Your credit score is more than just a three-digit number; it's a measure of your financial health. When you apply for loans or lines of credit, lenders use your credit score, along with other factors, to decide whether to approve you and also what interest rates to charge. Having bad credit can make getting a credit card more difficult, but it's not impossible if you know how to approach it.

Key Takeaways

  • Bad credit can be the result of a past credit mistake, but it can also be caused by fraud or identity theft.
  • Having a low credit score may limit your options when applying for credit cards.
  • It may be necessary to choose a secured credit card if you can't get approved for a traditional credit card.
  • Before agreeing to any credit card offer, read the terms carefully so you understand the interest rates, fees, and other variables.

What Is Bad Credit?

Credit scores operate on a range. Where you land on that range will determine whether you're considered to have excellent credit, good credit, or bad credit. FICO credit scores, which are widely used by lenders, range from 300 to 850. A score of 800 to 850 is considered exceptional, while a score ranging from 300 to 579 is considered poor. Approximately 16% of individuals with a credit score are in the poor range.

A bad credit score can be caused by different things. With FICO scores, your payment history accounts for the largest part of the calculation. Having one or more late or missed payments on your credit history could damage your score significantly.

Bad credit can also be related to more serious situations, such as filing for bankruptcy or a foreclosure proceeding. Both can cause you to lose significant points, and that negative information can stay on your credit history for up to seven years or 10 years in the case of certain bankruptcy filings.

In other instances, bad credit may be no fault of your own. If someone steals your identity, for example, they may rack up bills in your name and you might not realize it until you start getting notices from debt collectors. Credit bureaus can also make mistakes in reporting your account information, which can cost you credit score points.

Tip

You can get free copies of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com. Check your reports carefully for fraudulent activity or errors and dispute any inaccuracies you find.

How to Get a Credit Card With Bad Credit

If you have a less than ideal score and want to get a credit card in your name to build or rebuild credit, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, ask yourself what kind of credit card you're interested in. For example, are you looking for a card that offers rewards on purchases or one with a low annual percentage rate?

Next, consider what kinds of cards you're most likely to qualify for. Many card issuers specify what type of credit is needed to get approved for certain cards. For instance, you can find cards designated for people with excellent credit, good credit, etc. If you know your credit score is in the bad credit range, it's important to look for cards that are a good fit so you don't waste your time applying for ones you won't qualify for.

Important

Applying for new credit can trim a few points off your credit score. If you already have bad credit, it's important to avoid overdoing it on credit applications to minimize credit score dings.

Consider a Secured Credit Card

Secured credit cards require a cash deposit, which typically doubles as your credit line. If you can come up with the cash for the deposit (often $200 or more), this may be the easiest way to get a credit card despite having bad credit.

Secured cards are designed for people who have limited or no credit history or bad credit that they're trying to rebuild. Here's a quick look at their pros and cons:

What We Like
  • May be easier to get approved for a secured card if you have bad credit

  • Some secured cards allow you to earn rewards on purchases

  • Secured cards can help you build a good credit history with responsible use

What We Don't Like
  • You'll need to have cash available for the security deposit

  • Secured cards may charge higher APRs and fees compared to unsecured cards

Try a Retail Store Card

Retail store cards are issued for one specific store or family of stores. You can use these cards to make purchases at those stores, and some offer rewards, discounts, and other incentives for using them.

Unlike secured cards, you won't need to make a cash deposit to open a retail store card, which is a plus. Here's more on the advantages and disadvantages of applying for a retail store card when you have bad credit:

What We Like
  • Generally easy to get approved for

  • Some retail cards offer a substantial discount on your first purchase and/or rewards for future purchases

  • Retail store cards can help you build credit when used responsibly

What We Don't Like
  • The APR can easily outweigh the value of any discounts or rewards you're earning

  • You're limited as to where you can use retail store cards to make purchases

Consider Becoming an Authorized User

A third option for getting a credit card if you have bad credit is to ask someone else to add you to one of their credit cards as an authorized user. Being an authorized user means you can use the card to make purchases, but you don't have to apply for it using your name or credit history.

Authorized user status can reflect positively on your credit history if the primary cardholder pays their bill on time and keeps credit utilization low.

What We Like
  • This can be an easy way to get a credit card without having to apply for one

  • You're not responsible for any debt associated with the card

  • You can make purchases and potentially earn rewards

What We Don't Like
  • Being an authorized user doesn't carry as much credit-building power as having a credit card in your own name

  • If the primary cardholder pays late or defaults, that can reflect negatively on your credit history

Adopt Positive Habits to Build Credit

Once you get a credit card—whether it's a secured card, a retail card, or you're an authorized user on someone else's card—it's important to maintain a credit-building mindset when you use it.

That means doing things that will positively affect your credit history, such as:

  • Paying your bills on time each month
  • Keeping your credit utilization low
  • Only applying for new credit when you truly need it
  • Keeping older credit accounts open

All of these can help you can improve your credit score. As your score rises, you can look into other options for borrowing and building credit, such as unsecured credit cards and personal loans.

The Bottom Line

Credit cards can be a useful tool for building credit, and they're also convenient for making purchases and earning rewards. If you have bad credit, opening a credit card account could be an easy way to get your score and credit rating back on track. Just be sure to pay attention to the card's interest rate and fees so you know what you're paying to use it.