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What Happens if You Don’t Activate a Credit Card?

Your credit card can still rack up fees and interest if you don't activate it.

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After you apply for a credit card and get accepted, you’ll receive your card in the mail. Typically, the card comes with an activation sticker affixed, listing a phone number and website. You’ll have to activate your card through one of these channels in order to start using it.

Why do you need to activate your new credit card? 

Credit card activation helps to prevent credit card fraud, as it keeps would-be thieves from swiping cards out of mailboxes and using them. Credit card activation also lets your credit card issuer know that you successfully received your new card and are ready to use your new line of credit.

It’s a good idea to activate your credit card as soon as possible, since you won’t be able to earn credit card rewards or take advantage of credit-building opportunities until you activate.

What happens if you don’t activate a credit card?

If you don’t activate your credit card, you won’t be able to use it to make purchases. You could end up at the grocery store with unexpected complications at checkout. 

Surprisingly, an unactivated credit card can still accrue interest. If your credit card has an annual fee, for example, the cost of the fee could be included in your first credit card billing cycle. Even though your credit card is not yet activated, your credit issuer can still charge interest on that balance if left unpaid.

An unactivated credit card could also affect your credit score. The credit limit associated with the unactivated card will be reported to the three major credit bureaus, which means it will appear on your credit report -- and since you haven’t made any purchases against your new credit limit, your unactivated card could reduce your credit utilization ratio and increase your credit score.

On the other hand, the credit check associated with your credit card application will also be reported to the major credit bureaus, and hard credit inquiries have the potential to lower your credit score by a few points. You can’t avoid taking the hit to your credit score by keeping the new card unactivated. The credit inquiry becomes part of your credit report when you apply for the card, not when you activate it.

How to activate your credit card

Activating your credit card is a simple process, and should only take a few minutes to complete. If you received your new credit card in the mail, it should include instructions on how to activate it. In most cases, you’ll need to visit your credit card issuer’s website or call a specific activation number. Be prepared to provide identifying information such as your Social Security Number or date of birth. 

If you received an instant approval credit card, the activation process may take place when your application is approved, giving you the opportunity to begin making purchases right away. In some cases, you’ll need to reactivate your new credit card after it arrives in the mail.  

If you aren’t able to activate your new credit card on the day it arrives, don’t worry -- you won’t be penalized for not activating right away. But if you keep your credit card unactivated for more than a month, your credit card issuer may contact you to ask if the card was received. 

What happens if you close an account that was never activated? 

When you close a credit card account that was never activated, the account is removed from your credit report. This could have a negative affect on your credit score, since it is likely to reduce your available credit and increase your credit utilization ratio. 

In some cases, a credit card issuer will close an unactivated credit card on their own. This is only likely to happen if you keep your credit account inactive for a significant period of time.

The bottom line

Before you can begin using your new credit card, you need to activate it. Activating a credit card is a simple process, and can often be completed online or over the phone in just a few minutes.

If you don’t activate your credit card, you won’t be able to make purchases -- but you’ll still receive a monthly credit card bill, and any credit card fees associated with your account could begin to accrue interest, making activating your credit card one of the best ways to begin using credit responsibly.

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Nicole Dieker has written about personal finance for nearly a decade. In addition to CNET, her work has appeared on Bankrate,, Vox, Lifehacker, Popular Science, The Penny Hoarder, The Simple Dollar and NBC News. Dieker also spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog.
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