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Getting a credit card when you have bad credit can be difficult. And applying for one and being denied doesn't help your confidence — or your credit. Every application creates a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can knock points off your credit score.
To improve your chances of getting approved, many credit card issuers offer online tools that ask basic questions about you and then list credit cards for which you're "prequalified." This process results in a "soft" inquiry, which doesn't affect your credit score.
Be aware that applying for a card after being prequalified gives you a better chance of approval — but it doesn't guarantee approval. When you actually apply for the card, the full information on your credit report will be the deciding factor. (And the application will trigger a hard inquiry.)
See if you're prequalified
Most major issuers offer prequalification tools, but each requires different information to process the request. The table below provides links to issuer prequalification pages, as well as what's required from you.
Nerd tip: Issuers don't necessarily make all cards available for prequalification at all times. In June 2020, for example, Capital One was offering "prequal" only for its secured card and its cards for average credit, and Citi was offering it on no cards at that time.
Full name, address, last 4 digits of your Social Security number, income (optional)
Full name, address, date of birth, last 4 digits of your Social Security number, what kind of card you want
Full name, address, date of birth, your full Social Security number, what kind of card you want
Full name, address, last 4 digits of your Social Security number
Full name, address, last 4 digits of your Social Security number, what kind of card you want
Full name, address, birth date, full Social Security number, whether you’re a student, whether you have bank accounts, housing status, income
Full name and address, date of birth, full Social Security number
* If you currently have an American Express card that you manage online, you may have to clear your browser cookies or use an "incognito" browser window to see the pre-qualification page.
In addition to issuer sites, NerdWallet offers prequalification for multiple issuers. Checking takes only a moment, and it will not harm your credit score. Prequalify through NerdWallet here.
Improve your chances of approval
If you find that you have no prequalified offers, it may be wise to wait to apply until your credit score improves. During this time, there are a few things you can focus on to rebuild your credit.
Review your credit report. Get a copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com and review it to see what's holding you back. Pinpoint collection accounts, delinquencies and other negative items that you can easily fix. Dispute any errors you find. Then check for other negative marks for an idea of what to work on next.
Pay your bills on time, every time. If you've been lagging in your bill payments, get up to speed as quickly as possible, then make sure to make all payments on time going forward. This includes all bills, not just debt payments. Your payment history is the biggest factor in your score, and while you can't change the past, you may see improvements fairly quickly once you start keeping up.
Pay down credit card balances. If you have credit card debt, get those balances paid as quickly as possible. The amounts you owe make up the second largest factor in your credit score, and high credit card balances can do major damage.
The bottom line
If you have bad credit, applying for credit cards willy-nilly is likely to make things worse. Taking the extra step to see if you are prequalified for any offers can give you better direction as to which cards you can reasonably consider. If you're in a position where you feel you should work on your credit before applying, don't hesitate to follow that feeling. It may take time to get to where you need to be, but it'll be worth it to get the best offer you can.