By Gregory Karp
When considering applying for a credit card, you might want to know whether you can get preapproved and avoid the risk of dinging your credit scores with a hard inquiry — not to mention save the hassle of applying.
The short answer is, probably not.
But you might be able to get “pre-qualified.” The difference is whether the card issuer is promising to approve you or merely giving you a quick guess as to whether you might get a green light.
Unfortunately, issuers sometimes use the terms “preapproval” and “pre-qualification” interchangeably. In most cases, you’re only pre-qualifying.
In fact, reputable issuers typically don’t guarantee anyone’s approval before going through the formal application and underwriting process, which examines such factors as your credit scores and income. That process will determine whether you meet the requirements for approval.
An exception is if you already have a relationship with the bank — an existing account — and it knows about you financially. In that case, you might receive an offer that truly includes preapproval.
Should I Settle for Pre-Qualification, Then?
Usually, the best you can do is pre-qualify.
With pre-qualification, the issuer offers an online tool that collects a little information and makes its best guess about whether you’ll be approved for certain credit cards.
Again, if you get a thumbs-up during pre-qualification, it’s no guarantee of approval. But it’s a sign that you have a good shot. Think of it as a soft yes. You still need to formally apply for a specific card.
Many major credit card issuers and some smaller ones offer pre-qualification on their websites.
When Applying and Pre-Qualifying Converge
Some issuers have started incorporating a pre-qualification tool into the online application process for credit cards.
For example, as you apply for the Apple (AAPL) - Get Report Card on a smartphone, it will show you the offer you’re likely to get, including credit limit and interest rate. Using that information, you can decide whether to go through with the application or bail out if you don’t like the offer.
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Gregory Karp is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @spendingsmart.