Whether you're looking for your first credit card account or just getting started in the credit card rewards game, there are some offers that are so enticing for first-time applicants that they're hard to pass up.

Below, we'll review some basic features of the best cards, from starter cards to top-shelf rewards cards designed for people who already have some credit history.

Cash in on excellent credit

An existing credit card account isn't a prerequisite for excellent credit. A couple years of consistent on-time payments on any loan (personal, student, car, mortgage, etc.) generally begets a credit score in the "excellent" category.

If you have excellent credit and a reasonable income, card companies really want you as a customer. Popular offers include new cardholder bonuses worth as much as $625 plus the very best on-going rewards rates on every purchase for qualifying cardholders. These two cards are the best picks in rewards cards for people with excellent credit scores.

Credit card

New cardholder bonus

On-going rewards

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

50,000 bonus points ($625 of travel value)*

2x points per $1 on travel and restaurants, and 1 point per $1 on everything else

Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card

20,000 bonus points ($200 of travel value)**

1.5x points per $1 on everything

Source: Card issuers. *Requires $4,000 of spending in the first 90 days after account opening. **Requires $1,000 of spending in the first 90 days after account opening.

Which of these cards is better largely depends on personal preference as it relates to some specific features. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred®'s immediate value is rather obvious: Qualifying applicants can receive a new cardholder bonus of 50,000 points, plus the opportunity to earn bonus rewards on travel and restaurant purchases on an on-going basis. Importantly, cardholders benefit from the fact that points redeem at effective value of $0.0125 per point for travel through the bank's online portal. The only drawbacks are the relatively high spending requirement for the new cardholder bonus ($4,000 in the first three months after account opening) and the $95 annual fee, which is waived in the first year.

In contrast, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card's 20,000 point bonus for qualifying cardholders requires a modest $1,000 of spending in the first 90 days of account opening. Its rewards program allows for statement credit redemptions, allowing cardholders to redeem their points to erase travel purchases from their statement. Statement credits are particularly useful for people who like the flexibility to book travel through their preferred method -- online travel agencies, direct with airlines or hotels, etc. -- rather than use a bank's specific travel portal. Best of all, this card doesn't have an annual fee, and offers bonus rewards to loyal customers who have an active Bank of America® checking or savings account.

In general, it's my view that the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card is best fit for people with lower spending habits than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® given the difference in the annual fee (no fee vs. a $95 fee) and the required amount of spending for the new cardholder bonus, but either card is a great rewards card for people who have the credit to qualify.

Upclose photo of a credit card

Image source: Getty Images.

For people with "good" credit

Merely "good" credit is good enough to score a sizable sign-up bonus from a no-annual-fee cash back card.

The Chase Freedom Unlimited℠ is an excellent choice in this category. It offers a $150 bonus for qualifying cardholders who spend $500 or more on purchases in the first three months after account opening. That's one of the highest bonuses available for a no-annual-fee rewards card designed for people with good credit.

Credit card

New cardholder bonus

On-going rewards

Chase Freedom Unlimited℠

$150*

1.5% cash back on all purchases with no minimum redemption

Source: Card issuer. *Requires $500 of spending in the first 90 days after account opening for qualifying applicants.

The card offers solid rewards beyond the new cardholder bonus period. This cash back card doles out rewards at a rate of 1.5% on every purchase, and rewards can be redeemed with no minimum redemption requirement. For this reason, this is an excellent choice for people with large and small spending habits alike, given that it doesn't have a $25 or $50 minimum redemption requirement common with other cash back rewards cards.

Bad or no credit

If you have bad credit, no credit, or little income, there are fewer cards to choose from. In this category, a secured credit card offers the best chance at approval. Secured credit cards enable cardholders to build or rebuild their credit since secured cards report to the three major credit bureaus just like any other credit card.

Credit card

Credit limit

Required deposit

Discover it® Secured Credit Card  $200 $200 minimum
Capital One® Secured Mastercard® $200 $49, $99, or $200 (depends on creditworthiness)

Source: Card issuers.

The Discover it® Secured Credit Card is arguably best-in-class, given that this no-annual-fee secured card offers its cardholders an attractive rewards program in which cardholders earn up to 2% cash back on restaurant and gas purchases (subject to a $1,000 spending cap each quarter) plus 1% cash back on every other purchase. In addition, the card offers access to a free FICO® score, allowing cardholders to monitor and track their progress as they build or rebuild their credit. The only downside is that new cardholders will receive an initial credit limit equal to their deposit ($200 minimum deposit for a $200 credit line, for example).

In contrast, the Capital One® Secured Mastercard® doesn't have as many bells and whistles (it doesn't have a rewards program), but it does offer the ability to get started with a smaller deposit. Qualifying cardholders receive a $200 credit line for making the required minimum security deposit, which is $49, $99, or $200, depending on the applicants' creditworthiness. Thus, this card potentially offers the ability to get started with a smaller deposit than competing secured credit cards, which generally only offer a credit line equal to the amount deposited. The most creditworthy applicants can get a $200 credit limit from this card for a deposit as small as $49.

We've selected these two cards for our list of the best secured cards for many reasons, but the fact they don't have an annual fee is a very big draw. Most secured credit cards carry hefty annual fees just for having an active account, which we think is a cost best avoided when possible. Always read the fine print when applying for any credit card, a rule that goes twice for card issuers you aren't particularly familiar with.

 

Jordan Wathen has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Mastercard. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.