Apply for a Credit Card: Step-By-Step Guide

By Alyssa Schwartz · March 21, 2023 · 11 minute read

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Apply for a Credit Card: Step-By-Step Guide

A credit card can be a useful tool for managing your money. But before tapping into the benefits, the first thing to know is how to get a credit card. There are some requirements, and some tips that can help when it comes to getting approved.

Here’s the lowdown on the key things to know to apply for a credit card — and most importantly, to get approved for a credit card.

What to Consider When Applying for a Credit Card

Before you worry about how to get a credit card, it’s helpful to first understand what a credit card is. As the first word in its name suggests, a credit card is a line of credit, which is a type of flexible loan that enables you to borrow money up to a fixed limit.

When an individual charges a transaction at a business that accepts credit card payments, the credit card company pays the merchant. The cardholder must then pay back the credit card company by a designated date. Otherwise, they’ll incur interest charges.

This basic premise of how credit cards work means the card company is taking a risk when extending credit to any individual. They assess that risk via an application that determines not only whether the individual gets approved for a credit card, but also factors like their credit card limit and annual percentage rate (APR) on a credit card.

Before applying, there are some important considerations that can help improve your chances of getting approved for a credit card.

Recommended: Tips for Using a Credit Card Responsibly

Learn About the Terms Associated with Your Credit Card

Evaluating different credit cards can feel overwhelming for a newbie, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with some basic credit card terms that are common across all credit cards. Here are some common terms you might run into in a credit card application and as you begin to use your new card:

•   Balance: Your balance is the amount of money you owe on your credit card. This can include purchases (even paying taxes with credit card) as well as any fees, balance transfers, and cash advances.

•   Balance transfer: A balance transfer is when you move money from one credit card to another credit card, ideally one with a lower APR. This can allow you to pay off your debt more easily, though you’ll often pay a balance transfer fee to move over the balance.

•   Billing cycle: A credit card billing cycle is the period of time between the regular statements you receive from your credit card company. Usually, billing cycles occur on a monthly basis.

•   CVV: The card verification value, or CVV number on a credit card, is a three- to four-digit number that appears on a physical credit card. It serves as an additional layer of security in transactions that occur over the phone or online.

•   Expiration date: A credit card expiration date represents when a credit card is valid until. Usually shown as a month and a year, you can use your credit card up until the last date of that month in that year.

•   Late fee: The late fee is a charge you’ll incur if you miss making at least your minimum payment by your payment due date. To avoid this fee, it’s important to alway pay on time, even if you’re in the midst of disputing a credit card charge, for instance.

•   Minimum payment: The credit card minimum payment is the least amount you must pay each month on your outstanding balance. This can be a flat amount or a percentage of your outstanding balance.

•   Purchase APR: The APR for purchases represents the total annual cost of borrowing money through purchases made with your credit card. This APR applies only on remaining balances after the statement due date.

Decide on the Type of Credit Card You Need

There are a number of different types of credit cards out there that can serve different needs. For instance, there are:

•   Travel rewards credit cards

•   Cashback credit cards

•   Credit-building credit cards

•   Balance transfer credit cards

While most of the above types of cards are unsecured credit cards, meaning no deposit is required, there are also secured credit cards. These do require a deposit, though they may also be more accessible to those with limited or low credit.

Different types of cards offer different benefits, and they may also vary when it comes to things like annual fees or average credit card limits.

There may also be differences in the requirements for getting approved. It’s not so much a question of how old you have to be to get a credit card — rather, different cards may have varying requirements for minimum income or credit score needed to qualify.

Before applying, it’s a good idea to do some comparison shopping to find a card that not only fits your needs but also that you’re eligible for.

Check Your Credit Score

Your credit score is a number that indicates the likelihood that you’ll repay a debt. It’s based on your credit history, and banks use it as a tool for evaluating credit card applications and deciding whether to approve them.

Here are some common factors that can affect your credit score:

•   Payment history, including on-time payments, missed payments, and having an account sent to collections

•   Credit utilization, or how much one owes relative to their total available revolving credit

•   Length of credit history

•   Types of credit accounts

•   Recent activity, such as applying for or opening new accounts

Generally, the higher an individual’s credit score, the more creditworthy they’re considered. If using the FICO scoring model, here’s a general breakdown of what various scores mean:

•   Less than 580: Poor

•   580-669: Fair

•   670-739: Good

•   740-799: Very good

•   800+: Exceptional

It’s a good idea for an individual to know their score and their chances of getting approved before applying for a credit card. The minimum credit score for a credit card will vary depending on the type of card it is.

For example, rewards credit cards, which come with big perks, tend to require a good credit score. But some types of credit cards, such as secured credit cards, may be more accessible to those with lower credit scores because they pose a lesser risk to lenders. This can make the latter category more appealing if, for instance, you’re getting your first credit card.

It’s worth noting that pulling one’s own credit information is considered a “soft inquiry” and does not reduce their credit score. When you apply for a new credit card, however, it will generate a “hard inquiry,” which can lower your credit score temporarily.

Where to Apply for a Credit Card

Credit cards are offered through banks, credit unions, retailers, airlines, colleges and universities, and a host of other institutions. This means that there are a variety of places where one can apply for a credit card — and often a number of ways to apply.

You can apply for a credit card in person, such as at a bank branch or retail location. Or, you may apply over the phone. Most credit card issuers also offer online applications, which add convenience to the process.

How to Apply for a Credit Card in 3 Steps

Ideally, by the time you sit down to actually apply for a credit card, you’ll have done the necessary homework to determine if you should get a credit card. This includes checking your credit score and potentially getting preapproved (though more on that later).

1. Gather the Necessary Information

The application process will be easier — and likely quicker — if you’re prepared. This means gathering any necessary documentation (more on what you’ll usually need in the next section) and having reverent information on hand, such as your income and Social Security number.

2. Fill Out and Submit an Application

Next, it’s time to fill out the application. There are a few ways you can do this: online, over the phone, or through the mail. It’s generally quickest to complete an application online.

You’ll need to fill in the requested fields and upload (or make copies of) any necessary documents. Once you submit your application, you should hear back within a few weeks at the most — sometimes, you’ll hear back almost the same day.

3. Be Ready for the Credit Impact and Repayment

As you wait for your credit card to arrive in the mail, you should take stock of the recent hit you took to your credit from the hard inquiry. It’s generally advised to avoid applying for multiple credit cards or loans within a short period of time to minimize the credit impact.

Also start to consider your strategy for how you’ll repay your credit card balance once you start swiping. Consider setting up automatic payments from your bank account each month to make sure you’re not late, or you might set a reminder on your phone or in your calendar.

What Do You Need to Apply for a Credit Card?

While application requirements will depend on the credit card issuer, what you need to apply for a credit card generally includes:

•   Annual income

•   Address and length of time at that address

•   Date of birth

•   Phone number

•   Social Security number

•   Employment status and sources of income

•   Financial accounts and/or assets

•   Financial liabilities

•   Country of citizenship and residence

Credit Card Preapproval and Prequalification

Getting prequalified or preapproved for a credit card means you’ve been prescreened for a credit card and meet at least some of the eligibility requirements. The two terms can be used interchangeably, though preapproval might carry slightly more weight in terms of your odds of eventual approval.

You’ll still need to go through the formal application to get approved for a credit card though, as neither preapproval or prequalification means you’ve been approved. The formal application process will involve a hard inquiry, whereas prequalification and preapproval generally only involve soft inquiries.

Still, preapproval or prequalification can be a good way to suss out potential credit card options and likelihood of getting approved before you move forward with an application and risk the impact to your credit.

What Happens If Your Application Is Turned Down?

Getting turned down for a credit card is indeed disappointing. When a credit card application is declined, you have the right to know why. You can request details about your application in the form of an adverse action letter, which includes the reason for the denial, details about your credit score, and notice of the right to dispute the accuracy of information provided by the credit reporting agency.

This can serve as helpful context for understanding why an application was declined. It can also help in determining what the appropriate next steps are for improving one’s chances of approval, if and when you apply for another credit card. For instance, you may consider applying for a credit card that has less stringent credit requirements, or you may take steps to improve your credit score and try again at a later date.

Secured and Prepaid Credit Cards

If you were turned down for a credit card, you might take some steps to improve your credit before trying again, or you might consider other options. Two alternatives you might look into are secured credit cards and prepaid credit cards.

With a secured credit card, you put down a deposit, which serves as collateral and usually acts as the card’s credit limit. Because there’s collateral there for the credit card issuer to fall back on if you fail to make your payments, secured credit cards are generally easier to get approved to than the more traditional, secured credit cards.

Prepaid debit cards don’t let you work on building your credit, as you’re not actually borrowing funds. Rather, you load the card with funds that you can then use in person or online. This can offer some of the convenience that a credit card offers over cash, without the application and approval process.

The Takeaway

Applying for a credit card can be a simple three-step process of gathering the required details, submitting an application, and handling the likely credit impact. You will probably have many options when selecting a card, so take your time to find the right fit.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.


How do I choose a credit card?

Choosing a credit card is a personal decision that depends on your needs, preferences, financial habits, and eligibility. Before applying for a credit card that appears to fit your needs, it’s a good idea to check your credit score and any other requirements, such as minimum income, to improve your chances of getting approved.

How long does it take to get a credit card?

The length of time it takes to get a credit card can depend on a number of factors, including the eligibility requirements and how an application is submitted. Some online credit card applications offer fast or even instant approval, although it can take some additional time for the credit card to arrive in the mail.

Does your credit get pulled when applying for a credit card?

Generally, a credit card company will do a hard credit inquiry before extending final approval. However, there may be some scenarios where a credit card issuer may only do a soft inquiry, such as if an individual has been preapproved for a credit card or already has a banking relationship with the credit card issuer.

What are the requirements needed to get a credit card?

The requirements to get a credit card will typically vary from card to card. However, you’ll generally need to provide information on your annual income, your employment status, and your current debt obligations. Your creditworthiness also comes into play, though credit score requirements will differ depending on the card.

Can you get a credit card with no credit history?

It is possible to get a credit card with no credit history, though your options may be more limited. You may have an easier time getting approved for a secured credit card or a basic, no-frills credit card.

Photo credit: iStock/Dome Studio

Checking Your Rates: To check the rates and terms you may qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s website .

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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