Applying for a credit card for the first time can be a little intimidating if you're not sure what to do. In reality, applying for credit cards is easier than you might think. Knowing what steps to take and what to expect can make navigating the process of submitting your first credit card application easier. 

Key Takeaways

  • Many credit card companies allow you to apply online, with near-instant credit decisions. 
  • Applying for a credit card can impact your credit score if it requires a hard pull of your credit history. 
  • Credit scores are one of the most important factors in credit card approval decisions. 
  • If you're denied for a credit card, you can ask the credit card company to reconsider.
  • Becoming an authorized user or applying for a joint credit card can also help you build credit.  

Check Your Credit Report and Scores

Before applying for a credit card, it's helpful to know what credit card companies look for from applicants. While credit card companies consider things like your income and monthly housing payment, your credit scores tend to carry the most weight for credit decisions. 

Checking your credit scores before you apply can help you gauge which cards you may have the best chance of being approved for. For example, some credit card companies designate which cards are designed for people with fair, good or excellent credit. 

Credit scores are based on things like payment history, credit usage, credit age and how often you apply for new credit. That information comes from your credit report

You can view your credit report from all three credit bureaus for free through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also get a free credit FICO credit score through Discover even if you aren't a customer. FICO credit scores are also available through myFICO.com for a fee. 

Tip

When checking your credit reports, look closely for errors or inaccuracies that may be hurting your score. If you find an error, you can dispute it with the credit bureau that's reporting the information. 

Decide What Card to Apply For

The next step in applying for a credit card is choosing which card you want to apply for. This is where you'll need to do a little research to compare various card options. 

When comparing cards consider how you plan to use it and ask the right questions. For instance:

  • Will you use it for everyday purchases or travel? 
  • Do you plan to carry a balance month to month or pay in full? 
  • Are you interested in earning rewards on purchases?
  • Do you mind paying an annual fee?
  • Are you looking for a promotional APR on purchases or balance transfers? 
  • What other card benefits or features are you interested in?

These questions can help you narrow down which cards it might make sense to apply for. You should also consider whether you may need to focus on secured cards if you're brand-new to using credit or you're trying to rebuild bad credit. 


Secured credit cards
require a cash deposit to open, which can also double as your credit limit. Depending on the card issuer, you may be able to switch to an unsecured card after several months of responsible use. You could also consider a retail store card if you're new to using credit since they can be easier to get approved for compared to traditional credit cards. 

Warning

Retail store cards can offer upfront discounts or bonuses to encourage you to apply but they can carry much higher APRs than regular credit cards, which makes carrying a balance more expensive.

Complete the Card Application

Applying for a credit card can be as simple as going to the credit card company's website and filling out the application. Many card issuers can offer an approval decision within minutes of applying. 

When filling out a credit card application there are certain pieces of information the card issuer can ask for. Those include:

  • Your name
  • Date of birth
  • Social security number
  • Mother's maiden name
  • Monthly housing payment and whether you rent or own
  • Employment status
  • Income
  • Contact information, including phone number, address and email

Credit card companies use your social security number to check your credit, which usually means a hard inquiry. Hard inquiries can trim a few points off your credit score so it's best to limit the number of credit cards you're applying for to minimize the impact. 

Important

The 2009 CARD Act requires that you be at least 21 to open a credit card account. The exception is if you're at least 18 and can show an independent source of income to make credit card payments. 

Once you submit your application, the credit card company will review your details and either approve you or decline your application. If you're approved, you would then just need to wait for your physical card to be mailed out. Your credit card company may tell you right away what your credit limit is for your new card and/or give you a digital card number you can use temporarily to make purchases online. 

What to Do If You're Denied

There are various reasons why a credit card company may deny your application. If you have a poor credit score because of a past history of late payments, for example, that could make getting approved difficult. Or if you have no credit at all because you're just starting to use it, that could also work against you. 

If you're denied for a credit card, you could reach out to the credit card company directly and ask them to reconsider. You would need to be able to prove that you're a good candidate for a credit card, based on your ability to manage credit wisely and keep up with your monthly payments.

In the event that asking for reconsideration is a dead-end, there are other ways to get a credit card. For instance, you could ask someone to apply for a card with you as a co-borrower or have someone add you to one of their cards as an authorized user. Both can give you purchasing power and help you build credit. 

There's an important distinction between the two to be aware of, however. Applying for a joint credit card means you're both equally responsible for the debt incurred on the card. Becoming an authorized user means you can use the card to make purchases but you aren't responsible for the debt.

Note

Applying for a joint credit card triggers a hard inquiry against your credit while being added as an authorized user does not. 

The Bottom Line

Thanks to online applications, it's easier than ever to apply for a credit card and get approved almost instantly. If you're approved for a credit card, focus on developing good habits as you use it. That includes paying your bill on time and keeping your balances low. Over time, those habits can help you build a strong credit score which is important for getting approved for other lines of credit and securing favorable interest rates.