If you’ve ever been turned down for a credit card, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the lender to tell you which part of your credit profile hit a sour note, whether it was a past bankruptcy or too many late payments. Since the recent economic downturn, most credit card companies have made their criteria even more stringent. We all know credit score is one of the best-known considerations. But here are five other ways to get a leg up before shopping for the best credit cards for high credit scores.
Pay your bills on time
Besides your credit score, your account history for all your lines of credit weighs heavily when seeking a credit card, says Ellie Kay, author of "The 60-Minute Money Workout." The most important part of this history? Paying your bills on time.
"If you pay your car payment, mortgage and other credit cards on time, your credit card application is more likely to be approved," Kay says. "Some of the lesser known bureaus even take into consideration your history with utility, cable and phone bills."
Have multiple types of credit
Along with your bill payment history, the length and diversity of already-established credit comes into play. If you've paid on a car loan, lease, mortgage or a credit card for at least seven years and have excellent credit, Kay says, you're more apt to be approved for a new credit card.
Use the right amount of your credit
Your debt-to-credit ratio or utilization rate is also carefully scrutinized. This ratio or rate measures the percentage of your credit limit you are currently using, says Kay.
For example, if your credit limit is $10,000 and you are carrying a balance of $7,000, your utilization rate would be 70 percent. Kay says a healthy rate, one that credit card providers like, is 20 percent or less. But if your history is healthy, you may still qualify for credit if that ratio is as high as 30 to 35 percent, she says.
Kay also advises taking action if your credit limit was lowered during the recent economic crisis. A lower credit limit would negatively affect your debt-to-credit ratio. If you've had your line of credit lowered and haven't had any problem making the monthly payments, Kay recommends you contact the credit card company and ask that your original limit be restored. That will preserve a good utilization score.
Stick with your employer
An emerging trend in credit card approval, Kay says, has to do with your employment status. To the credit card companies, this equates with your ability to pay your bills.
Rob Wilson agrees. Wilson, a financial advisor for Blazer Capital Management in Pittsburgh, Penn., agrees and says if you haven't been at a job for very long, it's going to be difficult to get a credit card.
Don't make too many inquiries
The best credit card companies look at the number of inquiries made into your credit report. Inquiries are generated each time you apply for a loan or a credit card, says Wilson.
"Too many inquiries in a short period of time may mean trouble for your credit," he says.
And yes, credit score matters too
You really need a decent credit score to even be in the ball park for the best credit cards, Wilson says. It should be at least 700 or above and then you'll get a low interest rate.
"Your FICO score is what they look at first," says Wilson. "But it's not the end-all. If your score is less than 700, you may still be approved, but you'll pay a higher interest rate."
Tune up your credit profile
To make your financial profile more appealing, your first order of business is to order copies of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus by visiting annualcreditreport.com.
"If you discover any problems or discrepancies, now is the time to fix those," says Kay.
Even if there’s an account you haven’t used for a long time, Kay suggests keeping long-standing accounts open to increase your financial track-record appeal. If you close an account that’s been open six years or longer, that may ding your FICO score because it increases your credit utilization rate.
"Since your utilization rate affects your profile, try to keep it at 20 percent or less on the credit cards you have," says Kay. "And pay all your bills early to avoid triggering any late fees."
It's a good idea to set up all your bills for automatic payment so you never have to worry about being late, she adds.
Following these five tips can help put your credit history on the path to excellent credit and the best credit cards.
Correction, Jan. 17, 2012: According to John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com and an expert on the FICO score, the ideal percentage of credit utilization is not 20 to 30 percent, but from 1 to 10 percent.