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When should I get my first credit card?

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

Updated

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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.

Our pick for a first credit card

Deserve® Edu Card

  • Amazon Prime Student on us for a year (Lifetime Value worth $59)
  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • Cellphone protection
  • Mastercard Platinum benefits
  • $0 annual fee
  • No international transaction fees
  • 20.24% variable APR (Prime + 15.49%)
Read less
Read more

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. You can read more about whether you should have 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

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Filter values Rewards Purchase APR Annual fee
Citi® Double Cash Card
Up to 2% cash back on purchases (1% when you buy plus 1% as you pay)
13.99% to 23.99% variable
$0
This one of the most valuable flat cashback cards. It comes with 2% cash back (1% when you buy plus 1% when you pay) and 18 months months to pay off transfers.
CardMatch™ from creditcards.com
See terms
See issuer's website
See terms
Use the CardMatch tool to find cards you're likely to qualify for with your credit score, without a hard pull on your credit.
Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card
N/A
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 13.74% to 23.74% variable)
$0
A market-leading balance transfer intro APR of 21 months and 12 months on purchases. Plus Citi Entertainment℠ for deals on dining and going out.
Citi Rewards+℠ Card
Earn 2x points at supermarkets and gas stations on up to $6,000 annually, then 1x points after that and on all other purchases
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 13.49% to 23.49% variable)
$0
Get rewards on gas and groceries with no annual fee. Ideal for everyday use, it's the only card that rounds purchases up to the nearest 10 points.
TD Cash Credit Card
3% on dining, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other eligible purchases
0% intro for the first 15 billing cycles (then 12.99%, 17.99% or 22.99% variable)
$0
3% on dining and 2% on groceries make this a valuable card for food purchases. Use it while traveling, too, with no foreign transaction fees. Available in: CT, DC, DE, FL, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT
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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 top-rated secondary 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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