Always Do This 1 Thing Before Getting an American Express Credit Card

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  • American Express has a once-per-lifetime rule on welcome bonuses.
  • It's important to research past bonus offers as part of an application strategy.
  • Welcome bonus offers can vary based on source, so it pays to shop around.

Don't let the fine print steal your welcome bonus.

For credit card devotees, like myself, few things are quite as alluring as a really nice sign-up or welcome bonus. There's something about all those points, miles, or cash back rewards that just really get the imagination fired up. You start daydreaming of how you'll spend the rewards, plotting your per-point value charts, and adding numbers to your spreadsheets. (All right, maybe those last two are just me…)

Unfortunately, getting a new sign-up bonus isn't quite as simple as just applying all willy-nilly. These days, there are complex rules about who can get which bonus, from which card, with which issuer. And if you fall on the wrong side of the equation, you can kiss that bonus goodbye.

The issuer with perhaps the most severe rule around who can earn a welcome bonus is American Express. Although they arguably have some of the best rewards cards around, you have to really think twice before applying for an American Express card. You need to consider whether now is the right time -- and the right welcome offer.

The American Express once-per-lifetime rule

What it comes down to is American Express’s once-per-lifetime rule for welcome bonuses. In essence, American Express has a rule that you can only earn one welcome bonus per card, per lifetime. So, if you've already gotten a welcome offer for The Platinum Card® from American Express, you won't be eligible for another bonus -- ever.

The exact wording you'll find on its website goes like this: "Welcome offer not available to applicants who have or have had this Card or previous versions of The Platinum Card® from American Express."

And yes, this rule applies to all American Express cards, even the co-branded airline and hotel cards. However, you can get a bonus for both the personal and business versions of a card. For example, you could get a welcome offer for The Platinum Card® from American Express, then get a welcome offer for The Business Platinum Card® from American Express.

The workarounds

In some rare cases, you may be eligible for a welcome bonus on a card you've already had if you get a direct offer from American Express. This is usually in the form of an upgrade offer, but could be for a direct application. (There are also some anecdotal data points that suggest closing your card and waiting 7-10 years could reset your bonus clock. Your mileage may vary here.)

The key in these cases is to carefully scan the fine print. If the terms and conditions don't have the "offer not available to…" language, you may be eligible for the welcome bonus.

Additionally, American Express has added an extra safety feature. When you fill out the application (and hit submit) for a card for which you're ineligible to earn the welcome offer, a popup window appears to warn you before you actually undergo a hard credit check. It will say something along the lines of, "Because you have or have had this card, you are not eligible to receive the welcome offer."

(Note that some reports suggest this feature isn't 100% reliable. You may be deemed ineligible for the bonus by American Express even if the popup doesn't appear when you apply. Eligibility is entirely at American Express’s discretion.)

Churning behavior could also impact eligibility

In some cases, you may be ineligible for a bonus even if you've never had the card. This happens most frequently when people are flagged for churning behaviors like opening and closing accounts too frequently.

This warning is listed in the same place as the warning about previous cardholders. It specifically says, "We may also consider the number of American Express Cards you have opened and closed as well as other factors in making a decision on your welcome bonus eligibility."

One bonus to rule them all

Besides determining whether you can even earn the welcome bonus, the once-per-lifetime rule has an important side effect: You need to decide if the current bonus is the bonus you want for this card. You only get one -- it's important to make it count.

For instance, you may see an offer for 100,000 Membership Rewards points and think, "Time to apply!" But if that card regularly offers bonuses of 125,000 points -- or more -- you could be losing out bigtime on a bonus you'll never be eligible for again.

That's why it's vital to research the bonus history of any American Express card for which you intend to apply. Check out what the highest bonuses have been in general, and within the last few months. Often, bonuses are cyclical; they hit highs and lows throughout the year, and waiting a few weeks or even months could net you hundreds of dollars' worth of extra rewards.

Sources matter

Another important thing to consider, especially with American Express, is that the quality of your welcome bonus offer can vary significantly depending on where you get the offer.

The American Express website is the best place to start, but even that isn't so straightforward. The welcome bonus you see on the website can change depending on everything from the day to the browser you use. Sometimes, just switching to incognito or private mode can change the bonus you see.

You may also want to do a little research into the current referral bonuses. People who already have a specific card sometimes get referral links they can give out to better offers than are publicly available. Forums and blogs can be a good place to get referral links if you don't know anyone with the card you're after.

Taking the time to really research the best American Express bonus for a given card will not only help you avoid wasting your one welcome bonus. It can also do a lot to soothe that inevitable FOMO. When you know you've got the best possible bonus, you don't have to worry that you'll miss out on big rewards down the road.

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