How to Get a Credit Card With Bad Credit

Options for Getting a Credit Card Despite a Bad Credit History

Businesswoman swiping credit card using reader
••• PhotoInc/E+/Getty Images

People with bad credit—usually a credit score below 630—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 out there 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 request a credit report through one or all of the three major consumer credit reporting companies: Exquifax, Experian, or Transunion. Federal law requires each of them to give you one free credit report every 12 months—but you must ask for it.

Alternatively, you can obtain free versions of your credit score from sites such as CreditKarma.com or CreditSesame.com. 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.

Don't Waste Time Applying for Cards for People With Good Credit

Avoid applying for credit cards aimed for people with high credit scores just to see if you can get approved. You're very likely to be denied and the additional applications can damage your credit score even more.

You can typically tell a credit card is aimed for 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.

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. Many borrowers dismiss secured credit cards because the cards require cardholders to make a security deposit against the credit limit.

However, having a secured credit card that reports to the major bureaus is better than having no credit card at all. 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.

Ideal Credit Cards for People With Bad Credit

The Balance has reviewed credit cards for people with bad credit and these eight cards to be the best in their corresponding categories:

  • Best for Low Security Deposit: Capital One Secured Mastercard
  • Best for Earning Rewards: Discover it Secured
  • Best Top-Tier Secured Credit Card: Citi Secured Mastercard
  • Best for No Credit: First Progress Select Mastercard Secured
  • Best for No Bank Account: Open Sky Secured Visa
  • Best for Large Purchases: Wells Fargo Secured Visa
  • Best for No Fees & Low Interest: DCU Visa Platinum Secured Credit Card
  • Best for Previous Bankruptcy: Indigo Platinum Mastercard

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 credit card backed by Visa or MasterCard. There are also some other unsecured credit cards out there for people with bad credit, as well. However, be aware that these types of credit cards, including the 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 credit 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. Though Federal law limits the amount of fees to 25 percent of the credit limit, at least one subprime credit card issuer has gotten around the law by assessing a $90 fee before the credit card is ever issued. Credit cards issued by First Premier and Credit One banks are examples of credit cards to stay away from.

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 it 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. (They can't since they're not a credit product.)

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 cards 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.