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What Is an Unsecured Credit Card and How Does It Work?

By Ashley Kilroy · March 31, 2022 · 7 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is an Unsecured Credit Card and How Does It Work?

Credit cards have become a necessity in today’s world. While there are various forms of credit, the most common credit card type tends to be unsecured credit cards, which don’t require a form of collateral to use them. In addition to helping you build credit, these credit cards often come with extra bells and whistles like cashback rewards or special services.

To decipher if an unsecured credit card makes sense for your financial situation, here are the ins and outs of what an unsecured credit card is, how it works, and the pros and cons of using one.

What Is an Unsecured Credit Card?

When you think of what a credit card is, you’re most likely thinking of an unsecured credit card. An unsecured credit card is a line of credit that gives cardholders the ability to use credit at their whim. In other words, as a cardholder, you can use your credit up to its limit and pay it off continuously, with no end date. Unsecured credit cards get their name since they don’t require a deposit or collateral, unlike secured credit cards.

Depending on the credit card you qualify for, you might be able to receive some additional benefits and perks with an unsecured credit card like cashback rewards.

How Does an Unsecured Credit Card Work?

You’ll receive a credit limit when you open an unsecured credit card. Your credit limit is the maximum credit you can use on this account. You must pay at least the credit card minimum payment each billing cycle if you’ve used the card. Therefore, your monthly payment will vary depending on how much credit you used during that billing cycle (in fact, some months, you may even have a negative balance on your credit card).

If you miss a monthly payment, you’ll likely have to pay a penalty or fee for the infraction. On the other hand, if you make only the minimum monthly payment, your remaining balance (plus accrued interest based on the APR on a credit card) will carry over until the next month.

So, to avoid penalties, fees, and accrued interest, it’s best to pay your balance in full every month. But, if this isn’t feasible with your budget, aim to pay more than the minimum every month so you can quickly chip away at your total outstanding balance. Just be sure to keep in mind how credit cards work when deciding how much to pay in a given month.

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Pros and Cons of Unsecured Credit Cards

Some of the benefits and drawbacks of unsecured credit cards may be obvious. But, to help you determine the risks and rewards of using this type of credit card, here are some pros and cons to get familiar with.

Pros

Upsides of unsecured credit cards include:

•   Higher credit limits: Applicants usually must have a competitive credit score to qualify for an unsecured credit card. For this reason, credit card companies may apply a higher credit card limit since you’ve proved your creditworthiness. Also, having a higher credit limit can impact your credit utilization ratio, the amount of credit you use compared to the amount of credit you have available. Your credit utilization ratio is used to assess your credit score, and a higher ratio may negatively impact your score. With a higher amount of credit available, it’s easier to maintain a lower ratio.

•   Potential to earn rewards: Many unsecured credit cards offer incentives like cash back or airline miles to encourage cardholders to use their credit. They may also offer additional benefits, such as complimentary airport lounge access or hotel credits. So, when comparing your unsecured credit card options, be sure to look at all perks and rewards that may be offered.

•   Frequently reports credit history to credit bureaus. Since card issuers take on more risk by lending credit to cardholders, they usually report your credit activity to the credit bureaus on a monthly basis. Your credit usage is another factor used to determine your credit score, so these regular reports can help you assess how well you’re managing your credit. If you’re managing it well, these frequent reports can help your score.

•   An abundance of options: Unsecured credit cards are the most popular type of credit card. Therefore, there’s a vast array of credit card options at your disposal. Because there are so many options, you’ll likely be able to find one suitable to fit your needs.

Cons

While there are many advantages of using an unsecured card, some may come with some downsides, including:

•   Varying approval requirements: Every credit card company usually has different credit card approval requirements, and you’ll generally need a higher score to qualify for an unsecured versus a secured credit card. For example, some secured credit cards may have a minimum credit score requirement of 580, while others may require a score of at least 680. Researching requirements beforehand can help you identify the best cards available that you can qualify for with your credit score.

•   Extra fees: Some unsecured cards may come with extra fees, such as convenience fees, cash advance fees, or foreign transaction fees. Keep in mind that not all cards charge these fees, though, so it’s worth it to compare your options based on your needs. For example, if you’re a jet setter, you may want to choose a card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees.

Pros

Cons

Higher credit limitsSome cards charge additional fees such as convenience fees, balance transfer fees, or cash advance fees
Wide range of credit card options availableDifferent credit requirements for approval
Rewards such as cash back or miles
Usually reports to credit bureaus

Unsecured vs Secured Credit Cards: What Are the Differences?

The most significant difference between unsecured versus secured credit cards is that secured cards require a deposit whereas unsecured cards don’t. Your deposit on a secured credit card usually dictates your credit limit. Depending on the credit card company and your credit score, your deposit may vary between $200 and $3,000, which is far lower than the average credit card limit.

Requiring a security deposit eliminates some of the creditors’ risks; thus, it can be easier to qualify for a secured credit card than an unsecured credit card. Keep in mind, no matter what type of card you have, you’ll find the most favorable terms if you have good credit, such as a good APR for a credit card. Also, you may have to forgo any rewards while you build your credit with a secured card, as they don’t often offer them.

If you become delinquent on your payments, your creditor could cancel your card and send your remaining outstanding balance to a third-party collector with either an unsecured or a secured credit card. However, if you have a secured credit card and your payment is past due, your creditor may keep your security deposit to pay off some of the remaining balance.

Beyond these few items, there is no other real difference between the inner workings of a secured credit card and an unsecured credit card. Each card allows you to make purchases at locations that accept credit card payments. Then, during the billing cycle, you must make at least a credit card minimum payment. Otherwise, you may have to pay fees or penalties.

Secured Credit Card

Unsecured Credit Card

Requires a refundable depositX
Can qualify with poor credit
Can come with rewards
Requires at least a minimum payment every month
Used to make purchases

Who Should Consider an Unsecured Credit Card?

Since there are plenty of unsecured credit card options available, they can suit the needs of many different types of consumers. If you’re in the market for a new credit card, here’s how to decide if an unsecured card is right for you.

The Budgeter

If you’re big on budgeting, you can use an unsecured credit card as a tool for your budgeting efforts. Many credit issuers offer electric statements or apps that can make it easy to track all of your spendings right on your phone.

But, if you’re going to use your credit card for all of your spending, make sure to keep the interest in mind. While unsecured credit cards can help you budget, they can also hinder you if you get into the habit of overspending.

The Frequent Flyer

Are you a jetsetter, or do you love spending your time on the move? Many unsecured credit cards provide travel rewards that help you earn free travel experiences. For example, some cards can come with reward points or miles that you can use toward booking airfare or accommodations.

You may also receive additional perks like annual hotel credits, access to airport lounges, or discounts on flights when using miles.

The Business Owner

Unsecured credit cards are also useful for business owners. Business owners can capitalize on the perks of unsecured credit cards like rewards, sign-up bonuses, and other benefits. Also, an unsecured card can provide short-term funding for business growth. Plus, it can help businesses build credit for future financing endeavors.

Of course, benefits and terms will vary depending on the type of card you choose.

Typical Requirements to Apply for an Unsecured Credit Card

When you apply for an unsecured credit card, you must meet certain criteria to qualify. Some common requirements when applying for a credit card include:

•   Be at least 21 years of age. While this is generally the age required to get a credit card, if you’re over 18 and can prove you have an income, you may qualify.

•   Provide proof of income to demonstrate you can make the minimum payments.

•   Be a U.S. citizen or have the authority to work in the U.S.

•   Have an acceptable credit score per the lender’s requirements.

•   Provide personal information such as your name, age, address, Social Security number, and more.

Keep in mind that all credit issuers have different criteria for approval. Some credit issuers may give you the option to pre-qualify. This way, you can see if you may qualify without submitting a hard inquiry on your credit, which can impact your credit score.

The Takeaway

Unsecured credit cards can come with many perks, such as earning cash back rewards and helping you build credit. But, before you apply for just any old card, make sure to compare your options, keeping the average credit card interest rate in mind, and understand the criteria for approval. Identifying an unsecured credit card that’s suitable for your needs might take a little time, but it’s worth it.

For a limited time, new credit card holders† who also sign up for a SoFi Checking and Savings with direct deposit can start earning 3% cash back rewards on all eligible credit card purchases for 365 days*. Offer ends 12/31/22.

Take advantage of this offer by applying for a SoFi credit card today.

FAQ

Is it good to have an unsecured credit card?

If you can handle an unsecured credit card responsibly, it can help you build credit. Also, it can be a good way to receive additional benefits, such as cash back or other rewards, for completing your daily transactions.

What credit score do I need for an unsecured credit card?

Typically, if you have a credit score of 579 or less, credit issuers may be reluctant to approve your application. To qualify for the most competitive rates and offers, you typically want to have a credit score of 670 or higher.

How long before I can get an unsecured credit card?

If you’re working on building credit and don’t qualify for an unsecured credit card, you may have to start with a secured card. But, the amount of time you must use your secured credit card before you graduate to an unsecured time can vary from a few months to several years. Ultimately, it will depend on factors like your current credit score and the criteria of the unsecured credit card you’re applying for.


†SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS PROSPECTIVELY BASED ON MARKET CONDITIONS AND BORROWER ELIGIBILITY. Your eligibility for a SoFi Credit Card Account or a subsequently offered product or service is subject to the final determination by The Bank of Missouri (“TBOM”) (“Issuer”), as issuer, pursuant to license by Mastercard® International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated. Please allow up to 30 days from the date of submission to process your application. The card offer referenced in this communication is only available to individuals who are at least 18 years of age (or of legal age in your state of residence), and who reside in the United States.

*You will need to maintain a qualifying Direct Deposit every month with SoFi Checking and Savings in order to continue to receive this promotional cash back rate. Qualifying Direct Deposits are defined as deposits from enrolled member’s employer, payroll, or benefits provider via ACH deposit. Deposits that are not from an employer (such as check deposits; P2P transfers such as from PayPal or Venmo, etc.; merchant transactions such as from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.; and bank ACH transfers not from employers) do not qualify for this promotion. A maximum of 36,000 rewards points can be earned from this limited-time offer. After the promotional period ends or once you have earned the maximum points offered by this promotion, your cash back earning rate will revert back to 2%. 36,000 rewards points are worth $360 when redeemed into SoFi Checking and Savings, SoFi Money, SoFi Invest, Crypto, SoFi Personal Loan, SoFi Private Student Loan or Student Loan Refinance and are worth $180 when redeemed as a SoFi Credit Card statement credit.

Promotion Period: 4/18/2022-12/31/2022

Eligible Participants: All new members who apply and get approved for the SoFi Credit Card, open a SoFi Checking and Savings account, and set up Direct Deposit transactions (“Direct Deposit”) into their SoFi Checking and Savings account during the promotion period are eligible. All existing SoFi Credit Card members who set up Direct Deposit into a SoFi Checking & Savings account during the promotion period are eligible. All existing SoFi members who have already enrolled in Direct Deposit into a SoFi Checking & Savings account prior to the promotion period, and who apply and get approved for a SoFi Credit Card during the promotion period are eligible. Existing SoFi members who already have the SoFi Credit Card and previously set up Direct Deposit through SoFi Money or SoFi Checking & Savings are not eligible for this promotion.


1See Rewards Details at SoFi.com/card/rewards.
SoFi cardholders earn 2% unlimited cash back rewards when redeemed to save, invest, or pay down eligible SoFi debt. Cardholders earn 1% cash back rewards when redeemed for a statement credit.1
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.
The SoFi Credit Card is issued by The Bank of Missouri (TBOM) (“Issuer”) pursuant to license by Mastercard® International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.

Photo credit: iStock/Zhonghui Bao
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