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Credit Cards

How to Apply for a Credit Card in 4 Easy Steps

Updated Jun 14, 2023   |   13-min read

Having the right credit card can help you establish a strong credit score as well as earn rewards or cash back. These days, applying for a credit card is easy because it can be done entirely online, although you can still submit a paper application via mail if you want to. However, filling out an application doesn’t guarantee you’ll be approved — credit card issuers will evaluate you based on a number of financial factors.

If you’re new to credit cards or are unsure where to start, here’s how to apply for a credit card for the first time.

In this guide:

Applying for a Credit Card in 4 Steps

Here is a summary of the four steps that will be discussed below.

  1. Get Familiar With Your FICO Credit Score
  2. Analyze Your Spending Habits
  3. Choose the Card You Want
  4. Gather Your Information and Apply

1. Get Familiar With Your FICO Credit Score

Your FICO credit score is a three-digit score ranging from 300 to 850. It’s the most popular credit score used by card issuers to evaluate your creditworthiness as a potential cardholder. You can get your FICO score for free using websites like Mint and Credit Karma, and many credit card brands such as Discover also provide free access to your score. You’re also entitled to one free copy of your credit report annually from each of the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Knowing your FICO score can help you narrow down the cards for which you should apply. Many of the credit cards with the most generous rewards and signup bonuses are limited to people with high FICO scores.

The good news is there is a credit card available for just about everyone — even if you’ve never used credit before or if you have a spotty credit history. If you can’t qualify for your ideal credit card right away because your credit score isn’t high enough, you can apply for a card that caters to people trying to establish a credit history for the first time or rebuild their existing credit. By using credit responsibly, you can build a solid payment history and eventually qualify for the card you really want.

>> Read More: How to build your credit with a credit card

It’s also important to try to pay down as much debt as possible if your credit score isn’t as high as you’d like it to be. Your credit utilization ratio, or the amount of credit you’re using in relation to the total amount of credit available to you, accounts for 30% of your FICO score. The lower your utilization ratio — or the less debt you have — the higher your score will be.

2. Analyze Your Spending Habits

Evaluating your spending habits is key to knowing what your budget looks like, which comes in handy in multiple ways when thinking about the kind of credit card you should get. First and foremost, you want to make sure you don’t spend more than you can afford once you start using credit. If you’re overspending every month, you may want to make tweaks to get your spending under control so you’re less likely to rely on your cards to fill the gaps — which is a sure recipe for disaster.

You’ll also want to see where the bulk of your money is spent so you can try to find a credit card that will reward you for the spending you do most. If you spend a lot of money at gas stations and grocery stores, it would make sense to look for a card that provides cash back or rewards points for that kind of spending.

Finally, many credit card companies offer bonuses for new cardholders when they meet certain spending requirements within a particular timeframe. For example, the Capital One Venture credit card offers new cardholders 50,000 bonus points after they spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

You need to have a rough idea of what you spend each month because there’s little use getting a new card that offers a huge signup bonus if you won’t spend enough to qualify for it — or if you can’t pay off your credit card balance in full so you don’t incur interest charges.

3. Choose the Card You Want

With information about your FICO score and your spending habits, you can make a more informed decision about the kind of credit card you’re likely to qualify for — and which one will best serve your needs and goals.

There are tons of different unsecured credit cards out there, including cards offering cash backtravel rewards, 0% introductory balance transfers, statement credits, and more. There are also cards with low APRs or cards aimed at students looking to build credit. You should look for a card that offers rewards you’ll actually use. But if you think you’ll need to carry a balance at times, you should also prioritize finding a card with a low APR — the interest you pay on a card is likely to cost you far more than the rewards you earn.

It may be tempting to apply to lots of different credit cards, especially since many come with generous signup bonuses. However, you should apply for just one card at first. This is important because each time you apply, credit card companies pull your credit profile, resulting in a hard credit inquiry that will stay on your report for two years.

Too many inquiries signal to the credit bureaus that you might be a risky borrower — according to myFICO, people with six or more inquiries are eight times more likely to declare bankruptcy than people with no inquiries. Each hard inquiry results in a slight decrease in your score, reducing your chances of getting approved for the best credit cards or other loan products. Even if you are approved, you’ll typically face higher interest rates.

4. Gather Your Information and Apply

Once you’ve identified the card you want, you’ll need to provide certain information to the card issuer. This includes your name, address, and Social Security number, among other details. If you haven’t lived at your current address for at least two years, you’ll probably be asked to submit a previous address as well. The application may also ask about your current income.

In most cases, the easiest way to apply for a card is to submit your application online. Virtually every credit card issuer allows online applications, and you can usually receive a decision quickly — sometimes within minutes.

If you’d prefer to complete the forms manually and mail them in, this is typically an option, too, although it will take longer to receive a decision.

Find out how to check your credit card application status.

>>Read more: How to upgrade your credit card

More Information About Applying for a Credit Card

We’ve covered the main steps to apply for a credit card, but you probably have other questions about how the application process works. Here are some answers to the questions you’re most likely to have.

Other Resources on Applying for a Credit Card