Make the most out of your new credit card by taking advantage of sign-up bonuses. Bonus offers can come in the form of cash back, miles or points, usually after meeting a minimum spend. Browse cards with exceptional sign-up bonuses from our partners and kick start your rewards earnings.
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Updated: March 20, 2018
Sign-up bonuses abound in today’s rewards credit card market. Cash back cards, co-branded travel cards, general-purpose travel cards – the choices can seem limitless.
A sign-up bonus can often be a signal that the card has better ongoing rewards, so they are worth a look. You’ll also want to study the card’s minimum spending requirement and the timeframe in which you need to spend it. Here, we look at:
Whether you want to understand just what are sign-up bonuses or how they differ from cards with no sign-up bonus, we can help.
A sign-up bonus is an incentive offered by a rewards credit card – often in the form cash back, miles, points or free hotel nights – for opening and using the card.
In order to earn the sign-up bonus, you usually have to meet a spending requirement of some sort – spending a certain amount in a specified amount of time, making a certain number of purchases or making at least one purchase with the card. Depending on the type of card, you can then redeem the bonus for a specified reward (e.g., cash back) or you may have a variety of options for redeeming the bonus -- such as cash back, travel, merchandise or gift cards.
Not all bonuses are created equal. Some are more valuable than others, and some are more flexible and easier to redeem than others. Also, not every new cardholder will qualify for a bonus, so, before you apply, you should read the card’s fine print.
A sign-up offer will usually include the following features:
Sign-up bonuses are a popular tactic for attracting new cardholders to apply for a card and our data indicates that most rewards credit cards offer a sign-up bonus of some sort. Of the 130 rewards cards we have reviewed, only 17 of them don’t offer a sign-up bonus.
Also, the data show that point- and mile-based cards tend to offer larger sign-up bonuses than cash back cards (with larger spending thresholds). The median bonus for points and miles cards in our database is 25,000 miles or points with a median spending threshold of $2,000. In comparison, the median bonus for a cash back card is only $100 with a $500 spending threshold.
In other words, if you want to earn a large sign up bonus, you’ll want to look at point- and mile-based cards, but … you’re going to need to spend a lot to earn the bonus, and you’ll have less flexibility on redeeming the bonus than you would with cash back.
Maybe your first impulse is to sign up for the offer with the largest bonus attached to it, but there’s more to it than that. Here is what you consider in trying to find the best sign-up bonus for you.
Are you looking for cash back, points or airline miles/hotel points? Cash back is the simplest option. A points-based bonus will give you a lot of options and flexibility. Airline miles – while often extremely valuable – can be complicated and difficult to redeem. Finally, hotel points are often inflated -- thus making the bonus seem larger than it actually is – but can still be very valuable, if you are OK with using your points strictly for hotel stays within a specific hotel chain.
In other words, you need to decide what you want to do with your bonus, and whether you prefer value or flexibility.
Before you get carried away by a sign-up bonus with a lot of zeros floating behind, you need to consider whether you can afford to spend enough to reach the spending threshold in time without driving yourself into debt.
Don’t just spring for the first offer that you find – do some research. Depending on the card, the amount of the sign-up bonus can fluctuate over time, so you should check the card’s bonus history to see if the offer is at a high point or if it is likely to increase soon. Also, you should check around to see if you can qualify for a special offer with a larger sign-up bonus.
The value of a point is not constant. Points from different issuers have different values, and even points from different cards from the same issuer can vary in value. To make it even more complex, points can gain or lose value over time, as issuers add or subtract options. So take a look at what the points/miles are worth and what you can get with the bonus before you apply for it, and then keep an eye out for any announcements from the card’s points program.
You shouldn’t automatically nix a card with an annual fee. If you do the math, you’ll often find that annual fee cards – due to larger sign-up bonuses and higher rewards values – offer the best value, even with a fee. But you need to be sure you can afford to pay a fee and that you’ll redeem the rewards in a timely enough manner to make the fee worth it.
Before you apply for a card hoping to snag a giant bonus, you should take a look at the card’s terms and conditions to make sure you qualify to earn a sign-up bonus. Many issuers will not award a bonus if you’ve previously owned the card. And some issuers – including Chase with its “5/24” rule – won’t give you a bonus if you’ve signed up for too many cards recently. Here’s a summary of sign-up bonus policies:
|American Express||You can only earn the bonus for a particular card once in a lifetime (includes personal and small business cards).|
|Chase||You can reapply for the same bonus 24 months after earning the bonus and closing the card. You are not eligible for a sign-up bonus if you’ve opened more than five accounts in the past 24 months (including authorized user accounts but not including business card accounts).|
|Citi||You can only earn one sign-up bonus per card brand every 24 months (e.g., Citi ThankYou Preferred, Premier and Prestige cards).|
|Barclaycard||According to terms and conditions for most cards, only first-time cardholders qualify for a bonus (however, you may be able to earn the bonus more than once).|
|Bank of America||No restrictions on earning a sign-up bonus more than once.|
|Discover||No restrictions on earning a sign-up bonus more than once.|
|U.S. Bank||According to terms and conditions, cardholders who have previously had an account for the same type of card won’t qualify for a bonus.|
Signing up for the right bonus at the right time and taking care in how you reach the minimum spending threshold can help you take your bonus the extra mile. Here are some tips to squeeze more value out of your sign-up bonus:
Credit card issuers frequently adjust the bonus amounts on many of the credit cards. You should look at the history of the bonus for that card, to see if it changes frequently, and if it’s likely to increase any time in the near future.
Sometimes issuers offer sign-up bonuses to targeted groups of cardholders that are larger than the offers advertised on their sites. Visit the issuer’s site often, check your mail or call the issuer directly to find out if you qualify for a special offer.
Some issuers will award you the larger bonus amount if the offer increases after you sign up for the card. If the bonus goes up before the introductory period expires, call your issuer to see if you can qualify for the larger bonus.
Many issuers will allow you and your spouse to sign up for the same card separately – yes, even if your spouse is already an authorized user on your account -- which means you can earn twice the number of bonus points if you and your spouse both sign up for the same card.
You’ll need to keep issuers policies – such as Chase’s 5/24 rule and American Express’s once-in-a-lifetime limit on sign-up bonuses – in mind when deciding which cards to apply for. For instance, if you know that an issuer puts a limit on the number of new accounts you can have in a certain time frame, you might want to apply for those cards first, in case you cancel them and want to reapply to earn the bonus later down the line.
Avoid using your card to pay for products or services that charge a fee to use credit cards. For example, some utility companies and providers such as contractors or plumbers may charge you a convenience fee of 2, 3 or 4 percent fee to pay by card. See if you can meet the minimum spending requirement without paying fees.
If you read the sign-up bonus terms and conditions, you’ll likely find that the annual fee, balance transfers made to the card, and the purchase of travelers checks or other "cash-like" items, don’t count toward your minimum spending total.
If you return an item that you purchased with your card, be sure to subtract the amount from your total spending. Otherwise, you could accidentally fall short of the spending threshold and miss out on your card’s bonus.
What good is a few hundred dollars’ worth of bonus points if you also end up thousands of dollars in debt? Before you spring for a sign-up bonus, make sure you can afford the spending threshold.
There aren’t a lot of downsides to getting a card with a sign-up bonus – a bonus is basically cream on top of your regular card rewards. However, there are a few reasons you might choose a card with no sign-up bonus. Here’s a summary of the advantages of each:
As an example, let’s compare the Capital One VentureOne card to the Citi Double Cash card. Both are no-annual-fee cards. The VentureOne card offers a 1.25 miles per dollar rewards rate and a 20,000-mile sign-up bonus (once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening), with points that are worth 1 cent when you redeem them for travel. The Citi Double Cash card offers a higher rewards rate of 2 percent cash back on all your purchases – 1 percent when you make a purchase and 1 percent when you pay your bill on time – but no sign-up bonus.
In the first year, the value of the VentureOne card is much higher, due to its sign-up bonus. Here’s what you would earn with each card based on $15,900 spend in the first year:
Capital One VentureOne
Citi Double Cash
|($15,900 x 1.25%) + (20,000-mile bonus x 1 cent) = $398.75||$15,900 x 2% = $318|
But, over a five-year period, the value of the Citi Double Cash card is better, due to its higher rewards rate:
Capital One VentureOne
Citi Double Cash
|(5 years x ($15,900 x 1.25%)) + (20,000-mile bonus x 1 cent) = $1,193.75||5 years x $15,900 x 2% = $1,590|
So, if you plan to hold the card for a long period, a card with a 2 percent rewards rate and no sign-up bonus may be the better way to go. You’ll need to do some math to figure out which is the better option.
A sign-up bonus can be a good way to earn a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. Earning a bonus is almost always worth it, if you can outmatch the card’s annual fee (which is usually the case), and if you redeem the bonus in a timely manner.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 50,000 points to new cardholders who spend $4,000 in the first three months. Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal for a 25 percent bonus, so 50,000 bonus points are worth $625 of Ultimate Rewards travel. The Preferred card charges a $95 fee, but it’s waived the first year, so, if you can meet the spending threshold and use the bonus before the annual fee comes around, you can get more than $600 in value out of the card in its first year.
|Redemption||Point Value||Value of 50,000-Point Sign-up Bonus|
|Ultimate Rewards travel portal (25% redemption bonus)||1.25 cents||$625|
|Statement credit||1 cent||$500|
|Direct deposit||1 cent||$500|
|Gift cards||1 cent||$500|
|Anazon.com purchases||0.8 cents||$400|
|Chase Pay purchases||0.8 cents||$400|
However, if you don’t redeem the bonus in the first year and continue to hold the card without using it, your rewards value drops nearly a $100 each year, due to the card’s annual fee. And if you don’t redeem the bonus at all, the value of your bonus amounts to $0, because credit card points have no value outside of the rewards that you redeem them for.
It may seem obvious that you need to use your points to get value out of them, but cardholders do sometimes sign on to a card for its sign-up bonus, only to squander the bonus because they aren’t able to use it in time. Before you apply for a card to earn a sign-up bonus, it’s best to study the card’s rewards program and have a plan for redeeming the bonus.
|Card||Best Sign-up Bonus||Required Spend||Annual Fee|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||50,000 Points||$4,000 / 3 months||$0 first year, then $95|
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card||50,000 Miles||$3,000 / 3 months||$0 first year, then $95|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited®||$150 Cash Back||$500 / 3 months||$0|
|Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa® Card||$200 Cash Back||$1,000 / 3 months||$0|
|Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®||50,000 Miles||$2,500 / 3 months||$95, waived for first 12 months|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ Card||50,000 Points||$4,000 / 3 months||$450|
|Chase Freedom®||$150 Cash Back||$500 / 3 months||$0|
|Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express||70,000 Miles||$3,000 / 3 months||$195|
|Ink Business PreferredSM Credit Card||80,000 Points||$5,000 / 3 months||$95|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||60,000 Points||$5,000 / 3 months||$550|
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