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The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards for Bad Credit

So you just checked your credit score and the number is lower than you'd like.

Now, you probably feel angry, disappointed, and overwhelmed.

Of course, you want to do something but you have no idea where to start.

Most people react to bad credit scores by just cutting back their spending (which doesn't directly help, by the way) and telling themselves that they'll make the score work.

They think, "I'll get a prepaid card instead of a credit card or just find a way to deal with the high credit card fees."

The thing is — you don't need to!

Building your credit score, and keeping it up to get better credit cards that cost less and give back more, is possible.

You just need the right kind of planning upfront.

There's so much information out there — on credit cards and credit reports — that it can quickly feel paralyzing to even get started.

But just imagine your life in a few months when your credit is back on track, and the roadblocks to an easier life are swept away.

Besides getting that cash back rewards credit card that will cut you a check at the end of the year, you'll also have a credit score worthy of getting you access to whole other level of convenience.

Good credit truly is really just around the corner, if you know how to get started.

Even if you've tried before and failed, don't get discouraged now.

We've brought together all the information you'll need to get started with your credit search — without getting lost down the internet rabbit hole – and break down each step into easy pieces.

Just doing one little step will get you back in action.

Here's everything you need to know about credit cards for bad credit

In Part I (chapters 1-6), we cover all the key information you'll need to learn how to boost your score and keep it healthy.

In Part II (chapters 7-11) we do a deep dive into the best credit cards that might fit your financial needs.

1. Who calculates your score

Back in the day, if you needed a line of credit, a lender would assess your creditworthiness the old-fashioned way: look you in the eye, ask your friends, the local bartender perhaps.

But as the world globalized and its population snowballed, new out-of-towners abounded and lenders began keeping lists of risky applicants and sharing them with each other.

How lenders used to assess credit worthiness

By sharing the information of people with high-risk profiles, they were able to lessen their own risks and offer credit to more people.

Over time these shared lists solidified into what are today the three major credit bureaus.

Originally regional, these bureaus now serve hundreds of millions of consumers around the world — like you — by collecting and storing your financial information as reported to them by your creditors.

Here's a brief history of each:

  • equifax logo icon

    Equifax

    Founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1899, the oldest of the trio was originally known as the Retail Credit Company (RCC).

    In 1975, after the government set down some credit regulation to protect consumers, RCC suffered some bad PR and soon after rebranded as Equifax.

    Just over a month ago now, Equifax suffered one of the worst data breaches in history — data including social security numbers was stolen from 143 million consumers.

    Learn more about the breach and what you can do to protect yourself here.

  • transunion logo icon

    Transunion

    Founded in 1968 by a railroad leasing company, this credit bureau serves 45,000 businesses and an estimated 500 million consumers worldwide in 33 countries.

  • Experian logo icon

    Experian

    Founded in 1996 across the pond in England, the youngest credit bureau of the trio employs 17,000 people across 40 countries.

    You can learn more about Experian in our review.

2. How your score is calculated

While the three major credit bureaus do essentially the same thing — that is, calculate and track your credit score — each uses slightly different criteria and ranking scales.

Unless you're a numbers wiz and enjoy the nitty gritty of credit score calculation though, keeping track of your three unique credit scores can easily get really confusing.

Thankfully, back in 1981, the Fair Isaac Corporation introduced standardized criteria with what it called the FICO score.

Today, 90% of all lenders reference your FICO score to assess your creditworthiness so it's essentially the only number you have to worry about.

The five major FICO criteria you need to know

A FICO score ranges between 300 (the worst) and 850 (the best).

The higher score you have means the lesser risk you are to potential creditors.

Most people put a "good score" rating starting in the low-700's.

credit score ranges and quality

Notice that the vast majority of people have "excellent" credit.

Don't let that get you down!

Use it as motivation - that means it's more than possible!

To boost your score into the 700-range, the first step is understanding the breakdown of FICO's standardized criteria.

How FICO calculates your scorePayment history (35%). Have you paid all your past bills on time?

Late payments over 30, 60, or 90 days can show up on your credit report.

If you don't pay up, your credit card issuer will likely send your bill to a collections agency, which will hurt your score and pocket even further.

Amounts owed (30%). How much debt do you owe compared to your income

Also known as the debt-to-income ratio or DTI, this number tells a credit issuer if you can safely handle new debt.

A high DTI (over 50%) is risky while low DTI (below 35%) shows that a customer can handle new debt.

So for example, if you make $1,000 per month and you have $400 in debt, your DTI is 40%.

Length of credit history (15%). When did you start building credit?

Consumers who successfully manage credit over a long period of time are considered a safer risk.

While someone with little to no credit experience is more of an X factor.

Still, a long credit history is only good if it's not riddled with late payments and overdue fees.

Credit mix (10%). What kinds of credit do you have?

Types of credit include secured loans, like car loans and mortgages, and unsecured loans like personal loans, credit cards, and student loans.

Lenders consider having a variety of credit better that only having one or two types.

New credit (10%). How many cards have you applied for recently?

Even a couple applied for within a week, month, or even year is often a red flag for lenders.

The takeaway: what matters is not the card you have but how you use it.

While you obviously shouldn't just sign up for any credit card, at the end of the day, the best credit card in the world could still hurt your credit.

Paying your bills on time and not building up a huge trunk of debt are the two surest ways to maintain a good credit history.

Still, life happens. Mistakes, like late payments, are made.

Emergencies must be dealt with. Jobs can be lost forcing you to take longer than you'd like to pay off a loan.

In the next section, we'll get into common credit card mistakes, and how to avoid them.

3. Seven common credit card mistakes

We've listed a bunch of common mistakes below.

Some are more obvious than others perhaps, so we suggest suggest scanning the bold text for issues relevant to your own credit history.

Missing payments. This is the biggest and most common error.

Forgetting to pay a bill, whether it's a loan payment or a utility bill, harms your credit. Many companies offer grace periods before reporting to the credit bureaus.

Maxing out credit cards. Maxing out your credit card is always a bad idea.

It shows lenders that you're more likely to spend above your means, go over limits, and start missing payments.

Only making minimum payments. Interest is a deceptive cost.

While just some dozens of dollars extra per month might seem innocuous, it can add up over the months and years.

For example, if you have a $5,000 balance with an APR of 14% and you only pay the minimum of $100, it will take 22 years to pay off the debt in full, including $6,110 in interest.

But if you boost your monthly payment to $150 you'll be debt-free in four years and pay $1,369 in interest.

Comparison of payments when only paying the minimum

Botching balance transfers. Moving your balance from a high interest rate card to low interest rate card can be an effective way to reduce your costs and decrease debt.

But if you don't read the fine print, you could end up paying more via transfer fees or a post-introductory-offer APR bump, according to Amanda Lilly, writing for Kiplinger.

There are a number of balance transfer credit cards to consider if you're interested.

Always applying for more credit. Resist the temptation to save 15% by filling out a credit application at Macy's!

Adding credit on top of credit, especially in a short amount of time, indicates to lenders that you're in over your head.

Taking cash advances. Most credit cards come with sky-high cash-advance APRs, typically above 20% and sometimes closer to 30%.

If you have an emergency and need cash quick, use your credit card only as a last resort.

Defaulting, foreclosure, or bankruptcy. Defaulting on loans, foreclosure, and/or bankruptcy are traumatic events that indicate financial turmoil.

While unavoidable in some cases, these result in lower credit scores, often for many years in the future.

US Foreclosure Status

The takeaway: pay attention to the fine print, especially variable APRs

Ideally you don't just pay the minimum on your credit card bill each month, but instead pay off your balance in full. However, sometimes life gets in the way — a graduation present for your kid, a family emergency — and you need to roll over some of your balance to next month's bill.

When this happens, your APR kicks in and can empty your pockets at a slow and steady pace without you realizing.

So, before you only pay the minimum, or do a balance transfer or cash advance, check the terms so you know what you'll be paying in interest on the transaction.

20% interest adds up quick over a few months!

4. How good credit will pad your pockets and make that vacation a reality

This is why you're here in the end.

An excellent credit score is not just a score. Like a 4.0 GPA, a score above 700 will clear tons of roadblocks and open the doors you've been looking for.

Below we've outlined just a few of the ways great credit will help you build the life of your dreams:

Lower interest loans and APRs. This is one of the best benefits.

Why?

Getting the best interest rates means saving hundreds or thousands of dollars over the lifetime of a loan.

Fewer down payments. In many cases, Low or no down payments are offered.

These offers scream "$0 Down For Those With Excellent Credit!"

Sounds great, but this perk can be tricky.

Remember - down payments usually makes sense because they lower the amount borrowed.

Quicker approval. Looking to rent or sign-up for a new service (like a gym or cell phone plan)?

Having great credit can make this quick and painless, and may even save trees by reducing paperwork!

Better insurance rates. Insurance companies love making money.

When your score is good, insurers believe you are a good risk.

To them, you're a better driver and less likely to take chances (like running stop signs, driving fast, etc.) - that means lower premium amounts.

Auto Loan rates based on credit scores

Graduate to a rewards credit card. This is the big one.

While off the bat you likely won't be approved for a killer rewards card, after a few months to a year of responsible credit behavior, you should be able to apply for a good rewards or cash back card.

Accumulate miles and points, and cash in at the grocery store, on your next flight, or on dinner or drinks with friends.

5. Checking your report is the most important rebuilding step to take before you apply for ANY credit card

You likely want to jump in and get your new credit card as fast as possible.

But it's important you do your due diligence so you don't end up accidentally hurting your credit history or applying for the wrong card.

Your credit report is to your future high score what a blueprint is to an architect's final vision:

Without it, you might have the right idea but lack a consistent, explicit plan to make it a reality.

Even if you've tried or done this before, you'll probably learn something you didn't know before if you check your score again.

Step 1: Get your FREE credit report,…

Perhaps the last time you checked your credit report was a few years ago.

Or perhaps you're sure your score is high or low and don't want to waste your time confirming what you already know.

Whatever you might think your credit report says, it's important to confirm your hunch and make sure everything is accurate, as consumer expert and national radio host Clark Howard says.

The credit bureaus very often make errors, so you want to make sure they have everything right. Checking your credit reports is also the best way to check for any unauthorized activity.

One in five American consumers — about 40 million people — has an error on their credit report, according to a Federal Trade Commission study.

At the same time, over 60% of people don't review their credit report while another 55% don't know their credit score, according to a Federation for Credit Counseling survey.

Credit report errors

The good news. You can check your credit report three times a year for free — once with each of the three major credit bureaus.

Many financial experts recommend requesting one credit report from a different bureau every four months.

How to start? Get your free report at the only truly free site:AnnualCreditReport.com

Step 2: Find any and all errors

With hundreds of millions of customers, the three major credit bureaus tend to make mistakes.

The good news is that the types of mistakes are often easy to locate if you have a keen eye.

With your credit report in hand tend, there are a number of common inaccuracies to look for, according to Kristin Wong of clearpoint.org:

  • Accounts that don't belong to you
  • Negative items that have expired but haven't yet dropped off the report
  • Personal information errors
  • A paid off account that's still listed as unpaid

Step 3: Dispute those errors

If you find a mistake on one of your credit reports, it's important you write a smart and clear complaint letter.

Use this FTC sample letter as a template and make sure to include the following information:

Start with the general details. Include upfront the date, your name, address, phone number, social security number, and the name and address of the credit reporting bureau

Get right to the point. A clear topic sentence should state that you're writing to dispute an inaccurate item and requesting that it be removed or corrected.

Provide the item specifics.Clearly state the account name and number of the listing you are disputing.

Explain the inaccuracy.What about the credit report listing is inaccurate? Why do you believe it to be inaccurate?

Attach any supporting documentation. Don't assume the bureau has the same documents you're looking at, and don't give them the out to claim they don't have it.

Start with a copy of the inaccurate credit report, with the disputed item circled clearly for their reference.

Also make sure to include any bank statements or other bills that prove you paid in a timely manner when the report says otherwise.

Make a copy of everything. Don't send originals and make an exact replica copy of everything you send to the credit bureau before you drop the letter in the mailbox.

It could be a number of weeks before you hear back so it's best not to trust you'll remember everything you did.

Step 4: Mark your calendar to follow up

While the three major credit bureaus offer an online route for your complaint, Meredith Simonds, writing for the Student Loan Hero, suggests you avoid it and instead send your complaint via certified mail with a return receipt requested.

"[Y]ou are better served going the snail mail route to be sure you can provide as much information as necessary to prove your case… Upon receipt, the return request postcard will be mailed back to you, providing you proof that the document was received and on what date."

By law the credit bureau(s) should respond within 30 days. So be patient and vigilant.

Mark the 30-day mark on your calendar just in case you don't hear back so you can quickly get a follow-up letter out that references the initial complaint.

In the rare instance that you don't hear back or the bureau doesn't correct the mistake, you should submit a direct complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

6. Five other 'no-card' ways to rebuild your credit no matter your score

So you have your credit report in-hand.

You know the five criteria the major credit bureaus are using to calculate your score.

Before you jump into the credit cards, it's crucial you set yourself up for success.

Pay off debt. Overwhelmed with too much debt?

You're not alone.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2015 the average American had $15,355 in credit card debt. Remember that your debt accounts for 30% of your credit score.

That means building as aggressive a payment plan as you can is the surest way to rebuilding your credit.

A great method to tackle debt is the snowball method, which suggests you focus on paying off one source of debt at a time, either the one with the smallest balance or highest interest rate.

Create a budget. If you're like most Americans, you likely have a general sense about how much you can spend but never bothered to build out a concrete expense and revenue report.

The good news is that it's easier than ever today. Consider the 50/30/20 rule, the envelope method, or an app like Mint to help you get a grasp of how exactly the money is flowing. Without a budget, any new credit card, no matter how awesome, could end up hurting your score rather than helping it.

Mortgage rates based on credit scores

Set up automatic bill pay. This one's great for anyone who has trouble remembering due dates.

Was it that water bill you accidentally missed while cruising off the coast that dinged your credit?

Or a final cell phone bill you overlooked after switching to a different carrier?

Next time you receive a bill in the mail, call that company's customer service and/or go online to set it up.

Just think - no more late payments!

How Americans pay their bills

Make saving a priority. Did your credit score get burned because a family emergency forced you to max out a card or two?

Growing an emergency fund is possible despite how tight you might feel your pockets are.

You should have at least $1,000 in a savings account, according to Paul Ritz of National Debt Relief.

"But don't stop there. The ideal is to have at least six months of your living expenses in savings. If that doesn't seem realistic, try for at least three months' worth."

In today's digital world, there are tons of apps out there to help you build the habit.

Moreover, there are plenty of savings strategies you probably haven't tried yet!

Take out a secured loan. Have little to no credit history? This one is for you.

Save $1,000 and get a loan for $500. Then use the loan or secured card as if it were cash. Pay back the loan with automatic payments using the other $500.

Yes, you'll pay some interest, but when you have next to nothing on a credit report, this can be an investment in your future.

Check out this personal loan calculator to figure out if a loan is the right choice for you.

The takeaway: To take full advantage of the ultimate credit card guide for bad credit, pay off your debt before you get a new card

As we've seen, when it comes to re-establishing your credit score, payment history is just a notch more important than current debt.

That means that while applying for a new card might seem like the more attractive option, paying off your current debt is pretty much just as important.

Vera Gibson, writing for Real Simple, offers a number helpful tips to tackle your debt now, including:

Target one card. Similar to the snowball method, the idea here is both financial —eliminate one line of debt and accruing interest; and motivational — so many types of debt can feel overwhelming so a targeted, single-minded approach can help you jumpstart your progress.

Use a peer-to-peer lender. If you can't pay off your card or cards in full, you might want to consider taking out a loan from a peer-to-peer lender in order to pay off the card right away.

These loans — from sites like LendingClub, Avant or Prosper — typically come with interest rates 20-30% lower than what you're paying on your credit card.

Still, adding a loan on top of your credit card debt does complicate and add a whole third party and dimension to your debt strategy so it's crucial you understand all the terms before jumping in.

Check out this beginner's guide to personal loans if you think this option might be right for you.

Make two minimum payments per month. Your credit utilization ratio — the amount you spend over the credit limit you're granted — impacts your credit score.

Specifically, if you spend over 30% of your credit limit, your credit will take a ding.

That means if you have a $1,000 limit, you shouldn't be spending over $300 per month on that card.

One way around that limit is to make two payments per month to keep your credit utilization under 30%.

Calculating your total credit utilization ratio

"[As] more than 45% of Americans who carry a balance every month know, that rotating charge usually comes back to bite you. For example, a cardholder who owes $15,956 — the average amount of debt per household…will end up shelling out an additional $11,000 in total interest if she pays only the minimum each month."

Recap: Lessons from part one to help boost your credit score and keep it healthy

That was a lot, but guess what?

You now know all you need to get your score working in your favor!

Before we move onto finding the best credit card for your needs, here's a recap of what we went over.

Check your credit score, first thing. Without your score and the details the credit bureaus provide about what's hurting it, figuring out the best credit rebuilding strategy is really a non-starter.

Pay off your debts NOW, or make a debt repayment plan. Ignoring your debts in favor of opening another card is like kicking the can farther down the road.

Your debt is hurting your credit score RIGHT NOW!

Whether you use the snowball or envelope method, the trick is to make debt repayment a higher priority than any new shiny card you think will help.

Grow your savings to prevent future disaster. You could do everything right — pay off your debt, find the right card, pay your bills on time.

But if you forget to save and build an emergency fund, an unforeseen, unpreventable disaster could put you right back in the hole again, and there would be nothing you could do about it.

Try the 50/30/20 rule or an app like Mint to start saving today.

Don't make any rash, fast decisions.

Your score is getting dinged with each day and month that passes.

Don't panic!

Taking out multiple cards or maxing out cards to try and rebuild your credit are mistakes.

The key is to learn about how credit works, what helps it, what hurts it, and make deliberate financial decisions based on that knowledge.

Now we're ready to take a deep dive into the best cards out there to rebuild your credit history.

7. The four numbers to focus on when evaluating ANY credit card

Reading through the all the fine print that credit card issuers list out can get mind-numbing real quick.

It's important you have a standardized, efficient method when you evaluate cards.

Experts across the internet can recommend cards to you all day, but self reliance is an American virtue and understanding what criteria to focus on can turn you into a credit pro fast.

On a first pass through the vast pool of available credit cards, we suggest focusing on these four card characteristics.

If one or more of these fall short, there's likely a better card out there for you, and you can strike it from the wish list.

If possible, get an introductory $0 annual fee. This is the fee you pay the issuer to maintain your line of credit.

Fees can range from $0 to a few hundred dollars a year depending on the credit card. In general though, especially when you're just starting out rebuilding or establishing credit, you may have a higher fee.

Though it's not always possible, try to choose a card with a low annual fee if possible.

Also, pay attention to introductory offers that waive the annual fee for the first year.

Many people take advantage of such offers and jump to a different card before the second year annual fee kicks in.

Remember though that canceling a card will likely ding your credit score, Clint Johnson warns on triphackr. He suggests instead to try for a retention bonus.

"A retention bonus is when the credit card company offers you something in return for not closing your card. This usually comes in the form of points, frequent flyer miles, or a statement credit. If you are going to keep the card they might reward you for it and it never hurts to call and ask."

Whatever you do, don't ignore the Annual Percentage Rate (APR). This is the interest rate charged on your credit card balance when that balance is not paid in full.

Again, interest rates will range depending on the card, but typically, secured and unsecured credit cards (more on these in the next section!) for bad credit have higher rates.

An easy way to avoid paying interest by paying your balance off in full each month.

Average APR by card type

If you're interested in figuring out how various APRs will affect your specific financial condition — considering your available income and money habits — David Ringstrom over at AccountingWeb put together a really helpful tutorial to help you set up a basic Excel spreadsheet with all the necessary financial functions.

Use your budget to determine the ideal credit limit. The initial credit limit refers to the amount of credit you'll be extended when you open an account.

If you have bad credit, you'll probably have a lower line of credit ($500 or less).

However, being responsible with your card may allow you to extend your credit limit (for free on an unsecured card or for an additional deposit with a secured card).

Don't drain your saving to pay the secured deposit. Unsecured cards won't require a security deposit, but secured cards will require one.

Depending on your qualifications and the specific card, you may be able to put down a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand.

This is money you'll need to pay upfront though so make sure you're ready for that cost.

In some cases, credit issuers will refund your deposit after some months of responsible use, while others might even let you accumulate interest on the deposit while they hold on to it.

Make sure you read all the fine print related to the deposit before you apply

8. Choose a card for your credit establishment needs

Secured?

Unsecured?

Credit union?

There are tons of cards out there.

The rule of thumb is that secured and unsecured cards are your best bet.

Specifically, if you think you'll be approved for an unsecured card with reasonable rates and fees, go for it.

Typically though, if you have bad credit, it often makes more sense to go with a secured card and then graduate to an unsecured one.

Credit card interest rates based on credit scores

To narrow down your search, we've laid out the ins-and-outs of these three card types — what they are and who they're best for.

Unsecured credit cards

What they are. This is the typical and most common credit card that we all imagine having and should eventually obtain.

It requires no collateral and the best of the bunch offer rewards programs and big sign-up bonuses.

Who they're for. Without a deposit, these cards carry higher risk for card issuers and are thus geared toward people with better credit.

That being said, unsecured cards for people with bad credit do exist, but typically carry higher interest rates and fees to offset the risk.

Glen Craig, writing for Credit Card Smarts, points out that if you miss a payment on an unsecured card, there's no deposit to cushion the blow to your credit score.

"If you have an unsecured credit card, you are considered to have a history that indicates that you are responsible with your money habits. An unsecured credit card is weighted better in the credit scoring formula than a secured credit card."

Secured credit cards

What they are. These cards are backed by some type of collateral, typically a cash deposit.

Think of this deposit like a security deposit a landlord requires before you can rent an apartment.

It functions to reduce the risk to the credit card issuer so if you end up not paying your bill it has a safety net it can draw from.

Who they're for. Because of the risk mitigation, secured cards are typically geared toward people with bad or no credit.

Amanda Page, writing for mybanktracker.com, says the key point to pay attention to with secured cards is the deposit details.

"Most secured cards require a deposit in the range of $250 to $1,000. If you're just starting to build credit, you'll most likely be approved for a card at the lower end of that scale. Be sure to have the cash available when you apply because once you're approved you'll need to transfer that money to the card issuer. That money will be tied up the entire time you're building your credit, so don't use money that you'll need access to within at least a year.

Credit union credit cards

What they are. These non-profit institutions are an alternative to for-profit bank, and offer their own unique credit cards.

Also known as cooperatives, all of a credit union's profits are reinvested into the business in the form of dividend payments to members, higher interest rates on savings, and lower interest rates on loans.

This allows them to typically pay higher interest rates and offer lower fees than banks.

Who's they're for. If you prefer great face-to-face customer service, and are ok if you don't have access to all the digital tools big banks offer, a credit union credit card is worth investigating.

It likely won't have all the sign up bonuses of big bank credit cards (more on this in the next section), but if you ever have a problem you'll generally get better service.

Liz Pelly, writing for Daily Worth, says that she was turned onto credit unions as a more local and ethical alternative to big banks:

"Credit unions are ideal for anyone who wants to know the people who operate their bank and easily ask questions about their finances and accounts… Since the money credit unions make goes back to members in the form of loans, it's going to be reinvested into the community — in contrast to a big bank, which sends its profits to its shareholders, not customers."

9. Two credit cards for people with fair to medium credit

Fair to medium credit is typically considered the 600 range.

These cards are bridge cards — not the lowest of the low, nor the top of the line.

The best way to test the limit of your credit power is to find fair to medium credit cards that offer pre-qualification.

That way you can see if you would be approved without the credit issuer doing a "hard pull" on your credit history and dinging your score.

  • Capital One Quicksilver card icon

    Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards

This middle-of-the-pack card offers a decent rewards program, which you wouldn't find with 'poor credit' credit cards.

Furthermore, the rewards are pretty straightforward and plenty worth it if you're a music lover and Spotify user.

That being said, there's an unavoidable annual fee and pretty high APR.

As long as you don't keep a balance on the card, it's definitely worth your while.

Annual fee. $39 — toward the higher end of the annual fee range you'll likely qualify for.

APR. 24.99% — toward the higher end of the APR range you'll likely qualify for.

Perks.

  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day.
  • Get 50% back as a statement credit on your monthly Spotify Premium subscription, now through April 2018.
  • Boost your credit line after making your first five monthly payments on time.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $35

What experts say.

Brendan Harkness, writing for Credit Card Insider, rated this card five out of five stars for those with fair credit.

"The costs and fees might seem a bit high, but remember that you're paying for the privilege of building up your credit. You can also avoid that interest by paying your bill in full every month, so it doesn't need to be a problem if you commit to using your card responsibly."

What consumers say.

Dk808, commenting on Credit Karma, gave the card five stars and emphasized how her credit limit grew without her even asking.

"I got this card last year and received $300 limit in 6 months was increased to $900. 2 months ago they increased limit again to $4800. I have never applied for credit limit increase it just happened automatically. I assume because I use for everything and pay off 4-5 times a month for monthly spending of 4k."

How to apply. Head over to the Capital One website to learn more and apply.

  • Discover It credit card icon

    Discover it Secured

If you can afford the deposit required without wiping out your emergency savings, this card competes, if not trumps the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card above.

There's no annual fee, the APR is slightly lower, and you earn slightly higher rewards on fall around.

Annual fee. $0 — lowest end of the range

Deposit range (min-max). $200-500 — average range

APR. 23.99% (variable) — toward the higher end of the range

Perks.

  • Earn 2% cash back on food and gas up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter.
  • Earn 1% cash back on all your other purchases.
  • Earn $1 cash back for every dollar you spend in your first year, automatically.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $37.
  • The credit range is potentially limited if you're making more money than your credit lets on.

What experts say.

Most syndicated review sites highly recommend the Discover it secured card.

J.R. Duren writing for highya.com says there are few, if any cards as good for people with bad credit.

"First, Discover's cash rewards and first-year matching can help you earn anywhere from $80 to $160 in your first year. Second, the card's absence of an annual fee is an anomaly in the world of secured credit cards."

What consumers say.

Annaaa, writing on creditkarma.com, outlined how she used the Discover it card to help rebuild her credit.

"I applied for a $200 limit and was approved within 3 days and recieved the card in the mail within 7. When I first applied my credit score was at 513 and it is now at 721 within one month! I plan to keep it that way by only utilizing 30% or less and paying it off each month. Once i have the card a little longer I will be back to update my review by for now I give it 5 stars!"

How to apply. Head over to the Discover it website to apply and learn more.

10. Four of the best secured credit cards for people with low credit

There are tons of secured cards out there.

If you have low to medium credit, the four secured cards below are good place to start.

They typically find their way onto expert lists of credit cards for people with low credit, and come with reasonable rates and fees and without much red tape.

Finding the right card for you is more than just determining which one has the best rates and perks lowest fees.

You need to figure out how you will use the card - where, on what, and what perks mean the most to your spending habits.

The key isn't the card — it's you.

Write down your personal card bio and then head below to find the cards that match up well.

  • Capital One Secured Mastercard icon

    Capital One Secured Mastercard

This secured card is for the consumer trying to get a handle on their finances at a slower pace, and perhaps can't afford a huge deposit.

The small credit limit will be a drawback for some, but likely a perk for those looking to help get a curb on their spending or get approved for a secured card without draining their savings on the deposit.

The APR is super high but with such a small credit limit, you shouldn't be keeping a balance on this card anyway.

Annual fee. $0 — lowest end of the range

Deposit range (min-max). $49-200 — lowest end of the range

APR. 24.99% — toward the higher end of the range

Perks.

  • You are guaranteed an initial $200 credit line after making a security deposit of $49, $99, or $200, depending on your credit.
  • If you can't afford to put down the whole deposit upfront, you can pay it in multiple installments before activating your card.
  • Grow your credit limit if you make your first five payments on time.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $35.
  • Even if you can make the deposit, without a checking or savings account you likely wont be approved.

What experts say.

Beverly Harzog, writing for her personal finance blog, highlights the higher than normal APR as a potential pitfall depending on how you use the card.

"The Capital One Secured MasterCard isn't the best card out there when it comes to the APR, but it's an excellent secured credit card if you don't carry a balance. And Capital One doesn't charge foreign transaction fees on any of its cards, so if you're in a situation where you have bad (or very limited) credit and you need to travel overseas, this card can save you money."

What consumers say.

Sandy11, from Seattle, WA, wrote about a good customer service experience she had.

"Every time I call, I am wonderfully served and helped. My only problem is that when I go online, my password never works and I have to find a new one, and that is annoying!

How to apply. Head over to the Capital One website to apply and learn more.

  • Citi Secured Mastercard icon

    Citi Secured MasterCard

This is a middle of the pack card with a decent annual fee, decent APR, and potentially big credit limit.

If you're a big spender, this card could help you keep up with your finances.

Just watch out for the APR kick if you only pay the minimum balance.

Annual fee. $25 — lower end of the range

Deposit range (min-max). $200-5,000 — higher end of the range

APR. 21.99% (v) — average

Perks.

  • Enjoy complimentary insurance on car rentals charged to your card.
  • Benefit from zero-liability fraud protection.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $35.
  • If you've had a recorded bankruptcy in the past two years you'll automatically be denied.

What experts say.

Brian Martucci, writing for moneycrashers.com, points out that Citi rewards responsible payment behavior.

"If you make timely payments for the duration, Citi may elect to return your deposit and allow you to continue using your card. Your payment and credit utilization patterns are automatically reported to all three consumer credit bureaus."

What consumers say.

moogie94, writing on creditkarma.com, said that she initially had some application difficulties but ultimately was accepted.

"I went with this card because the capital one card wouldn't approve me (collections from capital one 4 years ago) and the beginning was rough. They said my application will take further review and they will have an answer for me in 1 week. By day 4 the 200$ was taken out of my account."

How to apply. Head over to the Citi website to learn more and apply.

  • Open Sky Visa card icon

    Open Sky Visa Secured

With one of the lowest APRs out there for people with low credit, the Open Sky Visa is great if you plan to keep a balance on your card.

That being said, 18.39% is not low in the broader context so it's best considered an emergency perk in case you need to only pay the minimum one month.

Annual fee. $35 — higher end of the range

Deposit range (min-max). $200-3,000 — higher end of the range

APR. 18.39% (variable) — lower end of the range

Perks.

  • Build credit fast with monthly reporting to all three major bureaus.
  • Apply increase your credit line up to $5,000.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $27
  • Pay an annual fee, despite it being small.

What experts say.

Matthew Frankel at The Motley Fool says that if you're thinking about eventually applying for an unsecured card, the Open Sky Visa's issuing bank, Capital One, currently doesn't offer one. That means you would have to either stick with the secured card, or change banks down the road.

"If you have a secured card from one of the larger banks mentioned above, it may be possible to eventually move to an unsecured card without having to reapply at another institution.

What consumers say.

Consumer reviews were a mixed bag. Susan K. over at sitejabber.com offered an ode to how the card gave her a financial future.

"I cant believe all the negative reviews so i had to jump on and put my piece in as someone who has only benefited from getting this card. This card is not meant for big spending, a ton of usage, partial payments bla bla bla this is meant for ppl who are trying to build or rebuild a credit history and /or repair past mistakes."

How to apply. Head over to the Capital Bank website to learn more and apply.

  • Wells Fargo Visa Secured Icon

    Wells Fargo Visa Secured

Similar to the Citi Secured Mastercard, the Wells Fargo Visa Secured card has the highest potential credit limit of all the cards reviewed here.

If you're a big spender, or plan to be in future, this card is a great potential long-term option to continue growing your credit limit.

Annual fee. $25 — average

Deposit range (min-max). $300-10,000 — higher end of the range

APR. 19.24% (variable) — lower end of the range

Perks.

  • Access a large credit line if you have the funds for a big deposit.

Drawbacks.

  • Pay a max late fee of $37.
  • You must pay at least the minimum monthly payment.

What experts say.

Beverly Harzog on her personal finance blog says that for an easy ask, the card offers comforting cellphone protection.

"You get a unique benefit if you pay your cell phone bill with your Wells Fargo Secured Card. You get protection for up to $600 on a cell phone against covered damage or theft."

What consumers say.

A number of consumers, including James Everette on beverlyharzog.com, warned that even with a healthy deposit, you might be denied this card if you have bad credit.

"I have tried to get a secure credit card for 2 years from wells. I have very bad credit. I am currently in bankruptcy. They said I did not qualify for a secure credit card. I have been a customer with them since 1977. So a secure credit card is supposed to be available to help people improve their credit. I guess Wells Fargo just wants me to keep having bad credit!"

How to apply. Head over to the Wells Fargo website to learn more and apply.

11. Four unsecured credit cards for people with low credit

Unsecured cards are the end goal for everyone.

The difference here is that these unsecured cards are catered toward people with low credit, which means they don't come with the attractive rewards programs we hear about on TV all the time.

Still, if you don't want to or can't put down a few hundred dollars for a secured card, these unsecured cards might be your best bet.

  • Credit One Bank Unsecured Platinum icon

    Credit One Bank Unsecured Platinum Visa

With low credit, you can expect an annual fee and APR toward the higher end of the range — at least initially.

After some months or a year of on-time payments, you could have your fee and interest rate reduced for good behavior.

Annual fee $0-99 — higher end of the range for unsecured cards

APR. 16.99-24.99% (V) — average for unsecured cards

Perks.

  • Earn 1% cash back on everyday purchases like gas, groceries, mobile phone, internet, cable, and more.
  • Get pre-qualified without dinging your score with a "hard pull."
  • If you've gone through a bankruptcy previously, this card is more forgiving and you aren't automatically disqualified from getting approved.

Drawbacks.

  • The annual fee your issued will vary depending on your credit but will likely be at least $75 the first year.
  • Pay a max late fee of $37.

What experts say.

Elisabeth Chan, writing for Credit Net, emphasized how rare it is to find an unsecured card that comes with rewards and is accessible to those with poor credit.

"[The Credit One Bank Unsecured Platinum Visa] is a solid credit card option for consumers with less-than-perfect credit who want an unsecured credit card that offers rewards. Keep your balances low, always pay your credit card bill in full and on time, and the Credit One Platinum Visa Cash Back Rewards Credit Card should serve as a great tool to help you build your credit."

What consumers say.

Despite its perks, many consumers expressed frustration and confusion with Credit One as a bank, which affected their experience with this specific card.

Tamara, writing on Consumer Affairs, related a customer service nightmare when her card was inexplicably canceled.

"Closure of account with no confirmation or validation I contacted Credit One to ask why they never reported to the credit bureau of a decrease in balance. I asked why they only reported an increase in my balance. The representative never could explain why. I stated that I got this card to help my credit and this card has only hurt my credit. I have made every payment on time and I paid more than the minimum."

How to apply. Head over to the Credit One website to learn more and apply for the card.

  • Total Visa Unsecured icon

    Total VISA Unsecured

Compared to the Credit One Bank Unsecured card, the Total Visa Unsecured has little flexibility or room for growth, and one of the highest APRs out there.

That sounds like a deal breaker — and it might be — but if you're set on an unsecured card, this card might be one of the few you'll qualify for.

The key to make this card worth it is to NEVER leave a balance on the card.

Annual fee $75 the first year; $48 after that — average

APR. 29.99% — highest end of the range

Perks.

  • The low initial credit limit of $300 will help you take a disciplined approach to building credit, while also keeping your credit utilization ratio low.

Drawbacks.

  • After the first year, a number of unavoidable fees kick in, including a $89 processing fee and a $6.25 monthly service fee.
  • Pay a max late fee of $38.
  • With such a high APR, keeping any balance on your card will really hit you in the pocket.

What experts say.

George Allen, writing for streetdirectory.com, laid out the various fees connected to this card in simple, digestible terms.

"Although the card does not require a security deposit, it does have various fees applied to new applicants, which for the first year alone equal $296 (of this amount, $152 is applied for the first year only). Some applicants may prefer to pay the upfront fees as opposed to a larger security deposit; however, it is important to note that most of the fees applied are non-refundable (security deposits are usually refundable)."

What consumers say.

Gail, writing on the Credit Card Forum, said she had problems with denied purchases and customer service.

"I found the customer service with this company to be very poor. Had several issues when trying to make telephone payments. I made a $100 payment and the next day received a telephone call saying my payment was late. When I told them I had made a payment the day before and gave them the transaction code, I was told the payment didn't go through. There were plenty of funds in the bank so I wasn't sure what happened. I made another $100 payment at that time. I get another call that evening saying my payment was late and I said no, I made the payment must be an issue on your side."

How to apply. Head over to the Visa website to learn more and apply.

  • Milestone Gold Mastercard icon

    Milestone Gold Mastercard

This card is worth checking out no matter what because you can see if you pre-qualify without hurting your credit score.

Similar to the Credit One Bank unsecured card, it offers a slightly smaller range for its annual fee (pending good credit behavior) and an APR lower than the rest for unsecured cards for people with poor credit.

Annual fee $35-99 — average

APR. 23.90% — lower end of the range

Perks.

  • Get pre-qualified without dinging your score with a "hard pull."
  • Pay a $0 cash advance fee during the first year (then $5 or 5% after that).

Drawbacks.

  • After the first year, the annual fee will jump to $99.
  • There may be an account opening fee of $5, $25, or $50 depending on your credit.
  • Pay a max late fee of $38.

What experts say.

Monica Kowollik, writing for Credit Fast, rated the card four stars because of the fees.

"It would be wiser to accept a credit card offer without an annual fee. However, not everyone has a credit rating high enough. If you do not qualify with your current credit score for a no fee credit card, I would recommend applying for a Milestone card. Credit Fast feels that the Milestone Credit Card offers an individual a decent chance to rebuild credit at a reasonable cost. There are other credit cards for less than perfect credit that have much higher fees."

What consumers say.

The user 'secure', writing on Creditinfo Center, was pleasantly surprised they got approved for the card.

"I got approved for an unsecured credit card called milestone gold master card…My scores are pretty low, TU FICO 601, credit karma-597, credit sesame 604. Its just a sub prime card, with a low limit of $300 and $75 annual fee…If I got approved for the milestone card, I think anyone can with low scores. Am not going to apply for anymore cards, I just wanted some open TL showing while am working to get all or most of my baddies off my CR."

How to apply. Head over to the Milestone website to see if you pre-qualify.

  • Fingerhut Credit account icon

    Fingerhut credit account

This card has the lowest annual fee and average APR for an unsecured card.

The catch is that it's a store card thatcan only be used at Fingerhut's website.

If you do most of your shopping needs with Fingerhut already, or like the selection, this card could be your best bet.

Annual fee. $0 — lowest end of the range

APR. 25.90% (V) — average

Perks.

  • Use your credit line to shop over 450,000 items at Fingerhut's website from big brands like Samsung, KitchenAid, and DeWalt.
  • No fees is a big deal considering its an unsecured card.
  • Advertised and catered towards people with bad credit

Drawbacks.

  • This is a store card so you can only shop at Fingerhut's website.
  • Pay a max late fee of $38

What experts say.

Kevin, writing for creditforums.com, dug into the fine print on Fingerhut's "Fresh Start program."

"Fingerhut offers a ‘Fresh Start program' which is designed for people who want to shop and get what they want now while building their credit and buying power over time…

"Fresh Start is a one-time purchase installment loan that requires a low down payment before your order ships.

"You will get six months to pay off the remainder of your balance in equal payments, and get a MetaBank/Fingerhut Credit Account with a larger credit line once your balance is paid off."

What consumers say.

Joseph from Endicott, NY complained on Consumer Affairs about bad shipping protection and subsequent customer service.

"I have been a long time customer of Fingerhut, I purchased a Dell laptop not too long ago and in the few months that I have had it, it seems as though everything has gone wrong with it. The day that I received the package from UPS, I had opened the box to find that the PC had been bouncing around with no protection, they didn't even put paper in the box. I called the company to express my concern, only to be hung up on."

How to apply. Head over to Fingerhut's website to learn more and apply.

Re-establishing your credit score starts right now

Whether you have no, low, average, or medium credit, it's always in your best interest to understand the ins-and-outs of credit and how each of your financial decision will affect your score.

When it comes to credit cards, there are so many out there that it can feel extremely overwhelming trying to pick the right one.

Has a family emergency forced you to max out a credit card or two?

A car accident that sky-rocketed your premiums and plummeted your score?

Let us know about your credit experiences - good or bad!


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