Applying for a credit card — and waiting for approval or denial — can feel as scary as taking a final exam or giving a public speech.
“When you’re applying for your first credit card, you’re essentially asking a card issuer to take a chance on you,” says credit educator John Ulzheimer of The Ulzheimer Group.
His advice? Be realistic with your expectations. “It’s very unlikely you’re going to get a large credit limit, and you may not even get a modest credit limit,” Ulzheimer says — and that’s OK. Building credit is a process, and you have to start somewhere.
Just remember: You may not be ready to apply for a credit card right now but you can take proactive steps that may help you get approved in the future.
Here are six steps to apply for a credit card:
- Check your credit score.
- Determine what type of card you need.
- Choose where to apply.
- Check to see if you’re pre-qualified.
- Prepare for a knock to your credit.
- Use credit card best practices.
How to apply for a credit card
Knowing your credit score and what’s on your credit report can help you determine what products to apply for. If you have fair credit, for example, you may not want to apply for a card that clearly states that only applicants with excellent credit will be approved.
Take some time to review your report. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes, your credit report may contain errors, such as old collection accounts that should have already dropped off your report, that could prevent your application from being approved.
If you’re a first-time applicant, it’s probably a good idea to shoot for a card with low or no annual fees and a low interest rate. In most cases, one card should be enough to start with, as it limits the risk of you getting confused by multiple payment due dates.
If you have no credit history at all — or you’ve had trouble getting approved for an unsecured credit card in the past — you might still qualify for a secured credit card, which requires a cash deposit and is commonly used to build credit.
Another recommendation: Apply for a retail credit card. Julie Marie McDonough, author of “How to Make Your Credit Score Soar”, describes retail cards as the “training wheels” of credit cards, as the issuers tend to be more flexible about who qualifies for a card.
However, these cards have some drawbacks, including high interest rates, fees, and poor customer service, so it’s important to use them responsibly.
Already have a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union? McDonough says applying for a credit card from a financial institution where you have an account may be a good idea, since you have an established history there.
Andrew Fiebert, co-founder of personal finance resource Listen Money Matters, agrees. “An existing banking relationship could improve your chances of getting a credit card application approved,” he says, “especially if you’ve handled your account responsibly, such as no overdrafts.”
Some of the big banks, such as Chase® and Capital One®, allow you to see if you’re pre-qualified for a credit card. This requires some work on your side — you typically need to fill out a short form and submit personal information, including your Social Security number. This triggers a soft inquiry, which, much like checking your credit on Credit Karma, won’t affect your credit score.
If you’re rated as “pre-approved” or “pre-qualified”, this means you’ve met all the lender’s criteria so far. However, you still need to apply for the card and being fully approved will depend on other factors, including your income.
If you’re a Credit Karma member, you can see your Approval Odds for some cards. Approval Odds comes from Credit Karma looking at your credit profile and comparing it to other Credit Karma members who were approved for the product. Just remember: Like prequalification, your Approval Odds aren’t a guarantee of approval.
When you apply for a new credit card, it usually triggers what’s known as a hard inquiry on your credit report. Hard inquiries generally occur when a financial institution, such as a lender or credit card issuer, checks your credit report when making a lending decision.
A hard inquiry can lower your credit score by a few points and may stay on your credit report for as long as two years. The good news is that a hard inquiry might not affect your score as much as you’d think, and the damage usually decreases or disappears as time passes.
If you get approved for a card, congratulations! A credit card can be a really useful tool to help build your credit over time. However, now that you have it, remember that it’s a tool that requires maintenance and attention on your end.
What if your application is denied?
First of all, don’t despair. Many people have been rejected for credit cards, and many have later been accepted for other cards.
Secondly, weigh your options. You might want to try applying for a different traditional (unsecured) card. You might also consider applying for a secured credit card, which requires a cash deposit that becomes collateral for your account.
However, be very selective about additional applications as each one may hurt your credit.
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