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How to Apply for a Credit Card So You’ll Get Approved

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When and how you apply for a credit card can make all the difference in your credit limit, terms and even whether you are approved. Some factors you can’t really change, such as a history of bankruptcy or missed payments. Some require a change in behavior. But some can be altered just before you apply, and a little planning can help you qualify for the credit card you want.

If you have good or excellent score, feel free to skip right to our handy tool comparing hundreds of credit card offers.

Some easy credit cards to get

Capital One Secured MasterCard Credit Card
Apply Now

on Capital One's
secure website

The Capital One® Secured MasterCard® offers one of the lowest minimum deposits in the business: depending on your credit score, a deposit of $49, $99 or $200 will get you a credit limit of $200, and you can even pay in installments if it’s hard to make the initial investment. Among the big banks, they’re known for being more willing to lend to people with a spotty credit history. It has an annual fee of $0.

US Bank Harley-Davidson Visa Secured Credit Card
Apply Now

on US Bank's
secure website

The Harley-Davidson Secured offers 1 H-D rewards point per $1 on your purchases – not bad for a secured credit card! Granted, H-D points aren’t as good as cash, but no fee on a secured card isn’t bad at all. The credit limit ranges from $300 to $5,000, and you have to put in your entire deposit at once. The card’s annual fee is $0.

Why aren’t we recommending unsecured credit cards?

Truth is, if you have bad credit, you’re pretty much stuck with a secured credit card (which means you have to put in an initial deposit). If you really really really want an unsecured credit card, the offers you’ll see are borderline usurious, with annual fees above $75, sky-high interest rates and fees for doing something as simple as raising your credit limit. We don’t support credit cards with these terms, and refuse to endorse them here.

4 Tips on Applying for a Credit Card

1. Get your finances in shape

There’s nothing you can do about a history of missed payments or a bankruptcy. Thankfully, your credit score considers your most recent behavior more important than what happened 3 or 5 years ago. If you show that you’ve cleaned up your previously spotty payment history, credit card companies are more likely to consider your application.

This means keeping current on all your debts, not just credit card debt: personal, auto and other loans all count towards your score. Plus, stay away from cash advances and going over your credit limit.

2. Don’t apply for too many cards at once

Every time you apply for a loan, a credit card issuer (or other lender) looks into your credit score. If you initiated the lender’s inquiry by applying for the card, your credit score takes a hit. If the card company runs the credit score check without your knowledge to pre-approve you, then you’re off the hook.

What this means in practical terms is that you shouldn’t apply for two or three cards all in one go, or even space your credit limit increases too closely. Even though it may seem like a good idea to apply for a backup credit card in case you’re rejected for your top choice, it looks to lenders like you’re suddenly asking for a lot more credit. They’re more likely to look at you nervously.

The exception to the “spread out your applications” rule is mortgages, student and auto loans, and any other loans that involve rate-shopping. In that case, you’re expected to go from bank to bank, comparing their rate offers. Fair Isaac (the company that computes your credit score) lumps all of those types of applications made in 14 or 45 days as just one inquiry. (The old way of scoring used 14 days, and the new uses 45; lenders choose which version to use).

3. Lower your debt utilization ratio

One of the best ways to prove your creditworthiness is showing that even though you’re trusted with credit, you aren’t relying on it. The way to demonstrate this is by lowering your debt utilization ratio, or the amount of credit you’re using compared to all the credit available to you. For example, if you have two credit cards with $5,000 limits and you carry $1,000 of debt on one and $4,000 on the other, your debt utilization ratio is 50%. Generally, 30% or less is considered a healthy ratio.

When you apply for your card, make sure you haven’t racked up a lot of debt on your cards. Even if you’re planning to pay off your debt at the end of the month, before you have to pay any interest, lenders still count it as debt. A good time to apply, then, might be right after you’ve paid off your credit card.

4. Set your sights on the right credit cards

We mentioned that your credit score gets dinged every time you apply for a card. You can minimize your applications by having realistic expectations about what you’ll qualify for – you probably won’t get the The Platinum Card® from American Express with a 650 FICO score. While you’ll get the pick of the litter with excellent credit, if you have average or bad credit, you’ll need to consider other options.

Secured credit cards have few or no restrictions on who qualifies. The Capital One® Secured MasterCard® is a good choice for people trying to build or rebuild credit, but remember that it requires you to give a deposit of $49 to $200. Luckily, its annual fee is $0, making it an economical choice compared to other secured cards.

Prepaid debit cards will not help your credit score at all. Since you’re not being extended a line of credit, Fair Isaac won’t factor them in. Plus, they’re often riddled with hidden fees, so be very, very careful if you get one.

  • Babystar Td

    Thanks for the heads up, ty

  • Linda

    So glad I found this site. I received the post card for Net First also. Just trying to rebuild my credit also. I appreciate the the up front post Scammer on Net First. Just rore the card up in my shredder. I have enough problems with out anything else opened without my knowledge. People will look in the trash and if they see s pre approval that I did not want well then they will take it and run with it.Thankyou for the heads up.

  • Janet venceller

    Thank you for this information.I just received netfirstplatinum little advertizement that i was approved for $500 credit limit.I was ready to apply somehow I ran across this website.I can’t thank you enough,it got torn up and right in the garbage.You saved me from making a terrible mistake.I want to thank you again. sincerely Janet Venceller

    • NerdWallet

      Glad we can help, Janet!

      • Carlos Reynaldo

        Hie how can i apply for a credit card?

  • laura marie

    very imformative, thank you

  • Emily Robinson

    +thank you I was about to enter my personal info …..

    • NerdWallet

      Thanks Emily! It’s always important to be careful about giving out personal information online.

  • Traci Myers

    Thank you for helping with this information. I was almost taken. You are a God send..

    • NerdWallet

      Thanks Traci! Glad we can help.

      • Traci Myers

        Anytime..let me know what I can do…

  • TravisTaylor14

    Will a secured credit card have the same effect as a non secured card? I need another line of credit to really help rebuild by credit. I already have one secured card. Would another secured card help? Or should I try and get a unsecured card?

    • NerdWallet

      I’d try to move to an unsecured card as quickly as fast as possible because unsecured cards tend to have lower fees and potentially rewards. That said, if you can’t qualify for an unsecured card, another secured one will help.

      • mjf

        Both of my secured credkt cards were made into unsecured cards with good payment they do become umsecure after you make your payments on time

    • Sidnac Enal

      Search first premier bank fill out the app for a credit card and it should help. I had 521 credit score had the card 2 month and now it’s a 641. I got the card in February it is now 3 months and I have 2200 in credit cards all unsecured since the first….

  • hope

    bad advice

  • jessica w

    Who do i contact if i think some one is useing my personal info . To get home loans and car lones cause its makeing a huge impacct on me being able to get creadit card i surely dont have a off the lot car but my creadit is saying i have a car loan in my name cAn some one please help me so i can solve this problem

    • Sidnac Enal


    • Ben

      call credit servicing and put a credit fraud on your account. do this for all 3

  • Kristina R

    I am in the midst of divorcing my spouse of 16 years, who was emotional abusive and irresponsible as they come. I had decent (post college) credit at time of marriage, but he destroyed it quickly. I worked hard to get my scores back up…..found out he had been using my name to open various accounts (CC, mobile phone carriers, utilities, you name it. I even had a vehicle put in my name without ever signing or evening seeing the car. I am hoping an atty will be able to help these issues in divorce proceedings. Having said that….Why was it so easy for him to set up accounts and services in my name?? I have tons of outstanding unpaid balances build up over the past 5 years esp…..(when I had rebuilt & had good credit…before he destroyed again). I can’t get Cell service, a cc….my banking history is impeccable still…will that help me at all. it’s the one thing I could control that he didn’t have access to. Sorry for the you can see, I’ve got a mess to clean up:( Thanks for any advice you might have in advance.