Personal Loan vs. Car Loan: What’s the Difference?

Car loans are made for new and used vehicle purchases. Personal loans can be used for almost any large expense.
Annie Millerbernd
By Annie Millerbernd 
Edited by Kim Lowe
Personal Loans vs. Car Loans: What's the Difference?

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Personal loans can pay for just about anything, while auto loans are used specifically to finance a new or used car purchase. Because personal loans are unsecured, they usually have higher rates than car loans, which are secured by your vehicle.

Personal loans are best for large, one-time expenses like debt consolidation or home improvement projects. You can use a personal loan to finance a new or used car, but an auto loan is likely your cheapest option.

Compare personal loans vs. auto loans for financing a car

Personal loans

Auto loans

Typical loan amount



Typical APR range



Typical repayment term

2-7 years.

2-7 years.


Can be, but unsecured is more common.

Yes, by your vehicle.

Down payment


May be required.

Get started

When auto loans are best: Auto loans are the cheapest way for most people to finance a new or used vehicle. Some lenders and dealerships may offer financing without a down payment, but you’ll get a lower rate on your loan if you make one.

You can refinance your auto loan to get a lower rate if you’ve made on-time payments toward your auto loan for a year or longer and your credit has improved.

When personal loans are best: Personal loans work best for borrowers who don’t want to make a down payment on the vehicle and would accept a higher rate in exchange for unsecured funds.

Unlike with an auto loan, a lender won’t place a lien on your car when you get a personal loan, so you’ll have your title in case you want to sell before you’ve paid off the car.


Annual percentage rates on personal loans are typically higher than auto loan rates because the lender takes on more risk by letting you borrow without the leverage of your vehicle.

With an auto loan, the type of vehicle you buy also affects your rate — loans for used cars often have higher APRs than those for new cars.

With both types of loans, your credit profile, income and existing debts influence the rate you receive. Borrowers with good to excellent credit (690 or higher on the FICO scale), steady income and little existing debt qualify for the lowest rates. Compare unsecured personal loans to see rates from multiple lenders.


Repayment terms on personal loans and auto loans depend on the lender. Some lenders offer one to seven years on a personal loan, others offer only three- to five-year terms. Car loans can have terms up to seven years, but terms between two and five years are common.

In both cases, longer repayment terms mean you’ll pay more in interest over the lifetime of the loan. For auto loans, NerdWallet recommends keeping your repayment term at 60 months or lower.

Getting a personal loan vs. an auto loan

The steps for getting personal and auto loans are similar and involve the following steps:

  • Check your credit. Review your credit score and your credit reports for any errors before applying. You can check your credit report at Some banks and financial services companies, like NerdWallet, offer a free credit score. Knowing your credit score will help you ballpark the rate you may qualify for.

  • Compare lenders. Before moving forward with an auto loan or personal loan, compare rates, terms and loan features. Calculate monthly payments on a personal loan or auto loan to determine what you can afford.

  • Pre-qualify or get preapproved. Pre-qualifying for a personal loan will let you see what rate and loan amount a lender can offer you without impacting your credit score. You can pre-qualify with NerdWallet to see rates from multiple online lenders at once. Pre-qualification is available through some auto lenders as well. Others offer preapproval, which requires a hard credit pull but could result in a rate that’s closer to your final offer.

  • Finalize your offer. Read your personal or auto loan contract carefully before accepting the offer to be sure you understand the terms.

See if you pre-qualify for a personal loan – without affecting your credit score
Just answer a few questions to get personalized rate estimates from multiple lenders.
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