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Should You Have an Emergency Credit Card?

An emergency credit card can help you through a cash crunch, protect you while traveling and build your credit.

Even if you don't use a credit card for everyday purchases, there are a few good reasons to keep one in your wallet anyway.  Unexpected expenses -- for a car repair or home maintenance job -- can throw a wrench in the best laid financial plans. 

An emergency credit card can help you navigate a cash crunch. It can also provide an additional layer of reassurance and security when you're traveling -- in the event you lose your debit card or cash, are the victim of fraud or miss your flight and need to rebook immediately. 

Charging a large expense to a credit card can buy you time to rearrange your finances in a timeline that makes the most sense for your specific circumstances. If you can pay off the balance quickly, it's less expensive than taking money out of a retirement account and quicker than getting equity out of your home or selling physical possessions. If you do end up using a credit card to navigate an emergency, it's crucial to hatch a plan to pay off the debt as quickly as possible.

Whether you're traveling abroad or just want the peace of mind that comes from having a backup payment method, the best emergency credit cards don't charge an annual fee, so you can keep them on the back burner without paying extra. And they can also help grow your credit score.

Best for long-term financing of unexpected expenses

8.75/10 CNET Rating
Card Highlights
Intro OfferN/A
APR14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
Intro Purchase APR0% Intro APR for 21 billing cycles for purchases
Recommended Credit Excellent/Good
Reward RatesN/A
Annual Fee$0
Additional Details
Intro Balance Transfer APR0% Intro APR for 21 billing cycles for any BTs made in the first 60 days. A 3% fee (min. $10) applies.
Balance Transfer APR14.24% - 24.24% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
Balance Transfer Fee Either $10 or 3% of the amount of each transaction, whichever is greater.
Late Payment Fee See Terms
Foreign Transaction Fees 3%
Penalty APR none

Our Take

This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.

The BankAmericard® credit card offers one of the longest introductory APR periods on the market. You'll get a 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 21 billing cycles (14.24% to 24.24% variable APR thereafter). This means that if you transfer your balance within the first 60 days of opening your account, you won't pay interest on purchases -- as long as you make your minimum payments on time -- for about 21 months. 

This can prevent you from paying interest charges if you have an emergency expense that you can't pay immediately, but you'll have to pay off the purchase by the end of the promotional period to avoid them entirely. Once the promotional period ends, this card loses most of its value, as it has no rewards program or other special financing options.

Best emergency card for traveling abroad

Intro Offer: Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel

APR: 16.49% - 26.49% (Variable)

Intro Purchase APR: 0% intro on purchases for 15 months

Recommended Credit: Excellent, Good

Reward Rates:

  • Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
  • Earn unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day.

Annual Fee: $0

If you experience a cash crunch while traveling outside of the US, the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card will help you save on foreign transaction fees -- an average of 3% per purchase -- compared to a debit card.

Even better, the VentureOne card offers travel accident insurance** and auto rental collision damage waiver** to further insulate yourself from incidentals, as well as emergency card replacement if your card gets lost or stolen. Meanwhile, the introductory APR is ideal for temporarily avoiding interest if you have to charge something unexpectedly.

**Terms, conditions, and exclusions apply. Please refer to your Guide to Benefits for more details.

Best for your first credit card

Intro Offer: N/A

APR: 15.24% - 29.24% (Variable)

Intro Purchase APR: N/A

Recommended Credit: Limited/Fair/Good/Excellent

Reward Rates:

  • Up to 1.5% cash back on eligible purchases after making 12 on-time monthly payments.
  • 1% cash back on eligible purchases right away.

Annual Fee: $0

If you're looking for an emergency credit card, it may also be your first credit card. And if you don't already have an established credit history, you may not get approved for credit cards that require "good" credit or better. But there are cards for people with lower credit scores, and the Petal 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa Credit Card, issued by WebBank, is among the best of them. 

It offers rewards, a relatively low APR range and a $300 to $10,000 credit limit based on creditworthiness -- features that are rare in these types of cards and that will give you more flexibility in an emergency.

Best for unexpected home maintenance and car repairs

6/10 CNET Rating
Card Highlights
Intro OfferEarn a $200 bonus on your Upgrade Card after opening a Rewards Checking account and making 3 debit card transactions*
APR14.99% -29.99%
Intro Purchase APRN/A
Recommended Credit Excellent/Good/Fair Credit
Reward Rates
  • Unlimited cash back on payments - 3% on Home, Auto and Health categories
  • 1% on everything else
Annual Fee$0
Additional Details
Foreign Transaction Fees $0
Rewards & Redemption Details
  • Unlimited cash back on payments - 3% on Home, Auto and Health categories
  • 1% on everything else

Our Take

The Upgrade Triple Cash Rewards card has a unique rewards program for homeowners financing DIY and other fixes. If you're able to pay off your emergency home or car maintenance charges in full on the first payment due date, you'll sidestep any interest charges -- and earn 3% cash back on home, auto and health purchases. 

The 3% cash back covers purchases from hardware stores, home supply stores, landscaping services, and heating, plumbing and air conditioning providers. Purchases from automotive part stores, car dealers, car washes, tires and towing services are included in the auto category. Health and beauty spas, gym membership, exercise equipment and pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS also earn 3%.

FAQs

Should I carry an emergency credit card in my wallet or keep it at home?

If you're traveling, we recommend bringing your emergency credit card with you to help navigate mishaps like a missed flight. Otherwise, leave your emergency credit card at home to avoid the temptation of non-emergency spending.

How can an emergency credit card improve my credit score?

A credit score measures your creditworthiness, based on your track record with credit cards, loans and mortgages. Establishing a credit history and building your credit score sets the stage for renting an apartment, applying for a car loan and buying a house -- and, generally, the higher your score, the less expensive it is to borrow. So, even if you don't plan to regularly use an emergency credit card, having one will help you build credit with minimal effort.

What types of credit cards are good for emergencies?

Some credit cards are better than others for financing unexpected expenses. An introductory APR will enable you to avoid interest while you take some time to pay off a large cost. A specialized rewards program will let you earn some cash back or other rewards to recuperate some of your costs if you can pay it off right away. Pay attention to the timelines or spending caps on these offers though: There may be restrictions on these features.

What if I don't make any purchases on my emergency credit card?

Technically, you don't have to ever use your emergency credit card. It's a good idea to make a small charge every few months and pay it off right away to keep your account active, however. Credit card issuers reserve the right to close your account without notice for lack of use.

What happens if I cancel my emergency credit card?

Whether or not you close your credit card account can be a matter of personal preference, but there are some factors to consider. Closing a credit card -- particularly one that's been open for a while -- may have adverse effects on your credit score. On the other hand, if you can't responsibly use a credit card, closing an account may be a good option to avoid using it. Make sure you close the account properly if you choose to do so.

What are the risks of using a credit card?

When you make purchases with a credit card, there are several risks that can have long-term impacts on your financial health. If you don't make payments in full, you will accrue interest charges if you're not using an introductory APR promotion. You may also incur late fees and other charges for missed payments. Ultimately, any irresponsible credit use can lead to debt and a damaged credit score.

*To qualify for the $200 welcome bonus, you must open and fund a new Rewards Checking account and make 3 debit card transactions within 60 days of your Upgrade Card account opening. The bonus will be applied as a one-time credit to your account and will not otherwise reduce the amount of your regular monthly payments. The bonus credit will be posted to your Upgrade Card as a rewards credit within 1-2 billing periods following the third debit card transaction on your Rewards Checking account. Your Upgrade Card must be in good standing to receive a bonus.

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.