How to get a credit card

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In a Nutshell

Ready to start using credit for the first time? Here’s some information to help you start the process, including what you should do before you apply, the information you typically need to complete an application and how to use your card responsibly — if you’re approved.

Jennifer Brozic is a personal finance writer and has written for Citi. Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors' opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. Read our Editorial Guidelines to learn more about our team.
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Getting a credit card is a straightforward process that involves checking your credit, doing a little research, completing an application and using your card wisely if you’re approved.

Credit cards provide a convenient way to pay for day-to-day expenses. Plus, they can help you establish credit, rebuild a poor credit history or earn rewards — but only if you use them wisely.

If you’re not careful, credit cards can lead to high interest charges, large fees, mounting debt and a negative impact on your credit health.

If you’re thinking about getting a credit card, here are seven steps that can help you navigate the process. But keep in mind the information in this article is meant to provide helpful tips and may or may not apply to your individual situation.

  1. Make sure the time is right
  2. Review your credit
  3. Do your homework
  4. Read the fine print
  5. Select the type of card that’s right for you
  6. Complete a credit card application
  7. Use your card responsibly

1. Make sure the time is right

Applying for your first credit card can be a big step toward becoming financially independent, and it’s not something you should take lightly. How you use your card can affect your finances long term.

If you’re barely getting by and think you’ll be tempted to use your card to charge items you can’t really afford, now’s probably not a good time to get a credit card. But if you can comfortably cover your living expenses and you have a budget you’re used to sticking to, a credit card can be a useful tool to help you manage your finances.

If you’re under 21, you must show a credit card issuer that you’re able to make the minimum payments each month. If you can’t, someone who is 21 or older can co-sign the account with you and assume responsibility for the payments if you’re unable to make them.

2. Review your credit

Your credit scores are one of several factors that credit card issuers can consider to determine whether to approve your application. It’s a good idea to check your credit before you apply to ensure all of the information on your credit reports is accurate.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, every American is entitled to receive a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — once every 12 months. You can request a copy of your reports at You can also view your Equifax® and TransUnion® credit reports on Credit Karma for free whenever you want — so long as you’re a member.

If you find errors on your reports, dispute the inaccurate information before you apply for a credit card.

3. Do your homework

When it comes to selecting a credit card, there are hundreds, if not thousands, to choose from.

Do some research before you decide which card to apply for. When you’re logged into Credit Karma and search for a new card, you can use  Credit Karma Approval Odds as guidelines for the likelihood you’ll be approved for a specific card. Of course, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but knowing your approval odds can help you narrow down your choices.

Don’t forget to check online reviews. Many websites, including Credit Karma, give consumers the opportunity to review and rate their experience with a particular card. While there’s no guarantee you’ll have a similar experience, credit card reviews can help provide insight into the quality of the card as well as the card issuer.

4. Read the fine print

Terms and conditions can vary significantly between credit cards, so it’s important to read the fine print before you apply. Details like interest rates and fees can make a big difference in your monthly payment, especially if you carry a balance.

Plus, cards often come with different APRs for purchases, balance transfers and cash advances. Make sure you understand the differences.

Common fees assessed by credit card companies include late, balance transfer, cash advance, returned payment and annual fees. Familiarize yourself with all the fees you may be responsible for before you complete an application.

Credit Karma Guide to Credit Card Terms and Conditions

5. Select the type of card that’s right for you

There are many different types of cards to choose from, but that doesn’t mean every card will be a good fit for you. The right card will depend on your credit history, current financial situation and how you plan to use the card.

If you have little or no credit history or you’re trying to rebuild your credit, a secured credit card like the Discover It® Secured Credit Card may be a good place to start. Secured cards require a cash deposit that’s typically equal to your credit limit and can be easier to get than unsecured credit cards.

Or you might want to consider an unsecured card, like the Capital One® Platinum Credit Card, which considers people with a limited credit history or less-than-perfect credit.

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Capital One® Platinum Credit Card

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If you’re in college, a card that’s made for students may be an ideal choice. Many student credit cards are unsecured, so you wouldn’t have to make a deposit to open one. And some cards, like the Discover It® Chrome for Students, even offer cash back rewards.

Regardless of the type of card you choose, it’s important that you don’t apply for too many at once. When you apply for a credit card, the issuer will do a hard credit pull, which typically drops your credit scores a few points.

Instead of responding to all credit card offers you receive, select a card that you think you could qualify for, and meets your needs and apply for only that one.

6. Complete a credit card application

Once you’ve decided which card you want to apply for, you’ll need to complete an application. The application process will vary slightly among credit card issuers, but you’ll typically be expected to provide the following information:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Address
  • Employment information
  • Income

If you’re approved, you can receive your credit card within one or two weeks. When you receive your card, you’re typically required to activate it before you can use it.

7. Use your card responsibly

If you’re approved for a credit card, it’s important to use it wisely if you want to build a positive credit history. Here are a few best practices to help you maintain good credit health.

  • Charge only what you can pay off every month. If you don’t have the cash to cover an expense, don’t put it on your credit card. This will help you avoid racking up interest charges.
  • Don’t max out your card. Your credit utilization — the ratio between your total credit card balances and your total credit card limits — is one of the criteria used to calculate your credit scores. In general, a low ratio positively affects credit scores, while a high ratio negatively impacts scores. Try to keep your ratio below 30%.
  • Pay your bills on time. Your payment history can have a big impact on your credit scores. Not paying at least the minimum payment due on time may negatively affect your scores, and if you pay late, you’ll likely be charged a late fee.

Bottom line

Getting a credit card doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does require some research and preparation to ensure you get the card that’s right for you and can afford to pay your bill each month. If you can’t afford to make your payments or don’t think you’ll remember to make them on time, now is probably not the right time to get a credit card.