How to Get Your First Credit Card

Plus, how to use it wisely and earn the lowest interest rates.

If you’re smart about when and how you use it, a credit card can help you build a solid credit history and boost your credit score. That will help you get a lower rate when you apply for a mortgage or other loan.

QUIZ: The Truth About Credit and Debt

Qualifying for your first credit card can be a pain because you may not have much of a credit record. Check with your bank or credit union, which may offer its customers a break. Or apply for a retail credit card, such as the Target REDcard or the Chevron/Texaco gas card. Retail cards are often easier to get than other cards, although they typically come with high annual percentage rates and low spending limits. A third option: a secured credit card, which requires you to make a cash deposit. On-time student-loan payments also help you build a good credit history.

It’s easy to rack up a big balance quickly, and if you don’t pay off the full balance each billing cycle, you’ll owe interest. Pay only the minimum and you’ll be paying for a while. For example, if you charge $2,000 on a credit card with a 22% interest rate and make a $60 payment every month, it will take more than four years to pay it off—and you'll fork over $1,119 in interest. You may find that the best way to control your cash flow is to use a debit card or prepaid debit card—once you spend the money, it’s gone.

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Many credit cards carry perks such as extended warranties and purchase protection, which may get you a repair, replacement or reimbursement for an item you bought with the card that is damaged or stolen within a certain period after purchase. And some rewards cards offer up to 5% or 6% cash back on certain purchases, such as groceries or gas. (You’ll need a solid credit history to qualify for the best rewards cards.) Compare annual percentage rates and fees, such as annual and late-payment fees.

Know the Score

Credit scores are based on information from your credit history, and they’re a shorthand way for lenders to judge your creditworthiness. There are many credit scores, but lenders commonly use the FICO score when you apply for credit. You often have to pay to see your FICO score—and the version that you buy may not be the same one a lender views. The VantageScore is another gauge that lenders use, though it hasn’t been as widely adopted as the FICO score. The latest version of the VantageScore operates on the same scale as the FICO score (300 to 850), but it’s calculated with a different formula.

Don’t get caught up trying to track every score. To get an idea of where your credit stands and how you can improve it, use free tools such as Credit.com (opens in new tab), which provides two credit scores based on information from the credit bureau Experian. CreditKarma.com (opens in new tab) offers free scores based on Equifax and Trans­Union information (it also has an app).

To protect your credit score, always make your payment by the due date, even if it’s the minimum. Missing just one payment can ding your score. You should also keep the balance on your credit card low compared with the card’s maximum limit. Ideally, your charges won’t exceed about 20% of the card’s limit. And don’t apply for several credit cards in a short time. That can tug down your score. Credit.com and Credit Karma both provide insight on how each portion of your score stacks up.

Check Your Credit Reports

At www.annualcreditreport.com (opens in new tab), you can get a free credit report annually from each of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your reports list your credit accounts, including loans and credit cards, and provide information such as your record of on-time payments, the age of each account, and inquiries from lenders to check your report. Credit reports also point out any delinquencies, such as a bankruptcy or an account that went into debt collection. You can request all three of your free reports at once or stagger them throughout the year, ordering a report every four months.

If information on any of the reports is incorrect, you’ll have to correct it with each bureau that has the erroneous information. The procedure is spelled out on each bureau’s Web site.

QUIZ: Will It Sink Your Credit Score?

You can use free credit-monitoring tools to get e-mail alerts of changes in your credit reports. Credit Karma, Credit Sesame and WalletHub will all monitor your TransUnion report free, and Credit Sesame (opens in new tab) does the same for your Experian report. If you get a notifi­cation that, say, a new credit account has been opened but you didn’t open it, you can investigate further in case someone has stolen your identity.

Pick Your Plastic

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 ProsCons
Strongest fraud protectionsHelps build credit historyPerks such as purchase protection and travel insuranceRewards, such as points for travel or cash back, on some cardsTemptation to accumulate debtLate feesSome cards have an annual feeHigh interest rates compared with home and car loans
Limits spending to what you have in the bankNo monthly payments or interest chargesUsing it may fulfill requirement for no-fee checkingHigh fees if you allow overdraftsWeaker fraud protection than a credit cardDoesn't build credit historyMay be harder to use for hotel and rental-car reservations
Limits overspendingSome have direct deposit, ATM access and online bill-payingEasier to acquire if you have poor creditMay charge high activation fee and monthly maintenance chargesFewer fraud protectionsDoesn't build credit history

This story was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

Lisa Gerstner
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Lisa has spent more than15 years with Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and heads up the magazine’s annual rankings of the best banks, best rewards credit cards, and financial-services firms with the best customer service. She reports on a variety of other topics, too, from retirement to health care to money concerns for millennials. She has shared her expertise as a guest on the Today Show, CNN, Fox, NPR, Cheddar and many other media outlets around the nation. Lisa graduated from Ball State University and received the school’s “Graduate of the Last Decade” award in 2014. A military spouse, she has moved around the U.S. and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two sons.