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The idea of credit goes back thousands of years. For nearly as long as we've used money, humans have used credit. But the consumer credit card as we know it today is a much more recent invention, dating back only to the mid-20th century.
Despite their relative youth, credit cards have become one of the cornerstones of the financial world. It's becoming harder and harder to get by without one. So it makes sense that, as of 2017, the average U.S. consumer had three credit card accounts, according to a report from Experian (and many folks have even more).
The downside to the popularity of credit cards is that choosing a new credit card has become quite a process. The list of credit card companies in the U.S. grows every year -- and so do their offerings.
With literally hundreds of options, comparing credit cards requires a bit of patience. There are a lot of ways to choose a new credit card. The best credit cards for you will suit both your needs and your spending style. Here are a few ways to narrow down your choices.
Whether you're approved for a new credit card will depend mostly on your credit score and history. So, a good place to start may be by looking at cards that match your credit type:
If your credit score isn't a big factor, you can focus on the features of your new card. One of the most popular features of modern credit cards is purchase rewards. These cards give you rewards, like cash back or points, every time you use them to make a purchase:
You can also get cards with benefits that complement your lifestyle. For instance, if you like to travel, you can find a credit card that helps you earn miles or gives you awesome travel perks:
In some cases, you need a very particular type of credit card. There are a variety of niche credit cards designed specifically to address certain people or needs:
No matter what type of credit card you're after, be aware of the credit card companies involved. As a cardholder, you want to know both the credit card network and the credit card issuer associated with your card.
The credit card network helps process your credit card transactions. When you swipe your card, it's the network that transmits the transaction information from the merchant to your bank (and back). There are four major networks in the U.S.:
Where you can use your credit card will depend on the network. For example, if you have a Visa card, you can only use it with merchants that accept Visa. Every credit card operates on just one network.
The credit card issuer is the bank that financially backs your credit card's credit line. When you make a purchase, the money comes from the issuing bank. You'll be billed by and make your payments to the issuer.
Many credit cards will have different issuers and networks. Hundreds of banks partner with Visa or Mastercard. However, Discover and American Express act as both issuer and network. Here are some examples:
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||Chase||Visa|
|Citi Premier® Card||Citi||Mastercard|
|Discover it® Cash Back||Discover||Discover|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||American Express||American Express|
The majority of credit cards in the U.S. are issued by one of 10 major credit card issuers. But there are also some lesser-known or regional banks that put out quality credit card cards.
Technically, any bank or credit union can -- and likely does -- issue credit cards. But your average U.S. credit card user is more likely to have a card from a multinational bank than from the regional bank down the street.
In fact, the top credit card issuers in the U.S. hold more than 80% of the market share, according to the Nilson Report. In other words, roughly 8 out of 10 credit cards in the U.S. are from one of these issuers:
If you've ever wondered why every "Best Of" list seems to repeat the same banks, this is why. They really do make up the vast majority of credit card options -- especially the fancy rewards cards that are so popular.
Given the massive impact these banks have on the credit card market, it's a good idea to get to know them a bit. Let's take a closer look at each company.
American Express, nicknamed Amex, has been in business since 1850. It didn't enter the payment card world until the 1950s when it issued its first charge card. The first Amex credit card came roughly 30 years later. Amex is both issuer and network for its cards.
These days, Amex is the second-largest card issuer in the U.S. by purchase volume, according to 2020 Nilson Report data. It's also in the top six issuers based on the number of cards in circulation.
See our list of Best American Express credit cards.
Popular American Express cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: American Express has one of the best rewards programs around. Amex Membership Rewards points have a lot of uses, including transferring to more than 20 hotel and airline partners. Plus, most of Amex's cards have great benefits like purchase protection and travel insurance.
Bank of America, abbreviated BoA, was actually founded in San Francisco in the 1900s as the Bank of Italy. It wasn't until 1930 that it became the Bank of America. The first BoA credit card, called the BankAmericard, was launched in 1958 as one of the first consumer credit cards.
BoA is in the top five issuers based on number of cards. It's also the fourth-largest issuer by percentage of purchase volume.
See our list of Best Bank of America credit cards.
Popular Bank of America cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: BoA offers easy-to-use rewards cards, many of which have no annual fee. Cardholders who also bank with BoA can earn extra rewards depending on how much money they have in their bank and investment accounts.
Barclays is best known as a British bank, but it has a U.S. presence as Barclays Bank of Delaware. Barclays was responsible for launching the first consumer credit card in the U.K. in the 1960s. But it didn't begin issuing cards in the U.S. until nearly 50 years later.
Barclays comes in 10th when ranked by total cards in circulation (in the U.S.), with around 3% of the total market share. It's also low on the list for purchase volume. The bank used to issue a few cards under the name Barclaycard, but now it primarily focuses on cobranded travel and retail cards.
Capital One is a relatively young bank, having been founded just a few decades ago in 1994. It started issuing credit cards almost immediately, and has grown steadily since then.
Nowadays, Capital One is ranked as the fifth-largest credit card issuer by purchase volume. But it comes in first when it comes to the number of cards in circulation.
See our list of Best Capital One credit cards.
Popular Capital One cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: There's a reason so many people have Capital One cards, and it's not only because they're easier to get (though Capital One does offer many cards for people who need to build credit). They also have a variety of quality rewards cards, including competitive options for travel rewards and cards for everyday rewards.
Chase has been around in one way or another since 1799 when it was founded as the Bank of The Manhattan Company. Through many mergers, it eventually became JPMorgan Chase, called Chase for short.
Chase is arguably the top credit card issuer in the U.S., both in terms of purchase volume and card volume. Chase holds the largest share of the market in purchases, and comes in second for number of cards.
See our list of Best Chase credit cards.
Popular Chase cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: Chase really excels when it comes to rewards. Their Ultimate Rewards points program is one of the best around. You can also get great benefits with nearly every Chase card, including top-tier travel insurance.
Citi can trace its roots back to the early 1800s and the City Bank of New York. It became Citigroup, called Citi by most, in 1998. The company entered the credit card market in the 1960s, with a card known colloquially as the "Everything Card."
The modern Citi reins in the top three of credit card issuers in the U.S., ranked third in both purchase volume and by the number of cards in circulation.
See our list of Best Citi credit cards.
Popular Citi cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: Citi has a wide variety of cards, making it easy to find one to suit your needs. They have one of the top rewards programs with their transferable ThankYou Points. You can also find unique cash back cards with long intro 0% APR deals.
Discover was born as a branch of Sears -- yes, the department store -- during an attempt to enter the financial industry. It was spun off, sold, and eventually became Discover Financial Services. Many credit Discover as the inventor of the rewards credit card. Discover is both an issuer and its own credit card network.
Discover comes in fourth overall when it comes to the number of cards in circulation. But it only ranks seventh for market share by purchase volume.
See our list of Best Discover credit cards.
Popular Discover cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: Discover's stable of cards have a lot of great features. For one, all of them have rewards -- even their secured card. Discover cards are also light on fees, with no annual fees or foreign transaction fees on any of their cards.
Synchrony originated as the GE Capital Retail Bank roughly 90 years ago, becoming Synchrony Financial in 2014. Most people who hold a card issued by Synchrony may not even realize it, as the company deals almost exclusively in cobranded retail credit cards. Dozens of popular retail brands have store credit cards issued by Synchrony. But the bank keeps its own branding minimal.
Synchrony holds the smallest portion of the market of the issuers on this list, coming in 10th in purchase volume. This makes sense with so much of its portfolio consisting of typically low-limit store cards. However, the bank is seventh for total cards issued.
Popular Synchrony cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: If you have a store card, there's a good chance it's issued by Synchrony. And as much as we may caution against store cards, they definitely have their place.
U.S. Bank started out on the West Coast as the United States National Bank of Portland in 1891. Several mergers later, it became U.S. Bancorp, also called U.S. Bank. The bank hasn't been issuing credit cards for long, though it now has both bank-branded and cobranded options.
All in all, U.S. Bank has a relatively small portion of the market share. It comes in ninth for card volume, though it's ranked sixth for percentage of purchase volume.
See our list of Best U.S. Bank credit cards.
Popular U.S. Bank cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: U.S. Bank has several interesting cards that stand out from the typical offerings. It has one of the few choose-your-own rewards cards on the market, and even includes unusual bonus categories like home utilities and fitness centers.
Wells Fargo is a child of the California Gold Rush and once served as the western arm of the Pony Express. It got into more traditional banking in the 1920s, and credit cards toward the end of the century.
Wells Fargo currently holds a modest portion of the market share, ranked eighth overall for both card volume and for its percentage of credit card purchase volume.
See our list of Best Wells Fargo credit cards.
Popular Wells Fargo cards we've reviewed:
Why we like them: Wells Fargo underwent a major overhaul of its credit cards -- and we're fans. Its current offerings include a no-strings 2% cash back card and an intro APR card with a very generous 0% APR term.
The bulk of the credit cards in the U.S. may be from just 10 issuers. But the rest are issued by lesser-known companies, including regional banks and credit unions. This is definitely not a complete list, but here are some smaller issuers you may encounter:
If you're not sure which company issues your credit card, you can check your cardholder agreement. You can also look up the card's website and check the fine print at the bottom of the page or in the terms and conditions.
Don't you wish you could take a peek inside a credit card expert's wallet sometimes? Just to see the cards they carry? Well, you can't do that, but you can check out our list of expert-rated best credit cards. Some of these cards have unusually high cash back rates, others offer great sign-up bonuses -- we've even included some with long intro 0% interest offers. See the cards here:
More than 80% of credit cards in the U.S. are issued by just 10 banks. The top 10 credit card issuers in the U.S. are:
Every credit card represents a line of credit from a bank. That bank is the credit card issuer. If you use your credit card to make a purchase, that purchase is paid for by the issuer. Then, you pay off your balance with the issuer.
Credit card networks are companies that handle credit card transactions. When you use your card, the information about the purchase is sent to the issuer via the network. Except for store cards, all credit cards operate on a credit card network. You can only use your card with merchants that accept cards from that network.
All credit cards are issued by a bank. In some cases, the credit card is also cobranded, meaning it is associated with a brand or company in addition to the bank. For example, the Apple Card is issued by Goldman Sachs bank, but also cobranded with Apple.
Cobranded credit cards work the same way as cards that are only from a bank. They both have a credit line and can be used to make purchases. However, many cobranded cards also offer branded perks or rewards. Cobranded airline credit cards, for instance, earn frequent flyer miles that automatically deposit into your airline account.
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