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How to compare credit cards using our side-by-side tool

To compare credit cards well, the key is to identify the features that are most important to you and to know what a good offer looks like. There’s no such thing as a “best credit card for everybody” — but everybody can find a card that’s right for them. The best credit card for you might be a cash-back card with no annual fee. Or it might be a travel rewards card with an annual fee but plenty of perks. Or something else.

Our online credit card comparison tool allows you to evaluate cards side by side. You can compare travel cards against each other, for example, or only compare American Express cards, or even put a cash-back card up against a 0% interest card to see which appeals to you more. Our tool lets you compare two credit cards or build a three-card comparison to make a decision easier.

Compare cards on these fundamental features

When comparing credit cards, the first big decision concerns the type of card you’re looking for. What do you want that card to do for you? Our card comparison tool identifies the things each card is great for, such as rewards, balance transfers or bad credit.

In general, there are three types of credit cards:

  1. Cards that earn rewards when you make purchases.

  2. Cards that save you money on interest.

  3. Cards that help you build or rebuild credit.

The best card for you is one with features that meet your specific needs. If you don't travel much, for example, then the best travel card in the world isn't going to do you a lot of good. Compare cards within their own type.

The annual fee is a fundamental consideration when comparing credit cards. In effect, it offsets the value of the rewards and perks on the card. However, in comparing cards, you’ll find that rewards and benefits tend to be significantly better on cards that charge an annual fee. A card with a $95 fee will often deliver far more rewards than a $0 alternative, even after factoring in the fee.

The calculus on whether an annual fee is “worth it” is fairly simple: The value of the card to you should easily outweigh the fee. The rewards rate might be high enough and the perks extensive enough that the fee becomes a bargain — even if the fee is hundreds of dollars a year. If you’re building or rebuilding credit, an annual fee might unlock features that would otherwise be unavailable, such as rewards or the ability to qualify without a credit check.

For those who don’t want to worry about it, there are plenty of choices that charge no annual fee. Just don’t expect top-of-the-line rewards or benefits.

A credit card bonus offer is a promotional incentive to get you to apply for the card and use it regularly. Typically, it’s cash, points or airline miles you can earn if you spend a certain dollar amount on the card in the first few months of card ownership. These incentives go by various names, including “sign-up bonuses,” “welcome offers” and “new cardholder offers.”

When comparing similar credit cards, the bonus offer can be a decisive factor. Compare:

  • Value of bonus. How much is the bonus worth in dollars, taking into account the value of the rewards currency?

  • Required spending. Is meeting the minimum required spending doable — both the amount of spending and the timeframe you have to do it?

The potential to earn a bonus is always a consideration, but even cards that don’t offer one can be worthwhile because their rewards over the long run can make up for the lack of a bonus.

When comparing rewards credit cards, the rewards rate matters. Compare:

  • Base rewards rate. Some cards earn a flat rewards rate on every purchase, often equivalent to 1.5% to 2% of the purchase price. Others have a low base rate, often 1%, and then pay a higher “bonus” rate in specific categories.

  • Bonus categories. When a card pays higher rewards in certain categories — such as restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations and travel services — the elevated rate is triggered not by what you purchase but where you buy it. Card issuers determine whether a purchase earns a higher rate based on the retailer's merchant category code, which usually describes the merchant’s primary business.

  • Bonus rewards rate. Instead of earning the typical 1 point or 1% cash back for each dollar spent, you might earn double, triple or more rewards in the card’s bonus categories. The rewards rate is often written as a multiplier, such as 2X for double points and 3X for triple points. With cash-back cards, you’ll see it written as 2% back or 3% back.

When comparing credit cards with bonus categories, look at the categories and rates together. After all, a 5X rewards rate at, say, restaurants is worthless if you never eat out. Similarly, a rewards rate of 3X points at supermarkets is probably more valuable than 4X points on streaming services because most people spend far more on groceries than on streaming.

Some bonus rewards rates remain in effect for the life of the card while others change periodically or are limited-time offers. And some cards limit how much spending is eligible for the elevated rates. Keep those limitations in mind when comparing credit cards side by side.

The “APR” is the interest rate on a credit card. Many credit cards start you out at 0% interest, or at least with a lower rate, for a number of months after you open the account. That can save you money compared with keeping a balance on a high-interest credit card.

When comparing credit cards with promotional interest rates, check whether the introductory rates apply to new purchases, balance transfers or both.

Here’s what to look for:

  • How long is the 0% APR period? Ideally, you’ll find a card that gives you enough time to pay off your balance interest-free.

  • What does it apply to? A 0% APR period on purchases and balance transfers is better than a promotional rate on just one of those. A single card may have different interest-rate offers for purchases vs. balance transfers.

  • What is the card’s balance transfer policy? If you’re evaluating a card’s balance transfer offer, look up a card’s balance transfer fee. Find out what types of debt you can transfer and whether there’s a limit to how much you can move.

Not all cards have intro APRs. Our side-by-side credit card comparisons show “N/A” for those that don’t.

If you expect to be carrying debt regularly from month to month, the ongoing APR is important. The ongoing APR is the “regular” interest rate on a card — the rate that applies when there isn’t a promotional rate in effect. Lower is better.

Credit cards often list their rates within a range of percentages — say, 14.99% to 22.99%. The lower percentages typically apply to cardholders with better credit. You’ll often see the word “variable,” which means the APR will go up or down when the prime rate does.

In comparing cards, you might see other interest rates listed, such as a “penalty” APR imposed if you pay late, or a higher APR for taking a cash advance.

Some cards don’t have an ongoing APR because they require you to pay off your balance in full every month. These are known as charge cards. Our side-by-side comparison tool shows “N/A” for such cards.

Features beyond those discussed above might be called out in the pros and cons section of our card comparison tool. Other factors to consider when comparing credit cards include:

  • Foreign transaction fees.

  • Premium travel protection benefits.

  • Minimum redemption.

  • Merchant acceptance.

  • Cardholder perks, like access to airport lounges or special events.

  • Complexity to use.

  • Whether points expire.

What matters most to you in a new credit card?

Look for a card identified as great for “Rewards,” “Travel” or “Cash back”

A rewards credit card gives you points, miles or cash back on every dollar you spend. Some give you the same rewards on everything — maybe 1.5% cash back, or 2 travel miles per dollar. Others pay higher rewards rates in specific categories, making them great for flying on a particular airline or buying gas. Many rewards cards allow new cardholders to earn a bonus by spending a certain amount of money early on. (In our side-by-side card comparison tool, those cards are marked as great for “Bonus offers.”)

Rewards cards typically have higher interest rates, so they’re best for people who pay their balance in full every month. Otherwise, high interest can easily offset the value of the rewards you earn.

Look for a card identified as great for “Low interest,” “Balance transfer” or “Zero percent”

A card with an introductory 0% APR or ongoing low interest could be a good match for you if you need to finance a large purchase or if you have irregular income and need to carry a balance from time to time. A balance transfer offer can help you pay off high-interest debt interest-free.

Look for a card identified as great for “Student” or “Secured”

Student credit cards are designed for college students who are new to credit. They’re easier to qualify for than other types of credit cards.

Non-students looking to build credit, or people with bad credit, can take a look at secured credit cards, which generally require a security deposit of $200 or more. Your deposit is usually equal to the credit limit on the card — the more you deposit, the higher your limit. The deposit is returned to you when the account is upgraded or closed in good standing.

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