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What Credit Score Do You Need for a Credit Card?

Your credit score might not matter as much as you think.

Nuthawut Somsok / Getty Images

Your credit score is how you represent yourself to lenders. It’s what determines the kinds of credit cards you’re able to qualify for, and the kinds of terms you get with your card. 

But that doesn’t mean there are only credit cards for people with good credit. There are credit cards available for all credit levels, including no credit or bad credit. But the better your credit, the more benefit-laden the credit card you’re able to qualify for. 

What is a credit score?

Lenders use your credit score to gauge the level of risk you pose as a borrower. The higher your credit score, the better you appear at managing debt, and therefore the better terms you’ll get on your credit card.

How is your credit score calculated?

Your credit score is calculated by the three major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- based on your credit reports. Your credit report is basically a summary of your accounts, payment history and credit limits.

The factors that contribute to your credit score are your payment history, credit usage, the age of your accounts and the number of open accounts you have.

There are two popular scoring models, FICO and VantageScore, and each one weighs the factors a bit differently. Payment history contributes the most to both, followed closely by the amount of debt you have.

Both FICO and VantageScore break your score down into different credit levels. Here’s how they fall:

Credit score ranges

Poor (300-579)Very Poor (300-499)
Fair (580-669)Poor (500-600)
Good (670-739)Fair (601-660)
Very Good (740-799)Good (661-780)
Excellent (800-850)Excellent (781-850)

These scoring systems help lenders determine which credit cards you’re eligible for.

Credit cards for good to excellent credit

If you have good or excellent credit, you’re able to qualify for the best credit cards. That means they have the most valuable benefits and you’ll likely get the best terms, which includes agreeable interest rates.

Credit cards designed for higher credit scores include sought-after perks like introductory APR periods aimed at helping you avoid interest charges, or better rewards rates. Advanced travel credit cards might include benefits like primary rental car insurance, airport lounge access and ways to get through airport security faster.

Credit cards for poor or fair credit

While credit cards designed for excellent credit are best, it doesn’t mean that credit cards designed for poor or fair credit aren’t worth it. You can find good benefits in any credit range if you know what to look for in a credit card.

For people with poor to fair credit, there are still a number of good cards to choose from. There are student credit cards, secured credit cards and credit cards that were created for people with limited credit history.

Student cards typically are easier to qualify for as they’re designed for college students who generally don’t have an extensive credit history. They help students learn responsible card habits and build credit. Some of them even offer rewards.

Secured credit cards help people build or rebuild credit. Unlike unsecured credit cards -- or traditional credit cards -- secured cards require a one-time security deposit upon approval that establishes your starting credit limit. More often than not, the security deposit is refundable following responsible use with the card, which basically translates to always paying on time with regular card use.

Then there are credit cards designed for limited credit history, which are unsecured credit cards that have lower credit requirements. They don’t always have the best features, but some offer perks and rewards while you build up your credit score. 

How to build your credit score

The easiest way to build your credit score is to pay your credit card bill -- and other loans -- on time. A positive payment history contributes the most to your credit scores. Another way to improve your credit is to limit your credit card debt.

How much of your total available credit that you’re using at one time will affect your credit score. Credit bureaus like to see less than 30% of credit utilization, which means you’ll want to only use 30% of your total credit limit.

By paying down credit card debt and lowering your credit utilization, your credit score will become healthier. 

The age of credit accounts will also improve your credit scores. If you have lower credit scores and there’s a trusted family member with a better established credit history, you could ask to be added as an authorized user on their account to help you leapfrog bad credit.

The bottom line

There are credit cards available for all credit levels, from no credit to excellent credit. But the better your credit score, the better the credit card you’re able to qualify for. If you need to build your credit score, you can utilize secured credit cards or other cards tailored to those with lower credit scores.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

Evan Zimmer has been writing about finance for years. After graduating with a journalism degree from SUNY Oswego, he wrote credit card content for Credit Card Insider (now Money Tips) before moving to ZDNET Finance to cover credit card, banking and blockchain news. He currently works with CNET Money to bring readers the most accurate and up-to-date financial information. Otherwise, you can find him reading, rock climbing, snowboarding and enjoying the outdoors.