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The ABCs of APR: Everything You Need to Know


When you look at a loan or credit card offer, you’ll see the term “APR,” or annual percentage rate, popping up all over the place. What is APR, exactly, and why is it important when taking out a loan or choosing a credit card?

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about annual percentage rate and how you can use it to understand the annual costs of a loan or credit line. To start, let’s establish a working definition of APR.

Feature image: Credit cards / Pixabay


What Is APR?

What is APR? What does APR stand for? APR stands for annual percentage rate, and it tells you the total amount of interest and fees you’ll pay each year on borrowed money. It’s a more comprehensive value than interest rate, and it’s meant to help you compare loans and credit cards on a standardized basis. APR is presented as a percentage of the total amount borrowed, or the principal.

That being said, APR works differently on loans than it does on credit cards. Let’s take a closer look at both, starting with loans.


How Does APR Work on Loans and Mortgages?

On a loan or mortgage, APR tells you to the total amount of interest and fees you’ll pay each year. The types of fees depend on the type of loan. On a personal loan, for instance, a common additional fee is an origination fee. On a home loan, the main additional fee is closing costs. If your loan or mortgage doesn’t have any fees, then the APR will equal the annual interest rate.

Let’s say you borrow $100,000 at a 5% interest rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. You pay $1,000 in closing costs. Your APR, then, is 5.1% (interest rate + closing costs, as a percentage of the principal). You would pay $5.10 each year for every $100 you borrowed. APR includes closing costs, so it’s a more realistic representation of your long-term costs than the annual interest rate is.

Because of the Truth in Lending Act of 1968, lenders must calculate loan APR in the same way. This consistency allows you to compare offers and clearly see your long-terms costs. APR gives customers a quick and easy way to compare the terms of loans or mortgages on an apples-to-apples basis.

By knowing the APR, you can use an APR calculator to calculate your monthly payments and figure out how much you’ll end up paying in fees and interests. Usually, a lower APR means you’ll spend less money over the long term.

To see why, consider the example of a $200,000 mortgage below with two loan APRs that differ by just a few percentage points.


Examples of APR on a 30-Year Mortgage

Let’s consider two scenarios using a $200,000 mortgage. In the first scenario, you get a 5.5% APR on a 30-year mortgage. In the second, you manage to get just a 5.2% APR over 30 years. By comparing the two rates, you can see how much money you save in the long run with an APR that’s only slightly lower than another one.


Scenario 1: $200k Mortgage With a 5.5% APR

Using Bankrate’s APR calculator, let’s consider a $200,000 mortgage over a 30-year term with a 5.5% APR. To pay off this mortgage over 30 years, you’d have a monthly payment of $1,135.58.

After 30 years, you’d end up paying a total of $408,807. Since you initially took out $200,000, this means you’d end up paying $208,807 in interest and other fees.


Scenario 2: $200k Mortgage With a 5.2% APR

What if your APR was a bit lower, say 5.2%? How much would you save in the long run?

With a 5.2% APR on a $200,000 loan, you’d pay $1,098.22 a month for 30 years for a total of $395,361. Your additional costs would add up to $195,361 - a large amount, but significantly lower than the costs incurred with a 5.5% APR.

You would pay $13,446 less on a $200k, 30-year mortgage with a 5.2% APR than you would with a 5.5% APR.

As you can see, getting a mortgage with a slightly lower APR can save you a significant amount of money in the long run. When you're shopping for a mortgage, you should compare offers to get the best deal. Now that you have a sense of how APR works on a loan or mortgage, let’s look closer at how annual percentage rates work on credit cards.



How Does APR Work on Credit Cards?

When you look at a credit card, you’ll see several APRs. Credit cards have different APR for different types of transactions, like one for making purchases and another for transferring cash. For most people, the APR related to making purchases is the most important rate.

On credit cards, APRs don’t typically include additional fees related to cash advances or late payments. Rather, they reflect the daily periodic rate, or the interest that’s calculated on your account each and every day, over the entire year. If you want to know your daily periodic rate, then you can simply take the APR and divide it by 365.

How do credit cards come up with APR? They use the U.S. prime rate and then add their own margin. For instance, the prime rate could be 5% and the issuer could charge a 12% margin. The APR, then, would be 17%.

APR on a credit card could stay the same from year to year, or it could fluctuate along with the U.S. prime rate. APRs that change are called floating or variable APRs. Your APR may also depend on your creditworthiness, as you’ll see in the example below. People with higher credit scores get a lower APR, and people with lower credit scores get a higher APR.

Credit card companies may also offer promotional APRs when you open a new account. You could get 0% APR on purchases for the first year. After that promotional period, the APR would return to the normal rate.

While you’ll see a lot of promotions regarding APR from credit card companies, you should keep in mind that APR may not matter. In fact, it shouldn’t even be a factor for many people. Read on to learn why.



APR on Credit Cards: Does It Matter?

If you pay off your full credit card balance every month, then you will never have to pay interest. For all intents and purposes, your APR is always 0%.

To use a credit card responsibly, you should always pay off your full balance every month. Credit card interest rates are high, and carrying a balance is one of the quickest ways to get into debt.

If you’re spending more than you can afford to pay off within the month, then you need to step back, make a budget, and take steps to control your personal finances.

If you’re using a credit card well, then the promotional and regular APR offers should not matter. Instead, you can choose a credit card based on other perks, like cash back and travel points.

Speaking of travel rewards, let’s look at one of the best cards for travel points, the Chase Sapphire card, to get a sense of its various APR structures.



Example of APR on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

Here are the various APRs on the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, as borrowed from its website. Notice how it offers a range of rates, based on your “creditworthiness.” The first is the one that applies to credit card purchases, while the others have to do with other transactions.


Purchase Annual Percentage Rate (APR) 16.24% to 23.24%, based on your creditworthiness. These APRs will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.
Balance Transfer APR 16.24% to 23.24%, based on your creditworthiness. These APRs will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.
Cash Advance APR 25.24%. This APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.
Overdraft Advance APR 25.24%. This APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.


How does Chase Sapphire calculate its credit card APR rates? It uses the U.S. prime rate as of December 22, 2015, which was set at 3.5%.

According to Chase, “We add 12.74% to 19.74% to the Prime Rate to determine the Purchase/Balance Transfer APR...We add 21.74% to the Prime Rate to determine the Cash Advance/Overdraft Advance APR.” As with many other lenders, Chase sets its own margin and adds this margin to the prime rate. Then, it assigns APRs based on the creditworthiness of each individual.

Again, credit card APR might not come into play if you pay your balance off in full from month to month. It’s still important to know what you’re signing up for, though, just so you understand the costs that you can incur from using a credit card.

In closing, let’s go over the key points you need to remember about APR, including what it is and how you can use it to decide between loans, mortgages, or credit cards.



APR: Just the Basics

APR, or annual percentage rate, works a little differently on loans than it does on credit cards. A loan APR tells you what percentage of your loan or mortgage you’ll be paying in interest and other fees each year. Because it incorporates costs beyond interest, APR is a more inclusive rate than interest rate. If there are no additional costs, then the loan APR will be the same as the annual interest rate.

Since all lenders must calculate APR in the same way, APR helps consumers compare loan and mortgage offers on a standardized basis. In most cases, you’ll save money by getting the lowest APR you can.

If you’re comparing credit card offers, remember that the “purchase APR” is likely the most relevant piece of data. Ideally, you won’t be paying any interest on your credit card. If you always pay off your monthly balances in full, then you can choose a credit card based on its rewards and points structure rather than on its various APRs.

Whenever you’re taking out a loan or opening a card, make sure to read the ins and outs of any contract before you sign it. By looking at APR, you can gain a clear understanding of your long-term costs.



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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

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.

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