When should I get my first credit card?

If you want to start building a credit history, it might be time for a card.

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Black woman applying for credit cards

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Just like moving out of home or getting your first car, applying for a credit card is a rite of passage into adulthood. In fact, more than 75% of all Americans have at least one credit card according to the New York Federal Reserve Household Debt Report, Q2 2018.

Before you apply for your first card, consider several factors, including the age requirements, different reasons you might want a credit card, questions to help you find out if you’re ready for a credit card and how to improve your chances of approval when you apply.

When should I get a credit card?

Here are a few factors to consider before applying for a credit card. In many cases, they’re more important than your age.

  • Do I make enough money?
    Credit card issuers don’t have specific income requirements, but they want to make sure you can afford to pay off your debt. This is also one of the main factors determining the amount of the credit line you can get.
  • Do I have a good credit history?
    Do you have unpaid loans or fines, or is your credit history a clean slate? You can request a free copy of your credit report from each of the major bureaus once a year. Before you apply, check these details and decide if your financial history supports you.
  • Do I have a budget?
    In addition to interest costs if you carry a balance, some credit cards charge an annual fee. Consider how much you could afford to pay in account fees so you can decide if it’s worth it at this stage of your life. If you are working with a budget, you might consider a cheaper credit card.
  • Can I control my spending?
    Similar to budgeting for credit card costs, think about how much you’re likely to use the card. Can you stick to costs that you’re able to pay back each month? If you’re unsure but still want to apply, you could also consider a secured card to help keep your spending in check.
  • Do I have the knowledge to make good financial decisions?
    Having solid financial knowledge — such as how to save and how to properly use a credit card — is more important than how old you are. Understanding the mechanics of credit cards will help you be a responsible cardholder.

At what age can I apply for a credit card?

The minimum age you can apply for a credit card is 18, although you can be added as an authorized user to another credit card account earlier than that.

Applying for a credit card if you’re under 18

Becoming an authorized user is your sole option for getting a credit card. This means you’re allowed to make purchases with someone else’s credit card account, typically with your own card in your own name.

In this case, the primary cardholder is held liable for your balance. And if they pay the balance on time, it can positively affect your credit score.

But don’t get wild with your spending. If the primary cardholder fails to pay their balance, it can stain your credit score for years to come.

Applying for a credit card if you’re 18 to 21

You can apply for a credit card if you’re 18 to 21 years old, but you must prove you can independently pay your card bill. You can report income such as scholarships and grants or wages, if you have a job.

  • Don’t have sufficient income?
    You may be able to add a cosigner, who agrees to repay your card provider if you can’t pay your bill. Preferably, this cosigner has a strong credit history, as your provider will use that information to evaluate your application.
  • Don’t have a cosigner?
    If you’re in college, consider a student credit card. Providers are typically willing to offer this card type to applicants new to credit. A secured card is also an excellent option. Because you’re required to put down a security deposit before opening the card, a provider may feel more comfortable accepting you as a customer.

Applying for a credit card if you’re over 21

If you’re 21 or over, federal law doesn’t require you to prove your ability to pay your card bill. Typically, credit card providers don’t ask you for this information, but they may do so if they’re unsure if you can repay your card bill.

Two of the most important factors that decide whether you’re approved are your credit score and your annual income. You have better odds of approval if you have a FICO score of at least 670 and a debt-to-income ratio below 35%.

What is debt-to-income ratio?

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is your monthly debt repayments divided by your income.

In the eyes of lenders, the lower the DTI the better. This hints that you have enough free income each month to repay your card bill.

Why would I get a credit card?

Credit cards are not as essential as everyday bank accounts, but they can play an important role in your finances and come with their own pros and cons. Here are some of the most popular reasons to apply and start using a credit card.

  • Build credit history.
    Credit cards can impact your credit score and your ability to get other loans. Just be sure to pay your credit card account balance off in full by the due date on each statement.
  • For emergencies.
    Whether it’s a parking fine, a car accident or a nasty surprise at the dentist, major, unexpected costs are a part of being an adult. If you don’t have enough money in your bank account to cover emergencies, you could use a credit card to pay what’s required upfront.
  • Essential, big-ticket items.
    A credit card may help ease some of your cash flow concerns by allowing you to buy what you need when you need it. You may even be able to avoid interest charges by getting a credit card with a 0% intro APR period.
  • Overseas trip.
    Whether you’re taking a gap year or going on an overseas trip for a few weeks, a credit card can help provide financial security when traveling. Consider a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
  • Student costs.
    Students have a range of costs that can be hard to cover upfront — especially if you’re only able to work part-time while you’re studying.

How to improve your chances of approval when applying for a credit card

If you’re ready to apply for a new credit card, there are several ways to increase your chances of approval. You can start by comparing credit cards so you can find an option that suits your needs. Then check the eligibility requirements and get all the necessary details and documents together for the application.

Compare credit cards for new card holders

Name Product Annual fee Balance transfer APR Purchase APR Filter values
$0
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 15.74%, 21.74% or 25.74% variable)
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 15.74%, 21.74% or 25.74% variable)
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day.
$0
17.49% to 26.49% variable
17.49% to 26.49% variable
Earn 75,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & fees
$0
13.74%, 19.74% or 23.74% variable
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 13.74%, 19.74% or 23.74% variable)
Earn 20,000 bonus miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
$0
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 15.74%, 21.74% or 25.74% variable)
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 15.74%, 21.74% or 25.74% variable)
Earn $150 after spending $500 in the first 3 months.
$0
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 16.74% to 25.49% variable)
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 16.74% to 25.49% variable)
Earn a $150 signup bonus after spending $500 in the first 3 months from account opening.

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Purchase APR Balance transfer APR Annual fee Filter values
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 13.74%, 19.74% or 23.74% variable)
13.74%, 19.74% or 23.74% variable
$0
Earn 20,000 bonus miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 14.74% to 25.74% variable)
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 14.74% to 25.74% variable)
$95
Earn $250 bonus cash back after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & fees
10.74% variable
N/A
$49
Build or rebuild your credit with this secured card.
9.99% fixed
N/A
$48
This secured card can help you rebuild your credit with an initial deposit of $200 to $1,000.
13.99% fixed
N/A
$39
Designed for those with little or poor credit, the Green Dot primor® Mastercard® Classic Secured Credit Card has no minimum credit score requirements and no processing or application fees to worry about.

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Filter values Purchase APR Annual fee Recommended minimum credit score
26.46% variable
$0
580
Earn 1% cash back on all purchases or get 1.25% cash back for months you pay on time.
14.74% to 25.74% variable
$0
670
Build your credit with no fees: Apply if you're new to credit or have a fair to good score.
20.49% variable
$0
580
Designed for college students to build credit history and earn rewards.
24.74% variable
$0
650
Designed to help build credit history with no deposit required. Apply if you're new to credit or have a fair to good score over 650.
17.24% variable
$0
580
Credit card for professionals relocating to America without a US credit history.

Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

When used responsibly, credit cards can become a convenient, practical and valuable part of your adult finances. If you play your cards right, they may even help you get approved for a home loan or other financial products in the future. And once you’ve become comfortable handling your credit card, consider scoping out a second card that perfectly complements your first.

If you haven’t found the best credit card for your needs, compare other credit card options until you do.

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