Introduction to Credit Cards

Westend61 / Getty Images

What you should know about credit cards

Credit card details that you should know before applying for one


Forge a positive and fruitful relationship with credit cards by learning the basics before you apply for an account.

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of our partner offers may have expired. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch™ tool to find cards matched to your needs.

Credit cards require an enormous amount of responsibility if you want to use them without racking up loads of debt that can result in a poor credit score.

If you are just starting out with your first credit card, you might be nervous about the best approach toward responsible spending, or perhaps you’ve been struggling to manage more than one credit card. Keep reading for a list of things to help you understand every credit card in your wallet.

The different types of credit cards

How can you forge a positive and fruitful relationship with credit cards? Before you apply for an account, learn the basics. Understanding the fundamentals — from knowing which types of credit cards exist to the legalities of usage — will help you charge wisely from the moment you receive that powerful piece of plastic.

There are different types of credit cards: general purpose, which you can use anywhere; and private label retail, which you can typically use only at the issuing store or service station.

Most general purpose cards, including some of the top rewards cards, are unsecured, meaning the issuer extends a credit line based mainly on your credit history.

Secured cards, conversely, are backed by funds you put in a deposit account that the creditor can claim if you default. Because creditors assume little risk with secured cards, qualifying for one is relatively easy, so they’re ideal for those with damaged or unestablished credit.

There are four processing networks for credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover. The card issuer’s name is printed on the front: Capital One, Chase, Citi and so on. If the issuer is not listed on the front, it will be on the back of your card or you can check your billing statement.

There’s no perfect number of credit cards

There is no perfect number of credit cards one “should” hold. A couple of general-purpose cards, however, should suit most consumers’ needs.

If you want a retail card, make sure it’s for a store you frequent often and that it offers an incentive for using it. Retail cards typically charge higher interest rates than general purpose cards.

You should make the decision to get more than one card based on your financial goals and needs. If you can manage more than one responsibly, it could benefit you in the long run.

Understanding your card’s interest rates

Credit card interest rates can range dramatically – from 0 percent, limited-time balance transfer offers to as high as 30 percent. The average credit card interest rate is 16.71 percent.

Creditors use factors including your credit score, income, assets, current debt load, credit inquiries, payment history and economic conditions to set your annual percentage rate (APR).

Who receives the best (lowest) rates? Consumers with positive and proven credit histories.

The importance of comparing cards

Banks, credit unions, retailers and credit card companies all issue credit cards. Visa and MasterCard are companies that help process payments; they don’t issue cards.

Before you choose a card, you need to ask yourself how you intend to use it. Do you need a card for everyday purchases? Do you need one with a stellar rewards program because you travel frequently or dine out at restaurants often? Do you need a balance transfer card to pay off debt? This targeted search approach can also protect your credit rating from too many unnecessary inquiries.

The contract is binding

Read the agreement carefully because once you sign, you form a legal contract and consent to the terms set by the issuer. These include:

  • Credit line/limit: This is the total amount you may charge, including interest and fees.
  • Annual percentage rate (APR): This is the interest charged on carried-over balances. It usually stipulates a higher rate for paying late, charging beyond your limit, balance transfers and cash advances.
  • Interest calculation method: Most issuers calculate interest charges by averaging the daily account balance, then multiplying that figure by the periodic rate (APR divided by the number of days in a year).
  • Fixed or variable APR: Fixed-rate APRs have consistent interest rates. Variable APRs are tied to an index (often the prime lending rate, which is set by the Federal Reserve) and thus fluctuate.
  • Grace period: The grace period is the number of days (generally between 20 and 30) you have to pay in full before interest accrues.
  • Fees: Ordinary fees include those for cash advances, balance transfers, paying late, exceeding your credit limit and sometimes an annual fee.

Be aware that most creditors reserve the right to change any of these terms — so check your mail for adjustment notices.

The annual fee and monthly due date

Each time you charge, you borrow money.

Because credit cards offer a revolving balance option, however, you aren’t required to pay the entire loan — as long as you make at least the minimum requested payment, you can carry the remainder over to the next month. You should avoid paying just the minimum payment because interest will be added to the balance.

Bottom line

Ultimately, there is no secret to using credit cards wisely. If you take advantage of cards with 0 percent intro APR or cards with no annual fee — while also always paying your bill in full each month — charging is free. The key is to always stay on top of your spending so your balance doesn’t set you back at the end of each billing cycle. And if your card has a good rewards program, you can come out ahead by maximizing what you earn.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

Credit Card Rate Report
Cash Back

Questions or comments?

Contact us

Editorial corrections policies

Learn more