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Getting a credit card can unlock opportunities to build your credit and access credit card perks, such as cash back rewards. But if you're new to credit or your score could use improvement, you may be nervous about whether you'll get approved when you apply.
While it can be more difficult to get approved if you have limited or damaged credit, it's not impossible. Whatever your score, you can maximize your odds of approval by doing some upfront preparation, knowing what cards you're most likely to be approved for and getting prequalified before you apply. Here are five steps to help you get approved for a credit card.
1. Prioritize Building Good Credit
The best way to improve your odds of approval for a credit card is to start building good credit well before you're ready to apply. Achieving a high score is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on implementing these key credit moves right away to see the biggest strides over time:
- Make on-time payments. Your payment history is the most important factor in determining your credit score, so be sure to pay your bills on time each month. Consider setting up autopay to avoid ever missing a payment.
- Keep credit balances low. If you already have revolving credit, such as credit cards, be sure to stay well below your credit limit. Aim to use no more than 30% of your available credit. Ideally, aim for even lower: A credit utilization rate under 10% can help you achieve the highest credit scores.
- Avoid frequently applying for credit. Try to keep your credit applications to a minimum and avoid applying for multiple credit cards in a short period of time. Having many hard inquiries on your credit report can temporarily lower your score and may make you appear risky to lenders.
- Monitor your credit. Consider signing up for free credit monitoring through Experian. Because your credit score is based on the information in your credit report, it's important to verify that it's all accurate. If you see anything on your report that you don't recognize or believe is false, contact the creditor or dispute it right away.
- Try Experian Boost®ø. If you're new to credit or your score could use some help, Experian Boost can give you credit for monthly bills you already pay, such as utility, cellphone and streaming service bills. On-time payments can factor into credit scores powered by Experian data to instantly boost your score.
2. Check Your Credit Score
It's always a good idea to check your credit score before you apply for a credit card. Lenders look at your credit score to determine how responsible you are with borrowing and repaying money. A higher credit score can make it easier to qualify for a range of cards, whereas a low or fair score can limit your options to secured credit cards (and certain unsecured cards)—more on this below.
You can check your credit report for free through Experian to see where you stand. Determining what range your score falls into will help you understand whether you're ready to apply for credit now and what card to apply for, or if you could use some more time to build credit.
3. Choose the Right Credit Card
After working on your credit before you apply, the key to getting approved for a credit card is selecting the right card for you. You'll want to consider cards that you're likely to get approved for, as well as those that fit your needs.
Know What Cards You're Likely to Qualify For
Knowing your credit score and whether certain cards accept applicants in your score range can help you avoid credit denial and unnecessary inquiries on your report. Depending on what range your score falls into, you may have your pick of a range of cards, or you may be limited to those designed for improving credit.
- If you have poor or fair credit: If you have no credit, bad credit or fair credit, it can be challenging to qualify for many credit cards. It may make sense to spend some more time building up a positive credit history or consider a secured credit card.
- If you have good or exceptional credit: With a good credit score, it becomes easier to be approved for a broader range of cards. If you have excellent credit, you'll likely qualify for most cards, so you should focus on those with features you seek, such as rewards credit cards.
Know What You'll Use Your Card For
In addition to knowing which cards you'll likely qualify for, also consider your goals for the card. Here are some examples of credit card goals and the cards that work best for them:
- Credit cards for building credit: If your goal is to build credit with a credit card, choose a card with a low or no annual fee and one that accepts applicants with low or fair credit.
- Credit cards for students: Some student credit cards are designed specifically to offer students rewards tailored to their spending needs, and all student cards can provide a bridge from college into financial adulthood.
- Credit cards for everyday spending: If your goal for a credit card is to get the most out of the spending you already do, choose a rewards card. Be selective about the rewards card you choose; some rewards cards offer more points, cash back or miles for certain types of spending, such as on retail, dining, transportation or at the grocery store. If the spending you'll do with your card will be varied, pick one with a competitive overall rewards structure.
- Credit cards for large purchases: If you're interested in a credit card for a large purchase, such as new home appliances, pick a card that offers either a generous introductory 0% APR period, a generous welcome bonus for spending a certain amount shortly after opening the card or, ideally, both. That way, you'll get money back on your purchase and avoid any interest charges as you pay back your purchase.
4. Prequalify for a Credit Card
Before you apply, it's wise to get prequalified for a credit card. While prequalification isn't a guarantee of approval, it can eliminate some guesswork. It uses a soft credit inquiry, rather than a hard inquiry, to determine your odds of approval, so it won't affect your credit.
To find out which cards you may be prequalified for, consider a matching service such as Experian CreditMatch™. CreditMatch aggregates cards that you may be approved for in one place, and you can narrow the cards by type. For example, you can use CreditMatch to see a personalized list of recommendations of balance transfer cards, secured credit cards or gas rewards credit cards, depending on what you're in the market for.
5. Submit an Application
When you're ready to apply, you'll need to provide information to the card issuer to verify your identity, as well as information on your income and monthly housing payment.
Once you submit the application, you may receive a decision right away. If you're approved, you'll receive information on how long you should expect to wait for your card to arrive in the mail, and you'll sometimes receive instant access to a virtual credit card to make purchases in the meantime.
If you're denied credit, the issuer is required to provide you with a reason and tell you which credit report they used to make their decision. Denial is disappointing, but there are steps you can take to help your odds of approval the next time you apply. A few options include becoming an authorized user on a family member's credit card, applying later after you've had a chance to improve your credit or applying for a secured credit card.
Stay the Credit Course
Getting approved for a credit card comes down to knowing where your score falls before you apply, selecting a credit card based on your score and needs and then prequalifying before you formally apply. If you can't qualify for the card you want now, maintaining good credit habits can open the door to a wider range of credit cards down the line.
In addition to the credit tips above, you may be able to instantly improve your score using Experian Boost, a feature that gives you credit for on-time utility, phone, internet, rent and some streaming platform bills. Whether you have no credit history or just need to improve your score by a few points, you may be able to benefit.