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How to choose a credit card

Not all credit cards are the same. Before you sign up for one, make sure you know how to pick the right one for you.

Not every credit card is right for every person. It comes down to your credit score and what you're looking to get out of a credit card, like cashback rewards, interest-free financing, or other benefits. Sometimes you might need a card to build your credit.

As you're searching for credit cards, make sure you're asking yourself the right questions to find the best one for you.

1. What's the purpose of this credit card?

Credit cards are multifunctional. You might need a credit card to:

  • Build credit. If you're building credit, secured credit cards don't have a lot of perks, but they'll address your needs. These are cards that you put an amount down as a refundable deposit and that acts as your credit limit. Then you spend up to that limit and make payments on what you spent. Their goal is to help up your credit so you qualify for other types of credit, like other cards and loans.
  • Lower credit utilization. If you have a high credit utilization rate -- or use a lot of available credit -- your credit score could drop. Adding another form of credit, like a credit card, will add to how much credit you have available. This can lower your credit utilization (and boost your score).
  • Reap rewards. From cashback to travel perks, there's no shortage of credit card rewards. You might want to narrow your choices down to specific rewards (and sign-up bonuses) to get the most benefits. 
  • Debt consolidation. If you're carrying around high-interest debt, whether through loans or other credit cards, you can get a low-interest or 0% introductory APR credit card to help ease your debt.

2. Do I have the credit to qualify?

The better the benefits, the more hoops you'll need to jump through to be eligible for certain credit cards. Credit cards with attractive rewards programs or cashback rewards require higher credit than more basic credit card varieties.

If you have poor or fair credit, you might only qualify for credit builder or secured credit cards. If you have good to excellent credit, you may easily qualify for any credit card you want. But if you don't have the right score, you might not be eligible for the card you wish. 

3. Will I carry a balance?

While carrying a balance isn't necessarily a bad thing, paying off your credit cards every month shows lenders you're only spending what you can afford.

There are some instances when you'll need to carry a balance. For example, if you're making a large purchase, you may need extra time to pay it off (though be wary of high interest rates). If that's the case, you might want to explore a 0% introductory APR offer, rather than a card with travel or cashback rewards.

Remember that even with a 0% introductory offer, you're still responsible for minimum, on-time payments every month. 

4. Where will I use it the most?

Think about what you use your credit card for on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Cashback rewards credit cards (like Chase Freedom Unlimited®), for example, will reward you by sending cash straight into your bank account or giving you a statement credit.

Cashback cards are a good idea if you use them often at restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations. But the cards themselves vary greatly in how much they reward you for where you shop. Some have higher bonuses and rewards for dining out, while others will give you a better rate when you shop at wholesale clubs. (This is where some folks get into gaming credit cards, using different cards for different purchases, a practice only suited to judicious budgeters.)

If it's for travel, you can look into a general travel rewards card or one for a specific airline or hotel. Many of these cards issue rewards in the form of points or miles you can redeem on future trips (albeit, sometimes with restrictions or blackout dates). How you use the card will determine the card you should get. Also, consider whether the annual fee outweighs the perks. 

5. Is there an annual fee?

Annual fees on cards can range so widely, especially since credit card offers change often. There might be annual fees as low as $35 or as high as hundreds of dollars.

An annual fee isn't a bad thing if you feel that the benefits outweigh the cost. For instance, if your rewards or perks will more than pay for the fee, then you're coming out on top. Many cards also offer sign-up bonuses that quickly mitigate the annual fee. Make sure you're exploring how you'll use the card and estimating if the annual fee is worth it. Then you can make the decision if the card is right for you.

Some secured credit cards charge an annual fee for use, so if you're planning to use one to build your credit, you might have to pay for that luxury. The goal there would be to build credit, then switch to an unsecured credit card with perks that balance an annual fee (or no annual fee at all.)

6. Will it boost my credit score?

When used wisely, credit cards have the opportunity to give your credit score a boost. But not all credit cards report to credit bureaus.

If you're looking to build credit, having a card that doesn't report to credit bureaus means your score won't go up for responsible use. For instance, Apple Card doesn't report to credit bureaus. While this card and others like it might be convenient to use, they're not helping your credit grow. This might not be a bad thing if you have excellent credit, but if you don't, it could hold you back from building yours up.

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Disclaimer: The information included in this article, including program features, program fees, and credits available through credit cards to apply to such programs, may change from time-to-time and are presented without warranty. When evaluating offers, please check the credit card provider's website and review its terms and conditions for the most current offers and information.