How to apply for a credit card for the first time

By Jason Steele
Reviewed by: Lauren Bringle, AFC®
Published on: 04/11/2019

Summary and Key Takeaways

  1. Find out if you are qualified for a credit card. You must be 18 years old to qualify as a primary account holder.

  2. Start with a starter card or secured credit card. Starter cards have lower credit lines, while secured cards require a minimum refundable security deposit.

  3. Find out what other requirements the bank needs. You must submit your personal information like name, address, date of birth, Social Security Number, Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, and proof of income.

  4. Choose the best credit card that works for you. You can start with your current bank and look through their various starter and secured card options.

  5. Find a card with the fewest fees and excellent benefits. Learn about annual fees, interest rate and finance charges, penalty fees (over limit and late fees), cash advance fees, balance transfer fees, travel rewards, rebates, cash backs, and more.

  6. Which cards are the best? There is no one first-time credit card that’s best for everyone, but there are a few with the most competitive offers for first-time applicants. Weigh the benefits of each.

  7. What to do if your credit card application is denied? Contact the card issuer to reconsider or get a secured credit card.

  8. How to use your first credit card? Activate your card, set up your online banking access, set up notifications, check credit score access, and start using your card.

  9. Always be mindful of security and use your card wisely. Keep your credit card in a secure place. Never share your PIN or take pictures of your card and share them on social media. Watch out for unauthorized charges and report them to your card issuer immediately. Adopt sound credit card habits to help prevet credit card debt.

If you are curious about how to get a credit card for the first time, you are not alone. Nowadays, it's nearly impossible to make an online purchase without it. But how do you apply for a credit card if you don't have a credit history? In this article, we'll help you through the steps of determining if you qualify for a credit card, what type of credit card to get, and other helpful information before you start spending your credit.


In the United States, credit cards are everywhere. According to the American Banking Association, there are over 364 million accounts [4], which averages out to far more than one per adult.

In fact, 75% of all American adults have at least one card, according to the Federal Reserve Bank [5]. Americans use their credit cards as a secure and convenient method of payment, but they also enjoy their card’s benefits and cash rewards.

While the stats tell the story of widespread usage, how do you gain access to a credit card if you’ve never opened one before? If you don’t know how to get a credit card, we are here to help. Here’s what you need to know before you apply for a credit card for the first time.

In this article

Who can qualify for a credit card

As popular as credit cards are, you still need to meet some minimum qualifications in order to be approved. First, you need to be 18 years of age to open a credit card account as a primary cardholder. Being a primary cardholder means that you are solely responsible for the repayment of all charges.

Alternatively, you can be an authorized user under someone else’s account. Authorized cardholders can make purchases, but aren’t responsible for payments. Authorized cardholders are also restricted from redeeming rewards points on eligible purchases or making changes to the credit card account. Some credit card issuers will allow authorized users of any age, while others have minimum ages of 15 or 16.

Being an authorized user is one way to get a credit card for no credit, while building a FICO® score. Becoming an authorized user to increase credit score results is something for credit card users to consider. It is likely the only way you can access an unsecured card until you build credit history on your own.

One of the benefits of being an authorized user on someone else’s credit card is that your average FICO credit score can benefit from the good credit of the primary account holder. Once you are added by the credit card user, their credit history reports to the credit bureau on your behalf too. This effect is sometimes called credit card piggybacking.

Another important consideration is having the credit necessary to qualify for a credit card. In fact, many young adults are reluctant to apply for a credit card because they assume they have to have a credit history first, but that’s not always the case.

Applying for a credit card with no credit history

Applying for a credit card with no credit history

Unless you’ve been piggybacking as an authorized cardholder or used a credit builder loan, you probably won’t have much of a credit history or credit report with a major credit bureau when you turn 18.

Having no credit can make passing a credit check near impossible sometimes.

But thankfully, there are two types of credit cards that you can apply for with no credit history:

1 - Starter credit card

Starter cards are designed for people with limited or no credit history and usually come with a modest line of credit, which could be as little as $100 or less. For example, many people’s first start off credit card is a store charge card that can only be used for in-store purchases.

While you might only receive a very small line of credit, it’s enough to start building credit immediately. Some banks also offer cards for first time applicants, and there are several student credit card options that are designed for full-time college students with no or very little credit history.

2 - Secured credit card

The second type of credit cards are secured cards, which are available to applicants with no credit history and even those with bad credit or poor credit.

Setting up a Secured credit card account is different from your typical unsecured credit card, which is what most people think of when they think of a credit card. They also work differently than a prepaid card.

Secured credit cards usually require a minimum refundable security deposit of at least $200, and the size of your deposit becomes your credit limit.

Are you wondering what to do if denied secured credit card options? Determine the reasons for why you were denied, try to correct the issue, and look for another way to build credit.

If you’d rather not have to submit a deposit, a starter credit card might be your best option. Or, consider the Self Visa Credit Card, a credit-builder card where you develop your deposit in installments via your Self Credit Builder Account.

Once your account is opened, a secured credit card works just like any other traditional credit card. You can make charges normally, and you will receive a monthly statement. You’ll have to make a monthly payment, and your security deposit will only be used if your account is in default.

After you build a history of on-time payments, you should be able to open a traditional, unsecured credit card. Some card issuers might eventually offer you an unsecured account, along with a refund of your security deposit.

Learn about how to build credit using a secured credit card.

What else you need to apply for a first time credit card

Beyond concerns about your limited credit history, there are some other things you’ll need for a first time credit card application. You will need personal information, such as your name, address, date of birth and Social Security Number.

In most cases, you’ll have to be a US citizen or permanent resident to have a Social Security Number that you can use to apply for a first time credit card. Though some banks will accept an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead, which is the number used by resident and nonresident aliens alike to file taxes in the US.

the number used by resident and nonresident aliens alike to file taxes in the US.
If you’re between 18 and 21 years of age, you’ll also be required to prove your ability to repay your credit loan. Basically, you need to prove your income, which can include sources such as wages from a job, student loans, or government benefits.

Non-working spouses can also use the income from their spouse as long as they have a reasonable expectation of access to it to make payments. For example, if your husband or wife is working, and you’re not, then you could use his or her income to qualify for a credit card.

Choosing the best credit card for you

Choosing the right credit card for you.

Once you know you have good credit and can qualify for a credit card, the next step is to find the right one for your needs. With thousands of banks and credit unions in the United States offering credit cards, finding the right one can be a challenge. But once you do, you’ll hopefully be able to start building credit and take advantage of cash rewards.

Here are a few ways that could help make it easier for you:

1 - Start with your current bank

If you already have a checking or savings account, applying for a card with your bank or credit union is a good place to start. This institution will already have your personal information on file through your bank account. And because it already has a history of doing business with you, it may be more likely to approve you for a new credit card account.

2 - Choose between a starter card or a secured card

The next option is to choose between a starter card or a secured card. Just make sure you examine the card’s terms and conditions before applying, so you can find the right fit for you that has a credit limit that suits your needs.

Remember that a secured card usually requires a deposit, while a starter card is usually a small credit line limited to a specific use (such as in a specific store).

3 - Check the card’s terms and conditions before applying

Do not sign up for a credit card before checking the card’s terms and conditions. Fortunately these days, credit card issuers are required to present the most important rates and fees in an easy to read table, rather than burying it in the small print.

This table includes the card’s interest rate, called an Annual Percentage Rate (APR), as well as any fees. What exactly is APR? An APR is basically the interest you will be charged if you don’t pay off your balance. Some credit cards have an introductory APR that applies for the first few months, before switching to the standard APR.

Heads up, you’re unlikely to find a starter card or a secured card with an introductory financing offer. However, there are some student credit cards that offer six months of 0% APR financing on new purchases. Pay attention to cards that offer a variable APR too, since that means your interest rates could change over time.

4 - Find a card with the fewest fees

You’ll also want to find a card with the fewest fees possible. Some cards have an annual fee, but many don’t. Some people choose to pay an annual fee to have a premium card with a more generous reward points program, but those cards aren’t typically offered to people with little or no credit history.

Other fees to consider are late fees, cash advance fees, balance transfer fees and foreign transaction fees. Ultimately, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before you apply for anything.

5 - Find a card with great perks

Determine what benefits you want like rewards, cash backs, ad low-interest rates. The options may be a little sparse for first-time credit card holders, but some credit card companies will sometimes waive the first annual fee. Different credit card companies offer different perks. If you love to travel, get a rewards credit card that offers travel rewards like hotel room upgrades. Just be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each. One card may offer great rewards, but interest rates and annual fees may be higher than most.

Which cards are best?

While there is no one first time credit card that’s best for everyone, here are a few cards with the most competitive offers for first-time applicants:

Capital One Journey® Student Rewards. This card is offered to full time college students and offers great rewards on each qualifying purchase. This rewards card offers you 1% cash back on all purchases, and 1.25% when you make your payments on time. It has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Capital One Secured Mastercard. This card requires a minimum security deposit of just $49, but will give you a credit line of $200, and access to a higher line of credit after making your first five monthly payments on-time. There’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Discover Student Chrome. This card can earn you 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, and unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. It also offers you a $20 statement credit each school year that your GPA is 3.0 or higher, for up to five years. It has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, and Discover will automatically waive your first late payment fee.

BankAmericard for Students from Bank of America. This is a simple credit card that offers no reward points, but has 15 months of 0% APR financing on new purchases, and no annual fee.

BankAmericard® Secured. This card has a minimum security deposit of $300, but will return your deposit when you qualify for an unsecured account. There’s no annual fee for this card.

Self Visa® Secured Credit Card. This Self secured credit card has terms similar to other cards on the market, but with one major competitive advantage – there is no hard credit pull to qualify. However, this VISA card is only available to Self customers, and you have to meet certain eligibility requirements to qualify.

Research the credit terms for each card to find one that best suits your financial habits.

How to apply for your first time credit card

How to apply for your first credit card.

Once you’ve chosen a credit card, your next step is to fill out an application. If you are applying for a card with the bank or credit union you already have an account with, it may be easiest to apply by calling them or visiting a branch.

Alternatively, you can login to your account online and apply there. However, the vast majority of credit card applications are made at a bank or credit union’s website.

When you apply, you’ll be asked to submit your name, address, phone number, email and Social Security Number. The application may also ask about your employment status. You can still be approved if you don’t have a job, but you will have to show some other form of income.

Just remember to include all eligible forms of income such as:

  • Student loans
  • Government benefits
  • Investments
  • Alimony
  • Child support
  • Your spouse’s income (if you’ll be using it to pay the bills)

You may also be asked if you have a checking or savings account, and what your monthly rent or mortgage payment is.

Once you’ve submitted your credit card application, the card issuer will check your credit history. If you have zero credit history, this application for credit will create a file with at least one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Next, one of two things will happen. You may receive a notice of instant approval, or you may be told that you’ll be notified by mail. If you don’t receive instant approval, you still may be approved by mail from your credit card company.

What to do if your credit card application is denied

Credit card application denied

If your application is declined by mail, keep in mind that might not be the bank’s final answer. Try contacting the card issuer to discuss your application and get them to reconsider. You could just have errors on your application, or need to add additional qualifying sources of income you may have left out.

Even if you aren’t approved, don’t give up. The credit card industry is intensely competitive and many banks and credit unions are eager to build relationships with new customers.

If you were declined for a starter card from a credit card company, try applying for a secured card. Secured cards typically approve applications from nearly all applicants who aren’t in bankruptcy, can prove their identity and can pay the required deposit.

In fact, Self recently launched the Self Visa® Credit Card, a secured card that lets you use some of your Credit Builder Account savings progress to secure the card's limit. This can be a great starter option.

How to use your first credit card

Once approved for a new credit card, you typically have to wait for it to arrive in the mail before you can use it. However, there are a few credit card issuers, such as American Express, that supply new account holders with their credit card number online, so you can use it instantly.

After you get your card in the mail, here’s what you need to do next…

1 - Activate your credit card

You’ll have to activate it before you can use it. To activate your card, call the phone number provided or do it online.

2 - Set up online access

Next, set up online access to help manage your new account. Online access will show you recent purchases and payment, give you access to statements, and let you utilize any features and benefits that come with the card, such as rewards bonus points on eligible purchases. You can also download your card issuer’s mobile app, which will offer much of the same functionality.

Essentially, make it as easy as possible for yourself to stay on top of your balance and payments.

3 - Set up notifications

Take advantage of the notifications offered by your credit card provider. Nearly all credit card issuers offer email or text notifications for important events. For example, you can configure your account to notify you of new statements available, payment due dates or even large purchases.

4 - Take advantage of credit score access

Many credit cards now offer free, online access to your credit score. If they do, take advantage of it. Your score provides valuable information you can use as you build credit with the credit bureaus. It’s a good idea to regularly check your credit score so you can quickly find any problems and learn how to help build credit fast. And make sure you know how to read your credit report.

5 - Use your card to make purchases

Once you’ve activated your card and set up your online credit account, it’s time to actually use your card to make a purchase. Depending on what you buy, some eligible purchases (such as groceries or gas) can lead to credit card rewards and points.

Pro tip? Try to use your credit card like you would any method of payment. This means treat all your purchases like they’re being made with cash. Know how much you’re spending and where that money’s going.

Since credit cards are easier to use than cash, some people use their card to spend more than they would have, or to make unnecessary purchases. These poor card habits could result in high interest costs, long term credit card debt, and even damage your credit over time if you’re not able to make your payments.

The best way to use your credit card is to pay every statement balance in full and on time. When you do this, you’ll never have to pay interest charges, and you rack up positive credit payment history, which accounts for 35% of your FICO credit score and helps you build credit.

Remember security

Don't forget security when it comes to using your first credit card.

Finally, it’s important to think about the security of your credit card. Always keep it in a secure place, and avoid leaving it in your car, office or any place where others may have access to it. Never take pictures of your credit card and make sure it’s not visible in pictures other people take and share on social media.

However, keep in mind that you don’t have to pay for any unauthorized charges that appear on your statement. This is a good reason to closely scrutinize your statements and look for fraudulent charges. If you suspect a charge is on your account that shouldn’t be there, contact your card issuer and report the problem.

Use your card wisely

Once you've activated your card, this is the right time to start learning and practicing sound credit card habits.

  • Use cash unless it’s necessary to use your card. Since you don’t see the money leaving your wallet, you tend to spend more and buy more. This is because it activates the reward center of our brain. Without the “pain of payment,” it essentially “releases the brakes” on spending.

  • Never make large purchases or carry a balance if you can't pay for it. A large purchase may be a great way to rack up rewards points, but it will also rack up interest payments and debt. Similarly, don’t carry a balance if you don’t have a way to pay for it or your debt becomes unmanageable.

  • Avoid penalty fees and familiarize yourself with various fees. Take the time to credit card’s terms and conditions and APRs. And always pay your credit card bill on time. If you miss a payment or make a late payment, you will be hit with late fees, penalty APRs, and mounting debt.

  • Keep tabs on spending. Use a simple spreadsheet or app to track your spending, available credit, and balance (learn the difference between statement balance and current balance) each month.

Research before you apply the first time

Credit cards are a vital part of the American economy, but it can be a challenge to apply for your first card. You may also consider a debit card. The difference between debit and credit cards is that a credit card is attached to your credit line that you pay off later, while a debit card deducts money from your bank account.

By understanding what cards are available to new credit card users, how to apply for your first card, and how best to use it, you can gain the most benefit from these important financial tools.

Sources:

  1. The Balance. "10 Tips for Using Your First Credit Card". https://www.thebalance.com/tips-for-starting-out-with-credit-960187

  2. Insider. "5 steps you should take when applying for a credit card". https://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance/how-to-apply-for-a-credit-card

  3. Credit Karma. "Credit Karma Guide to Credit Cards". https://www.creditkarma.com/credit-cards/i/credit-karma-guide-to-credit-cards

  4. Bankrate. "Credit card ownership and usage statistics". https://www.bankrate.com/finance/credit-cards/credit-card-ownership-usage-statistics

  5. Federal Reserve Bank Of Boston. "The 2015 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice: Summary Results". https://www.bostonfed.org/publications/research-data-report/2017/the-2015-survey-of-consumer-payment-choice-summary-results

About the author

Jason Steele is a leading expert on credit cards. His work has been featured on Business Insider, MSN Money and Yahoo! Finance, as well as on The Points Guy. See Jason on Linkedin and Twitter.

About the reviewer

Lauren Bringle is an Accredited Financial Counselor® with Self Financial– a financial technology company with a mission to help people build credit and savings. See Lauren on Linkedin and Twitter.

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Written on April 11, 2019
Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings. Comments? Questions? Send us a note at hello@self.inc.

Disclaimer: Self is not providing financial advice. The content presented does not reflect the view of the Issuing Banks and is presented for general education and informational purposes only. Please consult with a qualified professional for financial advice.

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