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We’re long past the days when the only ways to apply for a credit card were going to a bank branch or mailing in a paper application form. Now it’s standard to apply for credit cards online, where you can fill out the application, have your credit checked and get approved in just a few minutes. Easy.

One could argue, though, that it’s become almost too easy. When you can apply for a card with little effort, you can easily apply for a card that’s all wrong for you. Let’s walk through the process of finding and applying for the right card.

Know your credit score

Credit card issuers approve applications based on credit scores, among other factors. Don’t know your score? We can get it for you: Just create an account, answer a few questions, and see your credit score. Once you know your score, you can see which cards you may qualify for. Scores are on a scale from 300 to 850. The ranges are:

NerdWallet credit score gauge

NerdWallet’s credit card details pages and information boxes tell you what kind of score you need to be considered for each card.

  • Excellent: 720 to 850
  • Good: 690 to 719
  • Average: 630 to 689
  • Poor: Under 630

If you have good credit, skip ahead to the next section. Otherwise, read on.

Even if you have poor credit, you still have options. You can apply for a secured credit card, where you deposit a certain amount of money with a credit card issuer to establish your line of credit. The deposit reduces the risk to the issuer, so these cards are available to many people with bad credit or no credit history. Secured cards are reported to the credit bureaus, so using one responsibly will build your credit history.

SOME NerdWallet favoriteS: SECURED

The Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee is the rare secured credit card that offers rewards — 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. It has an annual fee of $0, and after seven months, Discover will review your account to see whether you’re eligible for an upgrade to an unsecured card.

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee

Apply Now on Discover's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 350
    689
    Poor - Average
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • No annual fee
    • 10.99% on balance transfers for 6 months

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 23.74% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.74%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.

    Intro APR

    • 10.99% on Balance Transfers for 6 months
  • Additional Information
    • No Annual Fee, cash back on every purchase, and helps you build your credit with responsible use.
    • A security deposit of $200 or more will establish your credit line (up to the amount we can approve). Automatic monthly reviews starting at 7 months to see if we can transition you to an account with no security deposit.
    • Reports to the three major credit bureaus. Plus, get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
    • Earn 2% cash back at restaurants & gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, 1% cash back on all your other purchases.
    • Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
    • Tools to assist you; email alerts, text reminders and 24/7 customer service.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

The Capital One® Secured Mastercard®is another great option. It, too, has an annual fee of $0. You can get a $200 credit limit with a deposit as low as $49, depending on your creditworthiness. Make your first five monthly payments on time, and you could get access to a higher credit line with no additional deposit needed.

Capital One® Secured Mastercard®

Capital One® Secured Mastercard®

Apply Now on Capital One's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 350
    629
    Poor
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Qualify with limited / bad credit
    • No annual fee
    • No foreign transaction fee

    Cons

    • No rewards
    • High APR

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 24.99% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 24.99%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    None

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • No annual fee, and all the credit building benefits with responsible card use
    • Unlike a prepaid card, it builds credit when used responsibly, with regular reporting to the 3 major credit bureaus
    • You will get an initial $200 credit line after making a security deposit of $49, $99, or $200, determined based on your creditworthiness
    • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time with no additional deposit needed
    • Easily manage your account 24/7 with online access, by phone or using our mobile app
    • It’s a credit card accepted at millions of locations worldwide

» MORE OPTIONS: Compare secured credit cards


Decide among low interest, 0% or rewards

In general, you can choose a credit card with a low ongoing interest rate, or you can choose one that gives you rewards. You’re probably not going to get both in the same card. However, some rewards cards will give you an introductory period at 0% interest, after which the usual rate kicks in.

The decision is fairly easy: If you expect that you’ll regularly carry a balance from one month to the next, choose a low-interest card. If you’ll be paying your balance in full each month, choose a rewards card. If you’re currently carrying a high-interest balance, think about transferring it to one with a 0% period to pay it off without interest.

If you think a rewards card is right for you, skip to the next section. Otherwise, read on.

Nearly all cards charge a balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the amount being charged. (Two exceptions are the Chase Slate®, which has no balance transfer fee in the first 60 days, and the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard®, which never charges a transfer fee.)

The best balance transfer cards have a long 0% period, and in many cases the 0% APR applies not only to balance transfers but also to new purchases. Check the ongoing APR to see what interest rate you’ll be paying on any remaining balance or new purchases after the 0% period is up. The most cost-effective strategy is to pay off transferred balances before the no-interest period ends, and then pay your balance in full each month.

SOME NerdWallet favorites: 0%

The Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever has one of the longest no-interest periods available anywhere: 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 21 months, and then the ongoing APR of 14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR. The annual fee is $0.

Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever

Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever

Apply Now on Citibank's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • No late fee
    • No annual fee
    • 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 21 months

    Cons

    • No rewards

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR

    Bonus Offers

    0% on purchases and balance transfers for 21 months

    Intro APR

    • 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 21 months
  • Additional Information
    • The ONLY card with No Late Fees, No Penalty Rate, and No Annual Fee… EVER.
    • 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers and Purchases for 21 months. After that, the variable APR will be 14.24% - 24.24% based on your creditworthiness.
    • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
    • The same great rate for all balances, after the introductory period.
    • Save time when you call with fast, personal help, 24 hours a day – just say “representative”
    • Enjoy the convenience of setting up your own bill payment schedule on any available due date throughout the month.

The Discover it® - 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer gives you a long 0% period for balance transfers — plus rewards that will make you want to keep using the card after the 0% period ends. You earn 5% cash back in rotating monthly categories that you activate, on up to $1,500 per quarter in spending, and 1% cash back on everything else.

Discover it® - 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer

Discover it® - 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer

Apply Now on Discover's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Bonus cash back categories
    • No annual fee
    • 0% on Purchases for 6 months and 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months
    • No foreign transaction fee

    Cons

    • Slightly less merchant acceptance for Discover in US - acceptance outside of US can be an issue
    • If you value simplicity, a flat rate cash back card may be better

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 11.74% - 23.74% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.74%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically.

    Intro APR

    • 0% on Purchases for 6 months and 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months
  • Additional Information
    • You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
    • Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like gas stations, Amazon.com, restaurants, wholesale clubs and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
    • Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.
    • 100% U.S. based customer service.
    • Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
    • No annual fee.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

» MORE OPTIONS: Compare low-interest cards
» MORE OPTIONS: Compare balance-transfer credit cards


Choose between cash-back and travel rewards

This decision may also be an easy one. If you travel a lot, want rewards you can redeem for travel or would like airline or hotel perks, you’re a good fit for a travel rewards card. Cash-back cards, on the other hand, give you the most flexible reward of all: cash, which you can use to reduce your balance or even receive as a check or deposit in your bank account (depending on the card). Travel rewards cards tend to charge an annual fee, whereas most cash-back cards do not.

If you want a travel rewards card, skip to the next section. Otherwise, read on.

Cash-back credit cards are the most popular type of rewards card, and they come in three basic varieties. Which one is right for you depends on how you spend money and how much appetite you have for actively managing your credit card rewards:

  • Flat-rate cards pay the same cash-back rate — say 1%, 1.5% or 2% — on all purchases. They require no additional effort, since the same rate always applies.
  • Tiered cards pay higher rates in specific categories, such as gas or groceries, and 1% everywhere else. With these cards, you need to remember which one to pull out depending on where you’re shopping.
  • Rotating category cards pay 5% cash back in categories that change every three months and 1% on everything else. They require the most work: To get the high 5% rewards rate, you have to opt in to the bonus categories every quarter.

SOME nerdwallet favorites: CASH BACK

If you’re keeping things simple, go with a flat-rate card. The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer, for example, pays 1% cash back on every dollar you spend and then another 1% back on every dollar you pay back.

Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer

Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer

Apply Now on Citibank's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • High rewards rate
    • No annual fee
    • 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR
    • Penalty APR: Up to 29.99%, Variable
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.99%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Earn cash back twice on every purchase

    Intro APR

    • 0% on Balance Transfers for 18 months
  • Additional Information
    • Earn cash back twice on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.
    • Balance Transfers do not earn cash back
    • 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 14.24% - 24.24% based on your creditworthiness
    • Click 'Apply Now' to see the applicable balance transfer fee and how making a balance transfer impacts interest on purchases.
    • No categories to track, no caps on cash back, no annual fee*

Several other flat-rate cards pay 1.5% upfront on every purchase, including the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card and the Chase Freedom Unlimited℠.

When looking at tiered cards, choose those with bonus categories that align with your spending. If you spend a lot on groceries, for example, check out the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. It pays 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 a year in spending (then 1%), unlimited 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select department stores, and 1% back on everything else. (Terms apply.)

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Apply Now on American Express's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • No annual fee
    • 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 13.74% - 24.74% Variable APR
    • Penalty APR: Up to 29.99%, Variable
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.99%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    $100 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months. Terms Apply.

    Intro APR

    • 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 12 months
  • Additional Information
    • $100 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
    • No annual fee.
    • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).
    • 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores, 1% back on other purchases.
    • Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable rate, currently 13.74% to 24.74%.
    • Expanding merchant acceptance: Over 1 million more places in the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in the last year.
    • Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be easily redeemed for statement credits, gift cards, and merchandise.
    • Terms Apply.

If you’re a hardcore grocery shopper, check out the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which gives you 6% back at supermarkets (on up to $6,000 a year in spending) but has a $95 annual fee. If you spend more on dining out than eating in, consider the Capital One® Premier Dining Rewards Credit Card, which pays an unlimited 3% cash back at restaurants, 2% at grocery stores and 1% everywhere else.

In bonus category cards, the Discover it® - Cashback Match™ gives you 5% cash back in rotating categories that you activate, on up to $1,500 per quarter in spending, and 1% on all other purchases. The Chase Freedom® offers similar terms. With these cards, recent bonus categories have included such things as grocery stores, gas stations, Amazon.com and restaurants.

Discover it® - Cashback Match™

Discover it® - Cashback Match™

Apply Now on Discover's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Cash back match at the end of your first year
    • Bonus cash back categories
    • No annual fee
    • 0% on purchases for 14 months and 0% on balance transfers for 14 months

    Cons

    • Slightly less merchant acceptance for Discover in US - acceptance outside of US can be an issue
    • If you value simplicity, a flat rate cash back card may be better

    Annual Fees

    $0

    APR

    • APR: 11.74% - 23.74% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.74%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.

    Intro APR

    • 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 14 months
  • Additional Information
    • You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
    • Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like gas stations, Amazon.com, restaurants, wholesale clubs and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
    • Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.
    • 100% U.S. based customer service.
    • Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
    • No annual fee.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

» MORE OPTIONS: Compare cash-back credit cards


Choose a general or co-branded travel card

There are two basic kinds of travel credit cards:

  • General travel cards give you points that you can redeem for travel expenses. These cards are more flexible, since you can use your points to book with any airline or hotel, or redeem them for credit on your statement against any travel purchase.
  • Co-branded cards give you points in a specific airline’s or hotel chain’s loyalty program. They’re not as flexible as general travel cards, but they usually offer perks that general cards can’t match.

Most travel cards — both general and co-branded — charge an annual fee. And most good travel cards offer sign-up bonuses worth hundreds of dollars.

SOME NERDWALLET FAVORITES: GENERAL TRAVEL

A longtime Nerd favorite, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, gives you 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar on everything else. When you use points to book travel through Chase, points are worth 1.25 cents apiece. You can also transfer points to several major airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • A large bonus
    • No foreign transaction fee
    • Cool factor - metal card
    • Earn more points on travel and dining at restaurants
    • Premium travel protection benefits

    Cons

    • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, after that $95 per year

    Annual Fees

    $0 for the first year, then $95

    APR

    • APR: 16.74% - 23.74% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.74%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
    • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
    • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
    • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
    • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
    • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards

Another good option, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, gives you 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines; 2 points per dollar at U.S. restaurants, gas stations and supermarkets; and 1 point per dollar everywhere else. (Terms and limitations apply.)

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card gives you an unlimited 2 miles per dollar spent on every purchase. Miles can be used to book travel or redeemed for statement credit against travel purchases; in both cases, miles are worth 1 cent apiece.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Apply Now on Capital One's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • High rewards rate
    • No foreign transaction fee
    • Flexible redemption for travel

    Cons

    • Has annual fee

    Annual Fees

    $0 for the first year, then $59

    APR

    • APR: 13.74% - 23.74% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 23.74%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

    Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $400 in travel

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $400 in travel
    • Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
    • Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
    • Travel when you want with no blackout dates
    • Miles don't expire and there’s no limit to how many you can earn
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • $0 intro annual fee for the first year; $59 after that
    • Get a metal Venture Card when you apply today

» MORE OPTIONS: Compare travel credit cards

SOME NERDWALLET FAVORITES: CO-BRANDED

Airline credit cards 

Depending on where you live, you might have a great deal of choice in which airline you fly, or you may have very little. Either way, if you travel frequently and can (or must) do so on a single airline, it can be worth it to carry that airline’s credit card. You’ll earn frequent-flyer points with every purchase (and usually extra points with airline purchases), and you may get free checked bags, upgrades or other perks. Cards for major carriers include (click on a link to learn more or apply):

» MORE OPTIONS: NerdWallet’s best airline credit cards

Hotel credit cards 

With co-branded hotel cards, each purchase earns you points in a hotel chain’s loyalty program, and purchases at that hotel chain earn extra points. Points can be redeemed for free nights, and the card often entitles you to room upgrades and other perks. Co-branded cards for major chains include (click on a link to learn more or apply):

» MORE OPTIONS: NerdWallet’s best hotel credit cards


Additional resources

  • Each year, the Nerds choose the best credit cards in each category. See our picks and apply here.
  • NerdWallet also keeps track of the best current offers. Find them here.
  • Our credit card comparison tool shows you cards in different categories and lets you sort by credit score, fees and other characteristics. Check it out here.

Virginia C. McGuire and Ellen Cannon are staff writers at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ecannon@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ellencannon.