You have to be at least 18 years old to apply for a credit card in the U.S., but if you’re under 21, it may be difficult to get approved. Federal law limits credit card issuers’ abilities to approve young adults for credit cards. Specifically, the Credit Card Act of 2009 requires all applicants under 21 to prove adequate full-time income.
Even if you're of age and can qualify for a credit card, that doesn't necessarily mean you should get one. Credit building is important, but you need to be ready for the responsibility that comes with being a cardholder. Paying your bill on time and in full every month without neglecting other financial responsibilities is essential. Ideally, you’ll make enough to cover your regular bills, credit card expenses, any other debts and savings, too.
But if you're 18 or older and responsible with money, then a credit card may be worth exploring. Here's what you need to know.
When should I get a credit card?
To manage a credit card responsibly, you need to develop the skills to help you succeed. For instance, if you can handle meeting deadlines at school or work, you might be better prepared for making payments by a due date. You also need to understand how credit cards work so that you can prevent fees, interest and minimum payments from spiraling into a debt cycle.
Signs you're ready
Consider getting a credit card if you have the following:
Solid understanding of how credit cards work.
Responsible money management habits.
Ability to meet deadlines.
Emergency fund and/or savings buckets for goals.
Signs you're not ready
You shouldn’t get a credit card if the following applies to you:
Income is unreliable.
A budget is nonexistent.
Bank accounts are frequently overdraft, resulting in fees.
You don't consider the true cost and necessity of a purchase before making one.
You’re unlikely to set up automatic payments to avoid forgetfulness and late payment fees.
You won’t review the credit card statement to prevent fraud or unauthorized purchases.
You have enough income to save money but have trouble budgeting to accomplish that goal.
A credit card appeals as an option to cover purchases you can’t afford.
Which credit card should I get?
When you’re just starting out, credit card options are limited. It's not uncommon for an application to be denied because you lack a credit history. That doesn't mean you should rush to apply for several cards to increase your chances of approval, though. It can actually hurt your odds — and your credit scores temporarily — to submit several applications at once. It signals to credit card issuers that you may be in financial trouble.
You need to think about your applications strategically. If you apply for one type of card and get rejected, don’t apply for the same type of card again. Look to other options.
Here are some credit cards that may be easier to get:
An unsecured card for authorized users
If a friend or loved one allows you to piggyback on their good credit, you can become an authorized user on their account and get a card with your name on it. Being added to their account may help you establish a credit history to qualify for a credit card of your own in the future.
An unsecured card backed by a co-signer
With this option, you get your own account and an unsecured credit card that is backed by someone else’s income and credit history. It can be a big risk for the co-signer because if you misuse the card, it can hurt their credit history.
A student credit card
Most student credit cards require a credit history and student status to qualify, but there are some exceptions. Note that these cards function like regular credit cards, but they tend to have lower credit limits and fewer incentives. If a student credit card offers rewards, you’re likely to get a lower rewards rate or a smaller sign-up offer, for example.
An alternative credit card
Startup companies have made the path to credit easier with alternative credit cards. They skip the credit check, and instead base eligibility on factors like income, employment or bank account information. Some alternative cards function like regular credit cards, allowing you to carry a balance. And some don't charge interest or fees.
A secured credit card
Secured credit cards are easier to qualify for because they require a deposit that determines the card's credit limit. As long as payments are consistently made on time, you can get the deposit back by upgrading to an unsecured credit card with the same issuer. Alternatively, you can close the account and get another credit card elsewhere.