Having a poor credit score can feel like you’re caught in a catch-22. You need a credit card to improve your score, but it’s hard to get a credit card without a good score.
Luckily, there are credits cards available for people with poor credit. Once you get one of these cards, you can use it to build your credit score over time.
This guide will give you recommendations for the best credit cards for people with bad credit, along with some tips on how to apply. Click here to go straight to the credit card recommendations, or first, read on to learn what makes a bad credit score and why it matters.
What Is Bad Credit?
Credit scores range from 300 to 850. Your score is based on a number of factors, including your credit history, payment history, outstanding debt, and account inquiries from lenders, like credit card companies or banks.
Defaulting on loans or closing a credit card that still has a balance on it are two actions that could seriously damage your credit score. You might also have a low score if you’re new to the world of credit and have never had a credit card before.
Credit scores below 630 are considered to be very low. Scores between 630 and 700 are fair and between 700 and 800 are strong. Any scores above 800 are excellent.
To find out your score, you simply need to set up a free account with Credit Karma. You can also request a comprehensive credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian. You can get one free report each year by requesting it from annualcreditreport.com. Any additional reports cost $9.95.
Your credit score matters big time when you apply for any kind of credit card or loan. Why is it so important?
Maybe we shouldn't call a credit score under 630 "bad." Rather, it's a work in progress!
Why Does Your Credit Score Matter?
Credit scores are a key factor when a credit card company or bank is evaluating your application for a credit card or loan. Lenders consider your past financial behavior to be an indication of your future behavior. They seek to reduce risk, so they only want to lend you money if they feel assured that you can eventually pay it back.
The better your credit score is, the higher your credit line will be. You’ll also be eligible for more attractive credit cards that have low fees or rewards, like cash back or travel points. With a low credit score, your application for most travel rewards cards would be rejected outright.
However, people will low scores can still qualify for certain credit cards and then use the card to build up their credit over time. With a low score, you may qualify for a secured or unsecured credit card.
Lenders look at your credit score when deciding whether to give you a loan. They aren't big risk-takers.
What Kind of Credit Card Can You Get With Bad Credit? Secured Vs. Unsecured
If your credit score is the lowest of the low, then you’ll probably only be able to get what’s called a secured credit card. Secured credit cards require a deposit up front. Some of them act as prepaid debit cards. You load them up with a certain amount of money at the beginning of the month and then spend that money where the card is accepted.
Secured credit cards have low limits and require up-front cash-loading or deposit. If you can qualify for a regular, unsecured card with bad credit, then you should skip this initial step of getting a secured card, unless you really need to set low, strict spending limits on yourself or can't afford an annual fee.
Unsecured credit cards are just like any other credit card. They typically start with a line of credit of about $300 per month. As you build your credit over time, your monthly line of credit will increase.
Unfortunately, you won’t get a credit card with the most appealing terms if you have poor credit. The unsecured cards recommended below have the best policies available and can help you build your credit into the fair or good zone.
Read on for the top recommendations for the best unsecured credit cards for poor credit.
Secured credit cards are useful if you need to set strict limits on your spending.
5 Best Unsecured Credit Cards for People with Bad Credit in 2016
The five cards recommended below are the best unsecured credit cards for people with bad credit available. Each card lets you fill out a quick and easy form online to see if you prequalify. The top five cards are the following:
- Credit One Bank Unsecured Visa*
- Indigo Platinum Mastercard
- Milestone Gold Mastercard
- Total VISA Unsecured Card
- Platinum One Credit Card (for average credit)
*The Credit One Bank Visa stands out as the best overall unsecured credit card, because it gives you some rewards and may increase your line of credit after five months of on-time payments.
The remaining credit cards for poor credit offer more or less equal benefits, so you should shop around to see where you prequalify. Let’s take a closer look at the terms of each unsecured credit card.
Credit One Bank Unsecured Visa Credit Card
The Credit One Visa is a rare card available to people with poor credit that gives rewards. With this card, you can earn 1% cash back on gas and groceries. The card has an annual fee of $0 to $75 the first year and $0 to $99 annually after that, depending on your credit score and income. You may be able to pay this fee back monthly, rather than as one lump sum at the end of the year.
The card offers a monthly credit score tracking service so you can keep track of your progress toward a stronger credit score. It comes with a rather high variable interest rate of 15.65% to 24.15%, but the interest rate shouldn’t really matter. To build your credit and avoid debt, you should never carry a balance over on your credit card from one month to the next. Always pay off your full balance every month to avoid penalty and steep interest charges.
A typical beginning line of credit for someone with a low credit score is $300. This might increase after five or more months of on-time payments.
After five months of on-time payments, Credit One should increase your credit line. Pro tip: count your months by the Gregorian calendar, not the Mayan one.
Indigo Platinum Mastercard
The Indigo Platinum Mastercard is an increasingly popular card that’s available to people with a range of credit scores. Like the Credit One card, the Indigo card offers online account access and has an easy pre-qualification process online.
A typical starting line of credit is $300, and the card has an annual fee of $0 to $99. The APR is fixed at 23.9%. Unlike the Credit One card, the Indigo card doesn’t offer any rewards back on your purchases.
Milestone Gold Mastercard
The Milestone Gold card similarly has a fixed APR of 23.9% and a typical starting line of credit of $300. The annual fee falls between $35 and $99.
Total VISA Unsecured Credit Card
The Total VISA has the highest APR of 29.99%. It has a fee of $75 for the first year and $48 annually after that. Like the other unsecured credit cards for low credit, the typical starting line of credit is $300.
Capital One Platinum Card
If your credit has started to climb out of the red zone and surpassed 600, then you might qualify for the Capital One Platinum card. This card is available for people with a credit score of 600 or higher. It has no annual fee, 24.99% APR, and fraud coverage. A typical starting credit limit falls between $200 and $500, and this can increase after five or so months of on time monthly payments.
Now that you have a sense of the best unsecured credit cards, what do you do next? How do you apply for one of these cards?
Even with bad credit, you have options for credit cards!
How to Apply for an Unsecured Credit Card
You can easily apply for a credit card online. First, head to the company’s website and go through its quick pre-qualification process. While this survey isn’t the be-all and end-all word on whether or not you qualify, it gives you an idea of your eligibility based on your income level. You’ll enter your personal information, including your salary and social security number.
Going through this pre-qualification check, by the way, won’t hurt your credit score. Your credit score will only be affected when the company runs a hard check to see whether you officially qualify and you open an account. If you prequalify, then you’ll go through the full process of applying for the card.
Only fill out a full application for one card, so as not to hurt your credit score. Once you apply and are approved, your card will be mailed out to you within one to two weeks.
If your credit score and salary are too low, and you find yourself ineligible for any of the above cards, then you do have one more option - getting a secured credit card.
Easy online pre-qualification forms give you a sense of whether or not you'll be approved a credit card.
What If You Don’t Qualify?
If you don’t qualify for an unsecured credit card with bad credit, then you should look into secured credit cards. As mentioned above, secured cards require a deposit up front, or they ask you to prepay and then spend the money that’s already loaded onto your card. While they’re a little different from other cards, secured credit cards will help you build credit until you’re able to get a regular, unsecured card.
These are some of the best secured credit cards:
- Discover It Secured Card
- Capital One Secured Mastercard
- Secured Visa from Merrick Bank
- USAA Secured Card American Express
Once you get your credit card, how can you use it in the best way to build your credit?
How to Use Your Credit Card and Build Credit
Building and maintaining good credit isn’t about avoiding a credit card; it’s about using one well. Using a card well requires you to follow one rule of thumb: never carry a balance on your card from month to month.
Don’t expect that you’ll have more to spend next month than you do this month. Only buy what you can pay off in cash immediately on the card, and make sure to pay off your full balance by each payment due date. As you read above, on-time payments will help you build credit, and your credit card company may offer you a bigger line of credit as time goes on.
How can you be sure that you’re staying within your budget? This kind of awareness comes from developing a budget and keeping track of your daily and monthly spending. There are several apps, like YNAB and Mint, that are useful for helping you keep track and gain control of your personal finances.
In closing, let’s go over the key points you should remember about the unsecured credit cards that are available to people with poor credit.
Rome wasn't built in a day! With enough time and effort, you can build your credit score into the good or excellent range.
Unsecured Credit Cards for Bad Credit - Final Thoughts
If you have bad credit, you aren’t going to be eligible for a $10,000 line of credit and 2% cash back on all your purchases. However, you may become eligible eventually by first getting one of the secured or unsecured credit cards that are on offer to people with low credit card.
Unsecured cards typically have an annual fee and start with a line of credit of around $300 a month. By making on-time payments month after month, you’ll see your credit score go up and may eventually qualify for a larger line of credit.
If you don’t already, make sure to check your credit score and understand where it comes from. Then, you can come up with a plan to take control of your personal finances and build your credit score into the fair, good, or even excellent range. By shoring up your credit score with one of the best credit cards for bad credit, you’ll put yourself in a much better financial position for future credit card, loan, or mortgage applications.
Is your credit score high enough that you could qualify for other credit cards? Check out this guide to find the best credit card for you based on your personal spending habits.
Do you feel like your spending has gotten out of control? This guide will help you reign it back in with seven steps to taking control of your personal finances.
Would you like to start saving money for a big purchase or perhaps a retirement account? This comprehensive list has 100 different ways for you to start saving money today.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.