So you’ve found a killer credit card deal online, with a rock-bottom interest rate and zero annual fees—but the card is issued by a credit union, not a traditional bank. Can you still apply for the credit card without being a member of the credit union?
In most cases, you should be able to apply for the credit card without being a member. Once you’re approved, you’ll need to join the credit union to start using the card; living or working in the credit union’s geographic area often makes you eligible to join. Joining will likely cost a $5 to $10 membership fee, a small price to pay if you’ve found an excellent card.
Why it’s worth joining the credit union
Credit unions are nonprofit financial institutions that are owned and controlled by their members. Since credit unions exist to serve members—not shareholders, like a big bank does—they can pass any profits directly on to members in the form of higher interest rates on savings accounts and lower rates on loans and credit cards. The national average interest rate on traditional credit cards at credit unions was 11.55% as of June 2014, compared to 12.89% at all banks, according to data provided to the National Credit Union Administration from SNL Financial.
In addition, if you miss a payment on a credit union credit card, you’ll take less of a hit than you might with a bank credit card. Federal law prohibits credit unions from charging an APR higher than 18%, even if you miss a payment, while the median penalty APR on bank credit cards is 28.99%, according to Pew Safe Credit Cards Project.
Many credit union credit cards also do not charge balance transfer fees, annual fees, or cash advance fees—and that means more money in your wallet.
How to apply for a credit card
Once you’ve selected a credit union credit card that best fits your needs, you’ll have to apply for a card. You’ll likely be asked to provide some personal information, like your name, Social Security number, bank account number, and your employment and income history.
At the end of the application, you’ll see the card’s terms and conditions, also known as the cardholder agreement. This fine print contains important information that should be read carefully, including how late fees are assessed, how your interest rate is calculated for purchases and cash advances, the penalty APR if you miss a payment, how long your grace period is to avoid paying interest on the balance, whether the credit card has a rewards program and how to earn the rewards, and what the minimum monthly payment will be.
The takeaway: You can likely apply for a credit card at a credit union without being a member, though joining is the final step in securing the card. For the right card, the small membership fee you’ll pay may very well be worth it.
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