rewards into a vacation fully funded on points, miles and/or cash back. (Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

Now once you get your new credit card, understand that the points or miles you’ll earn are valuable — and they’re not all created equally. TPG’s monthly valuations are a good resource to figuring out how much each of yours are worth. At the end of the day, you never want to pay more for a flight in points or miles than if you just booked it outright using your credit card. In addition, you’ll generally get the most value from when you use your points or miles for your next vacation, not your Amazon or food-delivery order.

Related: From no credit to free flights: An inside look at a 23-year-old’s credit journey

Understanding APR and interest

If you are paying off your credit card every month, you don’t have to worry about interest charges piling up. However, sometimes things happen and you end up carrying a balance on your card — at least for a few months. In those cases, it’s important to understand what your APR is and how much interest you’ll be charged on your card.

When you carry a balance, your credit card issuer will charge you a certain percentage of that each month until you pay off your card. The amount of interest you are charged is based off the APR (annual percentage rate) of a credit card. Typically speaking, a card will advertise a variable APR rate that is listed as a range. Variable means that your rate can change over time based on an index interest rate — such as the prime lending rate that’s determined by the Federal Reserve Board (commonly referred to as ‘The Fed’). The better your credit score, the lower your APR on your credit card will likely be.

Related: The complete history of credit cards, from antiquity to today

How old do you have to be to get a starter credit card?

Adding your children as authorized users to your credit cards will help them build a credit history and will (hopefully) lead to better credit scores as they transition to adulthood. (Photo by Maskot / Getty Images)
(Photo by Maskot / Getty Images)

At the end of the day, having a credit card is borrowing money (even if you pay that money back at the end of each month). Because of this, there are restrictions in place to make sure you are old enough to understand and manage the consequences of having a line of credit open in your name.

The Card Act of 2009 states that you have to be at least 21 years of age in order to have a credit card in your name. So, if you aren’t old enough to buy a glass of wine at dinner, you are also not old enough to earn rewards on that glass of wine with your own credit card. However, you can apply for a credit card at 18 years old if you have a cosigner or if you provide proof of income to your issuer. If you are under 18, the only way to start building credit is by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account.

Related: Will authorized user status help you build credit?

Bottom line

We know there are a lot of options out there, and it can be hard to find your Cinderella slipper when it comes to a first credit card. However, no matter how you start your points and miles journey, these cards will help you get started without getting overwhelmed; there’s no need to go straight to the big leagues with a premium travel credit card just yet. Start off small and build your credit, and we promise these points will add up faster than you can say “award redemption.”

Related: Not just for the established elite: TPG millennials and Gen Z staff weigh in on their experience with premier rewards credit cards

Featured image by The Points Guy. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

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.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 2x total points on up to $1,000 in grocery store purchases per month from November 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021. Includes eligible pick-up and delivery services.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
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.