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How to get a car loan in 7 steps

Find the right financing for your budget by comparing lenders before you hit the dealership.


Fact checked

Comparing car loans from different providers is one of the most important parts of the car-buying process. Taking the time to get preapproved can help you qualify for the most competitive rates and terms available to you.

Step 1: Check your credit

Your credit score determines how much you can borrow and at what rate. Knowing your credit will help you understand when you’re getting a good deal — and when it’s best to find another lender.

In general, a higher credit score will mean a lower rate. But lenders may also offer a lower APR for shorter loan terms or new car purchases. And if you have bad credit, you may want to take steps to improve your score to qualify for more competitive rates in the future.

Step 2: Create a budget

Before you apply for a loan or buy a car, you’ll want to know what you can afford. Our auto loan calculator can help you determine what your monthly repayments would be based off your potential APR and loan term. For example, the total interest you pay on a $20,000 car loan — along with your monthly payment — can change drastically based on your loan term:

Loan termAPRMonthly paymentTotal interest
36 months5.5%$603.92$1,741.05
48 months5.5%$465.13$2,326.22
60 months5.5%$382.02$2,921.39

In addition to your monthly car payment, you’ll also want to account for upfront costs that come with buying a car, including taxes, fees and your down payment. These can quickly add up, so knowing how you’ll cover them will help avoid any unexpected hits to your savings.

Step 3: Get preapproval from multiple lenders

Car loans work differently than other types of personal loans. When you apply for preapproval, your lender will confirm that you’re eligible to borrow a specific amount at an estimated rate. Then you’ll have 30 to 45 days to shop for the right car. And because of recent changes to how credit bureaus classify loan applications, it will only count as one line on your credit report — provided you apply for preapproval with multiple lenders within a 14-day period.

After you’ve confirmed you qualify, gather the information and documents and start the preapproval application. You’ll generally need your personal, financial and employment details. While some might ask for information about the car you want to purchase, this isn’t always required.

Compare car loan providers

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Filter Values Minimum credit score APR Loan term Requirements
No minimum credit score
3.9% - 27.9%
1 to 6 years
18+ years old, annual income of $4,000+, no active bankruptcies Car Loans
Varies by network lender
Varies by lender
Must be a US citizen with a current US address and employed full-time or have guaranteed fixed income.
Apply with a simple online application to get paired with a local auto lender. No credit and bad credit accepted.
CarsDirect auto loans
Varies by network lender
Varies by network lender
Must provide proof of income, proof of residence, and proof of insurance.
Save time and effort with this lending service specializing in beginner-friendly or subprime car loan.
Auto Credit Express Car Loans
Must be employed full-time or have guaranteed fixed income of at least $1,500/month and be a current resident of the US or Canada.
Get connected with an auto lender near you, even if you have bad credit.
Monevo Auto Loans
3.99% to 35.99%
3 months to 12 years
Credit score of 500+, legal US resident and ages 18+.
Quickly compare multiple online lenders with competitive rates depending on your credit.
LightStream Auto Loans
Good to excellent credit
2 to 7 years
Good or excellent credit, enough income or assets to afford a new loan, US citizen or permanent resident, 18+ years old
Quick car loans from $5,000 to $100,000 with competitive rates for borrowers with strong credit.
Good to excellent credit
Starting at 3.09%
Varies by lender
18+ years old, good to excellent credit, US citizen
Compare multiple financing options for auto refinance, new car purchase, used car purchase and lease buy out.

Compare up to 4 providers

Step 4: Compare your preapproval offers

After you’ve collected a few preapproval offers, compare your options by looking at the following features:

  • Loan amount. If a lender is unable to offer you a loan that covers the anticipated cost of your car, you may want to cross it off your list.
  • APR. Loans with a lower APR tend to cost less, but you’ll still want to account for how much you can actually borrow and the loan term before settling on the lender with the lowest APR.
  • Loan term. The length of your loan will have a big impact on how much you actually end up spending. While shorter terms will mean larger monthly payments, you may end up saving thousands in interest over the course of your loan.
  • Restrictions. Take note of any restrictions your lender has on how you use your loan. For instance, many lenders only accept used cars under 10 years or 100,000 miles.

Step 5: Shop for your car

After you’ve calculated how much you can spend and have a few loans to choose from, it’s time to shop for your car.

Search online

Going online is a great first step because it allows you to compare dealerships’ advertised options against sources like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book. You’ll also be able to compare the dealership against the manufacturer — giving you access to the best potential deals.

Visit the dealership

Even if you already have a loan, apply for financing with the dealership. You’ll have the upper hand when it comes to negotiating interest, and if you aren’t interested in dealership financing, you’ll at least be able to to skip some of the sales pitches. This means more time to negotiate the car’s actual price rather than just the potential monthly payments.

Step 6: Finalize your loan and receive your funds

Whether you choose to accept the dealership’s offer or simply go with the loan you’ve already been preapproved for, you’ll need to follow the lender’s instructions to finalize your loan.

If you opt for financing from a third-party lender, your loan funds will be transferred in one of two ways:

  • Sent to you so you can pay the dealership
  • Sent directly to the dealership

If you opt for dealership financing, you’ll simply have to sign some paperwork to finalize your loan.

Step 7: Plan for paying off your loan

Many lenders allow you to set up automatic repayments, sometimes with the added benefit of an interest rate discount. But if that’s not your style, you should also be able to make payments manually, either online or by check.

Whichever you choose, be sure you have enough to cover the amount due each month. A history of on-time payments can build your credit score — giving you access to better terms if you decide to refinance your car loan in the future. while missing even one can lower it by a few points.

Bottom line

Checking your credit, creating a budget and getting preapproved with a few lenders can up your bargaining power when you hit the dealership. You can learn more about how car loans work and compare other lenders with our guide.

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