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

These two cards work similarly, but serve different purposes.

Whether you decide on an unsecured or a secured credit card depends on your personal financial needs. Those with relatively healthy credit might want an unsecured card for perks such as a cash back or travel credits. 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 great for students, new immigrants and those who have a history of poor credit.

Here’s a breakdown of how these two cards differ and which one you might want to consider.

What is a secured credit card?

When you open a secured credit card, you must provide your lender with a security deposit — typically $200 to $500, though lower deposits are available. This deposit acts as collateral in case you fall behind on your payments. The amount of your security deposit is also your credit limit.

A secured credit card offers the opportunity to build your credit score. If you consistently make your card payments on time, you’ll see a gradual increase in your score and, eventually, you can graduate to an unsecured credit card. Just make sure your card provider reports your payments to all three major credit bureaus.

Why do card providers require collateral?

You may be new to credit or have a damaged credit score. In these cases, lenders tend to view you as a riskier borrower. Collateral guarantees the provider will be repaid, making them more willing to lend.

Pros and cons of secured credit cards

  • Get one even if you have new or damaged credit.
  • You set your credit limit.
  • Secured cards can come with low deposit requirements and no annual fee.
  • Rebuild your credit score.
  • You must put down a security deposit.
  • Cards typically come with high interest rates.
  • Credit is limited by your deposit.
  • Cards tend to offer few rewards.

Who are secured cards good for?

Secured credit cards are best for those without a credit score or those who have a poor credit history and want to build credit. 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, college students and those with no history of credit.

What is an unsecured credit card?

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

Typically, 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. They’ll 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 responsibly.

The importance of your credit score

Your credit score will determine many aspects of your financial future such as applying for credit cards, personal loans and your ability to take out a mortgage for a home.

If you have a good to an excellent credit score of 680 or higher, you’re typically better off applying for an unsecured card so you can go without putting down a security deposit — you’ll likely get better interest rates too.

If you have fair credit — generally 620 to 679 — you may still qualify for an unsecured card. But the ones you qualify for will likely come with higher fees, shadier terms and less favorable interest rates. Compare credit cards for fair credit, or you might be better off getting a low APR secured card, building or rebuilding your credit score and then moving on to a reputable unsecured card.

How can I learn what my credit score is?

If you haven’t yet requested your credit report from Experian, Equifax or TransUnion this year, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report annually — this will include your credit score along with your credit history.

Other options include submitting a request to a score service or reporting company directly. Some services require that you sign up for a monthly subscription service, while others require a one-time fee.

Requesting your credit score from a third party service will 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

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

Who are unsecured cards good for?

Unsecured cards are the “standard” pick for most consumers and offer the standard array of credit card benefits, including balance transfer opportunities, reward programs and the ability to carry a balance. Of course, you’ll still want to use your unsecured card responsibly, just the same as an unsecured credit card.

Secured or unsecured cards: Which is best?

There really is no “best” pick between a secured and unsecured card. These cards serve different purposes and you’ll generally pick one based on your financial needs. In short:

  • If you need help creating or building your credit score, you’ll apply for a secured credit card.
  • If you want a credit card for earning rewards, cash back, or for other standard financial reasons, you’ll apply for an unsecured credit card.

How to graduate to an unsecured card

Graduating to an unsecured card is as simple as raising your credit score. To do that though, you’ll need to practice some credit card best practices. A few examples include:

  • Make on time payments. Late credit card payments reflect poorly on your credit score.
  • Pay off debts entirely if possible. Paying off a debt in full not only reduces the amount of debt you have to worry about, but is a positive mark on your credit report.
  • Don’t max your credit cards. Creditors will note if you repeatedly max out your credit card. To them, this is risky behavior and your credit score may suffer as a result.
  • Maintain a healthy credit utilization ratio. Generally, you want to use 30% of your available credit or less. Having a number higher than this over a period of time may hurt your credit score.

What’s the difference between a secured card and unsecured card for bad credit?

You have two credit card options for rebuilding credit: secured cards and unsecured cards. Both come with certain benefits and drawbacks, which will eventually determine the type of card that meets your financial goals.

Secured cardsUnsecured cards for bad credit
Credit limitRequires a secured deposit with a minimum of $200 or $300 to act as a credit limitUnsecured credit limit starting from $200 or $300
Annual feeNo annual fee or an annual fee of up to $49High annual fee of between $70 and $300
RewardsSome cards offer cashback rewardsSome cards offer cashback rewards
Interest ratesFrom 9.99% to 25% either fixed or variableFrom 17.99% to 29.99% either fixed or variable
Intro APR periodLow intro APR period on balance transfers with some cardsNo intro APR period on balance transfers

Compare secured credit cards

Name Product Filter values Minimum deposit required Purchase APR Annual fee Minimum Credit Score
Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card
$49, $99 or $200
26.99% variable
New to credit
A no-annual-fee secured card that separates itself from the pack with a $200 credit limit after making a more affordable than average deposit of $49, $99 or $200.
Cleo Credit Builder card
A card made with your credit score in mind
OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card
Starting at $200
17.39% variable
Apply for this card with no credit check if you're new to credit or have bad credit.
Self Visa® Credit Card
Starting at $100
21.74% variable
Build your credit with a low minimum security deposit of $100 and no credit score required.
Capital One Quicksilver Secured Cash Rewards Credit Card
Starting at $200
26.99% variable
No annual or hidden fees, and you can earn unlimited 1.5% cash back.

Compare up to 4 providers

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. However, if you don’t have credit or have a poor credit history, 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 an unsecured credit card.

Common questions about secured and unsecured cards

Pictures: Getty Images

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