A guide to starter credit cards
Working toward excellent credit can open up a world of new opportunities, and a starter card may be your tool to make it possible. Starter credit cards encourage responsible credit card habits, often showing forgiveness on beginners’ mistakes and offering benefits to help cardholders get into a payment routine. Here we cover:
The best starter credit cards of 2021: Editor’s picks
Starter rewards cards
Why we picked it: This card has a few features that make it friendly for first-timers: You won’t be charged a late fee the first time you miss a payment due date (after that it’s up to $40), and Discover will never increase your APR if you struggle to pay on time. (Note: Late payments can still affect your credit score.)
Pros: You’ll earn 5% cash back in an array of rotating cash back categories each quarter (upon enrollment, on up to $1,500 in combined spending per quarter, then 1%). This includes spending at places like gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and on online shopping.
Cons: There is a 0% introductory APR on new purchases for the first 6 months, but watch out for the regular APR of 12.99% to 21.99% variable after that.
Why we picked it: The VentureOne is a great place to start your travel rewards journey, offering unlimited 1.25X miles on all purchases without charging an annual fee.
Pros: You can also score a sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles if you spend $500 in the first 3 months. Even better, your miles never expire and you have a ton of flexibility in how you redeem them: You can book travel through the Capital One Travel Center, cover travel booked via an outside site or redeem miles for gift cards or cash back.
Cons: Your miles are worth much less if you opt for a gift card, statement credit or check instead of redeeming for travel. If you aren’t sure whether you want to use your credit card rewards for travel or cash back, you may be better off sticking with a more general rewards credit card.
Why we picked it: Offering 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services, and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®), this is a great starter card for foodies.
Pros: You can set up automatic cash back redemptions or redeem manually as a statement credit, check or gift card in any amount, at any time. You’ll also get a $200 bonus if you spend just $500 in the first 3 months.
Cons: It isn’t the most versatile cash back credit card. Unless you spend heavily in the SavorOne’s bonus categories, you’ll likely earn more with a card that offers cash back at a flat rate on all purchases.
Why we picked it: Cardholders with average or thin credit will appreciate the QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards card, which offers some of the same benefits as its big brother (the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card), albeit for a $39 annual fee.
Pros: You’ll earn consistent and unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, and your cash back never expires. You’ll also enjoy a number of great perks like $0 fraud liability, emergency card services if your card is lost or stolen, and identity theft protection.
Cons: As we mentioned earlier, the card charges an annual fee of $39, and unlike many rewards cards, it offers no sign-up bonus and charges all cardholders the same very high variable APR of 26.99%, regardless of credit history.
Why we picked it: You’ll earn 2% cash back on gas station purchases and 2% back at restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined spending per quarter, plus unlimited 1% back on all other purchases.
Pros: This card offers consumer-friendly terms, charging no foreign transaction fee, no penalty APR and no late fee for the first late payment (after that it’s up to $40). It also comes with a free FICO credit score on every statement. When you factor in Discover’s first-year Cashback Match, it offers one of the top cash back rates on gas station purchases available at no annual fee.
Cons: The card’s purchase APR is a variable 11.99% to 22.99%, so depending on your credit, you could end with an interest rate on the high side. The 2% cash back is capped at $1,000 in combined spending per quarter and the sign-up bonus only boosts those earnings your first year.
Why we picked it: In addition to charging no annual fee, the Secured Mastercard® from Capital One has low fees for beginner mistakes like late payments. If you’re late to make a payment, the fee will only be up to $40, and your APR won’t increase as a result. (Again, late payments can still affect your credit.)
Pros: Depending on your credit, the required security deposit could be as low as $49 (or as high as $200, which is still reasonable). After 6 on-time monthly payments, you’ll be considered for a higher credit line, which could boost your credit score. Plus, there’s no annual fee, so you don’t have to worry about that cost derailing your plan for on-time payments.
Cons: You won’t earn rewards with this card, which is fairly common with secured cards. However, some secured cards do offer cash back and other forms of rewards. Also common for secured cards, the ongoing APR is high: 26.99% variable.
Starter cards for no credit
Why we picked it: The Capital One Platinum has several features that allow you to beef up your credit history without drowning in fees: It charges no annual fee, foreign transaction fee or penalty APR and includes free credit monitoring.
Pros: You won’t have to tie up any money in a security deposit, and your account will be reviewed for a credit limit increase if you make your first 6 monthly payments on time.
Cons: One thing to keep in mind if you have low or no credit is that your credit limit may start out fairly low. Also, the card carries a very high variable APR of 26.99%.
Why we picked it: You don’t need a traditional credit history to be approved for this card; even international students are able to apply without a Social Security number. The card also charges a lower late fee than most and no penalty APR, making it a safe starter option.
Pros: One extra perk that students may find useful is one year of Amazon Prime Student (after spending $500 within the first 3 billing cycles – lifetime value of $59), with perks like free shipping and Prime Video streaming. It also charges no foreign transaction fee – perfect if you plan to travel or study abroad.
Cons: On the flipside, 1% cash back isn’t a competitive rate. There are starter cards with better cash back rates, which will be valuable for years after graduation.
Why we picked it: One of the few credit cards for bad credit with a cash back rewards program, it offers 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases, including gas, groceries and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV. Terms apply.
Pros: The card also comes with free access to your Experian credit score, and you can check if you prequalify online.
Cons: You will have to pay an annual fee of $75 in the first year, then $99 annually, which will immediately reduce your credit limit and will be difficult to offset with cash back rewards. The card also carries a standard 3% foreign transaction fee ($1 minimum).
Why we picked it: With this card, there’s no need to choose between features that help build credit and the ability to earn rewards. You’ll earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants (up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, then 1%), and all of your cash back will be matched at the end of your first year.
Pros: After 8 months of having your card, you’ll be automatically considered for a higher credit line, which can boost your credit score. With several valuable perks and no annual fee, this is an excellent starter card.
Cons: There’s a required security deposit of at least $200, though it is refundable. (Note: The cash back is subject to a cap, but most secured cards don’t offer rewards, so that’s not truly a drawback in this instance.)
Comparing the best starter credit cards
|Credit card||Best for||Annual fee||Review score|
|Discover it® Student Cash Back||New users||$0||4.1 / 5|
|Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card||Travel||$0||3.6 / 5|
|Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card||Dining||$0||3.5 / 5|
|Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card||Everyday spending||$39||3.5 / 5|
|Discover it® chrome||Gas||$0||3.9 / 5|
|Secured Mastercard® from Capital One||No Annual Fee||$0||3.7 / 5|
|Capital One Platinum Credit Card||No credit history||$0||4.0 / 5|
|Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students||International students||$0||2.6 / 5|
|Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa® for Rebuilding Credit||Bad credit||$75 first year, then $99 annually||2.4 / 5|
|Discover it® Secured Credit Card||Secured card + rewards||$0||4.1 / 5|
How we picked the best starter credit cards
Research methodology: We analyzed credit cards available to people with no-to-thin credit histories to determine the best starter credit cards on the market. The major factors we considered include:
- Reasonable costs: Many starter credit cards have some upfront costs, like an annual fee or a refundable security deposit. We considered whether a card’s costs were at least comparable to industry standards and/or justified by other features of the care.
- Beginner-friendly features: First-time credit cardholders might make some rookie mistakes, so we heavily considered cards that had forgiving features, like a skipped fee for your first missed payment or no penalty APR. (Note: It is still important to avoid these mistakes at all costs, given they are still likely to impact your credit.)
- Upgrades for responsible card use: On the flip side, we looked for cards that rewarded responsible card use. For instance, can you secure a higher credit limit by making a certain number of on-time payments? Is there an opportunity to upgrade to a non-starter credit card?
- Rewards: Some starter credit cards offer rewards and, while they shouldn’t necessarily be top of mind for credit-builders (or someone who suspects they may overspend to earn incentives), they can be a boon to certain applicants.
Other criteria we considered include overall value, ancillary benefits, customer service, APRs and security features.
Should you get a starter credit card?
Technically, a “starter credit card” is a credit card with low credit requirements and perhaps other built-in features to cater to first-time cardholders. They’re an option for students, general applicants with no credit history and people with fair-to-bad credit looking to rebuild their scores. They generally should not be the first choice for people with good-to-excellent credit who can likely qualify for a credit card that offers better rewards, lower APRs, more affordable fees and/or all of the above. For quick reference, credit ranges generally fall into 5 categories and give a good idea of the cards available to you:
Remember, a credit card is a tool that can help you accomplish your financial goals. If you’re applying for a credit card, whether it’s your first or fifth, you should always have a goal in mind. So whether you want to build credit or start earning rewards, just know what you’re looking for before you apply.
Why is building credit important?
Creditors use credit reports and credit scores to assess whether an applicant is likely to pay back a loan as agreed and if they should approve their application. As a result, you’ll need a credit history to get approved for most types of financing, including mortgages, auto loans and credit cards. Moreover, you need good-to-excellent credit to qualify for competitive interest rates and other favorable financing terms.
Starter credit cards can be a great way to build credit since they tout low credit requirements. Plus, you can avoid paying interest on a credit card (as opposed to, say, a personal loan) by paying all your balances off in full each month. You can build credit by making on-time payments, keeping your debt levels low and limiting new credit inquiries. Learn more ways to build credit.
How to get started with your first credit card
If you’re interested in getting your first credit card, you probably have a few questions about how to use them responsibly and the types of credit cards available to beginners. Here, we’ll lay out some tips for choosing, applying for and using your new credit card.
- Check your credit: Starter credit cards will typically not require any score higher than fair credit, and you can even qualify for some cards with bad credit. You should check your credit score before applying, even if you think you have no credit history. A few points can make a big difference in the quality of credit cards you qualify for.
- Apply for a credit card. You can apply online, in person, or via mail with a bank, credit union or store that offers its own credit card. You’ll need information like your legal name, birth date, address, Social Security number, annual income, how long you’ve lived at your current address, your monthly housing payment and what type of bank account you have. Your credit score may decrease a few points after you apply, which is why it’s good to only apply for cards that you’re likely to be approved for. Our CardMatch tool can help you find out which cards you prequalify for without affecting your credit score.
- Spend responsibly and pay on time. After getting approved and receiving a credit card, it’s as simple as swiping the card. Don’t overspend, but making a few purchases that you can comfortably pay off is a great way to get started. Every month, you’ll get a bill detailing your purchases. Your card will come with a minimum payment amount for each of these billing cycles. It’s best to pay each statement in full, however, if you want to avoid interest charges. Making timely, sufficient payments is a surefire way to quickly grow your credit score.
What to look for in a starter credit card
If you’re getting your first credit card, it’s important to know what kinds of benefits you want. Do you want to start earning rewards, or is it more important that you get a high credit limit? Here are a few card features that may be particularly helpful for first-timers.
- Waived late-payment fees. It’s important to make all your payments on time, but credit card newbies could conceivably miss a deadline, due to their unfamiliarity with the product. A waived late-payment fee can save you some money associated with this type of mistake, but beware, it’s still likely to affect your credit.
- No penalty APR for late payments. Issuers may impose penalty APRs when accounts go past due. These penalty APRs apply to existing balances and are generally much higher than a card’s standard APR. Again, given starter credit cards are used by credit newbies, the lack of a penalty APR is something to consider.
- A simple cash back or travel rewards structure. Responsible card use, not rewards, should be the focus with a starter credit card. A straightforward rewards program, like a flat-rate cash back card, can help you avoid unnecessary confusion.
- Access to credit monitoring. That way, you can track your progress toward building a good credit score and can readily identify when you might be able to qualify for a higher credit limit, a non-starter credit card or other financing.
- Automatic consideration for a credit limit increase. This feature, common among the best starter credit cards, incentives responsible card use and could provide a boon to your credit score, given it will help you maintain a positive credit utilization rate.
- Ability to enroll in auto-pay for monthly payments. Theoretically, you’ll be using your credit card to establish a good payment history, so a feature like auto-pay, which can ensure you don’t miss a monthly bill, is a plus. Learn how to set up automatic credit card payments.
- Low-to-no annual fee. Some starter credit cards will charge an annual fee. However, it is possible to find one that skips the charge. Many student credit cards, for instance, often don’t charge annual fees. If a card does charge an annual fee, you’ll want to determine whether it’s reasonable.
Beginner credit card tips
If you don’t use your card responsibly, you could end up buried in debt or do long-term damage to your credit score. Here are our top tips to help credit card beginners create healthy habits:
- Don’t charge what you can’t pay back. Avoid a “buy now, pay when I have the money” approach. Stick to small, manageable expenses while you get used to using your card and only charge what you’re positive you can pay off.
- Pay more than the minimum. If you carry a balance and only make the minimum payment due on your credit card, interest charges will quickly start to pile up, growing your balance each month until you end up buried in debt.
- Pay on time. Payment history is the biggest factor in credit scoring, and even one late payment can do major damage. To avoid this (and the fees that come with paying late), set up text or email alerts to remind you when your bill is due or set up an automatic credit card payment with your bank.
- Don’t max out your card. Credit utilization – the amount you owe compared to your available credit – is one of the biggest factors in credit scoring. If you consistently “max out” your card, you seem like more of a risk to lenders.
What kind of credit card should I start with?
Depending on your credit history (and whether you even have one), your spending habits, and your personal life and financial goals, you may consider yourself a certain type of consumer:
Consumers looking for no annual fees and potentially more forgiving terms on common penalties may want to look to a student card. With benefits tailored to college and graduate students, such as dining rewards and rewards for keeping a certain GPA of 3.0, these cards can carry “A+” value.
An option like the Discover it® Student chrome, for example, allows you to earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, plus unlimited 1% cash back across your other purchases. On top of that, Discover will match the amount of cash back you earn in your first year. Additionally, this card features no annual fee and no APR change for paying late – a couple of common features of student cards.
Learn more about the best student credit cards.
Travel cards typically require you to have good to excellent credit to qualify, so if you’re totally new to credit, you should probably avoid applying. If you do try for a travel card, it’s best to stick to one that charges no annual fee and offers a straightforward rewards program.
Those with established credit have plenty to choose from when sifting through travel cards, but it’s difficult to get rewarded for your travel purchases right out of the gate. The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students, however, offers some benefits for wanderlusting new cardholders: no foreign transaction fees, unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases and nearly worldwide acceptance, thanks to Mastercard.
Learn more about the best travel credit cards.
The cash back chaser
Cash back cards give you back a percentage of what you spend each time you make a purchase, allowing for consistent and immediate earning. When you don’t have to change the way you naturally spend, earning comes easy with a cash back card. Look for an option offering bonuses that match your spending habits or stick with one that gives cash back at a flat rate on all purchases.
In addition to the options above, the Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa® for Rebuilding Credit features widespread cash back earning. Those with no credit history can earn 1% cash back on eligible purchases such as gas, groceries, cell service, internet and cable.
Learn more about the best cash back credit cards.
The credit builder
Secured cards require you to put down a deposit to become a cardholder, making them much easier to qualify for than traditional, unsecured cards. For this reason, secured cards are great for consumers who are just beginning their credit journey as well as those who are determined to improve bad credit. The security deposit is refundable and usually equal to your credit limit, so getting into a proper payment routine will make the upfront cost negligible. Many secured cards offer a chance to upgrade to an unsecured version once you’ve shown responsible use.
Secured cards can set you up for success with credit-building benefits. With the Self – Credit Builder Account + Secured Visa® Credit Card, hopeful cardholders with no credit history can combine a credit building account with a secured card. This specialized account will report to all 3 credit bureaus, flexing your on-time payments for you and building your credit score. Plus, they reward good habits: After 3 months of on-time payments and savings over $100 in the account, cardholders in good standing are eligible to upgrade to the Self Visa Credit Card.
Many stores offer their own rewards cards to encourage shopper loyalty. These cards generally carry no annual fee and can offer good approval odds, but often come with gigantic APRs, making them risky for credit card beginners. Even so, these cards give consistent customers a great opportunity for heightened earnings at their favorite stores.
For those keen on online shopping, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card allows for fair credit and gives new cardholders a $70 Amazon.com gift card as a sign-up bonus. It comes with no annual fee, but you do need an eligible Amazon Prime membership ($119 annually for most consumers) to qualify. That can be worth it when you earn 5% back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases, 2% back on dining, drug store and gas purchases, and 1% back on all others.
More information on credit cards
For more information on all things about starter credit cards, continue reading content from our credit card experts: