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How CNET Tests Credit Cards: We Scour the Fine Print So You Don't Have To

We break down the value of each credit card to see how it stacks up against the competition.

Courtney Johnston Senior Editor
Courtney Johnston is a senior editor leading the CNET Money team. Passionate about financial literacy and inclusion, she has a decade of experience as a freelance journalist covering policy, financial news, real estate and investing. A New Jersey native, she graduated with an M.A. in English Literature and Professional Writing from the University of Indianapolis, where she also worked as a graduate writing instructor.
Expertise Taxes, student loans, credit cards, banking, mortgages, investing, insurance
Jaclyn DeJohn Former Editor
Jaclyn was a CNET Money editor with a fondness for the sweet spot between numbers and words. Overseeing CNET's credit card coverage, she wrote and edited news, reviews and advice. She has experience covering business, personal finance and economics, and previously managed contracts and investments as a real estate agent. Her tech interests include Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company and Neuralink.
Expertise Credit cards, banking, home equity, mortgages
Courtney Johnston
Jaclyn DeJohn
5 min read
A stack of credit cards.
Francesco Carta fotografo / Getty Images

Anyone who's signed up for a new credit card knows this much is true: When it comes to finding the right one, nothing is simple. Comparing the welcome bonuses, APR interest rates, special offers, perks and points is downright dizzying -- plus, details and promos change all the time. So how do you know which credit card is best for you? 

That's where we come in. CNET rigorously evaluates 15 major credit card categories -- including travel, cash-back cards and crypto credit cards -- to help you compare the fine print so you can pick the best credit card for your needs. 

We choose our credit card recommendations using our editors' ratings and based on our knowledge of credit card features and interest rates. Here's a look at what makes up CNET's credit card rating methodology.

How CNET rates credit cards

Score Card quality
8.1 - 10 Excellent
6.1 - 8 Good
4.1 - 6 Average
0 - 4 Below Average

Note that on Google's results pages, these scores render in 5-star scale.

Airline credit cards

Airline credit cards are all about features, including rewards toward flight purchases, welcome bonuses and discounted fares for friends and family. Assorted travel-related insurances, as well as upgrades and discounts during travel are also common. We score these credit cards by the quality of these offers relative to other airline cards.

Balance transfer credit cards

Balance transfer credit cards are scored by the length of promotion, balance transfer fees, transfer deadline and whether the offer is paired with a promotional APR on purchases. These cards typically don't have rewards programs or welcome bonuses.

Business credit cards

Business credit card scores come from the quality of their rewards program, welcome bonus and introductory APR offer. Some will offer additional incentives, which receive bonus points.

Business travel credit cards

An offshoot of business credit cards, business travel card scores account for whether the card offers credits for general travel and TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. We also consider hotel and airline upgrades, airport lounge access, foreign transaction fees and travel insurances.

Cash-back credit cards

For cash-back credit cards, the differences among rewards programs are key -- though welcome bonuses, introductory APRs and adaptability features play a part. To rank rewards programs, we use data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to model the average American's budget. From this, we can evaluate rewards programs to better compare them side by side.

Crypto credit cards

Crypto credit cards are new and still evolving. For now, we rank crypto credit cards mostly on their flat rewards rate and available rewards in cryptocurrencies. The flexibility to move rewards to your own crypto wallet, the annual fee and welcome bonus also come into play. 

Dining credit cards

Dining and restaurant cards primarily differ among the rewards programs. We compare the different categories and rates across the cards and check whether they also include bars, takeout and delivery, to give customers more options. Many of these cards also offer a welcome bonus and 0% introductory APR, which factor into their overall value.

Flat-rate credit cards

Flat-rate cards are similar to cash-back cards, but they only have one flat rewards rate on purchases -- such as 1.5% rewards on all purchases. Their scores are rooted in this single rewards rate. These cards typically don't come with many extras like insurances and annual credits, but we do consider welcome bonuses and introductory APRs

Hotel credit cards

Like airline cards, hotel credit cards are more specific than general travel cards, and we evaluate them based on what they can offer brand loyalists. Their scores reflect the quality of their rewards programs, air travel benefits, hotel upgrades, insurance and free-night bonuses. Some of these cards can be pricey, so the annual fee affects the score, too.

Low-credit credit cards

Cards for people with low credit generally lack benefits like welcome bonuses and introductory APRs. Many don't even have a rewards program. We score these based on their annual fee, credit line range, APR, presence of a rewards program and whether they offer preapproval.

Premium travel credit cards

Premium travel cards have the most bells and whistles of the cards we evaluate, and we start with an evaluation of their high annual fees and rewards program. We also take note of airport lounge access, credits for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry and Clear, travel credits, travel insurances and partnerships with airline loyalty programs. 

Retailer credit cards

We first look at the rewards rate on purchases made within the retailer's brand, as well as the promotional financing option on those purchases. Some of these cards offer little to no value outside of the retailer's own ecosystem -- which they lose points for -- while others function well for daily purchases beyond the single store or brand.

Secured credit cards

The first factor we look at with secured credit cards is the security deposit. This determines what your credit line will be, but there are restrictions on how much or how little you can put up. We also evaluate the application process. -- some cards require a hard credit check while others don't. If a card has a particularly appealing APR or offers a rewards program, it'll get additional points.

Student credit cards

Student credit cards earn their scores through their flat rewards rate, additional rewards categories, welcome bonuses and introductory APRs. These cards are designed for students with a limited credit history, so the benefits are typically less than those of other rewards cards. That's why we score them relative to other student cards.

Travel credit cards

Travel credit card evaluations are based on their rewards programs and annual fees. Other features that contribute to the score include various travel-related insurance coverage, foreign transaction fees, the welcome bonus and introductory APR.

Our best lists and reviews will help guide your decision making, whether you're looking for the best welcome bonusbest virtual credit card or anything in between. So don't worry about nitty gritty -- we do the work for you. 

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.