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Applying for a credit card is usually pretty easy. But it helps to be aware of what information you need to provide. That way, you'll know what to expect and can quickly learn whether you’re approved.
If you’ll be applying soon, you’ll have plenty of company. U.S. consumers submitted 140 million credit card applications in the lighter-than-usual pandemic year of 2020 and about 170 million in a normal year, according to a credit card market report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
What questions will I be asked on the application?
You’ll have to supply a lot of personal information, so be prepared for that.
Why? The card issuer will typically use the information to decide whether it will approve you for a credit card. The most obvious step with most credit cards is a credit check, usually with one of the three major credit bureaus. After all, the credit card company is extending you credit. It’s trusting you to pay for everything you charge to the card. In that way, it’s like applying for a loan.
The exact information can differ among credit card issuers, but generally, here's what you’ll have to supply:
Social Security number
We’ll talk about this one first because it’s the most sensitive information you'll be asked for. In fact, with most credit card applications, it's required. That’s allowed and normal, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Your Social Security number is how the card issuer verifies your identity and checks your credit history. If you don't have a Social Security number, you can instead provide an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, which is similar.
It’s safe to supply these numbers if you're dealing directly with the issuer. Legitimate card-comparison websites will direct you to the issuer’s site to fill out the application.
Some specialty cards might not require a Social Security number. Instead, issuers evaluate your application using different criteria. But these cards are exceptions to the rule.
» MORE: Ready to apply now? See NerdWallet's best credit cards
This question is tricky for some people.
The issuer, by federal law, must take steps to evaluate whether you’re capable of repaying. And your reported income is also a way that creditors determine how much credit they should extend. They’re often interested in the source of that income, like whether it’s from employment or elsewhere.
A common related question is about your employment status, such as whether you're full time, part time, self-employed, retired or a student.
Date of birth
Technically, it's possible to get a credit card once you turn 18. But in most cases, you'll have to be 21. That’s because if you’re younger than 21, you need to have either independent income or a co-signer in order to get approved.
You might be asked something like your mother’s maiden name. Or you might be asked to make up a security word, like your favorite pet’s name.
Use your legal name. You’ll also usually need a U.S. home mailing address to get a credit card issued in the U.S. A post office box address might not work. And some cards are available only in certain states.
Other contact information might include your email address and phone number, sometimes specifically a mobile phone number so the issuer can send you text messages. You might also be asked if you’re a U.S. citizen.
A promise to tell the truth
Often you have to check a box saying that you're providing accurate information. Lying is not recommended.
Agreement to terms and conditions
The issuer may make you agree to the fine print, also known as the terms and conditions. They include rate and fee information among other things. There's often a check box.
Many issuers will ask on the application whether you want to add authorized users. You can do that right away or skip this step and add authorized users later.
Certain types of cards might have more questions or requirements. For example:
Deposit for secured card. If you’re applying for a secured credit card — a card that requires a cash deposit — you'll have to provide information on how to pay that deposit, which typically becomes your credit limit. That information is usually for a checking or savings account. For example, you might need your bank account routing number.
Occasionally, the issuer will require additional information and direct you to call its customer service phone number.
Questions you won’t be asked
Specific debts. An issuer is likely to consider your debt-to-income ratio, but you won't be expected to provide a list of every single debt or creditor you have. However, some may ask whether you rent or own your home and specifically about your monthly rent or mortgage payment.
Demographic information. Applications don’t ask about sex, religion, race or other information that they can’t use for making an approval decision.
Where to find credit card applications
Online. Unsurprisingly, a common way to apply for a credit card is online with a computer, tablet or smartphone.
Two common places to find online applications are the card issuer’s website and a card-comparison website. (You won’t apply directly on the comparison site; instead, you’ll be sent to the issuer’s site.) Often, credit card offers are the same no matter where you see them, but not always. Sometimes issuers experiment with certain offers on their own websites or with their partners, like card-comparison sites.
A card-comparison site might earn a commission from the credit card company if you’re approved for a card. (Note: NerdWallet works this way.)
Credit card applications online will be familiar to most people. They're similar to filling out forms for many other things, like a shipping address when you purchase something from an online retailer.
If you already have a banking app and are applying for a card issued by the same bank, you might be able to apply within the app.
In the mail. Direct mail solicitations with credit card offers are common. You could fill out the information on the paper form and mail it back, the old-fashioned way, but you may have to wait a lot longer for an answer.
In person. You can walk into many banks or credit unions and fill out an application there. Again, credit card offers are usually the same if you apply in person or online, but on occasion, an issuer might offer a different deal — better, worse or just different — in its bank branch.
By phone. The card issuer you’re interested in might accept phone applications, although you might find it cumbersome to verbally answer all the questions on an application.
Should I get pre-qualified or preapproved first?
You can call the card issuer and ask about a specific card's requirements. But some also offer preapproval or pre-qualification. Applying for a card could temporarily drag down your credit scores, so it’s nice to have a sense of whether you’ll be approved.
How soon will I know if I’m approved?
The answer depends on the type of method you use to apply. When applying online, you might find out almost immediately, within seconds. Other methods, like applying by mail, might take a number of business days.
How soon can I use my new credit card?
After approval, some issuers will make you wait for your physical card in the mail before you can start using your credit card account.
But more recently, many issuers allow you to use the card number right away.