How to Choose and Use Your First Credit Card

How to Choose and Use Your First Credit Card article image.

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A first credit card is a major milestone, and it's something you may have been looking forward to for years. Before jumping in, however, you'll want to do a little research to make sure you choose the right credit card for your financial goals and situation.

First, figure out why you want a credit card and decide how you're going to use it. Then, learn which credit cards you may be able to qualify for and the pros and cons of each one. Here's how.

Decide if You're Ready for a Credit Card

Credit cards can be a helpful financial tool due to their convenience and the number of benefits and protections they provide to cardholders.

To start, they may protect you from fraud since credit cards generally come with zero liability for unauthorized purchases. That means you're more protected if someone steals your credit card or card number since your card isn't directly tied to your bank account like a debit card. They may also offer benefits on eligible purchases, such as extended warranties or a refund if something you buy is damaged or stolen soon after the purchase. And then there are the rewards—cash back, miles and points that can help you save money or travel for free later.

Once you've determined having a credit card appeals to you, it's time to take a look at your financial habits to make sure you'll be able to manage it responsibly.

Credit cards have a spending limit, but there are few other guardrails in place to make sure you don't take on a debt you can't afford to pay off. When you pay less than the full amount on your bill, a credit card's high interest rate can start to pile on debt. Some people find that it can take years to pay off built-up credit card debt—especially if they continue to use their card while paying down the balance.

As you think about whether you should get a credit card, consider whether you're looking for a way to increase your spending power, want a card for emergencies or want a card for everyday purchases.

If you can treat a credit card like a debit card, only using it for purchases you can pay off in full each month, then you may be able to benefit with little downside. But if you view your credit limit as "free money," max out your card (in other words, spend until you hit the limit) and then only make minimum monthly payments, you can wind up paying lots of interest and hurt your credit scores.

Check Your Credit Report and Score

When you're ready to apply for your first credit card, a good first step is to check your credit reports and scores. You can get a free copy of your Experian credit report and a FICO® Score for free from Experian.

Credit card issuers will generally check your credit reports and a credit score to help determine if you can qualify for a credit card as well as what your interest rate and credit limit will be. The better your credit, the better the chances of getting approved for a card with a low rate and high limit.

If you've never had a loan or credit card before, you might not have a credit report or score. You may still be able to qualify for certain credit cards, but your options will be limited until you build up your credit history.

Research the Different Type of Credit Cards

You may get overwhelmed by the hundreds—even thousands—of options as you try to figure out which credit card should be your first. Narrowing in on the type of credit card you want and then deciding from within that category can help. Many people find that secured or student cards are a good first card:

  • Secured credit cards: When you open a secured card, you'll give the company a refundable security deposit, which will often be the same as your credit limit. The card issuer holds on to this money and can keep it if you fall behind on your bills, or give it back to you when you close the account after paying your bill in full. Many secured cards have high fees, but there are a few options with low or no annual fee and favorable terms.
  • Student credit cards: Student cards are another popular first option as they're unsecured cards (no security deposit required), but you'll need to be attending postsecondary education to qualify. Some of the best options offer rewards and don't have an annual fee, although you may start with a low credit limit.

There are many other types of credit cards, such as rewards cards or cards that offer promotional interest rates that make them a good option for making large purchases. Those cards tend to have stricter requirements and can be difficult to get as your first card.

There's also some overlap between the categories. For example, some secured and student cards offer rewards as well.

Compare Rates, Fees and Benefits

Once you narrow in on the type of card you want, you can compare the cards within that category to figure out which one is best for you. Generally, you'll be comparing the fees, interest rates and cardholder benefits:

  • Credit card fees: Some cards have an annual fee (a few even have monthly fees) you'll need to pay to open and keep the card. Additionally, there may be fees for certain actions, such as a foreign transaction fee if you use your card to make a purchase in a foreign currency, or a late fee that's charged if you don't make at least your minimum payment by the bill's due date. Look for cards with few and low fees to save money and get the most benefit out of your card.
  • Interest rates: Credit cards display their interest rates as annual percentage rates (APRs). The higher the APR, the more interest you'll have to pay when you carry a balance from one month to the next. With most cards, you can avoid paying any interest by paying your balance in full every month. However, if you use the card for a cash advance, you'll almost always start to accrue interest immediately.
  • Rewards: Some cards offer an intro bonus to new cardholders who meet the requirements, such as an extra $100 cash back after making $500 worth of purchases. These promotions aren't common on student and secured cards, but you can find cards with ongoing rewards, such as cash back on your purchases. Different cards may offer various intro bonus and ongoing rewards rates.

How to Use Your Credit Card Responsibly

Once you get your first credit card, there are a few practices that you can follow to avoid interest and fees while building good credit. These guidelines can also help you build up your credit score, as long as the credit card you've chosen reports your payment history to the credit bureaus:

  • Only purchase what you can pay off in full. If you're regularly using your new credit card, only spend what you can afford to pay off in full. It can be hard to keep track of how much you spend throughout the month, but you can create a budget and use an app that connects to your bank and credit card accounts to quickly sync and track everything in one place.
  • Always make at least your minimum payment. Pay off as much of your bill as you can each month, and always make at least the minimum payment on time. Missing your payment can lead to late payment fees. Also, once you're 30 days past due, the card company may report the late payment to the credit bureaus, which can hurt your credit scores.
  • Don't max out your card. While your card's credit limit is the most you're allowed to spend, using a large portion of your available credit can hurt your credit scores. If you're focused on improving your credit, try to never let your balance go above 30% of your credit card's limit.
  • Track annual fees. If you get a card that charges an annual fee, mark your calendar for when the annual fee will be due so you can prepare for its impact on your finances. Before the company charges the fee, call and ask if there's any way to reduce or waive it. If there isn't, and you're not getting a lot of value from the card, consider closing the account to avoid the fee.

What to Do if You're Denied a Credit Card

Don't fret if you don't get approved with your first application—you may be able to qualify for other credit cards. But first, try to figure out why your application was denied.

Ask the card issuer if there was a specific reason, such as your income being too low or not meeting one of the basic eligibility requirements. If the card issuer determined your credit wasn't good enough for approval and denied your application, it must send you an adverse action letter explaining this. If you've received an adverse action letter in the past 60 days, you're eligible to receive a free copy of your credit report through Experian and the other credit bureaus.

You can then focus on the issue by increasing your income or building your credit before trying again. Or, if you were denied because you don't have any credit, you could look for a card that doesn't require a credit check. If you pay utility, internet or cellphone bills, Experian Boost®ø may be able to give you a much-needed lift.

Get Preapproved for a Credit Card

If you're unsure of which card to get or whether you're likely to get approved, try using Experian CreditMatchTM to compare offers from Experian's credit card partners. The program won't impact your credit scores, but it can still match you to offers based on your credit.

Find the Best Credit Cards and Learn How to Use Them to Build Your Credit