How to Get a Credit Card

By Michael Brough

Credit card applications may float through your mailbox regularly, and cashiers may ask you several times a week if you want a store account — but how does the application process really work, and what’s the best way to get one? Here are some important steps:

  • First, decide whether you really need one. Here’s a good rule of thumb, according to Mikel Van Cleve, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and director of personal finance advice for USAA: “Don’t apply for a credit card unless you need to build credit, and don’t borrow more than you have to.”
  • If you decide to apply, figure out where. Look at your bank first. Not only is it a place you trust and feel comfortable with, you may already have a good credit reputation established there.               Retailers are another popular option, though their credit cards typically have higher interest rates. Still, the terms might be worth it if you shop there frequently and pay your balance every month. “Credit accounts with retailers are almost always a better deal for them than for you,” says Van Cleve, “so just make sure you pay attention to the details.”

3. Find the card that’s right for you. If you’re concerned about getting into debt, a secured card might be the best option for you. If you pay your balance every month, a card with cash back or rewards bonuses can provide some nice perks. On the other hand, if you often carry a balance on the card, a card with a low interest rate is the one for you. Also, some have fees, so be on the lookout for those.

Keep in mind that rewards programs may be enticing, but 5% cash back on qualifying purchases doesn’t come close to making up for a high interest rate on a large outstanding balance. Check out the USAA credit card recommendation tool to find the option that’s best for you, based on your spending and payment habits.

4. When you’ve made your choice, you can apply online or by phone. Because the bank can pull your credit information quickly, you can get a near-immediate credit decision — and though you may not have the plastic card for a few days, you may be able to start using the credit account to make purchases right away.

And that, warns Van Cleve, is where the card’s benefits — and risks — come into play. “Once you have it,” he says, “use it responsibly. A credit card can be a great tool, but only if you limit your spending to what you can afford.”

Learn more about a USAA credit card that’s right for you.


Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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