Our editors choose the best credit cards with a mix of expertise, awareness and old-fashioned common sense.
When you shop for a credit card, you want to know the best options available without having to sort through hundreds of possibilities themselves. When we pick the best cards, whether overall or for a specific category, we aim to simplify your decision-making process.
Read on for a more detailed look at how we select the best credit cards from the hundreds of options available to U.S. consumers.
How we pick the best credit cards
Selecting the best credit cards involves much more than a quick look at the most popular options on the market. Our process involves several steps, from our initial assessments of cards to regular maintenance that helps us ensure that our picks stay relevant.
1. We familiarize ourselves with hundreds of credit cards.
Our editors explore the credit cards landscape on an everyday basis. When an issuer announces a new card or a new offer becomes available on Credit Karma, we dig into its details, develop a review and generally acquaint ourselves with everything it has to offer. We also regularly reassess and reconsider these cards as part of our everyday operations.
2. We compare cards within the same category to set benchmarks and decide on the most important qualities of each kind of card.
Learning about individual credit cards allows us to develop a picture of each credit card category. Our analysis includes understanding not only if an individual credit card offers solid value, but also how it compares to cards that promise similar features. For instance, if a cash back credit card boasts 2% back on grocery purchases, we assess if that’s a solid rate compared to other cash back cards. In our eyes, no card exists in isolation.
3. We identify the most pressing needs for each credit card category’s audience.
No single credit card can be all things to all people. Some people may want to maximize their rewards even if it means paying a $500 annual fee, and others may be looking for a straightforward card that offers simple rewards without too much of an upfront cost. At the same time, people who don’t have great credit may be looking for a useful card that’s also not too difficult to obtain. Simply put, even those looking within the same category of credit card may not want the same features.
With that in mind, we identify specific use cases and consumer profiles when selecting our best credit cards in each category, like “best for no annual fee” or “best for groceries.” This system allows us to address various types of people and their particular needs, not just people who want a long list of features.
4. We pick the best credit cards in each category.
Once we’ve identified the types of cards we want to include on each list, we set about making our selections for the best credit cards.
All of our selections stand out from the competition in their category, but we also understand that reader preferences can vary. One of our goals is to present a variety of great credit cards, including cards from various issuers or with different standards for qualification.
We also don’t let Credit Karma’s partnerships interfere with our choices. We choose the best credit cards regardless of these relationships, which is why you may see cards on our list that are not available through Credit Karma’s marketplace.
5. We keep up with new credit card launches and feature updates.
Credit card issuers regularly add new cards to their lineups and new features to existing cards. We track these updates every day and change our assessments of the best credit cards when warranted.
6. We review our picks monthly to maintain their accuracy.
To stay on top of any changes, we also review our best credit cards selections monthly to make sure each selection remains relevant and helpful to readers. If a crucial feature is removed — or a card is taken off the market entirely — we cut it from our list. We also do our best to replace it with a new pick that meets similar needs.
Our criteria for picking the best credit cards
Our editors assess each credit card category by a set of unique criteria because not every type of credit card is built to meet the same needs. For instance, we believe rewards rates and perks matter more for a travel card than they do for a credit-building card.
At the same time, there are several common card features that guide our thinking and assessments. We’ve outlined the most important qualities below.
A credit card’s annual fee sets an expectation for the value you’ll earn from it. With a rewards card, we want to be sure that it offers enough rewards and perks to offset and exceed that upfront cost. For a credit-building card, we want to be sure the cost of the card doesn’t end up hurting your finances in the long run.
A rewards card is often only as powerful as its earning rates. Lucrative bonus rates in common purchase categories can help you earn rewards faster, especially if they have no caps or limitations. Similarly, a high base rewards rate on all purchases can make earning rewards a straightforward, simple process.
Sign-up or welcome bonuses can be a great way to earn valuable rewards at considerably lower spending levels than you’d see at your typical rewards rates. We look at both the overall potential value of these bonuses and how much spending it takes to earn them.
Rewards value and quality of rewards program
Not all rewards points and miles are created equal. Our estimated point valuations assign a value to points for more than 25 rewards programs, and we use those to assess everything from sign-up bonus value to the strength of everyday rewards rates.
Similarly, we consider how (and how easily) each rewards program allows you to use your points. Even if your points are worth a lot, they might not be especially useful if you have to contend with blackout dates or a labyrinthine redemption system.
A credit card’s perks can be more valuable than its rewards. For travel cards, we consider flexible travel credits, airport perks like lounge access, and brand-specific benefits like priority boarding with airlines and automatic hotel status. Cash back cards don’t offer similarly valuable perks, but we consider features like purchase protections and restaurant credits when making our assessments.
Credit-building cards come with their own types of perks as well. Some cards offer the opportunity to turn on-time payments into a higher credit limit or even graduation from a secured card to an unsecured card. When looking at these cards, we like to see the ability to benefit from a commitment to building credit.
Intro APR offer
Introductory 0% APR offers can help you get out of debt — or avoid racking up interest on new purchases. We consider not just the lengths of introductory purchase and balance transfer APR offers, but also the particulars of each offer and what you’ll need to do to benefit from it. Whether it’s extra time to transfer a balance or the promise of ongoing value after you’ve taken advantage of the intro offer, we want to make sure you’re set up for success.
Interest rates and other fees
Hefty interest payments and fees can outweigh any benefits you get from a card, especially if you’re trying to build credit. While we don’t weigh APRs or fees too heavily for rewards cards, they’re a crucial part of our assessments of credit-building cards.