Love them or hate them, credit cards are a fact of financial life.
They can make tracking spending effortless.
Just as easily, they can blur the line between how much money you have and how much you can spend—plunging you into debt.
Hence these frequently-asked questions:
- When should you get your first credit card?
- When should you use a credit card?
- How do you get a credit card for the first time?
When should you get your first credit card?
The best time to get a credit card is before you need one. College or shortly after graduation is a great time to start with a student credit card as long as you have the required income to repay your purchases.
If you’re already graduated, that’s no problem. There are many great first credit cards available for young professionals—just be sure to pay attention to the credit requirements and start with a card that offers a good chance of approval.
I got my first credit card when I was only 17 and still in high school. It came as part of a banking package at my family’s credit union. I’m pretty sure my parents were cosigners until I turned 18, at which point it became the sole signature on the account.
Getting a credit card this early had pros and cons, but in my case, it was mostly bad. Like lots of people who don’t know better, I quickly used my credit card as a way to “print money”, buying stuff I couldn’t afford and setting the stage for eight years of going deeper and deeper in debt.
Cruelly, although I was going into debt, by making minimum payments on time, I was also building good credit at a very young age. By 18, I had my second credit card, and soon after my third—this one with a $11,000 credit limit (as a full-time college student with virtually no income). For these reasons, you absolutely need to be very careful with credit cards. If you don’t trust yourself, then hold off!
Should my parents add me as an authorized user on their credit card?
If your parents are supporting you through school or as you find work, they can (and should) make you an authorized user to make changes to their credit card account so that you don’t incur debts on your own you can’t pay.
Being an authorized user on a parents’ account can help you build credit yourself, even if you never use the card. Just make sure your mom and/or dad is good with credit themselves: As an authorized user, their late payments or high balances could hurt your credit instead of help it.
Often times, parents want grown kids to have their own credit cards “for emergencies”, but there’s no reason this card can’t be the parents’ account as I described above.
So what if you’re earning your own income and no longer have access to the bank of mom and dad? Don’t focus on getting a credit card to finance an upcoming trip or furnishings for your new apartment, but do consider getting one to continue building a good credit history.
To reiterate, apply for a card either:
- When you start making a decent income or
- You’re a college student 18 or older with at least some part-time income
How to get your first credit card
If you’ve been an authorized user on your parents account for a couple years, it will be easier to get approved for the credit card of your choice when you’re ready for your own.
If you have a full-time income, you should have your choice of some of the best credit cards available.
Stick with cards intended for people with fair credit—or if you know your credit is good—good credit. If it’s your first credit card, it’s unlikely you’ll get approved for a card needing excellent credit.
If you’re a student and have at least a small part-time income, opt for one of these student credit cards. Student cards are just as good as regular credit cards and student cards have relaxed approval requirements.
Pay attention to credit requirements! Your options are different based upon whether you have or have not had credit before.
Getting a credit credit card with no credit history
If you do not have any credit history, getting your first credit card can be a catch-22. You need one to build credit but you can’t get one without credit history.
Consider visiting a branch of the bank where you have a checking account. Talk to somebody in person and tell them you don’t have a credit history but want to start building one with a credit card. They may be able to get you started with a low-limit credit card or they may offer you a secured credit card—an account that requires you have cash in a bank account to cover any purchases you make with the card.
Unlike a debit card, secured credit cards do build your credit. And, in most cases, you can ask your bank to upgrade your account after a year or so of responsible usage.
You can also apply for a secured credit card online here. These cards are designed for applicants building credit and require a security deposit before you begin using the card. After a year or so of responsible use, you’ll get the deposit back and can upgrade to a regular “unsecured” credit card.
Read more: How to build credit for the first time
Beware of really bad “bad credit” offers!
Whatever you do, avoid credit cards aimed at people with really bad credit.
Pay attention to cards claiming to be for bad credit that charge annual fees of $100 or more. There’s really no reason to get these cards. Most of them are incredible rip offs with multi-hundred dollar fees, misleading claims, and terrible customer service.
The best time to get a credit card is as soon as you’re able to afford any charges you make and handle credit responsibly—meaning not charging more than you can pay and remembering to pay your bill on-time each and every month.
If you’re in school, look at student credit cards for a first credit card. If you don’t have any credit history yet, you may need a secured credit card to start. If you have some credit history already, but not a lot, look into credit cards from Capital One first.