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How secured credit cards work
These cards can help you eventually graduate to an unsecured card.
Having a good credit history is paramount when it comes to larger commitments like renting an apartment or taking out a mortgage. But building credit can be difficult for those without the credit score necessary to obtain a credit card in the first place. In this event, a secured credit card offers an accessible path to build better credit and qualify for the credit card you want.
What's in this guide?
- What is a secured credit card?
- How does a secured credit card work?
- Is a secured credit card right for me?
- Do secured credit cards build credit?
- Tips for choosing the right secured card
- Compare secured credit cards
- What you need to know about applying
- What you’ll need to apply
- Using a secured card effectively
What is a secured credit card?
The idea behind a secured credit card is that you need to put down a secured deposit as collateral, which then becomes your credit line. Depending on the amount you deposit, you can get a credit line between $300 and $5,000. But to get a chance to deposit higher amounts, you need to use your card responsibly for at least six months.
How does a secured credit card work?
In practice, secured cards work much like unsecured cards: You build your credit score by making purchases and paying your balance on time each month. However, when it comes to secured cards, there are a few differences to note:
- They require a security deposit.
Since most unsecured credit cards require a decent credit score, you might find approval difficult if you’re only just starting to build credit or are recovering from poor credit. Secured cards solve this issue by requiring a security deposit before you can open your account. This serves as a “collateral” that your lender can collect on if you default on payments.
- They offer a limited line of credit.
When you open a secured card, the money you deposit as collateral — usually between $200 and $2,000 — often becomes your line of credit. After a few months of on-time payments, you may be eligible to increase your limit. On rare occasions, your credit limit might be higher than your security deposit.
- They’re designed to help.
Most secured cards report your activity to all three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Many secured cards also offer monthly FICO score checks so you can track your progress.
- They offer fewer features and poorer terms.
Unlike unsecured cards, secured cards rarely offer additional perks such as cash back or travel insurance. What’s more, interest rates and other fees on secured cards can be high.
- In time, you may graduate to an unsecured card.
Using your card regularly and responsibly can help your credit score increase. A 670 score is considered good credit and can help you qualify for an unsecured card. Some secured cards offer opportunities for graduating to an unsecured version of the card provided you show financial responsibility over a certain period of time.
Secured credit cards vs prepaid cards
Secured credit cards and prepaid cards may look similar, but they have notable differences. The main difference between the two is:
- You have to make a deposit for both. But with a prepaid card, the money you spend is actually your deposit. With a secured card, your deposit is held as collateral and you have to pay off your balance before it’s due.
- Secured cards can help you build credit, while prepaid cards can’t.
Is a secured credit card right for me?
Secured credit cards offer an array of benefits for those looking to build a poor credit score or those without any prior credit history whatsoever. However, these cards also come with a few drawbacks that can make them not the right fit for everyone:
- Easy approval. If you have a history of poor credit or no credit, it can be easier to get approved for a secured card than an unsecured card.
- Lower fees than unsecured cards. Since secured credit cards come with certain limitations baked in, many secured cards offer lower fees than their unsecured counterparts. Of course, this only applies provided you make your payments on-time and otherwise use your secured card responsibly.
- Your deposit is refunded. Provided you’ve used your secured card responsibly and paid off your balance, you’ll receive your initial security deposit back when you close your secured card account.
- Lower credit limits. Since secured cards are designed for those who need to build credit, you can expect a much lower credit limit on a secured card than an unsecured card. There are however, some secured cards with high limits.
- Security deposit required. Secured cards require a security deposit upfront before you can start using the card. Though you’ll eventually get this deposit back, you won’t be able to touch this cash until you decide to close your account.
Generally, students, new immigrants, those who have filed for bankruptcy and those who misused credit cards in the past are all ideal candidates for a secured credit card.
With that said, it’s still possible to be denied a secured credit card, even if you can manage the minimum security deposit requirement. It’s doubly important to stay on top of your payments if you’re building credit with secured credit cards.
Do secured credit cards build credit?
Like unsecured credit cards, you’ll build credit with secured cards by using the card responsibly, staying on top of your statements and paying your bills on time. The high APRs and other fees should also help discourage you from keeping a balance.
Once your credit score is high enough, you could be eligible for an unsecured card. This can help you build credit quicker, often with added benefits like signup bonuses, lower fees and rewards programs.
When are secured cards better than other options?
Secured cards are worth considering when you have poor or no credit and you’re looking to build it. This type of card is generally cheaper than unsecured cards for building credit because of the deposit you have to make. But whichever card you go with, make sure you pay your balance in full before the due date.
Tips for choosing the right secured card
There’s an astounding number of secured card options that could work. To determine the best card for you, consider what you’ll be using the card for and how it could benefit you. Here are a few factors to keep in mind when choosing a secured credit card:
- Annual or maintenance fees.
Many secured credit cards don’t have an annual or monthly fee. These are usually bare-bones cards, but that’s not a bad thing if you’re just looking to build credit. In fact, maintenance fees are a feature you should avoid when comparing credit cards.
The APR is an annual percentage rate, or the interest rate you’ll pay on your purchases. Some cards offer a lower introductory APR, while others impose a penalty APR for late or declined payments. Avoid paying APRs by spending only what you can afford and paying your balance in full each month.
- Transaction fees.
Transaction fees refer to things like balance transfers, cash advances, foreign transactions and late fees. If you plan on using these features, consider how the fee will affect you.
- Pick the right provider.
Some banks and credit unions are better than others. Seemingly amazing cards can turn out to be a nightmare if the issuing bank is a hassle to deal with. Research the card providers and take into account customer reviews.
- Rewards program.
Rewards programs are rare on most secured cards. If you come across one, make sure it isn’t simply an effort to downplay other negative features like increased fees or a higher APR. Compare the card to a similar one, and if there’s an annual fee, consider whether the rewards are worth the cost.
- Interest on deposit.
Some secured cards will pay you interest on your initial deposit, acting like a savings account. Read the terms and conditions or call customer service if this is a factor that’s important to you.
- Authorized users.
If you plan on letting a family member or significant other use your card, check with the lender to make sure this is allowed. Some lenders allow you to apply for an extra card at no extra cost, but others will charge a flat fee.
Our pick for a secured credit card
Citi® Secured Mastercard®Read more
Compare secured credit cards
What you need to know about applying
Most companies make applying for a secured credit card pretty straightforward. Here’s what you need to know:
- If you have little or no credit.
If you have poor or fair credit, approval is easier for secured cards. You can usually find the recommended credit score for each card on its website. There are even some secured credit cards that don’t require a credit check, which could prove helpful if you have a particularly poor credit history.
- Ways to apply.
You can usually apply for a secured credit card online, by phone, or through the mail. Online and phone applications are usually fastest, but many cards take applications by mail if you’re not in a rush. Some cards require you to be a member of the credit union or state department.
- When you’ll get the card.
Approval may be instant if you apply by phone or online, but expect it to take closer to a week or two to get your card in the mail.
- If you’ll get a soft or hard credit inquiry.
Most lenders don’t check your credit history. Some could make a soft inquiry on your credit history, but this doesn’t affect your credit. Unsecured cards will do a hard pull, negatively affecting your credit.
Why does this matter?
Multiple hard inquiries in a short time could lead lenders to consider you a high-risk customer. If you’re applying for multiple credit cards at once, it may suggest that you’re short on cash or preparing to rack up a lot of debt.
What you’ll need to apply
There’s a bit of information to provide when you apply for a secured credit card. Most applications require:
- Personal information. Name, Social Security number, phone number and birthday.
- Housing information. Address, type of residence, rented/owned and how long you’ve lived at your home.
- Financial information. Bank, accounts, investments etc.
- Income information. Employer, position, income etc.
Using a secured card effectively
To effectively build your credit, here’s how to use a secured card:
- Pay your balance on time. And pay it in full. This is the best way to build your credit and potentially graduate to an unsecured card.
- Don’t max out your credit limit. The chances are you’ll get the minimum credit line of around $300. Maxing out your credit limit could send the wrong signal to other lenders. The recommended utilization ratio for building credit is less than 30%, but in this case, you can safely go to 50% as long as you always pay off your balance in full before the due date.
- Put your subscription services on the card. Get your Netflix account or any similar service and automate your payments so you always use your card and always pay off your balance.
If you’re looking for a credit card, but have poor or no credit history, compare secured credit cards that fit your financial needs. Look out for high APRs and fees, spend responsibly and pay your monthly bills on time to build your credit. In time you’ll be able to start applying for a cheaper, unsecured card.
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