Secured cards vs. unsecured cards: What’s the difference?

These two types of credit cards work similarly, but serve different purposes.

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Your personal financial needs will dictate whether a secured or an unsecured card will work best for you. Those with relatively healthy credit typically opt for an unsecured card that offers perks such as cash back, travel credits or rewards points. Those with poor or no credit, however, might consider a secured card. Secured cards are meant to help you build your credit so that you can eventually graduate to an unsecured credit card, making them powerful for new immigrants and those who have a history of poor credit.

What is a secured credit card?

When you get a secured credit card, you must provide your lender with a security deposit — typically $200 to $10,000, though cards with deposits as low as $75 are available. This deposit acts as collateral in case you fall behind on your payments. The amount of your security deposit is also usually your monthly credit limit.

Why might you want a secured credit card?

A secured credit card offers the opportunity to build your credit score. If you consistently make your monthly payments on time, you’ll see a gradual increase in your score and, eventually, you can graduate to an unsecured credit card that offers rewards and other desirable features. Just make sure your card provider reports your payments to both of the major credit bureaus – Equifax and TransUnion – or else your credit score won’t change.

Why do card providers require collateral?

You may be new to building credit or you might have a damaged credit score. In these cases, providers tend to view you as a riskier borrower. Collateral guarantees the provider will be repaid, making them more willing to lend you money. If you fail to repay your balance, they can use your collateral to cover any unpaid balance.

Pros and cons of secured credit cards

ProsCons
  • Get one even if you have no credit or poor credit.
  • You control your monthly credit limit.
  • Choose from monthly credit limits as high as $10,000 and as low as $75.
  • Rebuild your credit score.
  • You must put down a security deposit.
  • Cards typically come with high interest rates and annual fees.
  • Credit limit is determined by your deposit.
  • Cards tend to offer few or no rewards.

Who are secured cards good for?

Secured credit cards are best for those with no credit score or those who have a poor credit history and want to rebuild their credit score. For example, if you have fair to poor credit, you’re far less likely to get approval for an unsecured credit card. Other individuals who can benefit from secured credit cards include new immigrants, students and those with no history of credit or those who are recovering from a recent bankruptcy.

What is an unsecured credit card?

When you get an unsecured credit card, you won’t have to put down a security deposit. Instead, you’re borrowing money from the provider. In that sense, each time you use the card, you’re taking out a loan that you’re expected to pay back in order to maintain a trustworthy credit history.

If your provider accepts you as a customer, it means they’ve accessed your credit history and are quite confident you’ll repay your debts. To determine your credit limit, your card provider will gauge your ability to repay by taking a look at factors such as your income and payment history. Ultimately, the credit limit they offer you is the amount they feel you can borrow and pay back responsibly.

The importance of your credit score

Your credit score will determine many aspects of your financial future and determine your success when applying for credit cards, car loans, personal loans and a mortgage. Your credit report will include your credit score along with your credit history, which can help potential lenders determine how risky of a borrower you are.

If you have a good to excellent credit score of 650 or higher, you’re typically better off applying for an unsecured card so you won’t have to put down a security deposit — you’ll likely get better interest rates and lower annual fees too. Plus, you’ll be able to earn rewards such as cash back, points or miles and take advantage of other complimentary extras like travel insurance, concierge services and airport lounge access.

If you have fair credit — generally 600 to 649 — you may still qualify for an unsecured card. But the ones you qualify for will likely come with higher fees and less favourable interest rates.

Find out more about credit scores

How can I learn what my credit score is?

You can request a copy of your credit report from Equifax and/or TransUnion — the two biggest credit bureaus in Canada. Each credit bureau will have a unique credit report for you, which means you likely have two slightly different credit reports. This is because not all lenders will report your payment history to both bureaus and the bureaus use a slightly different algorithm to calculate your credit score, which means your scores could be slightly different.

If you request a copy via mail, you typically don’t have to pay for the report, while accessing your report immediately online will cost a few dollars. You can also sign up for a yearly membership, which allows you to monitor your credit report whenever you’d like.

You can also use an online service like Credit Karma to access your credit report. Some online services are free of charge while others require you to signup for a monthly subscription service or pay a one-time fee. Requesting your credit score from a third party service will usually require a soft pull. This inquiry may appear on your credit report but it will have little to no effect on your score.

Pros and cons of unsecured credit cards

ProsCons
  • No security deposit required.
  • Better rewards than secured credit cards.
  • Cards typically come with lower annual fees and interest rates than secured credit cards.
  • Poor terms and/or complimentary extras if you have weak credit.
  • Can severely damage your credit history if you’re not managing the account responsibly.

Who are unsecured credit cards good for?

Unsecured cards are the most common pick for consumers and offer a standard array of credit card benefits including balance transfer opportunities, rewards programs and the ability to carry a balance from month to month. Of course, you’ll still want to use your unsecured credit card responsibly since your payment habits will affect your credit score. Not paying your balance in full will take away from any rewards you’re receiving since you’ll be paying interest on the unpaid balance.

Compare secured credit cards

Name Product Required Deposit Purchase Interest Rate Cash Advance Rate Annual Fee
$200 - $10,000
17.99%
N/A
$12.95
Take advantage of a low annual fee, with guaranteed approval and no credit check.

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Reward Purchase Interest Rate Cash Advance Rate Annual Fee Minimum Income Minimum Credit Limit
Earn 5x points on eligible eats and drinks, including groceries and food delivery, 2x points on transit, gas, travel purchases, and 1 point on all other spend.
19.99%
22.99%
$120
N/A
Earn 2,500 points with minimum spend of $500 for each billing period. Up to 30,000 bonus points in your first year.
Earn 1.5 miles for every $1 spent on eligible grocery, gas, drugstore and aircanada.com purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent elsewhere. T&C's apply.
19.99%
22.99%
$120
$60,000
$5,000
Earn up to 30,000 Aeroplan Miles (equivalent to 2 economy short-haul roundtrip flight rewards) and first year no Annual Fee for the Primary Cardholder. Apply online by March 2, 2020.
Earn 3 BMO Rewards points per $1 spent on dining, travel and entertainment purchases.
19.99%
22.99%
$150
$80,000
Offers 35,000 BMO Rewards bonus points with a minimum spend of $3,000 in the first three months of card membership. Ends January 15, 2020.
Earn 2 Scotia Rewards points per $1 spent on eligible grocery stores, dining, entertainment purchases, and daily transit. Earn 1 Scotia Rewards points per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.
19.99%
22.99%
$139
$60,000
$5,000
Earn up to 25,000 bonus Scotia Rewards points in your first year of card membership. Plus, earn an extra 10,000 points with a min. annual spend of $40,000 on your card.
Earn 9 TD Points per $1 in travel booked online through Expedia for TD, and 3 points/$1 spent elsewhere.
19.99%
22.99%
$120
$60,000
$5,000
Earn up to 80,000 TD Rewards Points, including a 20,000 welcome bonus when you make your first purchase with your card. Earn 5X the TD Rewards Points on all purchases up to a maximum of 20,000 TD Rewards Points per month, for each of the first three months. Plus, first year no annual fee for the primary cardholder. Apply online by March 2, 2020.

Compare up to 4 providers

Funding your secured credit card

Bottom line

If you have the means to obtain an unsecured credit card, that should be your first pick when it comes time to apply for a card. However, if you don’t have credit or you have a poor credit score, compare secured credit card options to find a card that can help you build credit for the future. Spend responsibly and pay off your balance on time and you’ll soon be able to graduate to a more powerful unsecured credit card.

Frequently asked questions about secured and unsecured cards

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