How to Qualify for Your First Credit Card

For most credit cards, you'll need some positive credit history, but your age and income also matter. Boost your odds by applying for the right card.

Gregory KarpOctober 2, 2020
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How to Qualify for Your First Credit Card

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You might think you’re ready for your first credit card, but it’s natural to wonder — and have anxiety — about whether you’ll be approved when you apply.

To qualify for most credit cards, you’ll need some positive credit history; a longer history is better. That’s so card issuers have evidence they can trust you to pay what you owe on your first credit card. This is especially important for traditional unsecured credit cards that don’t require an upfront security deposit. So it’s helpful if you already have, say, an auto loan that you’ve been paying on time, evidence of using credit responsibly.

If you're starting with no credit history at all, your best bet might be a card that requires a security deposit. More on that later.

Credit cards listed on NerdWallet note how good your credit needs to be (within a broad range) to qualify for a particular credit card. You can also call the card issuer and ask about a specific card’s requirements.

Beyond what’s in your credit reports, which drives your credit scores, here’s what issuers generally look for in deciding whether you’ll qualify for your first credit card and what dollar limit that card will have.

Nerd tip: Note that each issuer can have its own standards you must meet to gain approval, and they don't tell you exactly what their approval formula is.

Are you old enough?

Like many legal requirements, age 21 is a key milestone in applying for your first credit card.

That's the minimum age to apply on your own unless you can prove you have a steady income. You could get a parent or guardian to co-sign the application, but most major credit card companies don’t allow co-signers anymore. Co-signing means accepting responsibility for making payments if the primary cardholder doesn’t pay the bills.

If you’re younger than 21, you could become an authorized user of someone else’s credit card, such as a parent. Authorized user status can help a young adult build credit.

Do you earn enough money?

Income is not part of your credit reports, so issuers ask about it separately on the application, and some might further use statistical models that estimate your income based on what else they know about you. They’re looking at:

Minimum income or assets

The issuer wants to know whether you have access to enough money to pay your credit card bills. More specifically, credit card issuers are required by law to consider whether you’re able to make the minimum monthly payments.

If you earn money outside a full-time job, include it on your application. And as long as you’re 21 or older, you can include your household income, including income from your spouse or partner, on your credit card application.

Even being unemployed doesn’t automatically disqualify you from getting a credit card.

Income ratios

Issuers will also look at your income relative to how much debt you have. That might be the ratio of income to overall debt or specifically to secured debt, like an auto loan or mortgage, and/or unsecured debt, like a personal loan.

An overall debt-to-income ratio below 20% is considered excellent. Change your ratio by either increasing income or decreasing debt.

The point is, the issuer wants to know that you will have enough money to pay your debts in addition to whatever you charge to your first credit card.

Nerd tip: If you’re unsure whether you’ll qualify for your first credit card, consider using an online tool to pre-qualify. It won’t help you gain approval, but you’ll have a better sense of where you stand before actually applying. NerdWallet offers pre-qualification for multiple issuers. Checking is quick and will not harm your credit scores.

Are you applying for a card that’s right for you?

You can increase your chances of qualifying for your first credit card if you apply for the right one. Think of selecting potential cards in two ways:

Type of issuer

Large banks that issue credit cards probably rely mostly on automated systems to determine your creditworthiness. Smaller banks might have models that require some judgment, which can work in your favor when applying for your first card.

Credit unions, which are like not-for-profit banks, claim to have more flexible standards in approving customers for credit products, including credit cards.

Some "alternative credit cards" from startup issuers can weigh factors beyond credit scores and credit history.

Type of credit card

Most rewards credit cards require good or excellent credit (typically FICO scores of 690 and above). So if you think you’re a borderline case, you might avoid those, especially lucrative ones like travel cards.

Instead, you could consider:

In general, consumers qualify more easily for retail store cards, usually branded with the retailer’s name and sometimes only available to use at that retailer. That could be a way to get your first credit card, but there are downsides to store cards that can hurt your credit.

Your first credit card will likely be just one of many over your lifetime, so don’t stress about getting the perfect long-term card right away.

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