The best first credit cards for 2020
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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 The Points Guy, 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.
Best first credit cards for 2020
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for future value
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best for flexibility
- Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for simplicity
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for travel rewards
- Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for entertainment
- Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for using abroad
- Discover it® Miles: Best for first-year bonus
- Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express: Best for getting started with Amex
- American Express® Green Card: Best for dining and travel
Comparing the best first credit cards
|Credit Card||Bonus||Rewards Rates||Annual Fee|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited||$150 after spending $500 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.||1.5% cash back on all purchases||$0|
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card||50,000-mile bonus after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.||2x miles on all purchases||$95, waived the first year|
|Citi® Double Cash Card||N/A||2% cash back on all purchases (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill)||$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
|Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card||$150 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
|Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card||$150 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.||1.5% cash back on all purchases||$0|
|Discover it® Miles||All miles earned in the first year are automatically matched at the end of the first year||1.5x miles 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)||$0|
|American Express® Green Card||30,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in your first three months of account opening. Terms apply.||3x points on dining worldwide, travel and transit||$150 (see rates and fees)|
Now that you’ve seen a snapshot of these cards, let’s take a closer look at each one.
Best first time credit cards
Welcome bonus: $150 after spending $500 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening
Annual fee: $0
Rewards: Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all 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 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There are no bonus categories to worry about or complicated points systems. 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 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
Welcome bonus: 50,000-mile bonus after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months
Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
Rewards: Earn unlimited 2x miles on all purchases
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. You’ll get 2x Venture miles on every single purchase, and the redemption process for those miles is super simple. You can redeem them at a fixed-value to cover 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 Venture review for more details.
APPLY HERE: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Welcome 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 and 2x on all other travel and dining purchases
Why it’s a great first credit card: If you’re an avid TPG reader, you know we recommend this card a lot. After all, it is one of the best credit cards on the market for anyone looking to up their points game. 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. 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
Welcome 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 currently get a sign-up bonus.
Read our full Citi Double Cash Card review for more details.
The information for the Citi Prestige and Citi Premier cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
APPLY HERE: Citi Double Cash Card
Welcome bonus: Earn $150 after you spend $500 in the first three months
Annual fee: $0
Rewards: Earn 3% cash back on dining and entertainment and 2% cash back at grocery stores
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. 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 (waived the first year). 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.
APPLY HERE: Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Welcome bonus: Earn $150 after you spend $500 in the first three months
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.
Welcome bonus: Discover will match your rewards at the end of your first year.
Annual fee: $0
Rewards: Earn unlimited 1.5x miles on every purchase
Why it’s a great first credit card: The Discover it® Miles is another straightforward credit card that charges no annual fee. You’ll earn a flat 1.5x on every single purchase, and you can redeem those miles as a statement credit for eligible travel purchases like airlines, hotels, rental cars, and more. Arguably the best feature of the card is the mileage match you get from Discover at the end of your first year. Rather than a traditional sign-up bonus, Discover does this across all of its cards.
For example, if you earn 35,000 miles over the course of your first year with the card, Discover will match those miles — which leaves you with 70,000 miles total. This essentially makes the card a 3x card for the first year! Cherry on top? Discover cards are generally easier to be approved for when you don’t have quite the credit profile to apply for a more premium card from an issuer like Chase or Amex, and the cards are even gaining wider acceptance around the world.
Read our full Discover it® Miles card review for more details.
APPLY HERE: Discover it® Miles
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)
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 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
The information for the Amex EveryDay® Credit 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.
Welcome offer: 30,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in your first three months. That’s worth about $600 in value, according to TPG’s latest valuations.
Annual fee: $150 (see rates and fees)
Rewards: Earn 3x on worldwide dining, travel and transit
Why it’s a great first credit card: This is another mid-tier card that requires that you do have some sort of credit profile built up, but it’s a perfect card for those who have been authorized users on a parent’s account in the past and therefore have a decent score. You’re getting an awesome 3x points (which is a 6% return based on TPG’s valuation of Membership Rewards points) on three really broad categories: dining, travel and transit. If you’re looking for a mid-tier travel rewards card, this is an excellent place to start. In addition to the earning rate, this card also comes with a few great benefits for beginner travelers. You’ll also get up to $100 in annual statement credits for CLEAR membership and up to $100 in annual credits for LoungeBuddy. Right off the bat, that makes up for the $150 annual fee.
Read our full Amex Green review for more details.
APPLY HERE: American Express Green Card
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.
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.
How credit cards work
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/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.” 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.
Why building credit is important
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 a 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?
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.
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.
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.
How old do you have to be to get a starter credit card?
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 reading: Will authorized user status help you build credit?
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.”
Additional reporting by Nick Ewen, Liz Hund, and Samantha Rosen.
Featured image by The Points Guy staff.
For rates and fees of the Amex Green card, click here.
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.
- 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 & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- 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 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.