Credit cards play an important role in the financial lives of Americans. About 70% of U.S. adults have at least one, and most people use them regularly for everyday purchases -- as opposed to reserving plastic mainly for big-ticket items that they will pay off over time.

Still, based on that 70% figure and a U.S. adult population recently estimated to be around 250 million, that means there are around 75 million without a credit card. Here's some good information for you if you're among the cardless, and are wondering how best to go about applying for one.

A red stamp that says approved in white capital letters.

Image source: Getty Images.

Credit cards: Pros and cons

It makes sense to spend a few minutes thinking about whether you really do want or need a credit card, as there are some significant advantages and disadvantages to them. Here's a quick summary of the benefits of credit cards:

  • They keep you from having to carry a lot of cash around.
  • They can be handy in a financial emergency, if you don't sufficient cash on hand.
  • Their statements can help you keep track of your spending.
  • Some cards offer great benefits, such as 2% cash back or other rewards.
  • They can be used to build a strong credit score, which can save you thousands in interest when you're borrowing money, such as for a mortgage.
  • They can help you get out of debt, via balance transfer cards and zero-percent interest periods.
  • Some cards off extra perks, such as free checked bags on flights or free shipping from retailers.

And here are some downsides of credit cards:

  • They make it very easy to rack up a lot of debt if you're not disciplined.
  • They can charge a lot in fees.
  • Some charge steep interest rates, especially if you're late paying a bill, and that can cost you dearly.
  • If you don't pay your bills off on time and don't keep your debt in check, your credit score could take a hit, which can be costly when you want to borrow.
  • Credit card use can lead to identity theft and fraud, especially if you're careless or unlucky.
  • Paying with credit cards instead of cash leads many people to spend more.

Before applying, check your credit score

If you want one of the best credit cards, with the best features, you'll probably need to have a strong credit score before applying. What's a strong 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 filling out an application for a credit card, while you increase your credit score.

A white three-way signpost with arrows pointing in different directions and say good, better, best in black letters

Image source: Getty Images.

Which type of card will serve you best?

Once you're ready to apply, you need to figure out which type of credit card will serve you best. Then you'll want to find the best card for yourself in that category.

If you're in debt, you'll need to pay off credit card debt and any other high interest-rate debt as soon as you can. Balance transfer credit cards and low interest-rate credit cards can be good for that. Top balance transfer credit cards will charge you no interest for a bunch of months while you work to pay off your debt, while good low interest-rate credit cards can help you spend less on interest payments.

If you're not in debt, consider getting a great cash-back credit card or two, with which you can receive a percentage of your purchases in cash or rewards. A particularly generous kind of reward card is the travel credit card, will reward you for your travel-related spending (often including restaurants) and/or will offer discounts on airfares, hotels, eateries, and more.

If you do a lot of shopping, online or in stores, think about where you spend the most money, as many retailers offer cards that give you discounts when you shop with them.

The best credit card features

Here are the kinds of credit card features to look for when you're evaluating candidates:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Low interest rates. 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% rate, find out what the rate will likely be once that teaser rate expires.

  • No penalty APR. A penalty APR is when card companies hike your interest rate, often to 25% or more, if you're late paying a bill. If you're carrying, say, $5,000 in debt with a 16% APR and your rate suddenly jumps to 30%, your annual interest cost can surge from $800 to $1,500. Plenty of cards don't have this feature, so look closely at the fine print and consider avoiding any cards that have it.

  • 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.

  • 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 -- costing you around $180 to $300 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.

  • No foreign transaction fees. A card with this feature won't slap you with transaction fees when you spend money abroad or with a foreign-based retailer.

  • 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.

  • 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. Some travel credit cards will give you access to VIP lounges in airports, while others might offer include roadside assistance and rental car insurance. Some cards will even reimburse you up to a certain amount for lost luggage.

Filling out the application

In many cases, filling out the application will be the easiest step in the getting-a-credit card process. You can start by looking up your desired card online. You can probably apply for it right there on its web page -- or you can download a form to fill out. If you haven't done sufficient due diligence into the card yet, this will probably be a good last chance to do so, as the application process should include showing you the card's features and terms in great detail.

The application process will require your divulging a lot of personal information, so be sure to be on a secure network and not filling out the form while using the free wi-fi at a coffee shop. You'll likely need to offer up your Social Security number, address, and income, among other things. If you have a mortgage, you may be asked about your mortgage payments.

If for some reason you're denied, call the company to ask what the problem was. You may be able to make your case verbally and put to rest any concerns it has. If you're told that there's a problem with your credit history, look into it. You're entitled to a free copy of your credit report annually from each of the three main credit agencies -- visit AnnualCreditReport.com to order yours. (It's a good idea to review your credit record before applying for a credit card -- and, indeed, to review it at least once a year, checking for errors.)

When used responsibly, credit cards can make your financial life easier and can even offer valuable rewards. If you have the discipline to not fall into debt and will make your payments on time, consider joining the ranks of credit card holders.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.