How to Choose a Credit Card in 4 Simple Steps

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With so many options available, choosing the best credit card can be a daunting prospect. Pinpointing the best card for you comes down to knowing what you want out of a credit card and what card you can qualify for based on your credit score and other factors.

Start by reviewing your credit score, your goals and the features that matter to you most. Then look at how your top choices stack up against each other. Here are four simple steps to choosing the best credit card.

1. Know Where Your Credit Stands

Before you begin researching cards, learn what cards you're likely to qualify for. Alongside your income, your credit has a big impact on what cards you'll be eligible for. Credit card issuers also look at your credit as a way of deciding your card's interest rate and credit limit. You can check your credit score for free through Experian before you apply for a credit card.

In general, credit card applicants with excellent credit have the most options, and can qualify for credit cards with the best perks, such as competitive rewards credit cards. Applicants with credit scores somewhere in the middle will have a range of options too. Applicants with poor or fair credit have more limited options, but there are starter credit cards specifically designed to help you start building credit—more on this below.

2. Consider Your Goals for Your Card

Some credit cards offer more perks than others, but ultimately, there isn't one credit card out there that's the best one for everybody. The best credit card for you is the one that most aligns with your goals for how you plan to use the card.

To pinpoint the credit card you want, consider these goals and the types of credit cards that best suit them:

  • If you want to build or improve credit: Whether you're brand new to credit or if you need to improve a poor credit score, your best option may be a secured credit card. Secured credit cards work like regular cards, but you'll put down a refundable security deposit when you open your account. The deposit will generally equal your credit limit.
  • If you want to earn rewards: If you're looking for ways to maximize everyday spending, a rewards credit card could be a great option. Rewards cards can earn cash back as well as points or miles that can be redeemed for cash, travel, hotel accommodations or other rewards. Each is ideal for a different type of spending.
  • If you want to finance a big purchase: If your goal for your new credit card is to fund a large purchase you'll pay off over several months, look for a credit card with an introductory 0% APR period. These cards allow you to pay off your balance with no interest for a promotional period.
  • If you want to save on interest: If you're currently shouldering credit card debt that's accruing high interest, a balance transfer credit card with an intro 0% APR can help you save money while you pay down your balance. Be sure to check the card's terms for balance transfer fees—usually charged as a percent of the amount you'll transfer—to ensure the balance transfer is worth it for you.

3. Try a Matchmaking Service

Even after you narrow down your search to one type of credit card, the individual features of the cards on your radar can help you make your final decision.

For example, there's some variation even within the realm of cash back cards: Some cash back cards offer flat-rate rewards, while others offer tiered rewards or rotating bonus rewards categories. Which rewards structure is best for you will depend on how widely you plan to use the card, and where you spend the most—at the grocery store versus at the gas station or at retail stores, for example.

To simplify the process of comparing cards, try viewing personalized credit card offers from Experian CreditMatch™. CreditMatch factors in your credit and preferences and curates a selection of top contenders to help you compare the terms and benefits of the best cards for you.

4. Apply for the Card You Want

Once you've found a card that you're confident is the best for you, you're ready to apply. Before you submit a formal application, it's wise to get prequalified if the card issuer offers it. Prequalification results in a soft credit inquiry that helps a card issuer understand your credit but doesn't affect your credit score. Keep in mind that prequalification doesn't guarantee approval.

Once you're ready to apply, follow the directions on the credit card issuer's site. Provide the required information, which typically includes your Social Security number and other identifying information. When you submit a formal application for credit, the lender will perform a hard credit inquiry, which can temporarily lower your credit score by a few points.

After you submit your application, approval sometimes takes seconds. In other cases, you may have to wait for a decision in the mail. If you're denied the credit card you applied for, the lender will provide you with a reason. There are some steps you can take, including asking for reconsideration and taking steps to improve your credit going forward.

The Bottom Line

Getting approved for a credit card depends in large part on your credit score, so know where your score falls before you apply. You can check your credit report and score for free, or consider signing up for free credit monitoring for an ongoing look at your credit score and personalized alerts when there are changes to your credit report.

If you need to improve your credit before you apply for a card, you have options. Consider Experian Boost®ø, a feature that helps you instantly improve your score by giving you credit for qualified bills you already pay, including utilities, streaming and phone bills.