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What Is a Secured Credit Card & How Does It Work?

By Maureen Shelly · July 01, 2023 · 11 minute read

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What Is a Secured Credit Card & How Does It Work?

A “secured” credit card is one that requires a security deposit — typically several hundred dollars — that is used as collateral in case the cardholder fails to make payments. If you have a brief credit history or dinged credit, a secured credit card can be a good tool for building credit.

Why care about your credit health? Because creditworthiness can come into play when applying for loans, jobs, apartments, and other situations that require a credit check. If you can’t get a regular “unsecured” credit card, a secured credit card may be a good option.

What Is a Secured Credit Card?

A secured credit card is a credit card that requires a refundable security deposit, which counts as collateral until the account is closed.

The security deposit decreases the risk for the credit card issuer, and allows people with damaged or limited credit to build a history of on-time payments. If your credit score is 600 or so (fair), you may be able to get a decent secured credit card.

Most secured cards require a minimum deposit of $200 or $300, and that amount is usually equal to your credit limit. If your deposit is on the low end, you’ll want to be careful how you use the card. Credit scoring models typically penalize utilization over 30%, so if your credit limit is $300, you may want to keep your balance under $90. A higher deposit will provide breathing room. A deposit of, say, $1,000 boosts the 30% threshold to $300.

Finally, a heads-up if your credit is bad: Unsecured cards targeting people with bad credit are notorious for high fees and confusing terms. And issuers of these cards usually don’t have good cards to upgrade to.

How Does a Secured Credit Card Work?

Here’s how a secured credit card works: You put down your security deposit, and then you get the same amount to spend as a line of credit.

If you want to increase your limit, you’ll have to contribute more to your security deposit. Secured credit card issuers don’t want to be left in the dust if you decide not to pay — or cannot pay — your balance. If that were to happen, they would just take your security deposit.

This type of card may be suitable for people who’ve gone through bankruptcy or are just starting out and have a limited credit history. Typically, a secured card is a better option than a high-interest unsecured credit card that’s targeted to people with a low credit score. That’s because a high-interest card, while enticing, can take years to pay off and end up damaging your financial reputation even further. A secured credit card poses a much lower risk.

A secured credit card looks the same as a regular credit card on a credit report — so users don’t have to worry about other lenders seeing that they have this type of card. And as long as the balance is paid in full and on time every month, your credit score should start to mend.

After using the card responsibly for a certain amount of time, a secured-card holder may be able to get an unsecured card. Your secured-card company can switch a card to unsecured as well, allowing access to a higher line of credit without a deposit.

Pros and Cons of a Secured Credit Card

Like most things in life, there are positives and negatives to this kind of card.

Pros

•   Rebuild credit. Secured cards allow you to rebuild your credit history if you have limited or damaged credit. You do that by making on-time payments every month — at least the minimum payment, but preferably the full amount to avoid interest charges.

•   Lower credit line. A lower limit means you’re less likely to go over it and risk running a high balance. This is helpful for people who are still learning how to use credit responsibly.

•   Card benefits. Secured cards may offer basic benefits like fraud protection and cash back, just like you get with an unsecured card.

•   Potential to upgrade. Some secured cards allow the holder to switch to a regular unsecured card after a period of responsible use.

Cons

•  Security deposit. All secured cards by definition require the holder to provide the issuer with a cash deposit. That deposit is refunded once you switch to an unsecured card.

•  Fewer rewards. Secured cards don’t offer all the bells and whistles that an unsecured card can. For instance, you may not earn travel points, receive any discounts on goods and services, or get access to airport lounges.

•  Interest rate. As noted above, secured cards often carry higher interest rates than regular credit cards. (Of course, the interest rate won’t matter if you’re paying your bill in full each month.)

•  Requires a hard inquiry. The issuer will need to run a hard inquiry or pull on your credit report. This usually translates to a slight drop in your credit score.

Applying for a Secured Credit Card

The application process for a secured card should be relatively quick and simple, provided you prepare what you need ahead of time.

1.   Shop Around. Secured credit cards are not all the same. Look for a card with no annual fee (they’re nonrefundable) and a minimum deposit amount that meets your needs. Some cards even offer limited rewards, like cash back. Finally, make sure your payment history will be reported to the three main credit bureaus — that is how you’ll rebuild your credit.

2.   Check your credit score. It’s smart to go into the application process knowing exactly what your credit score is. There are several ways to find it without having to pay a fee. The credit bureau Experian provides consumers with their FICO Score at no charge. Your bank may also provide your credit score online for free.

3.   Collect your information and paperwork. Application requirements vary depending on the card issuer. To make sure you have all the documentation you need, gather the following:

  – Proof of identity, such as a driver’s license, passport, or other photo ID.

  – Proof of address, like a recent utility bill.

  – Bank account info. If you have a checkbook, your bank info and account number appear on your checks.

  – Citizenship or residency info.

  – Recent pay stub, W2 form, tax return, or other proof of employment and income.

  – Social Security number. You don’t have to bring your card; just make sure you know your number.

4.   Complete the application. You can do this in person if your credit card issuer has a branch near you. You may also do it over the phone with a customer service rep — just be aware you’ll need a way to provide your documentation, either in person or via upload. The easiest method is online, as long as you have access to a computer or smartphone that allows you to upload documents or images.

5.   Provide a deposit. This is usually done via online transfer from your checking or savings account.

Tips for Bettering Your Chances at Approval

If you’re nervous about getting approved, taking these extra steps can help you maximize your odds.

1.   Review your credit report. Request free reports from the three major credit agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com, and review them carefully. If you find any errors — from outdated information to unfamiliar accounts — file a dispute to have the data corrected or removed.

2.   Pay your bills on time. Many people hit a financial rough patch at some point. The important thing is to show a recent history of on-time payments. If you can point to a year’s worth of good habits, credit card issuers will be more likely to consider you worth the risk.

3.   Maintain a steady job. Even if you don’t have a high income, job security reassures credit card companies that you have the cash flow you need to pay your bills. Your employer may be able to give you a reference letter stating how long you’ve worked for the company and your track record of reliability and good work.

4.   Become an authorized user. Got a family member or close friend with great credit? Ask them if they’ll add you as an “authorized user” on their credit card. Over time, their good habits will rub off on your credit history. And that may give you the boost you need to get approved for your own card.

Using a Secured Credit Card

Major credit card companies such as MasterCard, Visa, and Discover offer secured credit cards. This means you can use your card anywhere these brands are accepted.

Some secured credit cards offer benefits like cash back and free access to your credit score.

Many major credit cards also provide liability protection, so you won’t be responsible for fraudulent charges on your account. You may have to pay fees, such as a monthly maintenance fee, annual fee, balance inquiry fee, or an activation fee.

Though you may be able to get a secured credit card with a lower interest rate than an unsecured credit card, the average rate for secured cards is still higher, at 22.48%, than the average regular credit card interest rate of 20.09%.

It’s smart to do some online comparison shopping of different credit cards to see which one has the most appealing terms. However, it’s best not to apply for too many; one hard inquiry can cause a credit score to drop 5 to 10 points. If you apply for more than one or two cards, that could have a negative effect on your credit score.

When you start using your card, paying it on time is going to impact your credit score rating. If you may not remember to pay it each month, you could set up automatic payments to ensure your bills are up to date. You can also check your credit score every month to make sure it’s trending upward.

Building Credit with a Secured Credit Card

Secured cards are a great way to build credit if you have a low credit score or a limited credit history. How they do that is not so different from how a regular credit card works.

First, you need to pay your bills on time, each and every month. Missing one payment will undo all your good work up to this point. If you don’t trust yourself to remember every single time, there’s a simple solution. Set up automated payments through your bank so that your card is paid on the same day each month. You can choose to pay the minimum, a set amount over the minimum (say, $100), or the whole balance. Hot tip: Paying off the balance each month will save you money on interest.

Second, avoid running up a high balance. In this case, a high balance just means an amount approaching your credit limit (the same amount as your security deposit). Try to keep your credit utilization — the percentage of credit that you actually use — below 30%. If your credit limit is $500, the most you should charge per month is $150 (this assumes you have no other debt). As you rack up a history of on-time payments, you can request a higher limit, though that will require a higher deposit.

Denial of a Secured Credit Card

Even though getting a secured credit card with limited or damaged credit history is possible, an applicant may still be denied. Anyone who is denied a card should receive a letter from the credit card issuer explaining why. Perhaps they didn’t fill out the application properly and all they need to do is fix it, or their credit score wasn’t high enough.

If the reason has to do with the applicant’s credit report, they can get free access to their report through AnnualCreditReport.com and see their entire credit history. For example, the credit report may reveal that the credit utilization ratio, or the amount of debt compared with the amount of credit a person has, is too high. An applicant could start paying down debt more aggressively in order to bring down the credit utilization ratio and have a better chance of being approved for a secured credit card.

Another factor that may cause a denial is if an applicant doesn’t make enough income or can’t prove income. The credit score just may be too low as well.

The Takeaway

A “secured” credit card is one that requires a security deposit that is used as collateral in case the cardholder fails to make payments. Secured cards have more relaxed application requirements than unsecured cards, making them popular with people who have limited or damaged credit histories. Some secured cards offer the same conveniences as regular credit cards — from cash back to rental car coverage — without the risk of running up a huge bill. Most secured cards report to the major credit bureaus, allowing holders to build up a positive credit history over time.

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.

FAQ

Do secured credit cards build credit?


Many secured credit cards can help you build credit. Before you apply, check that the card issuer reports to the three main credit bureaus. Then, make sure you make on-time payments each and every month.

How does a secured credit card differ from an unsecured credit card?


A secured credit card requires a cash deposit that is equal to your credit limit. This serves as collateral in case you are unable to pay your bill. The deposit is refunded if you close the card or switch to a regular unsecured card. Secured cards typically have low credit limits, higher interest rates, and few perks or rewards.

How do I close a secured credit card?


To close your card, call the number on the back or log in into your account online. Or you may choose to cut up the card without officially closing it, so that your credit history doesn’t take a hit.

How can I change a secured credit card to an unsecured card?


If you have a record of on-time payments with your secured card issuer, ask them if they offer an unsecured upgrade. Some card issuers want to see a year or so of good credit habits before switching you to an unsecured card.


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 .

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.

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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