Credit union credit cards (2019 guide): How they work, best cards

Credit union credit cards (2019 guide): How they work, best cards

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Find low fees and interest rates — and in some cases, powerful rewards.

Credit union credit cards are issued by member-owned financial institutions. That can be great news, as nonprofit credit unions help their members save through lower fees and interest rates.

Credit unions can pack a punch too, offering rewards cards that give big banks a run for their money.

Our pick for a credit union card

PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card

  • 0% APR promo balance transfer rate for 12 months now through September 30, 2019. After that, the APR for the unpaid balance and any new balance transfers will be 11.99% to 17.99%. APR will vary w/the market based on prime rate. 3% balance transfer fee per transaction. Subject to credit approval. $100 bonus after spending $1,500 in purchase transactions within the first 90 days of account opening.
  • Rate and offers current as of June 1, 2019 and subject to change.
  • Earn 5 points on gas purchases at the pump. Fuel purchases for airplanes and boats do not receive cash back rewards.
  • Earn 3 points on supermarket purchases
  • Earn 1 point on all other purchases
  • No annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • No cash advance fee
  • Chip enabled for added security
  • Federally insured by NCUA
  • Variable rate as low as 11.99% APR
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Compare credit union credit cards

Updated June 19th, 2019
Name Product Filter values Rewards Purchase APR Annual Fee
3x points on travel or 4x points if you’re a PenFed Honors Advantage member and 1.5x points on all other purchases
12.99% to 17.99% variable
$0
25,000 bonus points when you spend $2,500 in the first 90 days from account opening.
2% cash back for all PenFed Honors Advantage members and 1.5% cash back on all purchases
11.99% to 17.99% variable
$0
2% cash back for all PenFed Honors Advantage members and 1.5% cash back on all purchases made with your card.
5x points on gas at the pump, 3x points on groceries and 1x points on all other purchases
11.99% to 17.99% variable
$0
Earn 5x points on gas at the pump and 3x points on groceries. Earn 1x points on all other purchases.
N/A
11.99% to 17.99% variable
$0
Earn a $100 bonus after spending $1,500 on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening.
N/A
9.24% to 17.99% variable
$0
Low APR on all purchases including cash advances.

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What are credit union credit cards?

These cards are issued by credit unions instead of banks. They also tend to have lower fees and interest rates than you’ll find at larger financial institutions.

To get a credit union credit card, you need to become a member of the credit union, which usually involves a fee of around $5 to $25. You may also need to open a savings account before or during your application.

What is a credit union?

A credit union is a financial institution that’s owned by its members. It’s a nonprofit, serving its members rather than seeking to generate profit for shareholders. This is why you’ll often find higher savings when using a credit union.

Once you’re a member, you’ll also have the opportunity to influence how the credit union is run. For example, you may be able to vote at annual general meetings or provide feedback that influences the features of different products.

Benefits and disadvantages of credit union credit cards

Benefits

  • Competitive ongoing interest rates
  • Lower annual fees
  • Same interest rate for purchases and cash advances
  • Personalized service

Disadvantages

  • You have to meet membership eligibility requirements
  • Limited reward options
  • Limited balance transfer options
  • Less competitive introductory offers

The best credit union credit cards of 2019


Best for travel: PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card

This card isn’t just the best travel option among credit unions; it’s one of the best travel cards, period. You’ll earn strong rewards on travel and generous rewards on all other purchases. You’ll also find an annual air travel credit and a credit for your Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee — rarities among no-annual-fee cards.

Best for cash back (high spending): Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

This card offers the best flat-rate cash back on the market: 3% during your first card year and 2.5% during your second card year. Because it has an annual fee, it’s the best choice only if you have a high volume of spending.

Best for cash back (low to moderate spending): PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card

While the bank-issued Citi® Double Cash Card is usually the top choice for flat-rate cash back, PenFed’s card is very competitive. It offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases. And if you become a PenFed Honors Advantage member — which you can do by opening a free PenFed Access America Checking Account — you’ll earn a top-notch 2% total cash back on all purchases.Crucially, the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card has no annual fee, so you can keep all the cash back you earn.

Best for gas and groceries: PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card

PenFed’s excellent product offers the highest rewards on gas you can get from a general-rewards card. In this space, the credit union comes out on top over the big banks.

Best for low interest (variable): Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa Credit Card

Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa Credit Card

If you have excellent credit and want to carry a balance on your credit card, this product might be a strong choice. You could receive an APR on all balances as low as 8.5% variable. This is an impressive rate, as the average credit card APR is around 17%.

Best for low interest (fixed): Cencap Federal Credit Union Visa credit card

Cencap Federal Credit Union Visa credit card

If you want more certainty with your interest rate, consider this card. You’ll receive a fixed 9.9% APR on purchases and balance transfers — an excellent deal.

Best for rebuilding credit: SDFCU Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card

Rewards are uncommon among secured credit cards, and that’s why the SDFCU Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card stands out. You’ll earn 1x Flexpoints on all purchases, which you can later redeem for travel, events, merchandise, gift cards, charitable donations and more.You’ll also enjoy a relatively low APR on all balances. While it’s always a good idea to pay your balance in full each month, a lower interest rate can be helpful in a pinch.

How we chose our best cards

We gave heavy weight to cards with the best rewards rates in their categories. When contenders were relatively even, we chose cards with additional standout features — benefits one usually wouldn’t expect in similar products.

How to compare credit union credit cards

girls comparing credit cardsInclude the following factors in your comparison to find the right credit union for you:

  • Standard interest rates.
    Credit union credit cards tend to have lower standard purchase rates than bank options. Some credit union cards also apply the same interest rate to both purchases and cash advances rather than having a separate and higher cash advance rate.
  • Promotional interest rates.
    As credit union credit cards typically offer low ongoing interest rates, the promotional rate offers may be more conservative.
  • Balance transfers.
    Some credit union credit cards don’t offer balance transfers. The cards that do provide this service are less likely to have a 0% interest rate during the introductory period when compared to cards from banks. However, credit union credit cards usually have a lower ongoing interest rate than typical credit cards.
  • Annual fees.
    Most credit union credit cards have low annual fees. There are also some credit union credit cards that don’t charge an annual fee.
  • Grace period.
    If you pay your balance in full by the statement due date each month, you could get up to a certain number of interest-free days for each statement period. This feature is available with both credit union and bank credit cards.
  • Rewards.
    Credit unions offer fewer rewards credit cards than banks. You’ll still find a few options that offer points for purchases made on your account, though.
  • Other fees.
    The most common fees include international transaction charges, late payment fees and cash advance fees.
  • Complimentary extras.
    In general, only gold or platinum credit union credit cards will offer complimentary extras such as travel insurance or concierge services.
  • Branch access.
    Credit unions may have a more limited branch network when compared to larger financial institutions.

What’s right for me? Credit unions or banks?

Credit union Banks
Focus Provide better member experiences and improve their financial situation with quality products and suitable advice. Maximize profits for their shareholders, so they can attract more investors.
Profit Goes back into the system to provide its members with competitive rates and offerings. Goes to its shareholders. The bank might invest some of it in different kinds of financial products.
Security Credit unions offer Mastercard and Visa credit cards, both of which provide secure payment systems and protection against fraudulent electronic transactions. Banks offer the same security measures.
Rewards Credit unions provide credit cards linked to a limited amount of major rewards programs. Banks offer a range of rewards credit cards as well.
Other benefits You have a say on how the credit union is run as a member. Banks also offer added features through their credit cards, but you might have to pay higher annual fees in this case.

Bottom line

Now that you know more about the different structure and focus of credit unions, you can compare these cards with the larger financial institutions to find one that suits all of your needs.

For more options, check out our guide to the best credit cards of 2019.

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