How to apply for a credit card

Apr 15, 2020

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Credit cards are an excellent tool to help you meet your financial goals. I personally use my credit cards to help me fund trips with miles and points that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience.

Though I’m not traveling right now, I’m still using my cards to maximize grocery store spending, takeout and delivery from restaurants and online shopping. That way, once travel resumes, I’ll have enough points saved up for an amazing getaway. Of course, you can also utilize cash back cards to save money on your monthly expenses right now, or save up for a larger purchase.

If you’ve never had a credit card, switching over from cash or debit to credit can be a bit overwhelming — especially since there are so many options available to consumers. This guide will walk you through the steps you need to take before applying for your first credit card, to make sure the experience goes as smoothly as possible.

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Check your credit score

The first thing you need to do is figure out your credit score. Your credit score is one of the largest factors used to determine whether or not to approve your credit card application. Generally speaking, travel rewards credit cards require higher scores than other types of cards. Because you’re able to earn rewards and reap benefits from the card, issuers want to make sure you’re a low-risk borrower.

No idea what your credit score is? There are plenty of ways to check it for free. Every American is entitled to a free credit report each year from the three major credit reporting agencies. Your report will go much deeper than your credit score, but it’s good to keep an eye on it to ensure its accuracy and address any issues.

Now that FICO has the FICO Score Open Access program, it’s not hard to obtain your credit score online for free. For a step-by-step rundown of how to check your score at each of the major credit reporting bureaus, check out our guide to how you can check your score for absolutely free.

Related: What credit score do you need for the Chase Sapphire Preferred? 

(Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.)
Checking your credit score is easy and free. (Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.)

What is a good credit score?

The most common credit score is from FICO®, which consists of a number between 300-850. Generally speaking, a “good” credit score falls in the 670-739 range, “very good” is considered 740-799 and anything above that is “exceptional.” In order to be approved for the best rewards credit cards, both travel-focused or cash back, you’ll want to have a credit score of at least 670. That’s not to say that you can’t be approved if you have a score below that, but it does lower the odds of an approval.

Related reading: 5 ways to use credit cards responsibly

Choosing the right credit card

Once you know your credit score, you can start looking at credit cards that you would likely be approved for. For example, if you have little to no credit, you’ll want to look at the best first credit cards, which typically don’t require an extensive credit history for approval.

If your credit score is on the lower side, you’ll want to look into improving your score, either by applying for a secured credit card and/or becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account.

If you have an excellent credit score, the credit card world becomes your oyster! You can choose from any of the best credit cards to apply for. Here are a few of the things you should look for when deciding which card to apply for:

Welcome bonus

The best rewards credit cards almost always come with large welcome bonuses that allow new cardholders to earn a large sum of points, miles or cash back after hitting a certain spending threshold in the first few months of opening the account. Some of the best welcome offers available right now are worth over $1,000! Make sure you are choosing a card with a compelling welcome offer that is attainable for your monthly budget.

Type of card

There are many kinds of credit cards for you to choose from based on the type of rewards or benefits you’re looking for. If you aspire to travel often, a travel credit card might be a good fit. Someone who is more interested in saving money on expenses or saving up for a large purchase might consider a cash back credit card. If you’re a frequent traveler who is loyal to a specific airline or hotel, you should look into cobranded credit cards. It’s all about choosing a card that will help you meet your goals.

Rewards potential

Rewards credit cards generally have different bonus categories, from travel to dining to groceries and more. You want a card that earns rewards in the categories where you spend the most each month. For example, if you spend a lot on groceries at U.S. supermarkets and at restaurants each month, you should look into a card like the American Express® Gold Card, which offers 4x points on up to $25,000 in purchases in these categories every year.

If you don’t spend a lot of money in just one or two categories each month, you can try out a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns 2x miles on every purchase.   

Annual fee

Unfortunately, the tradeoff for higher rewards and travel benefits is often an annual fee. When considering whether to apply for a card with an annual fee, make sure that you will be able to use the card enough to offset that cost. For example, if you apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, make sure you will use the $300 travel credit and rack up enough rewards through spending to offset the $550 annual fee.

If you want to start conservatively, there are also solid credit cards with no annual fee.


Credit cards often come with other benefits aside from just category bonuses. These can differ drastically from card to card, but can include things like lounge access, annual credits for travel or dining, travel insurance protections and more.

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
Choosing the best credit card for you is important. With so many options available, there is definitely a card out there that fits your needs. (Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)

Check to see if you’re pre-qualified

Once you’ve chosen a card to apply for, check to see if you are pre-qualified with a better offer. You can check this in the CardMatch tool.

Some potential new cardholders have been targeted through CardMatch for a 100,000-point welcome bonus offer on The Platinum Card® from American Express (targeted offer subject to change at anytime). That’s 25,000 points higher than the current public offer of 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in your first 6 months of Card Membership. And since American Express has a once-per-card-per-lifetime rule when it comes to earning welcome bonuses, you want to make sure you’re applying for the highest one possible.

This doesn’t just apply to Amex credit cards. Credit cards are subject to an array of restrictions that could limit you from earning a bonus on a card in the future. By not checking CardMatch or other pre-qualify tools, you could be leaving hundreds of dollars in rewards on the table.

Related reading: New Amex cardholders get more time for welcome offer spending

Fill out an application

Once you’ve chosen a card to apply for and checked for the best welcome offer, the hard part is over. Now all that’s left is applying for your card and then maximizing it.

You can apply for a credit card online, by mail or phone. Of course, the easiest option is to do it online.  A credit card issuer will ask for some personal information, including your name, contact info, annual income and other financial information. You’ll be asked to read the terms and conditions on associated benefits, rates and fees for the card.

I know reading terms and conditions is pretty much everyone’s least favorite activity, but it’s important to know what you’re signing up for. I highly recommend reading through the offer details and fine print regarding the rates, fees and conditions for utilizing card benefits. That way, you won’t be surprised down the road.

Once you apply, many issuers will give you a decision in just a few seconds, but you could end up having to wait for up to two weeks for an answer.

Keep in mind that a credit card application results in a “hard pull,” which will appear on your credit report for up to two years. This could result in a temporary minor decrease in your score (generally only by a few points). Keep this in mind if you are planning on applying for other types of credit in the near future, as a changing credit score could cause your interest rates or approval odds for things like a mortgage or car loan to change.

Maximize your new credit card

Once you have your credit card, the fun begins. Make sure you’re using your card to its full advantage. This means using it for appropriate purchases, utilizing benefits and ultimately redeeming your rewards. Here are some tips for booking that first award trip.

Just make sure to also follow TPG’s 10 commandments for rewards credit cards so that you don’t make these credit card mistakes.

When you maximize your credit card, you could end up booking a fabulous redemption with your rewards. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Credit cards are an excellent tool to help you meet your financial goals. They can help you consolidate debt, save money and experience the magic of traveling the world by earning and redeeming rewards.

Applying for a credit card can seem overwhelming and a bit scary, but if you know what to look for, the process is actually quite straightforward. At the end of the day, having the right credit card in your wallet is worth the research and application process.

Are you a credit cards beginner? Check out our beginner’s guide!

Featured image by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy.

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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.

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