Your ultimate guide to credit card upgrades

Oct 21, 2019

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While it’s easy to get impulsive with your credit card strategy and chase after every shiny welcome bonus you see, it always helps to have a long-term plan in mind. Is the card you’re opening a keeper, or will you try and upgrade or downgrade it after the first year to either enjoy increased benefits or avoid paying an annual fee?

There’s a lot that goes into whether to upgrade, depending on which card issuer you’re working with and what specific cards you’re looking to boost. Today we’re going to take a complete look at everything you need to know about upgrading credit cards.

In This Post

Pros and cons of upgrading a card

Before diving into the specifics of each issuer, let’s start with a few important things to know about upgrading cards. Unless I specifically say otherwise, you can assume everything here applies to the process of downgrading cards as well, but I’ll focus on upgrading to keep this from getting too long and clunky.

The CSP makes great card for young people just starting out with travel rewards cards. (Photo via Getty Images)
(Photo via Getty Images)

What exactly does it mean to upgrade a credit card? Let’s start with what it’s not: When you upgrade a card you aren’t opening a new account, which means there won’t be any new inquiry on your credit report (yay!). Your online login information will stay the same, and while you’ll receive a new credit card number and a new physical card in the mail, your account history, credit limit and other factors that affect your credit score won’t change it all. In fact, you probably won’t see the upgrade reflected anywhere on your credit report.

You can use this to your advantage, as upgrading a credit card might be a great option if you’re about to close on a house and don’t want any new credit inquiries to mess up your mortgage application process. Similarly, downgrading a card to avoid an annual fee will keep the account open and aging on your credit report, boosting your score without costing you anything.

Another great perk of upgrading a credit card is that sometimes you can earn a bonus for doing so. If a card issuer launches a new product, or wants to entice people to move up to the premium version within a certain card family, it may offer bonus points for upgrading. American Express has been known to do this the most, offering upgrade bonuses from time to time for premium cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express.

One of the biggest downsides to upgrading a credit card is that many issuers now base your eligibility for new welcome bonuses on which credit cards you’ve had open, not just which cards you’ve earned a bonus on. We’ll see this more when we dive into the issuer specific rules, but upgrading or downgrading a card might prevent you from earning a valuable welcome bonus in the future, so make sure to keep that in mind before making a decision.

Additionally, the fact that you aren’t opening a new account can actually work against you. If you’re looking to make a change because your current credit limit isn’t sufficient to meet your spending needs, upgrading won’t fix that problem.

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Generally speaking, issuers only allow you to upgrade or downgrade within a single family of cards. This means that you couldn’t product change between a Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example. You could upgrade your Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex to the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, but as we’ll see in a minute, that might not be the best idea.

Issuers also aren’t allowed to let you product change between a personal and business credit card, and American Express won’t let you change from a credit card to a charge card (like the Amex Gold) or vice versa.

Upgrading cards with Chase

Thanks to the 5/24 rule, many people choose to start their credit card journey with Chase, meaning this is often the first issuer where they’ll have to deal with the issue of upgrading or downgrading a card. Chase does allow you to product change cards within the same family, though the account has to be one year old before you can make the change. Other than that it’s relatively straightforward, and Chase’s A+ customer service team can handle the request quickly over the phone.

Upgrading a Sapphire Preferred to Sapphire Reserve

Chase offers two of the greatest all-arounds rewards cards in the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®. However, you can only have one at a time. This means you have to make a choice — but what if you change your mind after a year of earning with a Chase Sapphire? This is a great example of when to upgrade or downgrade a card: To help you pick the Sapphire that offers you the right mix of travel benefits and bonus categories with an annual fee you’re willing to pay.

People who are on the fence about the Sapphire Reserve now have an even stronger incentive to pick the Preferred instead, as it offers a 60,000-point welcome bonus after you spend $4,000 in three months versus the Sapphire Reserve, which only offers a 50,000-point bonus after the same minimum spend requirement and duration. Some people might come out ahead applying for the Preferred, earning the welcome bonus, and then upgrading to the Reserve after their first card anniversary.

Further Reading: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs. Chase Sapphire Reserve: Which card is right for you?

Product changing a Freedom to a Sapphire

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

Another common swap I’ve seen people make is upgrading from a Chase Freedom or Chase Freedom Unlimited to a Sapphire, or downgrading in the reverse direction. When the Sapphire Reserve first launched, Chase allowed you to apply even if you already had the Sapphire Preferred, so many people wound up holding two Sapphires but only needing one.

Downgrading to a no-annual-fee card like the Chase Freedom or Freedom Unlimited is a great way to keep that account open, so it continues to age and strengthen your credit report without wasting an annual fee.

It also makes sense to move in the reverse direction sometimes. Maybe you opened a Freedom or Freedom Unlimited but used up all your 5/24 slots and can’t get a Sapphire card. Upgrading is an easy way to gain access to Chase’s incredible collection of Ultimate Rewards transfer partners. Or maybe you downgraded your Sapphire to a Freedom during a year in which you weren’t traveling much, but now your work or personal travel has picked up again. Upgrading is a great way to pick up where you left off in terms of travel benefits and insurance.

Upgrading cards with American Express

American Express has some of the stricter rules around upgrades, partly because it offers a wide mix of personal, business, cobranded, credit and charge cards. As mentioned above, you can’t product change between personal and business cards or between charge and credit cards, and you have to stay within a single “family” (be it Delta, Marriott, Membership Rewards, etc.).

Amex doesn’t formally require you to wait a year to upgrade or downgrade cards, and you may be able to upgrade earlier than a year — especially if you get a targeted upgrade bonus offer like the two I mentioned above. However when it comes to downgrades, I strongly recommend waiting at least a full year.

Amex has very broad language in the terms and conditions of its card applications, giving it the ability to claw back your bonuses if it believes you’re gaming the system. One of the few “abuses” that’s explicitly defined is downgrading a card within the first year, as you can see below in the terms and conditions of the current Delta Reserve welcome offer:

“If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome offer(s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit the miles and [Medallion Qualifying Miles] to your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us.”

Amex also has incredibly stringent rules for welcome bonus eligibility in the first place, only allowing you to earn the bonus on a credit card if you’ve never held that card before in your life. This means that upgrading or downgrading a card, whether or not there’s any bonus involved, would preclude you from ever getting the bonus on that new card again. This makes the opportunity cost of product changing Amex cards incredibly high, and means that you might be better off just applying for a new account or cancelling the card you don’t want.

Upgrading an Amex Gold to an Amex Platinum

Last year Amex refreshed its American Express® Gold Card to make it much more compelling, but for frequent travelers, it still has trouble competing with the Platinum in terms of overall value-add.

I can see why many people would want to hold both an Amex Gold and a Platinum (which I personally do), but for the reason mentioned above I would strongly suggest you not product change and simply apply for the cards you want. Amex regularly offers targeted bonuses on the Platinum card of up to 100,000 points (worth $2,000 based on TPG’s valuations), which means you’d be giving up $2,000 in future rewards by upgrading now.

Upgrading to the Bonvoy Brilliant or Hilton Aspire

The one time that it might make sense to upgrade an Amex card is if you’re targeted for a bonus to upgrade to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant or Hilton Aspire, the premium credit cards of each respective hotel chain. With the Hilton Aspire, we’ve seen upgrade bonuses of up to 150,000 Hilton points, which is the same as the best ever public offer for new applicants on that card.

In that case, upgrading and keeping your credit history is a better deal than closing one card to open a new one. It’s a bit of a tougher decision with Marriott, as upgrading to the Bonvoy Brilliant means giving up an entry-level card that comes with a 35,000-point anniversary free night. I can get several hundred dollars of value out of those free nights, far more than the annual fee I pay to get it, and so I would prefer to have as many Bonvoy cards as I can.

Upgrading cards with Citi

Between increased competition from other issuers and a painful devaluation of its ultra-luxe Citi Prestige, Citi has lost a lot of ground in the travel rewards industry in recent years. You can only upgrade a Citi credit card if you receive a targeted email invitation; if you try and do it online you’ll be directed to input a unique offer code. However, like Amex, Citi’s bonus eligibility requirements disincentivize you from waiting around for an upgrade.

If you take a look at the landing page for the Citi Prestige, you’ll see that you can’t earn a bonus on it if you’ve opened or closed a card such as the Citi Premier in the last 24 months. What this means in practice is that if you’re not planning on keeping a Citi card open long term, you should close it as soon as your bonus posts so you can reset the 24-month clock on earning your next bonus. The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Upgrading cards with Capital One

While Capital One doesn’t currently offer a premium rewards card like the other major issuers, it does offer no-annual-fee versions of its popular products like the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One® Spark® Miles Select for Business card. In this case upgrading and downgrading won’t be as much about the benefits of the card as it will be about avoiding an annual fee.

Capital One has been known to send out targeted upgrade offers, so make sure to check your online account regularly. The issuer doesn’t have a hard rule of how long your account has to be open to be eligible for an upgrade, but you should wait at least six months before attempting a product change.

Bottom line

Upgrading or downgrading a card can be a great way to manage your wallet without adding too many inquiries to your credit report, but there are some very important implications to this process. Not only can a product change impact your eligibility for future welcome bonuses, but the rules vary by each issuer. So make sure to do your homework and wait an appropriate amount of time before trying to make a change.

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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