Starter Credit Cards

It’s hard to know where to begin when you’re first starting out with credit cards. Not only do you have a ton of card options to sort through, but also dozens of new terms to learn. APRs, cash back, points, annual fees… What does it all mean?

But you have to start somewhere. We’ve got you covered with the basics of how credit cards work and how to use them, along with offers from our partners for those looking for a starter credit card.

It’s hard to know where to begin when you’re first starting out with credit cards. Not only do you have a ton of card options to sort through, but also dozens of new terms to learn. APRs, cash back, points, annual fees… What does it all mean?

But you have to start somewhere. We’ve got you covered with the basics of how credit cards work and how to use them, along with offers from our partners for those looking for a starter credit card.

Summary

Creditcards.com’s Best Starter Credit Cards of February 2020

No Credit History

Apply Now

Rewards Rate

1%
1% unlimited cash back on All purchases

At A Glance

Annual Fee
$0
Balance Transfer Intro APR
N/A
Regular APR
18.74% variable

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

Apply Now

Rewards Rate

5%
Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, select rideshares and online shopping, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate.
1%
Earn 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases – automatically.

At A Glance

Annual Fee
$0
Balance Transfer Intro APR
0% for 14 months
Regular APR
11.99% - 22.99% variable

Bad to Fair

Credit Recommended (300-670)

Apply Now

Rewards Rate

1%
Get 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases including gas, groceries, and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV, terms apply.

At A Glance

Annual Fee
$0 - $99
Balance Transfer Intro APR
N/A
Regular APR
17.99% - 23.99% variable

Good to Excellent

Credit Recommended (670-850)

Apply Now

Rewards Rate

2%
Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter.
1%
Earn 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases – automatically.

At A Glance

Annual Fee
$0
Balance Transfer Intro APR
0% for 14 months
Regular APR
11.99% - 22.99% variable
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Editorial disclosure: All reviews are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank's website for the most current information.


All information about Capital One® Platinum Credit Card, Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card have been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

Comparing the Best Starter Credit Cards

Updated: April 3, 2020

Credit cards can be a great way to build credit history, earn rewards and learn financial independence. Even if you’re just getting started, you should be able to find a card that fits your needs. The key is to know what to look for in a starter credit card and how to use your first card responsibly. Here we cover:


Best Starter Credit Cards of 2020

Discover it® Student Cash Back

Why it’s the best starter credit card for new users

It offers a very forgiving fee and penalty policy. You won’t be charged a late fee the first time you miss a payment due date, and Discover will never jack up your APR if you struggle to pay on time.

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 spending per quarter, then 1%). This includes spending at places like gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and on online shopping.

Cons

The card comes with a 0% introductory APR on new purchases for the first 6 months (12.99% – 21.99% variable thereafter), which could spell trouble for a starter still learning to use credit cards responsibly.

Capital One® Platinum Credit Card

Why it’s the best starter credit card for no credit history

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 5 monthly payments on time.

Cons

If you have a fair or limited credit history, your credit limit may be fairly low to start. This could make it difficult to keep your credit utilization (a key credit scoring factor) in check. The card also carries a very high variable APR of 26.99%.

Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card

Why it’s the best starter credit card for travel

It’s a great place to start your travel rewards journey, offering unlimited 1.25X miles on all purchases without charging an annual fee. You can also score a sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles if you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.

Pros

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 card.

Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students

Why it’s the best starter credit card for students

You don’t need a traditional credit history to be approved. International students don’t even need a Social Security number. The card also charges a lower late fee than most and no penalty APR, making it a safer starter option.

Pros

It includes a free year of Amazon Prime Student, 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

You’ll earn just 1% cash back on all purchases, which is low compared to the rate offered by many cash back cards – even those designed for students. You’ll also be charged a relatively high variable APR of 18.74%.

Discover it® Cash Back

Why it’s the best starter credit card for cash back

Few cards let you earn cash back at such a high rate on such a wide variety of purchases. You’ll earn 5% back in rotating categories each quarter upon enrollment (on your first $1,500 in combined quarterly purchases, then 1%). Bonus categories for the first quarter of 2020 include grocery stores, Walgreens and CVS with more coming soon.

Pros

With Cashback Match, Discover automatically matches all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year. The card also offers a 0% introductory APR on new purchases for the first 14 months (11.99%-22.99% variable after that).

Cons

You’ll only earn 5% cash back on the first $1,500 you spend in a bonus category each quarter, then 1%, following activation. If you spend heavily in a particular category, like dining or travel, you might earn more in the long run with another card that offers bonuses in those categories, even if its rewards rate is lower.

Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Why it’s the best starter credit card for dining

It’s a great starter cash back card for foodies, offering 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% back at grocery stores, 1% back on all other purchases and no foreign transaction fee.

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 $150 bonus if you spend just $500 in the first three months.

Cons

It’s not the most versatile cash back 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.

Credit One Bank® Visa® Credit Card

Why it’s the best starter credit card for bad credit

You can rebuild your credit without putting down a deposit. It also comes with free access to your Experian credit score and you can check if you prequalify online.

Pros

One of the few 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.

Cons

You may have to pay an annual fee of $0-$99, 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).

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Why it’s the best starter credit card for everyday spending

You’ll earn consistent cash back on every purchase, no matter where, when or what you buy. You’ll earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and your cash back never expires.

Pros

You can qualify even if your credit is just average. You’ll also enjoy a number of great perks like extended warranty on purchases, price protection, car rental insurance and roadside assistance.

Cons

It 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.

Discover it® chrome

Why it’s the best starter credit card for gas

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. 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

It offers consumer-friendly terms, charging no foreign transaction fee, no penalty APR and no late fee for the first late payment. It also comes with a free FICO credit score on every statement.

Cons

You’ll only earn 2% back on your first $1,000 in combined quarterly spending at restaurants and gas stations, so you may find greater long-term value in a flat-rate cash back card.

Comparing the best starter credit cards

Credit Card Best for Annual Fee Review score
Discover it® Student Cash Back New users $0 4.2 / 5
Capital One® Platinum Credit Card No credit history $0 3.7 / 5
Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card Travel $0 3 / 5
Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students Students $0 2.6 / 5
Discover it® Cash Back Cash back $0 4.3 / 5
Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card Dining $0 3.7 / 5
Credit One Bank® Visa® Credit Card Bad credit $0-$99 2.2 / 5
Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card Everyday spending $39 4.1 / 5
Discover it® chrome Gas $0 4.1 / 5

How do credit cards work?

Put simply, credit cards allow you to borrow money from a bank to make purchases. When you get a credit card, you’re offered a line of credit (also called a credit limit) and can borrow up to that amount for purchases and often balance transfers.

Every 30 days or so, you’ll get a bill detailing what you’ve purchased. You must pay back at least a portion of the money you’ve borrowed by the due date listed. If you don’t pay it all back, you’ll be charged interest on the amount that remains.

Credit card terms explained for beginners

  • Current / statement balance – Your current balance is the total amount of money you currently owe on your credit card. Your balance increases when you make purchases and decreases when you make payments. Your statement balance only shows what you owed as of your last billing cycle. As long as you pay off your statement balance by the due date, you should avoid interest charges.
  • APR – Short for annual percentage rate, this tells you how much you would owe in interest over the course of a year for a set balance, although that figure obviously changes as your balance changes. Interest is essentially a fee you pay for borrowing money.
  • Introductory APR – A promotional APR offered for a limited time on some cards. For example, if your card comes with a 0% introductory APR for 15 months, that means you can carry a balance for the first 15 months you hold the card without being charged interest.
  • Minimum payment – The minimum amount you must pay each month to keep your account in good standing. If you don’t pay at least the minimum, you’ll face fees, a higher APR and could damage your credit score.
  • Fees – Some credit cards charge you an annual fee just for holding the card. Other fees include late payment fees, returned payment fees (when your credit card bill payment doesn’t go through), foreign transaction fees (when you use your card outside the U.S.) and more.
  • Sign-up bonus – Some cards offer a sign-up bonus (sometimes called a welcome offer) of cash back, points or miles bonus when you’re first approved. Usually, you’ll have to spend a certain amount of money with your new card within a set time period (often 3 months) to earn the bonus.
  • Ongoing Rewards – Some cards let you earn cash back, points or miles on every purchase, while others are geared toward a certain type of spending (like grocery store or gas station purchases) and offer bigger rewards in that category.
  • Perks – Some credit cards come with additional perks and benefits you can use as a cardholder, like car rental insurance, roadside assistance or free access to your credit score.

Credit card tips for your first credit card

If you don’t use your card responsibly, you could end up buried in debt or do long-term damage to your credit score.

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 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 to look for in a starter credit card

When you’re getting your first credit card, you’ll want to stick with cards that are low on fees, offer good approval odds, and can help you bolster your credit score.

  • Prequalification – Some cards let you check if you prequalify before you apply without impacting your credit score. While prequalification doesn’t guarantee approval, it should give you a better sense of your chances of acceptance.
  • Low fees – Be sure to read each card’s terms and conditions before you apply so that you can avoid cards that charge high annual fees or carry tons of hidden fees like annual fees, program fees, activation fees and more.
  • Relatively low APR – You’re not likely to be offered an especially low APR as a credit card beginner, but you should still shop around and compare maximum APRs to get a sense of what sort of interest charges you could face.
  • Decent credit limit – Look for a card that offers a limit that’s high enough for you to keep your credit utilization low. Not all credit cards let you know ahead of time what sort of credit limit they offer, but some starter cards can give you a sense of their minimum initial limit before you apply.
  • Attainable – A travel card with luxury perks and a huge sign-up bonus may be appealing, but you’ll have a hard time getting approved with a limited history of credit card use. Wait until you’ve built up more experience.

What kinds of credit cards are best for your first credit card?

Depending on your credit history (and whether you even have one), your spending habits and your personal life and financial goals, there are a few types of cards to consider:

Secured cards

Secured cards require you to put down a deposit to use them, so they’re much easier to qualify for than traditional, unsecured cards. The deposit is refundable and usually equal to your credit limit. Many secured cards offer a chance to upgrade to an unsecured version once you’ve shown responsible use.

Student cards

Student cards usually don’t charge annual fees and sometimes come with more forgiving terms on late fees and other penalties. Additionally, student cards are usually unsecured, meaning you won’t have to put down any money up front as a deposit.

Cash back cards

Cash back cards give you back a percentage of what you spend each time you make a purchase. Look for a card that offers bonuses that match your spending habits or stick with one that gives cash back at a flat rate on all purchases.

Travel cards

Travel cards typically require you to have a good to excellent credit history 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.

Store credit cards

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.

How to get a credit card for the first time

Now that you know a bit about how credit cards work, how to use them responsibly and the types of credit cards available to beginners, you should be ready to apply for your first card.

When should I get my first credit card?

There’s no perfect time to get your first credit card. During college or shortly after graduation is a popular time, but as long as you feel ready and have enough income to cover your purchases, you can get started.

That said, there are a few basic requirements for getting a credit card. If you are under 21 years old, you’ll need your own source of income or a co-signer to qualify. You’ll also generally need a Social Security number, and if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you’ll have a hard time getting a credit card. Finally, you need a source of income.

Where can I get my first 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, whether you own or rent, your monthly housing payment and what type of bank account you have.

What does annual income mean on a credit card application?

Your annual income is the total amount of money you earn in a year. If you have a salary, simply list the amount you receive annually. If you’re an hourly employee, you can multiply your hourly rate by the number of hours you work per week, then multiply that number by 52 weeks.

If you are over 21 years old, annual income can also include money you make outside of a job, such as through a spouse or partner’s income, a trust fund, retirement fund, or allowances and gifts.

If you are under 21, only personal income, scholarships and grants and allowances verified by tax returns or other documents can count as annual income. Neither a parent’s income nor student loans count as income on a credit card application.

Can I get a credit card as a minor?

No. You must be at least 18 years old to get a credit card. But most credit card companies have no minimum age requirement be added as an authorized user on someone else’s credit card account.

If you’re added as an authorized user and the account owner practices responsible card use by paying on time and maintaining low credit utilization, they can give your credit score a boost. Similarly, any negative activity by the cardholder (like paying late) will cause a drop in your score.

What if I can’t qualify for a credit card?

You may have aimed a bit too high. Opt for a secured credit card or a card specifically designed for someone with a damaged or limited credit history. You can also piggyback on someone else’s responsible card use as an authorized user to build up your score and try again in the future.

Laura is an editor and writer at CreditCards.com. She has written extensively on all things credit cards and works to bring you the most up-to-date analysis and advice. Laura’s work has been cited in such publications as the New York Times and Associated Press. You can reach her by e-mail at laura.mohammad@creditcards.com and on Twitter @creditcards_lm.


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