Credit Cards
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Opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the issuer. We may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program. For a full list of our advertisers, including American Express, see our disclosure page.

Advertiser Disclosure

Advertiser Disclosure: Some of the card offers that appear on this website are from companies which ValuePenguin receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). The site does not review or include all companies or all available products.

Disclaimer: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone. For a full list of our advertisers, see our disclosure page.

Opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by the issuer. We may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program. For a full list of our advertisers, including American Express, see our disclosure page.

Getting Your First Credit Card: What You Should Know

Signing up for a credit card is often one of the first major financial decisions consumers make on their own. Whether you’re a student or someone who has never signed up for a card, you should try to make a well-informed decision. Use this guide to learn about the most important considerations to make when getting your first credit card.

Table of Contents

Why You Need a Your Credit Card

There are two major reasons behind why getting your first credit card is a good move – it can help you build a credit history and it can save you money through reward programs. The benefits from these two factors can have a huge impact on your overall financial standing. As long as you manage to avoid the negative aspects of credit cards, there is very little reason to delay applying.

Credit Scores: The Most Important Reason to Sign Up for Your First Credit Card

Credit cards are one of the first ways most people begin establishing their credit history. Opening a student or secured credit card account helps put you on the map with the three major reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Having a credit history can help you, in the future, qualify for loans, mortgages, or even to get a job, as some employers pull credit reports of their candidates.

The sooner you open up a credit card, the better it will be for your credit score. A majority of lending decisions today are based on FICO scores. The five chief factors that impact this model are: credit history length (15%), credit inquiries (10%), debt burden (30%), payment history (35%), and the types of credit accounts open (10%). As soon as you sign up for your first credit card, you can start to build up your payment history and credit history length, which together account for 50% of a FICO 8 score.

One thing to know when you’re new to credit is that building up a credit file can take a long time. The most popular credit scores range from 300 to 850, and anything above 700 is generally considered “good”. It can take several years of never missing payments and growing the average age of your credit accounts to get there. That is why it’s important to sign up for your first credit card as soon as possible.

Note: The ‘credit history length’ we mentioned above is actually calculated as an average age of your credit accounts. Therefore, if you opened up your first credit card two years ago, and a brand new one today, your average age of credit would be one year. If you’re just starting to build your credit score, it’s better to get your first card and allow that account to mature, before you go ahead and open up new ones.

Rewards: An Opportunity to Save Money

Another reason to prefer credit cards to other modes of payment is the rewards they can earn you. Many credit cards earn consumers points, miles or cash back with every purchase. This translates to a small percentage return on every transaction – typically between 1% and 2%. While it may not seem like much, it does add up over time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average consumer spends roughly $1,430 each month on expenses that could be charged to a credit card. Assuming even the bare minimum 1% return, which can translate to a $172 value every year.

Individuals applying for their first credit card will likely not qualify for cards with significantly higher rewards rates. However, when you consider the credit-score building argument above, the sooner one signs up and begins working on improving their score, the sooner they will be able to double or even triple their average savings.

Why You Shouldn’t Get a Credit Card

You shouldn't open a credit card account if you believe it will drive you to debt. Credit cards allow consumers to spend beyond their means, and to pay for everyday items in installments. This is dangerous if the user doesn't show self-control, and buys things he or she can't afford. Credit card debt is bad debt, since the interest you’ll pay is extremely high. The average credit card interest rate currently stands at about 17%.

The only people who should be using credit cards are those who pay off all their purchases at the end of the month. Realistically, this is not how things turn out however. Certain economic conditions may force individuals to become revolvers, or people who carry a balance month-to-month. However, if it is within your means to avoid credit card interest, you should always do so. No matter how many rewards you earn, you will not outpace the money you’d sink into interest payments.

If you have trouble controlling your spending, it is recommended you don’t open up a credit card until you manage to get that under control. The average credit card debt in the United States for indebted households currently stands at over $15,000. This figure is also quickly rising. If mishandled, it can take many years to pay off such a debt.

What Are Some Good First Credit Cards to Get?

When you are shopping for your first credit card, you should narrow down your choices to student cards and secured credit cards. These will be available to you, even if you don’t have a credit file. Assuming you plan to always pay off your credit card, focus on maximizing your rewards. Otherwise, your priority should be getting a first credit card with the lowest possible interest.

To help consumers select a rewards credit card that best fits their spending, we built a calculator that helps estimate each card’s rewards based on how they spend. If you want to learn more about these card offers, you can look at our article: Best Starter Credit Cards.

Edit Monthly Spend: $1,430
General:
Gas:
Groceries:
Airlines:
Hotel:
Dining:
Office:
Utilities:
Computing:
Card Annual Fee 2-yr Net Rewards Rate

The Net Rewards Rate is equal to the Rewards Value over two years divided by the total spending. The total spending is equal to the values entered into the tool and multiplied by 24 months. See the Rewards Value note to see details on how it is calculated.

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Bonus Value

The bonus field shows our estimate for the value of the card’s sign-up bonus. If the bonus is point or mile based, we multiply the total bonus points/miles by our estimate for their value to arrive at a dollar equivalent. We display $0 if there is no bonus or if the user doesn’t qualify for the bonus based on the current spending entered into the tool.

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

2-yr Rewards Value

The Rewards Value is calculated by adding together the rewards earned from charging purchases to the card over two years and any sign-up bonuses (if applicable). They are then multiplied by our estimated point/mile value, with any annual fees (if applicable) subtracted. All values are based on our own estimates for the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using a card.

The estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone. They are not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Discover it® for Students
$0 1.43%
$171
Discover gives a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. (New cardmembers only)
$514
Graph Card Read Review More Details
Annual Fee $0
APR 13.99% - 22.99% Variable

Card Details

  • New! We’ll monitor your Social Security Number. Get an alert if we find your Social Security Number on any of thousands of risky websites.* Activate for FREE.
  • Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like Amazon.com, restaurants, ground transportation and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
  • Get 100% U.S. based customer service & your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 13.99% - 22.99%.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 343 x $1 = $343
Bonuses
171 x $1 = $171
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 514
Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
$0 0.95%
$0
$343
Graph Card Read Review More Details
Annual Fee $0
APR 24.99% (Variable)

Card Details

  • Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
  • There's no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn, and rewards won't expire for the life of the account
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Pay no annual or foreign transaction fees
  • Fraud coverage if your card is lost or stolen
  • Pick the monthly due date that works best for you

Note: The information in this box was provided by Capital One® and is not part of our independent analysis.

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 343 x $1 = $343
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 343
Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card
No Annual Fee 0.95%
$0
$343
Graph Card Read Review More Details
Annual Fee No Annual Fee
APR 6.99%

Card Details

  • Earn 1 Flexpoint reward for each dollar you spend
  • Flexpoints can be earned on any net purchases at the rate of 1 per dollar

Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months

Card Rewards Estimated Rewards Value Dollars*
Spending Rewards 34,320 x $0.01 = $343
Total Net Estimated Rewards Through 24 Months 343

Understanding Credit Card Bills: How to Pay off Your Credit Card

Once you open up your first credit card, you should understand how your bill works. You can read our comprehensive guide on credit card billing here, or read the following summary for the high-level details.

Due date. Your credit card bill will be due on the same day every month. Therefore, if your first bill is due on the 3rd day of the month, you can expect the following bills to fall on the 3rd of each subsequent month. This should make it easier to anticipate bills, and not miss a payment.

Minimum payment. Every month, you will be required to pay at least a small portion of the total outstanding balance on the credit card – this is referred to as a minimum payment. Typically, most banks require users to pay around 2% of the total balance as the minimum. It is highly recommended that credit card users always pay more than that amount, or else interest charges will mount up faster.

Grace period. This is what allows you to make purchases on a credit card and pay them off in full at the end of the month without it costing you extra. Every credit card comes with a grace period for interest that lasts between 21 and 25 days. That means you will not be charged interest on a purchase for the duration of the grace period.

Foreign transaction fees. Whenever you use your credit card outside of the United States, you will be charged a foreign transaction fee. This can cost you anywhere between 2.7% and 3% of each purchase. Note that some credit cards come with no foreign transaction fees and are well-suited for international travelers.

Cash advances. When you use a credit card to take out money at an ATM it is classified as a cash advance. This will result in an extra charge (somewhere around 5% of the total money withdrawn), significantly higher APR, and no grace period.

Challenging purchases. If an item that you didn’t authorize appears on your credit card bill you can notify your issuer and they may reverse it. This is extremely helpful in case your card information was stolen and used fraudulently. By law, you cannot be held liable for more than $50 worth of fraud purchases per incident. However, most issuers completely waive your liability.

Comments and Questions

* See the online credit card application for details about terms and conditions. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. However all credit card information is presented without warranty. When you click on the "Apply Now" button, you can review the credit card terms and conditions on the issuer's website.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program. 

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Advertiser Disclosure: Some of the offers that appear on this website are from companies which ValuePenguin receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where offers appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). The site does not review or include all companies or all available products. For more information please see our Advertiser Disclosure.