How to Get a Credit Card For The First Time in 7 Steps

TheStreet

Getting a new credit card, or getting one for the very first time, is a genuine sign of financial independence.

It's also a financial obligation that newbie cardholders need to take seriously if they want to stay out of debt and build a good credit score.

The process of getting a new credit card isn't all that difficult, especially if you're prepared and know what the card provider wants to see on your credit card application before approval.

How to Get a Credit Card

Getting a credit card involves these seven steps:

1. Research what you need for a credit card

Getting your first credit card is a big deal, and you want to be as prepared as possible to make sure you get your financial history off to a good start.

Are you 21 or older? If not, you're required to show credit card companies proof that you are going to be able to make payments on time. This can mean proof of income or governmental support. If you can't, you're required to have a co-signer on the account.

If you are 21 or older, this isn't a requirement. But you still need consistent income to ensure you can pay the balance every month. Take stock of your financial reality and figure out what it is you can afford when it comes to a credit card, its monthly limit and its annual percentage rate (APR). Diving in headfirst and ending up with a credit card balance you can't afford could do real damage to your credit score, which is not how you want to begin your credit history.

2. Check your credit score

Don't apply for a credit card until you check your credit score. Credit card providers will check your credit score to see if you're a good credit risk before issuing any application approvals. In general, any FICO credit score over 660 will get you a good credit card.

The fact is, the higher your credit score, the lower your card interest rate will be, as card providers penalize weaker credit score consumers with higher interest rates. That's the price consumers with low credit scores pay for gaining approval from credit card companies. If you have been careful in your previous financial history and been able to successfully pay off other loans, the better your score will be and the more likely credit card lenders are to offer you a better credit card, now that you're seen as more likely to make your payments.

3. Improve your FICO score

A bad credit score means you won't necessarily get the credit card offers you want. You're seen as a significantly greater risk to accrue serious credit card debt. But while a lackluster credit score can hurt your ability to get a loan or credit card, it doesn't have to be permanent.

Granted, improving your credit score isn't the easiest task in the world and can take a lot of time. But it's a far better idea to wait to improve your credit and receive a better card than to rush into your first credit card - and it will take time. The most important things you can do to bump up your FICO score is to pay your bills on time and ultimately pay off any debts that entails.

Plus, if you're already struggling to improve your credit score, a new credit card won't help that. In fact, in the immediate aftermath it will actually dent it a little. How recently your last line of credit was opened is 10% of what determines your credit score. The more recent it is, the more risky you look as a result of suddenly taking on more debt.

4. Shop for the right credit card

Choosing the right credit card can seem an insurmountable task, as there is no shortage of credit cards to choose from. Basically, you want to find a card with decent interest rates, ample reward and cash back options, low fees, and a healthy credit limit (although your first credit card will likely come with a lower credit limit to keep your debt burden low.)

There are plenty of card comparison sites to choose from, such as CreditCards.com, WalletHub, and ConsumerReports.com. All offer a wide variety of credit cards to choose from.

5. Apply for a card 

You can apply for your credit card in three ways: by phone, by mail or online. You'll need proof that you're at least 18 years-old and prove that you have enough income to generate minimum monthly card payments. Exaggerating your income on a credit card form is illegal. If you have multiple sources of income, however, you are allowed to include them on the application. So if you have income from sources other than your main job, you should add them to show more conclusively that you can make your payments.

Also, don't assume you'll get approved. Even those credit card offers in the mail or online are no guarantee of credit.

When you return the card offer, many financial institutions will conduct a "post-screening" process, which typically involves reviewing your credit bureau report in full as well as verifying information provided on your application. If your financial situation has changed, or if the card-issuing institution determines through post-screening that you don't qualify for the credit line initially, you may still be offered a card, but with different terms, higher interest rates or a smaller credit line.

6. Start with a single credit card

While there many credit cards to choose from, it's best for new card applicants to target a single credit card. Credit-wise, it's not a good idea to apply for multiple forms of credit at the same time (credit card companies consider multiple credit card applications a bad look, as it can mean you've been turned down too many times for bad credit).

Once you receive your new credit card, start by making small purchases and have a manageable bill to pay every month. You'll want to keep your credit utilization low (that's your current credit balance relative to your credit limit) -- that's a sign to creditors and lenders that you're not overspending on your card, and will bolster your credit score.

7. If at first you don't succeed, try again

It's important to not get discouraged if you fail to receive approval for a credit card on your first try. One rejection doesn't necessarily mean you will continue to get rejected, and it is still very much possible for you to get a card.

If you get rejected for a credit card once or twice, consider a secured credit card that requires a cash deposit. Secure cards are much easier to obtain and can help you build a good credit background.

Seven Things to Know About Your New Credit Card

Before you make the financial commitment to getting a new credit card, it's important to keep a few things things in mind. Here are eight tips to factor in:

1. Take baby steps

Once you open your credit card account, the real work begins. Making purchases with a credit card is easy. But paying your bills on time and keeping your credit utilization low, for example, are harder to pull off. Both are critical to credit improvement, though.

2. Know your interest rate

Make sure you understand interest rate you will be paying and for how long. Usually, fixed-rate annual percentage rates (APRs) are the best deal, as card companies have to notify you before raising rates (variable rate cards rise and fall with prime interest rates).

3. Understand that rates can vary

Most credit cards carry more than one interest rate, with balance transfers and cash advances usually carrying a higher rate. Consequently, you may have a 12.9% APR on purchases, and a 19.6% APR on cash advances. Not surprisingly, card companies apply any monthly payments to the part of the balance that is subject to the lowest interest rate, before the higher-rate part is paid.

4. Check the fine print

Thoroughly review your credit card contract to understand what your obligations are as a cardholder. Also check the language on fees, interest rates and what happens when you pay your bill late.

5. Don't pay credit card fees late

Tardy credit card bill payers can expect the card provider to respond with higher interest rates. Some cards will immediately raise your interest rate from the introductory teaser rate to the regular rate if you're late just one time.

6. Watch the fees

If there are too many fees involved with your new credit card offer, walk away. Why pay a fee for a credit card when, with good credit, you don't have to?

7. Get protection if you shop online

If you like to shop on the Internet or via mobile, find a credit card with a safe online shopping guarantee. Look for a card with specific guarantees, like 100% coverage for any losses due to fraud when shopping on the Internet.