How to Get a Credit Card Successfully: A Comprehensive Guide

Getting a credit card can be a major step toward bolstering your credit history and credit scores. Using a credit card responsibly — that is, keeping the utilization ratio low and paying balances on time and in full — can elevate your scores and unlock lower rates on insurance, car loans and mortgages. In short, a good credit score (typically, a FICO score of 690 to 719) is kind of a big deal when it comes to this adulting thing.

Any credit card can help you build credit, but you’ll want to pick the card most suited to your spending habits and lifestyle. And once you figure out what card that is, you’ll want to give yourself the best chance of being approved for it.

But with so much riding on having good credit, and with so many cards on the market, it can be hard to start the process of getting a credit card. Here’s a quick guide.

Credit card requirements: Make sure you qualify

Before you try to get a credit card, make sure you meet the following requirements. Credit card issuers won’t extend lines of credit unless you can check most or all of these boxes:

  • Age. Technically, you can open your own credit card account at 18, but to do so at that age, you must have independent income or apply with a co-signer. However, most credit card issuers don’t allow co-signers. So practically, most people will need to be 21 or older, at which point the criteria for independent income or a co-signer no longer apply. (Another option is to ask a loved one to add you as an authorized user on their account — although that, too, comes with caveats.)

  • Income. Issuers are required to take into account an applicant’s ability to pay down debts incurred on the credit card. Some applications will ask you to disclose your annual income; others may require you to submit a W-2 or pay stub or have a checking account that receives direct deposits. If you’re at least 21, you don’t necessarily need to have an independent income. You can include household income, such as income from your partner or spouse.

  • Proof of identity. Most credit card applications will ask for your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) — but there are some exceptions.

  • Credit scores. Many credit cards have minimum credit score requirements, and if your score is below that threshold for a specific card, you likely won’t get it. Naturally, the most perk-heavy credit cards tend to require excellent credit, which is generally a FICO score of 720 or higher. People with bad credit (scores of 629 or lower) or no credit at all might still qualify for a secured credit card or an alternative credit card.

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Three steps to find the card for you

Once you’ve determined that you’re eligible for at least some credit cards, it’s time to home in on a few that meet your needs. There are three major types of credit cards but hundreds of cards on the market, so you’ll need to do your due diligence to find the best fit.

1. Find your ‘why’

Ask yourself: “Why do I want a credit card?” Your answer will offer some immediate clarity.

  • If you’d like to earn rewards — such as cash back or travel points — well, you probably want a rewards credit card.

  • Trying to build your credit? A secured or student credit card may be just the thing.

2. Use your credit scores to eliminate cards

So you’ve identified the type of card you want. Next, use your credit scores to help you winnow out even more cards. As mentioned, many credit cards have a credit score requirement. NerdWallet’s free recommendation tool serves up a few card options based on your credit scores.

Credit scores generally break down like this:

  • Excellent credit: Scores of 720-850.

  • Good credit: Scores of 690-719.

  • Fair credit (also known as average credit): Scores of 630-689.

  • Bad credit (also known as poor credit): Scores of 300-629.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Don’t know what your score is? Get a free credit score from NerdWallet.

3. Read reviews

Let’s say that by this point, you’ve narrowed your options to three cards. Now it’s time to dig into the fine print of each card. Many of those details are available on the issuer’s website in what’s known as a Schumer box, which outlines important facts about the card, including its fees.

But if you’d rather listen to Cocomelon songs on repeat than pick through dry legalese, we’ve got you covered with reviews of hundreds of cards. We’ve read the Schumer boxes so you don’t have to, highlighting the best and worst features of each credit card.

It’s go time: Apply for a card

Use pre-qualification, if available

Some credit issuers have a pre-qualification tool that gives you a sense of the likelihood of getting approved for one of their cards. You’ll input some basic information about yourself and the card or type of card that you’ve been eyeing, and the issuer will tell you what cards, if any, you likely qualify for. The pre-qualification process doesn’t involve a hard pull on your credit report and won’t lower your credit score.

Pre-qualifying for a card doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the card when you submit a formal application. Nevertheless, it’s a useful step that can help you decide whether it’s worth the time to apply.

Unfreeze credit at all three bureaus

If you’ve frozen your credit, you’ll need to unfreeze it with the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) before submitting an application. Doing so will allow the card issuer to pull your credit report, which must be done to process your card application.

You can unfreeze your credit permanently or temporarily for a window of time that you specify.

Submit an application

The only thing left to do is submit a formal application for your desired credit card. You usually have a few options for doing so — online, in person at a bank branch, over the phone or sometimes by mail.

If you’re approved, you can expect the physical credit card to arrive in your mailbox within a week or two. Some issuers give out digital credit card numbers upon approval, allowing you to use the card immediately without having to wait for the physical card to arrive.

Sometimes, though, an issuer will deny an application, even from a consumer with excellent credit. There are several things you can do to recover if your application is rejected. For instance, you can call the credit card issuer and simply ask, politely, if you can be reconsidered.

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