How to Get Your First Credit Card

Ways to Get Your First Credit Card

Eighteen can be a liberating age. You're legally an adult. You can vote. You may be going to college soon if you're not already there. And, you can get a credit card.

As eager as you may be to get your first credit card, many credit card companies aren't so eager to give you one. Rather than putting in several credit card applications to see who's going to approve you, target just a few companies that are known for giving credit cards to first-timers.

Make sure you're ready for your first credit card

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Being old enough to qualify for a credit card does not mean you’re ready for one. You need to be responsible enough to charge only what you can afford and to pay your bill every month without being reminded. Getting your first credit card before being fully prepared can spell disaster for your credit. Once your credit is damaged, it can be difficult getting it back on track.

Don’t set yourself up for failure; learn all you can about credit cards before getting one. If you're not ready, there are steps you can take to get there.

Understand the credit card landscape for young adults

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Getting approved for a first credit card can be tough, especially if you're younger than 21 and more so if you don't have a job.

Federal law requires adults younger than 21 to have verifiable income before they can be approved for a credit card without a cosigner. Income must be from a job. However, child support or government benefits may allow you to be approved.

If you don’t have income, then you’ll have to find someone who’s willing to open a joint credit card with you or make you an authorized user on one of their credit cards.

Another thing that makes it tough to get a first credit card is an insufficient credit history.

Know where to go to get your first credit card

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If you're enrolled in college, you have a good chance of getting approved for a student credit card from a major credit card issuer. However, some student credit cards have high interest rates and annual fees, both bad options for a first credit card.

If you've been responsible with a checking or savings account, try applying for your first credit card at your bank. An existing banking relationship can improve your chances of getting a credit card application approved, especially if you’ve handled your account responsibly. You can apply online, but visiting a bank branch would put you face-to-face with a representative who may have more authority to get your application approved.

Retail and department stores typically have more favorable approval odds. On the downside, they have high interest rates that make it expensive to carry a balance from one month to the next. Another downside of these cards is they aren't versatile—you can use them only in that store. However, retailers often encourage spending by offering discounts for using the card and having a retail store credit card as your first credit card can help you build up a good enough credit history to apply for a major credit card within a few months.

When your lack of credit history keeps you from getting a standard credit card, you can apply for a secured credit card. You make a deposit against the credit limit of the account. The bank holds the deposit just in case you don't make your payments as agreed. You may have the chance to convert it to an unsecured credit card later on. Be sure the card issuer reports payments to the credit bureaus so you can build credit and eventually get an unsecured credit card.

Look for cards that target moderate or limited credit

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Certain credit card websites list the type of credit history needed to get approved. For a first credit card, look for credit cards that accept applicants with moderate or no credit. Applying for cards that are geared toward your specific credit history improves your chances of getting approved. Avoid applications for credit cards requiring excellent credit as you probably will get denied.

Ask someone for help

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You may have a relative—a parent, for example—who’s willing to help you get your first credit card by cosigning with you. Cosigning is risky—any mistakes you make will affect yours and the cosigner's credit—but it can be a good way to jumpstart your credit. Agree upfront that you’ll be responsible for making the payments on time each month and that you'll abide by all the credit card terms. Then, consider closing the joint account once you can qualify for a credit card on your own.

Don't be discouraged by denials

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Don't be surprised if you're denied for the first credit card you apply for—or the first few credit cards you apply for. Even people with established credit histories are sometimes denied. It may be helpful to know that you’ll get a letter, an adverse action notice, in the mail that includes the specific reason you were denied. The information in this letter will be useful in planning your next step. You may need to apply for a different type of credit card or jumpstart your credit by using a secured credit card.