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Best Credit Cards of December 2021

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The Ascent's shortlist of the best credit cards for 2021 contains the market-leading picks. They include perks, such as lucrative rewards programs, big sign-up bonuses, long 0% intro APR offers to avoid interest, and no annual fees.

Add up the value of these benefits and it's not uncommon for the top credit cards to pack in upwards of $1,000 in value. Whether you're looking for a rewards card, a balance transfer card, a business credit card, a secured card to help you build credit, or simply a good credit card offer, there's a card out there for everyone.

To help you navigate the market, our experts crunched the numbers on hundreds of credit cards and included only our select few top picks below. Read on to learn more about the best credit card offers that we would recommend to our closest friends and family.

Best Credit Cards

The Picks
Card Rating Great For
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Great For:

Unlimited cash back

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Great For:

Bonus category cash back

Rating image, 4.50 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Travel sign up bonus

Rating image, 5.00 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Unlimited cash back

Rating image, 5.00 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas

Rating image, 5.00 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Balance transfers

Rating image, 5.00 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Long 0% intro APR offer

Rating image, 4.50 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Long 0% intro APR offer

Rating image, 4.50 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

0% intro APR offer

Rating image, 4.50 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Dining rewards with no annual fee

Rating image, 4.00 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Cash back versatility

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Great For:

Bad credit

Rating image, 4.50 out of 5 stars.
Great For:

Students

Great for: Unlimited cash back

Apply Now

On Wells Fargo's Secure Website.

  • A standout cash back card with one of the highest unlimited rewards rates we've come across. The inclusion of a hefty sign-up bonus and versatile 0% intro APR offer are the cherries on top. Read Full Review

    • Unlimited 2% cash rewards
    • Long 0% intro APR offer
    • Generous cash rewards sign-up bonus
    • No annual fee
    • No bonus categories
    • Foreign transaction fees
    • Earn a $200 cash rewards bonus after spending $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months
    • Earn unlimited 2% cash rewards on purchases
    • 0% intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers, then a 14.99% to 24.99% variable APR; balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate and fee of 3% then a BT fee of up to 5%, min: $5
    • $0 annual fee
    • No category restrictions or sign ups and cash rewards don't expire as long as your account remains open
    • Enjoy a premium collection of benefits at a selection of the world's most intriguing and prestigious hotel properties with Visa Signature Concierge
    • Get up to $600 protection on your cell phone (subject to $25 deductible) against covered damage or theft when you pay your monthly cellular telephone bill with your Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card
    • Select "Apply Now" to learn more about the product features, terms and conditions

Great for: Bonus category cash back

Apply Now

On Discover's Secure Website.

  • Includes a robust rewards program and rich sign-up bonus offer that has unlimited upside. Somehow this card also packs in a great intro APR offer for no annual fee. Read Full Review

    • Rotating bonus categories
    • Sign-up bonus offer
    • Great intro APR offer
    • No annual fee
    • No foreign transaction fee
    • No fixed bonus categories
    • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
    • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate.
    • Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
    • Redeem cash back in any amount, any time. Rewards never expire.
    • Use your rewards at Amazon.com checkout.
    • No annual fee.
    • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Great for: Travel sign up bonus

Apply Now

On Chase's Secure Website.

  • With a big sign-up bonus, the sky’s the limit for this top-rated travel rewards card. Plus, the premium points program for travel and dining make it a no brainer for travel enthusiasts everywhere. Read Full Review

    • Big sign-up bonus
    • Travel rewards
    • Dining rewards
    • Flexible travel points
    • Consumer and travel protections
    • Has an annual fee
    • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
    • Enjoy new benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining and 2X points on all other travel purchases, plus more.
    • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
    • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
    • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
    • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
    • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.

Great for: Unlimited cash back

Apply Now

On Chase's Secure Website.

  • This card includes a lineup of features that makes it a great option for one-card-wallet simplicity. The unlimited cash back makes it easy to earn rewards. The sign-up bonus and long 0% intro APR offer are the cherries on top. Read Full Review

    • Big sign-up bonus
    • Travel rewards
    • Robust rewards program
    • Great intro APR
    • No annual fee
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • No balance transfer offer
    • $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
    • 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
    • 3% cash back on dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services
    • 3% cash back on drugstore purchases
    • 5% on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
    • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases
    • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 14.99 - 24.74%.
    • No annual fee

Great for: U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas

Apply Now

On American Express' Secure Website.

Terms apply

  • The U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations rewards are clear standouts, in addition to a big welcome bonus and a nice 0% intro APR offer. Read Full Review

    • Big welcome bonus
    • U.S. supermarkets rewards
    • U.S. gas stations rewards
    • Streaming subscription rewards
    • Annual fee
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • Earn a $300 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.
    • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.
    • Buy Now, Pay Later: Enjoy $0 intro plan fees when you use Plan It® to split up large purchases into monthly installments. Pay $0 plan fees on plans created during the first 12 months after account opening. Plans created after that will have a monthly plan fee up to 1.33% of each purchase amount moved into a plan based on the plan duration, the APR that would otherwise apply to the purchase, and other factors.
    • Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, 13.99% to 23.99%
    • 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%).
    • 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
    • 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and on transit (including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more).
    • 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
    • Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit.
    • Terms Apply.

Great for: Balance transfers

Apply Now

On Discover's Secure Website.

  • Get the best of both balance transfer and cash back worlds with this card. Not only do you get a great intro APR on balance transfers, but you also get a rich cash back program. Read Full Review

    • Great intro APR offer
    • Sign-up bonus offer
    • Robust cash back program
    • No annual fee
    • FICO® Score for free
    • No fixed bonus categories
    • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
    • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
    • Redeem cash back any amount, any time. Rewards never expire.
    • Get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
    • No annual fee.
    • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Great for: Long 0% intro APR offer

Apply Now

On Wells Fargo's Secure Website.

  • A clear leader with a 0% intro APR offer that is among the longest we've come across. The card also includes an innovative intro APR extension with on-time payments. Read Full Review

    • Long 0% Intro APR offer
    • No annual fee
    • Cell phone protection
    • Balance transfer fee
    • 0% intro APR for 18 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers. Intro APR extension of up to 3 months with on-time minimum payments during the intro and extension periods. 12.99% to 24.99% variable APR thereafter; balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate and fee of 3% then a BT fee of up to 5%, min $5
    • $0 Annual Fee
    • Get up to $600 of cell phone protection when you pay your monthly cell phone bill with your eligible Wells Fargo card (subject to a $25 deductible).
    • Through My Wells Fargo Deals, you can earn cash back in the form of a statement credit while you shop, dine, or enjoy an experience simply by using your eligible Wells Fargo Credit Card
    • Select "Apply Now" to learn more about the product features, terms and conditions

Great for: Long 0% intro APR offer

Apply Now

On U.S. Bank's Secure Website.

  • With a 20 billing cycle intro APR offer for both balance transfers and purchases, this is one of the best low interest credit cards we've come across. Read Full Review

    • Long 0% intro APR offer
    • No annual fee
    • Cell phone protection
    • Free credit score monitoring
    • No rewards
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • 0% Intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 20 billing cycles. After that, a variable APR currently 14.49% - 24.49%.
    • Great offer from U.S. Bank, a 2021 World's Most Ethical Company® - Ethisphere Institute, February 2021.
    • No Annual Fee
    • Flexibility to choose a payment due date that fits your schedule.
    • Get up to $600 protection on your cell phone (subject to $25 deductible) against covered damage or theft when you pay your monthly cellular telephone bill with your U.S.Bank Visa® Platinum Credit Card. Certain terms, conditions, and exclusions apply.

Great for: 0% intro APR offer

Apply Now

On Citi's Secure Website.

  • A hard-to-beat 0% intro APR credit that's a fit for cardholders wanting to pay off debt faster with balance transfer strategies and/or finance the cost of a purchase and temporarily avoid costly interest charges. Read Full Review

    • Great intro APR
    • No annual fee
    • Free credit score monitoring
    • No rewards
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • 0% Intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers from date of first transfer and 0% Intro APR for 12 months on purchases from date of account opening. After that the variable APR will be 13.74% - 23.74%, based on your creditworthiness. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.
    • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
    • Get free access to your FICO® Score online.
    • With Citi Entertainment®, get special access to purchase tickets to thousands of events, including concerts, sporting events, dining experiences and more.
    • Shop with confidence knowing that you have dependable protection benefits, including $0 Liability on Unauthorized Purchases and Citi®Identity Theft Solutions.
    • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 13.74% - 23.74%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi’s discretion.

Great for: Dining rewards with no annual fee

Apply Now

On Capital One's Secure Website.

  • Dining and grocery spending will earn premium rewards, but that's not the only showstopper. The sign-up bonus, no annual fee, and a 0% intro APR offer can add a ton of value. Read Full Review

    • Sign-up bonus
    • Dining rewards
    • Entertainment rewards
    • No annual fee
    • Great intro APR for purchases
    • Balance transfer fee
    • Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
    • Earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®), plus 1% on all other purchases. Plus, earn 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023
    • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
    • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months; 14.99% - 24.99% variable APR after that
    • No foreign transaction fee
    • No annual fee

Great for: Cash back versatility

  • The high cash back rate, sign-up bonus, and flexibility to choose what purchases earn bonus cash back make this a compelling offer. All the better that there's no annual fee.

    • Sign-up bonus
    • Bonus categories of your choosing
    • No annual fee
    • 0% intro APR offer for balance transfers
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • No 0% intro APR on purchases
    • $150 bonus after spending $500 in eligible net purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.
    • 5% cash back on your first $2,000 in combined eligible net purchases ($100 per quarter) on two categories you choose. That adds up to $400 cash back!
    • 2% cash back on your choice of one everyday category, like gas stations, restaurants, or grocery stores.
    • 1% cash back on all other eligible net purchases.
    • No limit on total cash back earned.
    • 0% Intro APR* on balance transfers for 12 billing cycles. After that, a variable APR currently 13.99% - 23.99%
    • No annual fee*

Great for: Bad credit

Apply Now

On Discover's Secure Website.

  • This card is a great place to start when building your credit history. It offers perks rarely found in secured cards, including cash back, no annual fee, and Discover's innovative sign-up bonus. Read Full Review

    • Cash back rewards
    • Great sign-up bonus offer
    • No annual fee
    • Can graduate to an unsecured card
    • Minimum deposit amount
    • No Annual Fee, earn cash back, and build your credit with responsible use.
    • Using your secured credit card helps build a credit history with the three major credit bureaus. Generally, prepaid and debit cards can’t do that.
    • Establish your credit line with your tax return by providing a refundable security deposit of at least $200. Bank information must be provided when submitting your deposit.
    • Automatic reviews starting at 7 months to see if we can transition you to an unsecured line of credit and return your deposit.*
    • Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
    • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
    • Get 100% U.S. based customer service & get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score.
    • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
    • Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.* Activate for free.
    • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Great for: Students

  • This student credit card has it all. You'll have a hard time finding a student card with a cash back program this lucrative to go along with a sign-up bonus.

    • Competitive sign-up bonus
    • Bonus cash back in a category of your choice
    • No annual fee
    • 0% intro APR offer
    • Foreign transaction fee
    • Limit on bonus cash back
    • No annual fee.
    • $200 online cash rewards bonus after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.
    • Earn 3% cash back in the category of your choice, 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases) and unlimited 1% on other purchases.
    • 0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days, then 13.99% to 23.99% variable thereafter. A 3% fee (min $10) applies to all balance transfers
    • No expiration on rewards.
    • If you're a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25% - 75% more cash back on every purchase.

A credit card can be one of your most valuable financial tools -- if used correctly. When you know the right moves to make, you can maximize cash rewards or travel rewards, avoid decades of debt, and protect your credit score. Our credit card guide could help you learn these important skills -- or maybe even find your next favorite card.

How does a credit card work?

A credit card allows you to pay for purchases by borrowing money. The maximum amount you can borrow at one time is called your credit limit. The money you've already borrowed is your balance, and the amount you have left to borrow is your available credit.

At the end of each billing cycle, the card issuer will send you a statement listing the transactions you made. It will list your total balance, as well as the minimum payment due during that billing cycle. You must pay at least the minimum amount by the due date to avoid a late fee -- although it's a good idea to pay more than the minimum if you can afford it.

Credit cards are most often used for purchases, but many of them can also be used for other types of transactions, such as cash advances and balance transfers.

How does credit card interest work?

Credit card interest is the fee a card issuer can charge when you borrow money with your credit card. The amount of interest charged depends on the card's annual percentage rate (APR). Many credit cards have different APRs for purchases, balance transfers, and cash advances. Most credit cards have a variable APR. A variable APR is an interest rate that can change over time.

The type of transaction also determines when your card issuer starts charging you interest. For example, cash advances almost always start racking up interest immediately. Purchases are different. Just about any top-rated credit card will only charge interest for purchases that aren't paid off by the payment due date. Savvy consumers take advantage of this, pay in full, and never have to deal with credit card interest.

TIP

How to avoid paying credit card interest

Credit card interest is one of those unnecessary charges that you should do your best to avoid. There are two ways to accomplish this.

Pay off balances by the due date: The simplest option is to only use your credit card for purchases you can afford. Pay the entire statement balance on or before the due date. If you do this every billing cycle, you'll never end up with any interest charges.

Get a 0% intro APR credit card: With these credit card offers, you'll pay zero interest for the entire intro period. A 0% intro APR can apply to purchases, balance transfers, or both, so make sure you choose the right one. The APR will go up after the card's intro period ends -- it's important to pay off your balance by then.

Types of credit cards

Though there are many different types of credit cards, they all fall into certain categories based on their features and rewards programs. Here are the different types of credit cards and the best credit cards and credit card deals right now within each category.

Travel credit cards

With travel cards, you can redeem your points or miles for free or discounted travel. There are also quite a few top travel credit cards that offer extra travel perks, such as free access to airport lounges, hotel upgrades, and travel insurance. An airline credit card, hotel credit card, and general travel credit card would all fall under this category.

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: 3 points per $1 on dining, 2 points per $1 on travel

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best travel rewards credit cards

Rewards credit cards

This category includes every credit card that earns purchase rewards. With so many cards to choose from, you'll find a diverse mix of rewards credit cards that earn cash back, travel points, and store rewards.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best rewards credit cards

Cash back credit cards

With this type of rewards card, you earn rewards that can be redeemed as cash or a statement credit. Depending on the card, you may be able to redeem your cash back as a statement credit towards your credit card balance, a deposit to a bank account, or as a check. You'll find cards that earn the same flat rate on purchases as well as cards that earn extra in bonus categories among the best cash back cards.

  • Discover it® Cash Back: 5% back in rotating quarterly bonus categories you activate up to $1,500 quarterly spending cap, 1% back on all else
  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 annual spending cap, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit, 1% back on all else. Terms apply.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited®: Unlimited 1.5% cash back
  • U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card: Earn 5% cash back on your first $2,000 in combined eligible net purchases ($100 per quarter) on two categories you choose.
  • Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card: Unlimited, no hassles 2% cash back.
  • Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card: 3% cash back on dining and entertainment.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best cash back credit cards

Balance transfer credit cards

This type of card offers a lower, introductory APR on balance transfers. Many of the top balance transfer cards have a 0% intro APR on balance transfers and intro periods can last for well over a year. If you want to refinance credit card debt and save money on interest, a balance transfer card is ideal.

  • U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card: 20-billing-cycle 0% intro APR on balance transfers and purchases.
  • Discover it® Balance Transfer: 18-month 0% intro APR on balance transfers. The go-to variable rate applies after the 0% intro APR expires.
  • Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card: 0% intro APR for both purchases and balance transfers.
  • Wells Fargo Reflect℠ Card: A leading 0% intro APR for both purchases and balance transfers.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best balance transfer credit cards

Best credit cards for beginners

The best credit cards for beginners accept applicants with no credit history, don't charge unnecessary fees, and have educational features to help you improve your credit, such as free credit score monitoring. For those who are enrolled at college or university, student credit cards are a great first step into the world of credit.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best starter credit cards

High limit credit cards

Some credit cards tend to offer higher credit limits than most. These high limit credit cards let you spend more, and they can also help you protect your credit by making it easier to keep your credit utilization ratio low. You typically need excellent credit to qualify.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best high limit credit cards

0% intro APR credit cards

Cards in this category have a 0% intro APR that applies to purchases. They're a smart choice if you need to buy something expensive, but you can't afford to pay in full upfront. The most popular 0% intro APR credit cards also often have those intro deals for a year or longer.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best 0% intro APR credit cards

Credit cards for building credit

You need to pay a security deposit to open a secured credit card, which is typically used for rebuilding or building credit. The security deposit is often (but not always) equal to your starting credit limit. High-quality secured credit cards can usually graduate to unsecured cards, meaning you get your deposit back if you make enough on-time payments.

Discover it® Secured Credit Card: A lucrative rewards program plus Discover matches all the cash back earned in the first year.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best secured credit cards

Looking to rebuild credit?: Check out The Ascent's best credit cards for bad credit

Student credit cards

If you're in college, you can get started on building your credit with a student credit card. Even though these cards are for students, there are some excellent perks to be found with the best student credit cards. Some cards include free credit score tracking and money back for good grades.

Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students: A rare student credit card pick with a long 0% Intro APR, big sign-up bonus, and rich rewards program.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best student credit cards

Business credit cards

Business credit cards are designed with business owners in mind. These cards usually offer higher credit limits than consumer credit cards to accommodate business spending. Many of them also have bonus categories to fit typical business spending habits. For example, a business card may offer bonus rewards on advertising, shipping, or office supply store purchases.

In addition, a business card can help you build your business credit score. Just like your own credit score is a rating of your personal creditworthiness, businesses have credit scores that rate their creditworthiness. By using a business credit card and paying on time, you can raise your business credit score. That can help you qualify for business financing in the future.

Your business doesn't need to be a separate entity to qualify for a business credit card. It's possible to open a business credit card with a sole proprietorship. No matter what type of business you have, it's smart to compare offers.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's best business credit cards

Store credit cards

Many chain stores, from Macy's to Target to Lowe's, offer their own credit cards. Sometimes these credit cards are accepted everywhere, but often they're only for use in-store. Store credit cards usually come with exclusive discounts and rewards that can only be used at that store. Make sure to read the fine print on any 0% intro APR offers from store credit cards, as they can involve deferred interest, which is tricky and can lead to hefty surprise interest charges.

Compare more picks: Check out The Ascent's store credit cards

Do you need a credit card?

Although a credit card isn't a necessity, there are several ways it can help you financially:

  • Improving credit: A credit card can help you build or rebuild your credit. When you use your credit card and pay the bill on time, your credit score will go up. This can help you qualify for financing, such as a car loan or mortgage, at a low interest rate.
  • Earning rewards: With rewards credit cards, you can earn cash back or travel points on purchases.
  • Fraud protection: Legally, you're only liable for up to $50 in losses if your credit card is used fraudulently. But most credit card companies go even further. Many credit cards offer zero-liability policies -- meaning you aren't responsible for any fraudulent charges. You also don't need to worry about a thief draining your bank account through your credit card (which could happen if your debit card was stolen).
  • Extra perks and discounts: Credit cards can offer all kinds of benefits, such as extended warranty coverage on purchases or complimentary rental car insurance. Many of the best credit cards have features that can be worth hundreds of dollars or more.

Find the best credit card for your needs

Compare credit card bonuses, rewards, fees and more using our side-by-side comparison tool.

How to improve your credit score

Your credit score plays a large role in which credit cards you can get. If you have a low credit score and you work on raising it, that will open up more credit card options for you.

Here's the best advice you can follow to improve your credit score.

Review your credit report

You're legally entitled to a free annual credit report from each credit bureau (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to request it.

Once you have your credit reports, review them for errors that could be damaging your credit score. If you find any errors, visit the website of the credit bureau that issued the report to file a dispute.

Get a credit card

The easiest way to improve your credit is by using a credit card and paying the bill on time. If you don't have a credit card, look for cards aimed at consumers in your position.

Starter credit cards are ideal if you don't have much credit history yet. If you're rebuilding credit from issues on your credit history, then secured credit cards are the most suitable option.

Stay below 30% of your credit limit

The amount of your credit that you use impacts your credit score. Say you have a card with a $1,000 credit limit. If the balance is $500, that would put your credit utilization ratio at 50%.

A lower credit utilization helps your credit score. As a rule of thumb, aim to stay under 30% credit utilization at all times. It's good for your credit, and as an added perk, it helps you stay out of credit card debt.

Follow good payment habits

Learn your credit card's due date and always make your payment on time or early. Each on-time payment improves your payment history, which is the biggest factor in your credit score. You may want to set automatic payments so you don't miss any.

It's also recommended that you pay off your credit card every month. While this isn't necessary for your credit score, it's a way to avoid interest charges on your credit card purchases.

How many credit cards should I have?

The right number of credit cards for most people is one. That's particularly important for cardholders using credit cards for rewards, since the juice may not always be worth the squeeze when carrying multiple cards and using each to optimize rewards for each spending category. It's even more true for cardholders carrying debt. The best credit cards help you earn big on your everyday purchases while avoiding fees.

But this isn't necessarily the right mantra for everyone. There's no doubt that savvy cardholders carrying multiple cards can wring out a good amount of value. With the right strategy and a financial discipline, having a few of the best cards for different uses can be worthwhile.

When should I have one credit card?

You should stick to one credit card if:

  • You want to keep your finances as simple as possible.
  • You've never had a credit card before, or you've been using credit cards for less than a year.
  • You've had problems with missed credit card payments or overspending.
  • You value simplicity in managing your finances and don't want to worry about tracking multiple bills.

When should I have multiple credit cards?

You should carry multiple credit cards if you want more card benefits and you're confident in your ability to manage everything. There are some big advantages to having multiple cards:

  • You can carry cards that earn more in different areas, such as one flat-rate cash back card and another with bonus categories. This is a simple way to maximize your rewards.
  • You can use features from each of your cards and get more value overall. Instead of choosing between two of the best credit card deals, you can have both.
  • You'll have more available credit, which helps you maintain a lower credit utilization ratio. This can result in a higher credit score.

What is the best credit card?

The best credit card for most people is the Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card. It earns a 2% cash back rate on purchases, making it one of the most lucrative and flexible credit cards. This card also has a $0 annual fee, a generous sign-up bonus, and a lengthy 0% intro APR offer.

Every consumer has different spending habits and needs in a credit card. The best credit card to have will depend on your unique situation.

We've chosen the Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card as the best credit card of 2021 for the following reasons:

  • 2% cash rewards on purchases is the highest rate we've seen. Other cards offer more in select bonus categories, but 2% across purchase categories is the best deal for the typical consumer.
  • Cash back is flexible. While some people find travel points valuable, everyone can use cash back.
  • $0 annual fee. It's always a plus when you won't need to pay anything extra for your credit card.
  • $200 cash rewards bonus. New cardholders earn this welcome bonus after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • A long 0% intro APR offer. Adding to this card's versatility is a 0% intro APR on purchases and qualifying balance transfers for the first 15 months.

How to choose a credit card

Any time you're going to apply for a credit card, you want to make sure you choose the right one. Here's how to pick a credit card:

Decide which type of card you want. This will narrow down your credit card offers considerably, so it makes sense to do this first. If you're most interested in, for example, earning travel points, then there's no need to look at the best credit card offers for a 0% intro APR.

Compare credit cards in that category. Once you've chosen a type of card, it's time to compare credit cards side by side. Find the best credit cards in that category and then decide which is best for you. Here's how to compare credit cards:

  • Figure out the features that are most important to you. This will depend on the type of card you're choosing. Let's say you need a balance transfer card. The features to look at would be the length of each card's balance transfer offer and its balance transfer fees.
  • Check for any annual fees on the cards you're comparing. If you're stuck between two credit cards that work for you, one of them may have a cheaper annual fee.
  • Use secondary features as your tiebreaker. These are the features that aren't quite as important but still have value. Secondary features could include sign-up bonuses or a FICO® Score for free.
  • Read the fine print. All credit cards display common card features in a standardized format, including an outline of the APRs and lineup of fees. Keep an eye out for the following fees and compare them to other cards: Annual, balance transfer, cash advance, late payment, and foreign transaction.

How to apply for a credit card online

The simplest way to apply for a credit card is online, where you can complete an application in minutes. Here's how to apply for a credit card online:

  1. Choose a credit card and click "Apply Now": You'll find this link on the credit card page.
  2. Fill out the required information: Card applications ask for your personal information, including your name, mailing address, date of birth, and Social Security number. They also ask for financial information, including your income. Some companies might ask about your net worth.
  3. Submit the application: You may receive an instant decision of either an approval or a denial (hopefully approval). The card issuer could also put your application under review, meaning it needs more time to decide.

How to use a credit card

Whether your credit card helps or hurts you all depends on how you use it. To ensure that your credit card provides value and doesn't get you in debt, here are a few key guidelines:

  • Use your credit card regularly: To build your payment history and increase your credit score, you need to use your credit card for at least one purchase per month. That's just a minimum, though. If you have a rewards card, consider putting your purchases on your credit card to earn as much back as you can.
  • Only charge what you can afford: It's safest to only purchase what you can afford with the money you have your bank account. This will help you avoid overspending and debt. The exception is when you have a card with a 0% intro APR on purchases, since those are designed for financing expenses.
  • Pay on time and in full: Late payments can lead to fees, interest charges, and a lower credit score. Missing a payment does not help your credit score; carrying a balance does not help your credit score. It's important to always pay on or before the due date. Once again, 0% intro APR credit cards are an exception. You can carry a balance on those during the intro period without interest (though you still need to make the minimum payment).
  • Take advantage of your card's perks: All of the good credit cards have their share of benefits. Spend some time learning what your card's benefits are so that you can use them when you need them.

Important credit card terms

Annual percentage rate (APR): The annual percentage rate is charged for carrying a balance on a credit card, expressed as an annual percentage. With credit cards, the APR is the same as the interest rate.

Balance: The amount owed on a credit card, including all unpaid transactions and fees. The balance at the end of a statement period is called the statement balance.

Balance transfer: Moving a balance from one credit card to another. This is usually done when the new card offers a lower APR. Not every credit card offers balance transfers, and many of the cards with this feature charge a balance transfer fee.

Cash advance: Withdrawing cash from a credit card, most often through cash advance checks, using the card at an ATM, or by wiring money with the card. Cash advances usually have a higher APR and start accruing interest immediately, so it's a poor way to use a credit card.

Credit card: A credit card is a revolving line of credit issued by a bank and connected to a revolving line of credit. The cardholder can use their credit card for purchases and possibly other types of transactions, although this depends on the card.

Credit limit: The credit card's spending limit. This can vary based on the type of transaction. On credit cards that offer cash advances, there is typically a lower credit limit for cash advances than for purchases. A transaction that would exceed a card's credit limit will be declined unless the cardholder has opted to allow over-the-limit transactions (and any potential fees that come with them).

Credit score: A credit score is a rating of a consumer's creditworthiness. The score indicates how likely it is that they will make bill payments on time and repay what they borrow. Credit scores are calculated based on the consumer's financial history.

Interest: A fee charged for borrowing money. The APR determines how much interest a credit card company can charge on balances. Use our interest rate calculator to get a sense of how much interest adds to your monthly bill.

Minimum payment: The minimum amount a cardholder can pay by the due date to remain current on their credit card bill and avoid a late fee.

FAQs

  • A credit card allows you to pay for purchases by borrowing money. The maximum amount you can borrow at one time is called your credit limit. The money you've already borrowed is your balance, and the amount you have left to borrow is your available credit.

  • The best credit card for many people is the Wells Fargo Active Cash℠ Card. It will get you a 2% cash rewards rate on purchases, making it one of the most lucrative and flexible credit cards. The $0 annual fee and lengthy 0% intro APR offer are also a big draw. While this is an easy pick to recommend for many people, it's important to know that the market is packed with plenty of the best credit cards, ones included on this shortlist and not. The best credit card to have will depend on your unique situation.

  • You can compare credit card offers with our side-by-side credit card comparison tool. Pay attention to key features like the APR, annual fee, rewards system, welcome offers, and credit requirements.

  • The right number of credit cards for most people is one. That's particularly important for cardholders using credit cards for rewards, since the juice may not always be worth the squeeze when carrying multiple cards and using each to optimize rewards for each spending category.

  • Whether your credit card helps or hurts you all depends on how you use it. To ensure that your credit card provides value and doesn't get you in debt, here are a few key guidelines:

    • Use your credit card regularly
    • Only charge what you can afford
    • Pay on time and in full
    • Take advantage of your card's perks

Credit Card Expert Advice

D'Arcy Becker

D'Arcy Becker

Department Chairperson and Professor of Accounting at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

What advice would you give first time credit card users?

Be careful about the kinds of things [they] charge. It is usually a bad idea to put all of your expenses on a [credit] card. That can lead to a false sense of how much cash you have (because you’re not spending cash during the month but owe a lot at the end). It can also make expenses seem less real. You don’t feel the pain of the expense, so it is easier to buy things you can’t afford.

What is a common misconception about credit cards?

That you can afford to have a credit card if a company will give you one. You can get a credit card with high interest terms because this is profitable for the card company.

How can shoppers feel they choose the right card for their needs?

The cost of a card comes in three forms: the annual fee to just have the card, the fees and penalties for missed or late payments, and the interest charges. If you look at one of these features and not the others, you might not get the best deal. Don’t kid yourself that you’d never pay interest, late fees, or penalties. Mistakes happen. Some cards have forgiveness for a single late payment. Some have no annual fee. Some charge low interest. Try to find cards that have all three.

Bill Maurer, Ph.D.

Bill Maurer, Ph.D.

Director, Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion at the University of California, Irvine

What are some current credit card trends that consumers should be aware of?

People paid down their credit card balances during COVID -- in part because their spending declined with fewer opportunities for dining or entertainment, and in part because of relief checks. Expect credit card companies to come courting you hard, with new offers, points, and rewards. But proceed with caution! There may be hidden fees, higher interest rates, or other catches. It pays to read the fine print.

We'll see more contactless payment options at the point of sale, too -- tap and pay or mobile. The technology was arriving in more retail establishments before the pandemic, but COVID made people cautious about touching things, and merchants will respond to that behavior change.

What is a common misconception around credit cards?

The first misconception is that all credit is bad or will get you into trouble. Having good credit provides you with the power to borrow when you need it, at a lower rate and with better terms. Building credit can help you make longer-term investments in your own and your family's future -- through education loans and mortgages, for example. But it needs to be part of an overall, conscious strategy, not just driven by your latest online shopping binge.

William Hippler, Ph.D.

William Hippler, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Finance at the University of La Verne

What are some current credit card trends that consumers should be aware of?

The massive amounts of data that are collected by financial institutions due to advances in technology are facilitating new products and raising new concerns for consumers. For example, technology-driven financial companies (like PayPal) are competing with traditional banks and credit cards in the consumer finance space to offer point-of-sale transaction processing, installment loans (sometimes at 0% APR), and other services. The ability of these companies to generate massive amounts of data about borrowers drives this competition and is bringing about new concerns from privacy advocates with regards to how that data is stored and shared among financial institutions and their partners.

What is a common misconception around credit cards?

One misconception is that a financially responsible person shouldn't use credit cards at all. Using credit cards can be financially detrimental for undisciplined consumers; however, they offer many benefits for financially-savvy individuals. The key is to not overspend, pay off the balance each month to avoid interest and fees, and choose a card that offers the best benefits for your lifestyle. By being a convenience user, you reap the benefits of credit cards, while avoiding the pitfalls and improving your credit score.

Why do interest rates vary by credit card?

While credit card interest rates move with the general level of interest rates in the economy, each financial institution's assessment of your risk as a borrower ultimately determines the terms under which they offer you credit. Each financial institution takes the information they have about you to make an assessment about your risk as a borrower, and there may be discrepancies across financial institutions in terms of what information they have about you and how they weigh each piece of information. As a result, you may notice differences in the terms offered to you by different lenders.

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