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People with bad credit—usually a credit score below 580—have the fewest options for credit cards. That's because few credit card issuers want to take the risk of extending a credit limit they may not get paid for. The lower your credit score, the harder it will be to get approved for a credit card—but it's not completely hopeless. There are options for those with bad credit.
Know Your Credit Score
You probably know you have bad credit because you've previously applied for a credit card, loan, or other credit-based service and have been denied. If you haven't already, check your credit score to see exactly where you stand.
You can obtain free versions of your credit score for free from sites such as CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, Capital One's CreditWise, or the Discover Scorecard. Alternatively, you can purchase your credit score through FICO.com or any of the three credit bureaus. You may also receive a credit score automatically in the mail after being denied credit if your credit score was the reason that you were denied.
Beware of websites claiming to offer free credit scores as a gimmick to sign you up for a subscription credit monitoring service. If you have to enter your credit card number to get the "free" credit score, it's a sure sign that you're enrolling in a trial subscription and you'll be charged if you don't cancel.
Your credit score is driven by the information on your credit report. If you're concerned about the information affecting your score, you can request a credit report through one or all of the three major bureaus: Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. Federal law gives you the right to a free credit report through each bureau once every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport.com.
You can get a free credit report each week through AnnualCreditReport.com through April 20, 2022.
Don't Waste Time on Cards for People With Good Credit
Avoid applying for credit cards aimed at people with high credit scores. The inquiries made to your credit report will hurt your credit score making it more difficult to get approved.
You can typically tell a credit card is aimed at someone with excellent credit by the benefits it provides. Credit cards with excellent rewards, low APRs, and promotional interest rates are almost always aimed at consumers with excellent credit. Applicants with poor credit scores are usually denied these types of credit cards.
Find the Best Credit Cards for People With Bad Credit
Most of the cards The Balance has identified as the best cards for people who have bad credit are secured cards. These credit cards require a security deposit against the credit limit, but don't let that be a barrier for you.
Having a secured credit card that reports to the major bureaus helps you rebuild your credit score so you can qualify for better credit cards down the road. As long as you are responsible with your payments and do not default on the balance, your deposit will be returned to you. And many secured credit cards can be converted to unsecured credit cards after a year of on-time payments.
Retail stores also have a reputation for approving applicants who have bad credit. You have a better chance of getting approved for a limited-purpose credit card that can only be used at that store rather than a c-branded credit card backed by Visa or Mastercard. However, be aware that these types of credit cards, including retail cards, usually come with low credit limits and high interest rates. The best way to manage a card like this is to only charge a small amount and to pay your balance in full each month.
If it's the security deposit that's keeping you from getting a secured credit card, start putting $50 in a savings account each month. In six months, you'll have $300 to put toward a secured credit card. Some of the money can be used to take care of the application fee and the rest can be put toward your credit card balance. Yes, you'll have a low credit limit starting out, but that's true of unsecured credit cards for bad credit, too.
Watch Out for These Types of Cards
Beware of fee harvester, or subprime credit cards, that charge high upfront fees that take up most of your credit limit. This type of credit may be appealing if you're low on options, but the high fees and interest rates make these an unattractive option. Federal law limits upfront fees to 25% of the initial credit limit.
Prepaid cards are often advertised as an option for people with bad credit, but these aren't really credit cards. Prepaid cards require you to make a deposit before you can use them to make purchases. But unlike secured credit cards, your prepaid card purchases are deducted from your balance. Prepaid cards don't improve your credit, either, because they don't report to the major credit bureaus.
Aim to Move on to Better Cards
Don't expect this temporary credit card situation to be perfect. Credit cards for people with bad credit don't have the most attractive credit card terms. Security deposits, annual fees, high interest rates, and low credit limits are among the features you may have to deal with, but just for a short time.
Your goal is to pay your bill on time and improve your credit so you can qualify for something better, which can be done in about 12 to 18 months if you're responsible with your credit. Some secured cards also allow you to switch over to an unsecured credit card without closing your account.
Improve Your Credit With Tracking and Education
A big part of working your way up to a better credit card is learning more about how to manage your overall finances and improve your credit. Some reputable organizations that offer credit counseling include the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, Advantage Credit Counseling Service, and Clearpoint. Many credit card issuers also offer financial education resources to their cardholders.
Many credit card issuers also offer credit-tracking tools to their customers so they can check their score on more than an annual basis. These tools not only help you know when your credit is improving, but they also can help protect you from fraud.