A credit card is like a very sharp knife: It can either be an invaluable tool or a dangerous weapon.

Used responsibly, a credit card can make it easier to manage your monthly cash flow and track your expenses. Thanks to credit card grace periods, using a credit card can be completely free if you pay back all of your charges each month. And as a bonus, some credit cards pay cash back or other rewards.

If you’re an adult with a steady job and a track record of on-time payments to student loans or car loans, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a credit card. Learn how to apply for a credit card online and what to expect on a credit card application.

Be at least 21 years old or 18 with either a parent’s permission or a verifiable source of income

The CARD Act of 2009 is designed to prevent banks from certain dangerous practices, like marketing credit products to young adults without the income to repay their obligations. If you’re under 21, you can still get a credit card, but you may need to provide documentation that proves you have your own source of income—or a parent’s permission.

Have a Social Security number

In general, you’ll need to have a Social Security number to establish a credit history. Non-citizens without a Social Security number will not likely be able to get a credit card.

Have a source of income

Credit card applications will always ask for your estimated monthly income. Banks aren’t going to lend money if you don’t have a way to repay the debt.

You don’t have to report all of your income, just the income you want to be considered as “available” to repay your credit card. This isn’t to say a bank couldn’t one day come after all of your income if you fail to pay, but it might be the responsible thing to do not to include income earmarked for other things (for example, child support) on a credit card application.

Your reported income is one of many factors a bank will use to decide whether to approve your application and how much of a credit limit to extend. In most cases, income reporting is on an honor system, but the bank could ask for proof of income (such as a pay stub or W-2) in certain situations.

If you’re a full-time college student, you may qualify for a student credit card even if you only earn a little bit of money from part-time work.

Have a positive credit history

Unsecured credit cards require applicants to have established credit histories. Most cards require good credit scores of 700 or more, although some cards designed for fair credit, like the Capital One® Platinum Credit Card may accept applicants with lower scores.

Some of the best offers may require up to a minimum of seven years’ good credit history, but you can generally get a sense of the kind of credit score required before you apply to a particular credit card.

In general, credit cards with more lenient application requirements will have higher fees and interest rates. You’ll want to proceed carefully, but such cards can still be a good way to continue building your credit history.

If you don’t yet have a credit history or have very poor credit, you’ll need to look into a secured credit card. A secured credit card requires you make a deposit (usually between $200 and $1,000) into a bank account before you can open the account.

How to apply for a credit card

The first step is to find a suitable credit card for your needs. Money Under 30 recommends dozens of credit cards from our partners here. These listings include rewards credit cards for excellent credit, cards with low APRs and even cards for applicants with limited or fair credit.

Once you find a card you like, you’ll complete a basic credit card application.

Here, let’s break down a typical credit card application. This sample is from a credit card direct mail promotion I received. Online applications ask the same information and, obviously, the benefit of applying online is that you may receive a decision in as little as a few minutes. These days, you can even complete an online credit card application on your phone!

How to apply for a credit card: Sample application

How to apply for a credit card: Sample application

A credit card application typically asks for you:

  • Name, date of birth and Social Security number
  • Gross annual income
  • Housing situation

(Homeowner, renter, or living with others) and your monthly housing payment. This information, along with your income, is used to determine how much disposable income you might have and, consequently, your credit limit.

  • Time at current residence

Credit applications ask how long you’ve lived at your current address for two reasons. First, your address helps verify it’s you, not an identity thief, applying. What if your application doesn’t match your credit report? You won’t automatically be declined, but the bank will take a closer look.

Secondly, a bank may consider how long you’ve lived in one place as a risk signal. Statistically, people who live in one place are more likely to have stable jobs and pay their debts. Moving frequently may indicate trouble holding work. It’s not to say living at your address for less than two years means you’ll be declined—it’s just one of many factors.

  • Your signature and date

A credit card application is a legal document. If the bank ever attempts to collect a debt from you in court, they will need to produce evidence that proves you opened this account. An online signature can serve this purpose, too.

Optional fields on a credit card application

Some applications may ask the following additional questions:

Authorized users

You may be able to add authorized users to your account, in which case the bank will ask for their names (and, in some cases, SSNs and DOBs). These users will receive a card in their name and be able to make purchases with the card. Keep in mind, however, that authorized users are not cosigners. You alone will be responsible for making all payments on the account.

Balances to transfer

If the card allows balance transfers, you may request to have balances transferred from other credit card accounts to the new card. If you want to do a balance transfer, you’ll need to put down:

  • Creditor name
  • Account number
  • Payment address
  • Transfer amount

Keep in mind that you usually cannot transfer balances from other accounts at the same bank and the bank may only allow you to transfer a portion of the balance you request. Learn more about how to apply for balance transfers, and how the transfers work, here.

What happens next

That’s it! Credit card applications are quick and straightforward. If you have applied online, you may either receive an instant decision or be contacted within a few days. Paper applications will take a week or two to process.

After you get your credit card is when the fun starts. You can start using your card to build credit, earn rewards, or pay off debt.

Build credit

If you want to build credit, you’ll need to look into applying for cards like the Capital One® Secured Mastercard® or the Discover it® Secured.

Both require a down payment, but you’ll be able to raise your credit card limit quickly with timely monthly payments.

Start earning rewards

If you choose to apply for a rewards credit card, you can start earning rewards for purchases you already planned on making. Just put them on your card and pay it off in full every month!

Consider applying for cards such as the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card or the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card.

The latter offers a whopping 4% on entertainment and dining, 2% on groceries, and 1% on everything else. It doesn’t get much better than that!

If travel rewards are more your game, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card offers unlimited 1.5 points per dollar.

Pay off debt

If you’re looking to pay down debt, balance transfer credit cards should be your go-to cards.

The Chase Freedom® is my personal favorite when it comes to balance transfer cards, because it also offers 5% cash back on rotating categories.

You could also go with the Discover it® Balance Transfer.

Summary

To apply for a credit card in the US, you’ll need a valid Social Security number and a positive credit history. The best rewards credit cards may require at least three to five years of good credit history, and some more than seven. If your credit file is thin, don’t be discouraged if you are turned down for a credit card; it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have bad credit.

Credit card applications are simple. You’ll provide information about your identity, your income and, if desired, details about authorized users or balance transfer requests. The bank may inform you of their decision immediately online or within 7 to 10 business days via mail.

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