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Can I Apply for a Credit Card If I’m Unemployed?

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Can I Apply for a Credit Card If I'm Unemployed?

Being unemployed doesn’t automatically disqualify you from getting a credit card. Credit card issuers are more interested in your income than your job. They also look at your credit history, credit score and existing debt.

You can meet the income requirement even without a job by including on your application any income you have access to. Even if your income comes up short, rest easy. You still have options to build or maintain credit. 

» MORE: How to apply for a credit card so you’ll get approved

Listing income on your application

Think about the income you’re relying on to get by while you’re unemployed. If you’re over 21, the Credit Card Act of 2009 allows you to list any household income to which you have a “reasonable expectation of access.” This includes income from your spouse or partner as well as sources of nonwage income such as investment returns or Social Security payments. If you’ve lost your job, you can include unemployment benefits on your application. 

Getting approved for a credit card depends on your income, your credit history and your debt-to-income ratio, which is your current debt payments as a percentage of your income. If you’re approved, your credit limit will depend on your income and debt-to-income ratio. 

The Credit Card Act requires lenders to consider your ability to make your payments when you apply for a credit card. That’s why some of them also look into your payment obligations such as your rent or mortgage, alimony or debts.

» MORE: How to report income on your credit card application 

When your income isn’t enough

If you don’t have enough income to qualify for a credit card on your own, you’re still not shut out completely. Here are three options:

Recruit a co-signer with a good credit score and steady income. Some credit card issuers allow a co-signer — a friend or family member who agrees to make payments when you can’t. You will still be responsible for the payments; the co-signer is simply a fallback. This is a big favor to ask of someone. You’ll want to keep up with payments to avoid jeopardizing your co-signer’s credit score and yours.

Become an authorized user on someone’s credit card. A friend or family member can make you an authorized user on their account. You’ll get a card with your name on it that’s linked to their account. They will be responsible for making the payments. You can work out an agreement with them to decide on a spending limit and payment plan. Stick to the plan to avoid hurting the primary cardholder’s credit score. You’re now tied to their credit score, so it could affect you, too. Some card issuers report an authorized user’s credit activity to credit bureaus.

Get a secured credit card. Secured cards require a security deposit as collateral in case you don’t pay your bill. The amount you deposit determines your credit limit. Because of the deposit, it’s generally easier to qualify for a secured card than a regular, unsecured card, and the income requirements may be less stringent. You get your deposit back when you close the account or upgrade to a regular credit card.

» MORE: Check your credit score for free with NerdWallet 

Unemployment doesn’t have to be a barrier to credit card approval if you have good credit and a source of income you can use to pay the bills. But whether you’re unemployed or you have a job, use your credit card wisely. Don’t charge more than you can afford, and aim to pay your bill in full every month to avoid interest. If that’s not realistic given your employment situation, resolve to pay off your balance as soon as you get back on your feet.

Melissa Lambarena and Erin El Issa are staff writers at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mlambarena@nerdwallet.com or erin@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena or @Erin_El_Issa.