There are more than a billion credit cards in existence, and thousands of different kinds of credit cards. Clearly, finding the cards that will best serve you isn't a simple task. It's important, though, because if you find the credit card that's right for you, it could put hundreds or thousands of dollars back in your pocket, while saving money and offering rewards when you travel, charging you low interest, and helping you pay off credit card debt.

The best credit card features also include being lenient with a late payment and generous with balance transfers. As you study the most promising credit card candidates, see which ones offer the most features of interest and use to you.

smiling young woman holding credit card in one hand and hundred dollar bills fanned out in the other

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The best credit card features -- low APRs, rewards, travel perks, and more

Here are most of the credit card features that many people value:

  • Big sign-up bonuses. Many credit cards offer hefty sign-up bonuses, with the magnitude of the bonus fluctuating over time. For example, a card might offer 50,000 "points" if you spend a certain sum within your first three months, and those points could be worth $500 or more in value when redeemed. This is especially true of travel-related credit cards.

  • No annual fee. Most credit cards don't charge an annual fee, so it's easy to avoid this fee. Note, though, that sometimes a reasonable fee can be well worth it -- such as if a card charges $99 per year while offering $300 or more in value.

  • No penalty APR. A penalty APR is what happens when card companies raise your interest rate, often to 25% or more, if you're late paying a bill. If you're carrying, say, $6,000 in debt with a 16% APR and your rate suddenly jumps to 30%, your annual interest cost can surge from $960 to $1,800. Study a card's fine print to see whether there's a penalty APR, and consider avoiding the card if it's there. Plenty of cards don't have this feature.

  • Low interest rates. Paying off your bill in full each month is the best way to use a credit card, but if there's a chance that you will occasionally be carrying a balance, you should favor cards with an interest rate range that's low relative to others. If you're getting a card with an initial 0% APR, find out what the rate will likely be once that teaser rate expires.

  • Zero percent interest. If you're looking for a good balance transfer card, aim for one that will charge you no interest for anywhere between about 15 months and 21 months. The longer the period the better, but even 15 months can be enough depending on your situation.

  • No balance transfer fee. Some balance-transfer cards will charge you about 3% to 5% of the amount you transfer from another card. That can be substantial -- perhaps costing you $240 on a $6,000 transfer. That can still be worth it sometimes, but favor cards that charge no such fee, at least in the initial period when you make your transfer.
     
    one hand holding a dozen credit cards fanned out and another hand picking one of the cards

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  • No foreign transaction fees. Without this feature, if you spend money abroad or with a foreign-based retailer, you'll see currency-exchange-related fees on your statement. This feature can save you a lot if you're a frequent traveler abroad -- and even if you just make purchases from online retailers based in foreign countries.

  • Credit-boosting tools. It can be helpful to be able to check your credit score now and then, if you're working on paying off debt and increasing your score -- and even if you're not, as you may want to verify that your score is still good. Many cards these days give you access to your credit score -- and some even print it each month on your bill. 

  • Cash back -- or points or rewards -- that can be earned as you spend with your card. You can find plenty of cards that pay you 1.5% or 2% cash back overall on your purchases, and ones that offer up to 5% or 6% back on certain categories, such as supermarket spending. Some cards have pre-set cash-back rates for certain categories, while others rotate categories that earn extra-big rewards every three months -- sometimes even letting you choose the categories.

  • Travel perks. Some travel credit cards will give you access to VIP lounges in airports and free checked bags, and some will reimburse you for the cost of applying for membership in the TSA PreCheck or Global Entry programs that help you avoid long security lines at airports (and let you keep your shoes on!). Other travel-related perks that many cards offer include roadside assistance and rental car insurance. (With some cards, though, the rental car insurance is secondary, meaning that it covers expenses your own car insurance doesn't and still requires you to file a claim with your insurer, which might trigger a rate hike.) Visa's higher-end Signature cards let you get low rates and more (sometimes including room upgrades, free nights, and late check-outs) at more than 900 hotels in its Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection when you book through the Visa website. Many Visa Signature cards also reimburse you up to $3,000 for lost luggage.

  • Purchase perks. Many good credit cards offer extended warranties on qualifying purchases you make, and/or purchase protection, covering theft of or damage to an item you buy for a period of time. Some cards also offer price protection, refunding you the difference if you find a lower price for something you recently bought. The best shopping credit cards offer benefits such as free shipping on items purchased at the sponsoring retailer, the ability to return items without a receipt, or money donated to charity whenever you use the card.

  • Investment benefits. It's great to get credit card benefits related to your purchasing, but most of us need to be saving for retirement, and some credit cards can help with that. Some, for example, will deposit any cash rewards earned into an account you specify, such as your IRA or a 529 college saving plan.
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How to qualify for the best credit cards

It's very useful to know what to look for in credit cards, but once you have zeroed in on the best credit cards for yourself, there's a good chance you'll need a high credit score to be approved for them. What's a high credit score? Well, basic (non-industry-specific) FICO scores, which are used by about 90% of top lenders, range from 300 to 850. Here's how the folks at FICO rate the scores:

FICO Score Range

Rating

800 and higher

Exceptional

740-799

Very good

670-739

Good

580-669

Fair

579 and lower

Poor

Data source: MyFICO.com. 

If your credit score isn't high, you might want to delay getting a new credit card, while you take some time to increase your credit score. It can help to know the components of a FICO credit score:

Component of Credit Score

Influence on Credit Score

Payment history

35%

How much you owe

30%

Length of credit history

15%

New credit

10%

Other factors such as your credit mix

10%

Data source: myFICO.com.

Some great ways to boost your score include paying bills on time and reducing your debt load.

One of the worst credit card mistakes people make is signing up for any old card, or choosing a card based solely on one attractive feature, such as a low initial interest rate. To save the most money or collect the most rewards, give any card candidate a close look and choose the card(s) offering you the most features you could use.

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