HOW TO: Get Your First Credit Card

Reader Melinda writes:

Hello. I read the consumerist every day and since I turn 18 later on this month I wanted to ask how do I start a credit score or getting credit or a loan to start my credit score?

Thank you for your time. :D

It’s a good question, Melinda. One we’d answer if Bankrate hadn’t already done all the hard work for us. Bankrate says there are three options for your first credit card:

Secured Credit: With secured credit you put down a deposit. If you have no credit history, this is a way to get one. Make sure not to use a shady bank, and make sure the bank is reporting your payment history. This is probably your least attractive option.

Becoming an authorized user on your parent’s account: This can establish a payment history for you if the bank reports it. You’ll want to ask.

Signing up with a credit card that markets to students: Credit card companies like to offer credit to students in the hopes that they’ll keep the card after they graduate.They also probably want you to spend a bunch of money. Don’t do that part.

To establish good credit, don’t apply for a ton of cards at once. Get one and establish a good payment record. Pay off your balance every month to avoid paying interest and getting yourself into debt. Credit card debt is bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.

All things considered, using a credit card wisely is an excellent way to start a credit history. Just make sure it’s a good credit history. —MEGHANN MARCO

First Credit Card Tips [Bankrate]
(Photo: hey-gem)


Edit Your Comment

  1. r81984 says:

    Its simple. When the app asks for household income include your parents salaries (you do not have to put their names or any of their info just use their salaries for household income). I was denied credit cards, but after I added up my whole household income then I was able to get an AMEX blue card no problem.

  2. EvilTapioca says:

    Ok. Thank you for answering my question! :D

  3. matukonyc says:

    Easy answer: don’t.

  4. PatBateman says:

    I signed up for a secured card from BofA, and you don’t start accumulating credit until after you’ve used up your deposit ($500). Simultaneously, I signed up for a Capital One Visa, and got approved right away, without any prior credit. I hear their fees are crazy, but if you pay your first 5 bills on time, you can then move on to any credit card you choose.

  5. bigbobw says:


    –it’s simple: open a checking account that offers a DEBIT Visa or Mastercard. That way you have all the benefits of paying with plastic, but none of the pain of sinking deep into debt. Do this and you’ll thank me.


  6. SirKeats says:

    I don’t know if it was a timing fluke or not, but I had a student visa for a long time… along with the small credit line and huge interest rate that understandably come with one’s first credit card. I paid my balance every month and kept hoping for some offers on a better card to come in. Nothing ever arrived in my mail box. That is, until I had to carry a balance for a month or two. It wasn’t a huge balance, but the ol’ student aid hadn’t come in yet and so I had to let it ride. Well, after that, the offers started to flow in for other cards with much higher credit limits and much lower interest rates.

    Not sure if carrying a balance was actually the cause, but if it wasn’t it was quite an interesting coincidence.

  7. mopar_man says:


    Beat me to it.

  8. nweaver says:

    Just the good old student credit card is good.

    Mine started at $500, and grew and grew. The eventual credit limit was at >$5k when I canceled it.

  9. NeoteriX says:

    Don’t listen to the naysayers if you are responsible. Building a good credit (and good habits and responsibility) early on is a very important thing for your future.

    If you’re paranoid about going off the deep end, at the very least, just buy a pack of gum or something and pay it off every month to get the record going.

    A credit card can be a powerful tool for consumers if they are savvy on how to extract the most of out it without becoming a pawn of the credit industry.

  10. markrubi says:

    Get Discover and pay it off every month. You get 1% back from Discover. If you never carry a balance they (Discover) are paying you to use their card. Can’t beat it. Just don’t charge more than you are willing or able to physically send.

  11. katana says:

    @mopar_man: @matukonyc:

    best advice here.

  12. matukonyc says:

    I understand NeoteriX’s point of view, but I would argue that borrowing money is by itself an irresponsible act.

    One idea: if you plan on taking out a student loan any time in the near future, concentrate on paying that back, and you’ll have a good credit score.

  13. rodeobob says:

    “how do I start a credit score or getting credit or a loan to start my credit score?”

    Don’t get a credit card. Don’t. There’s very little that a credit card can do to help your credit, and quite a lot it can do to hurt it.

    If you use the card on a monthly basis, and pay it off in full, on time, each month, you will generate some positive credit. However, the value of these actions are EXTREMELY limited in improving your overall credit scoring, because lendors veiw revoling credit (credit cards) differently than fixed credit. (loans)

    Getting a car loan (say, with a parent as co-signer) and paying off that loan in timely payments will do a lot more for your credit score than having plastic ever will.

    Credit scores are essentially behavior tracking tools, and the desired behavior is “take out loans, and pay them back reliably”. Credit cards don’t really meet that standard. They’ll show if you can pay back debt, and your behavior towards paying back debt, but since they represent an undefined and ultimately variable amount of potential debt, they don’t say anything at all about your borrowing behavior.

    Car loans & student loans are far better ways to build a credit history, with considerably less risk than credit cards.

  14. Chongo says:

    I know at least 2 other people whose parents got credit cards in their childrens names and used them like crazy. They would instantly pay off any purchase they made on it. This now means they have 0% APR’s and around 790 fico scores.

    My little brother has a huge trust fund… he can only access it for School and related expenses. I want him to be filthy rich when he gets older (he’s currently almost 18 and going away to college). Do you guys think he should get a CC to start building his credit? He can instantly pay off any purchases made on it.

    are there other ways to build credit?

  15. adamondi says:

    @matukonyc: “[B]orrowing money is by itself an irresponsible act.”

    This is a ludicrous statement. Borrowing money in and of itself is not irresponsible. How else is one to buy, say, a house, without being an heir to a fortune? You even advocate taking out a student loan later in your post after saying that borrowing money is an irresponsible act. Isn’t a student loan borrowing money?

    The simple truth is that there are many things in this world that are affected (either beneficially or adversely) by having a good or excellent credit history. Many employers check credit scores before interviewing job candidates. Many landlords will check your credit record before letting you rent from them. Also, a good credit score will get you better interest rates on bigger loans down the line. Starting out small with a student credit card and paying off the balance each month is a great way to start your own credit history. It is much better if you can piggyback off of a parent who already has a long , good credit history who is willing to open a joint account with you. That way, you get a boost from them.

    Regardless, having a long and good credit history is vital to life in the modern economy.

  16. castlecraver says:

    Oftentimes your bank will be able to give you options that companies that rely exclusively on the standard credit reporting system to judge your creditworthiness wouldn’t. I’d check with them first, especially if you have checking and savings accounts with decent balances. You may have to get a parent to co-sign, or start out with a really low credit limit, but its a good way to build good credit with your banking institution and remain outside the Capital One/MBNA/other big CC Company quagmire.

  17. mac-phisto says:

    @matukonyc: i don’t think borrowing money is inherently irresponsible, and in today’s society it can be detrimental to avoid building a good credit history. you could be passed up for a job b/c of insufficient or bad credit, your auto & homeowners/renters insurance rates can be higher, you could be forced to pay deposits to set up contractual utility service & if you decide to take out a mortgage someday, no or poor credit can result in thousands of dollars more in interest (& a higher monthly payment).

    also, it’s a lot easier to have bad credit than good. canceling a cell phone contract & refusing to pay a cancellation fee will eventually result in a collection. hospitals are notorious for adding collections when they don’t receive payment (even if your insurance company was responsible for the bill). without positive entries to offset the bad, you could find yourself in a position where credit becomes unattainable.

    i hear capitalone is the best card for building credit b/c they report every 20 days (the most frequent reporting allowable by the credit bureaus). this equates to 18 reports/year instead of 12.

  18. EvilTapioca says:

    I think I will go with a secured card. I don’t plan on spending more than $50 to $100 a month on it anyways and thats a payment I can manage. :D I know what happens when credit card debt gets out of control,my mother has horrible credit and I’m trying to avoid what happened to her. I have already made sure that I’ll be able to afford one by planning a budget. Thank you all for the advice! :D

  19. Youthier says:

    Credit cards don’t cause debt, people do.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say credit cards are horrible things. I won’t even tell you the hell my husband went through to rent a car before he had a credit card.

    Even if you need to “borrow money”… I think of the time that I was on a roadtrip 1500 miles from home with a completely shattered windshield and no paycheck until the next week. My credit card saved my ass and my trip.

    I think the real advice is if you aren’t responsible enough to spend within your means, don’t get a credit card. And also, don’t get more than one. One is more than enough. You’ll build up that credit line quick enough.

  20. mac-phisto says:

    @EvilTapioca: make sure you view the terms of the card closely. many of these secured cards come laden with fees – i remember reading the t&c for a secured card that included about $300 worth of one-time fees & a $95 annual fee (not to mention a 20.99% APR – pretty steep considering you’re paying them upfront).

  21. Islingtonian says:

    I just got my first credit card in my own name last fall. I opened a bank account at BofA and I automatically was approved for a BofA Visa card. It’s convenient enough for me, because I can see its balance when I check my bank account online. I can also ‘transfer funds’ from my bank account to my credit card, enabling me to pay it off in full whenever I want, instead of waiting for the bill to come each month. See if you can get a credit card from your bank instead of a secured one.

  22. Mike Panic says:

    I think all of the advice to not get a credit card is just wrong. Being a student also usually means you are dead broke. If something happens and you don’t have cash, you could be SOL. Say you live on campus and someone is out one night and decides to slash all 4 of the tires on your car and everyone on your block. You are going to need to get tires and more then likely, just suck it up and not report it to the insurance company because a $500 deducible kind of screws you. A credit card comes in handy for this. It also establishes your credit history and credit score. Without some sort of credit history, you could be denied the simplest things like a cell phone, or be forced to give a deposit towards it. Your credit score also has a direct relation with how much you pay for car insurance.

    I’d also avoid going with the previously mentioned Discover card, they are rarely accepted anymore, with the exception of gas stations. Get either a Visa or AMEX and do not pay a yearly fee, ever. In almost all cases, it is not worth it. The other advantage to having a Visa (not Visa check) or AMEX is the extended warranty. Both Visa and AMEX will double the manufacture’s warranty up to a full year on almost everything you buy. When my $1500 DSLR had problems 6 months out of warranty (18 months into owning it), the repair bill was near $400. Visa had a check to my door to cover the cost of repairs in less then five business days. I won’t buy any electronics or home appliances without my AMEX (canceled Visa because my AMEX earns better cash back) just for the extended coverage.

    Avoid store cards and gas cards like the plague. The only time I even consider them is when I get money off the first purchase, but when the first bill shows up, I pay it off in full and cancel the card. Doing that too often can also have a negative impact on your credit score, so don’t abuse it.

  23. acambras says:


    Since you say you read the Consumerist daily, it sounds like you are smart and that you avail yourself of good advice. You sound more responsible than most 18-year-olds I know (hell more than most 30-year-olds I know).

    Definitely stay away from any card with an annual fee or other hidden fees. There are too many good offers out there for you to let yourself get screwed that way. Especially if you’re a student — those credit card companies will really want your business. So be choosy!

    Good luck. And happy birthday!

  24. EvilTapioca says:

    Hehe thanks! I know better than to live above my means because I remember my parents doing it. I can remember certain utilities,usually phone,cable and once electric,getting shut off because my parents were irresponsible financially. Not to mention my mom also had a maxed out Jcpennys and Fashion Bug card,she still owes fashion bug money.

  25. adamondi says:

    @EvilTapioca: My parents are still retarded about all money matters, well into their twilight years. They cannot “trust themselves” with regular cell phones since they will regularly go over minutes and neglect to pay their bill. So they have pre-paid phones and are always running out of minutes. They also have their Vonage service shut off at least once every three months. Their cable has been shut off and reconnected more times than I can count.

    They also declared bankruptcy a few years back. So I had to start from scratch on my credit, just like you. No joint accounts with parents for me.

    Yeah, they were excellent examples of what not to do. Luckily, like you, I have learned from them and have cultivated much better credit. Hopefully you will be able to do the same.

  26. EvilTapioca says:

    I understand your situation completely. I know they weren’t taught by my grandparents on either side to be that way. Quick lil anecdote:When my grandmother on my fathers side died my father got nothing because over my grandmothers life time he borrowed 85,000 dollars. Probably each time to dig himself and my mother out of debt only to fall straight back in. The kicker is I grew up poor and I seriously mean it. Like we were on food stamps to get by. It’s a shame all that was wasted because of poor fiscal responsibility. o_0

  27. dragonpup says:

    I think the people saying avoid all credit cards like the plague are shortsighted

    I got my first line of credit when I turned 20. I got a capital one visa with a low balance, and not so good(but not unexpected) rates. I made sure to pay off the balance before I get hit with interest. 6 years later that is still my only line of credit, but it has a $5000 balance now. Do I plan to use that much cash at one time? Hell no, but I think of it as “Oh crap!” emergency funds.

    So what did 6 years of paying off the credit card in full each month get me? A 787 credit score. Great for me since I am looking into buying real estate.

  28. wilstanton says:

    Wow! A lot of people are dead against establishing credit. Must be nice to live where they do. For those of us in the real world, credit is a necessity. If there is any way to avoid it, don’t do anything with a co-signer. That doesn’t help you as much as people wish it would. If you really want to build smart credit (i.e. build a positive profile without paying an arm and leg in finance charges), check with your financial institution about account-secured or share-secured (banks v. credit unions) loans. Usually, these are charging 2-3% above whatever you are being paid for storing your money there. Put the proceeds in your account, and make more than the minimum payment every month.

    Unfortunately, paying off any credit card in full also doesn’t do as much good as some people wish. You have to show that you are responsible to maintain your credit in good standing. Advice about becoming an “authorized user” isn’t any good either. Every loan officer is hip to that. You get to use the credit, but you don’t build your own profile.

    This is something I deal with every day, and I feel really hopeful about your success, especially since you decided to ask questions first BEFORE applying for anything that was too big or not beneficial to you.

  29. FLConsumer says:

    I’ve had a credit card since I was 16 and have paid it off, in full, every single month. Some 12 years later, I only carry 2 credit cards, 0 store cards, and have enough of a limit to buy a luxury car on them. You better believe credit cards used wisely builds good credit.

    THAT SAID, I’d suggest that most students start off with a Visa Check Card FIRST for at least a year before going the credit card route. Get used to spending virtual money within your means first, THEN move up to credit cards.

    I actually spend less money when using credit cards than I do with cash because every single transaction is accounted for. It also helps to periodically review your current statement online, I’d suggest at least 2x a week. Add in Quicken/MS Money and you get a nice graph of where you’re spending/pissing away money.

    Also, SKIP the “Student” cards — they offer NO benefits whatsoever and have high rates and unfavorable terms. Check with your bank/credit union / university about what card options are available.

  30. katana says:


    Shortsighted? No. Quite the contrary. You don’t need a precious credit score to buy a house and presumably get a mortgage. The need for a credit score is a myth that you’ve been sold and you’ve chosen to perpetuate. You can think what you want, but that doesn’t make it true.

  31. duchessDisguised says:

    Here’s my “success” story: I got a student CC, but made sure to pay it off every month. With 6 years of credit history (the CC and a student loan), I was able to get the lowest rate when I shopped for a car. (Last time I checked, my credit scores were between 720 and 790.)

    I think it all depends on when you need to have a good credit history. If you’re just planning to “start out,” (no immediate plans to buy a car/house) then I think a check card followed by a regular credit card (and paying it off every month) will do wonders.

  32. FLConsumer says:

    A good credit score will SAVE you money when it comes time to buy a house AND get insurance. The rate lenders will charge for your loans is based on credit. Similarly, auto insurance, health insurance, and home insurance also looks at your credit score and sets their rates accordingly. Do you NEED a good credit score? No, if you enjoy paying more for services than you have to.

  33. dragonpup says:


    I never said that you needed a good credit score before a mortgage company will talk to you, but it sure as hell helps. If you are responsible with the card, don’t spend more than you would have without it, and pay it off before interest, it is useful to have around.

  34. mac-phisto says:


    to ditto FLConsumer, while a good credit score isn’t required to buy a house, not having 700+ score automatically disqualifies you from first-tier lenders. that means prime & prime-minus lending is not an option for you. you can still purchase a home, but be prepared for prime +2 (or higher) and/or points and/or ARM lending.

    to give you an idea of the difference, if you purchased a $200,000 home w/ 20% down (financing 80%, or $160,000 for a fixed 30-yr term), your monthly payments at prime-1 (7.25%) would be ~$1090. the same loan at prime+1 (9.25%) would yield ~$1315 monthly payment. that’s almost $300/month more in interest simply b/c you had “mediocre” credit (~660). if your score is below a 600 or “unscoreable” due to insufficient history, you’ve just entered the wonderful world of sub-prime lending. be prepared for pre-payment penalties, ARMs, & lots of juicy hidden costs & fees.

  35. thrillhouse says:

    Yeah, credit as a necessity? I’d hate to live in that world. Must be something like hell. I’ve never had a credit card – ever. Thats not to say I didn’t have debt, but no credit cards. I have an awesome credit score despite that. Not that I care about my credit score, because I don’t need a credit score. No one does.

    House – put as much down as possible and ask for manual underwriting if your credit score is holding you back. Paying your landlord early or on-time for 2-years will go a long way to securing that mortgage.

    Car – save up, buy used, pay cash. Let these “savvy” debtors take the hit.

    Emergencies – save up CASH and pay for it. Financing a true emergency is in no way savvy.

    Melinda, go out and really learn about credit cards and their shady business practices, and don’t take all of your advice from blogs or Bankrate or Citi or Visa.

  36. mac-phisto says:

    @thrillhouse: not a necessity, but a powerful tool. let me give you an example from my personal life. i financed a toyota at 3.9% for 4 years. that’s ~$2100 in interest over the course of the loan. i could’ve paid cash, but instead that money is sitting in a CD earning 6.167%APY. in 4 years time, that certificate will earn over $6000 in interest. i made $4000 in my venture (not to mention a pretty sweet warranty including free maintenance which means little/no maintenance cost over the 4 years). sure, i’ll take a minor hit on depreciation, but that works to my advantage come tax time anyway.

  37. thrillhouse says:


    thats great mac-phisto.

    So you’re taking a HUGE hit on depreciation (that car on average will lose 60% of its value in those same 4 years), you locked up your money instead into a CD for 4 years, you’re going to pay TAXES on that money you make (not in your equation), and took on a whole load of totally unnecessary risk (also not in your equation). And you’re trying to pass this off as a good plan? The only ways to make this worse is to buy an extended warranty and lease that sucker.

    Thats BS about the mortgage also. A low credit score =/= sub-prime lending or ARMs. Manual Underwriting thru the FHA does not require a good credit score. And you can qualify for the prime rate quite easily.

    The need to build and maintain a credit score is absolutely artificial.

  38. pablo101 says:

    check to see what the providers are after . that way you can make an informed decsion good luck