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Best first credit cards

Finding the best first credit card doesn't have to be difficult. CardRatings editors break down the best first-time cards in multiple categories to help you get started.
Jennifer Doss, CardRatings Editor Last Updated, October 6, 2021
best first credit cards

TOP FIRST CREDIT CARD OFFERS

Whether you've just turned 18 and are looking for an easy way to build your credit, or you're 30 with an established credit history and you're ready to start earning rewards on purchases, the process of choosing your first credit card can be an intimidating one, but with the right information, it doesn't have to be. We have put together our choices for the best first credit cards to help make the process a bit easier.

A credit card, when used properly, is an excellent way to build a thin credit history. A strong history and robust credit score can help you get favorable interest rates and a much greater likelihood of approval, when looking to make big-ticket purchases, such as new cars and homes. On the flip side, the wrong card and poor budgeting habits can quickly put you in a fiscal hole and do significant damage to your credit score.

Wherever you are in your credit journey, our best first credit cards list is a great place to start your research for the best credit card for your needs. Check out some of our favorite cards below, as well as answers to some questions frequently asked by new cardholders.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD FOR REWARDS IN BONUS CATEGORIES

5
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
No annual fee and bonus rewards in a number of popular bonus categories makes this card a great option for anyone who spends heavily in a variety of categories.

The Bonus: Earn a healthy $200 cash back bonus after spending $500 within three months of opening an account. You'll also earn 5% cash back on up to $12,000 spent on grocery store purchases during your first year (excludes Walmart and Target). In addition, you get 0% intro APR on purchases for the first 15 months (then, 14.99% - 23.74% Variable).

The Rewards: Earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3% back at drugstores and restaurants and 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. There is no limit to the rewards you can accumulate and you can redeem for cash at any time. Rewards accumulate as Chase Ultimate Rewards® so you can also redeem for travel through the Chase portal.

Annual Fee: $0

Credit Score Needed: Excellent, Good

PROS:

  • You probably don't want anything complicated for your first credit card so a rewards program with no rotating categories is likely a good thing.
  • You can earn a nice $200 bonus after spending just $500 on purchases within the first three months.
  • You can save some money on interest with an introductory 0% APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases (then, 14.99% - 23.74% Variable). This is a great offer if you have a large upcoming purchase that you'll need extra time to pay off.

CONS:

  • There are a number of lucrative rewards bonus categories that earn more than the base rate, but if they don't fit your regular spending, they won't do you any good. Make sure this card is a good fit for your lifestyle.
  • This isn’t the best card for you to take along on a trip abroad; it charges foreign transaction fees.

Read our full review of Chase Freedom Unlimited®.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 82.8 86.2
Rewards Program Satisfaction 8.2 8.6
Customer Service 8.5 8.7
Website/App Usability 8.2 8.6
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 9.0 9.0
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 7.9 8.4

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD FOR LIMITED CREDIT

5
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
Let's face it, not everyone has excellent credit, or even good credit. You have an excellent chance to be approved for this card with just fair credit. In addition, a simple, no-frills cash back rewards program offers the opportunity to add to your bank account. And with Credit Steps, you can gain access to a higher credit line in as little as six months.

The Bonus:  There is no bonus with this card.

The Rewards: You can earn 1.5% cash back on all purchases. You can redeem your rewards as a statement credit at any time with no minimum.

The Annual Fee: $39

Credit Score Needed: Average, Fair, Limited

PROS:

  • The annual fee is reasonable, especially for a card that requires a fair credit score, which first time cardholders might be starting out with.
  • This card includes extra benefits that are nice to have, like travel accident insurance, roadside assistance and an extended warranty protection plan.
  • Capital One will automatically consider you for a higher credit limit in as little as six months.

CONS:

  • Although reasonable, the $39 annual fee should be considered. There are first time credit cards available that do not charge annual fees.
  • There's no welcome bonus with this card.

Read our full Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card review.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 86.6 Did not survey
Rewards Program Satisfaction 8.4 n/a
Customer Service 8.8 n/a
Website/App Usability 8.9 n/a
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 9.3 n/a
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 8.9 n/a

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD FOR STUDENTS

4
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
With 1% cash back, and a potential for 1.25% cash back on all purchases as well as the opportunity to gain access to a higher credit line in as little as six months, this is a great first card for students. And with no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, and easy redemption tools, this card makes a great companion on campus and on the road.

The Bonus: Cardholders can get access to a higher credit line in as little as six months.

The Rewards: Cardholders earn 1% cash back on every purchase, regardless of the category, and can boost cash back to a total of 1.25% each month just for paying on time. You can also earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming subscriptions when you pay on time.

The Annual Fee: $0

Credit Score Needed: Average, Fair, Limited

PROS:

  • This card includes auto rental insurance if you need to rent a car.
  • You can set the date you want to make your monthly payments.
  • Earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming services when you pay on time.

CONS:

  • Like many first credit cards, this card has a fairly high APR and is not a card you want to carry a balance on. However, you really don't want to carry a balance on any credit card.
  • This card has no welcome bonuses.

Read our full Journey Student Rewards from Capital One review.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 80.9 80.6
Rewards Program Satisfaction 7.9 7.9
Customer Service 8.3 8.0
Website/App Usability 8.3 8.0
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 8.4 8.4
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 8.1 8.2

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD WITH CASH BACK FOR STUDENTS

5
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
This cash-back credit card offers a rate of 2% on up to $1,000 per quarter in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants. You'll earn 1% cash back on all other purchases. You can stash your rewards until it's time to pay for textbooks, or just use those credits toward a semester's-end splurge.
  • 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! So you could turn $50 cash back into $100. Or turn $100 into $200. There's no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
  • 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.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • Earn rewards while building your credit history that can help you after graduation. And, get your free Credit Scorecard that includes your FICO® Credit Score and important details that help make up your score.
  • No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
  • Refer-a-Friend: Once you become a Discover it® Student cardmember, you can earn a statement credit each time you refer a friend and they're approved. Over half a million students got Discover Cards from their friends' recommendations.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.* Activate for free.
  • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 12.99% - 21.99% applies.
See More

PROS:

  • You can pay the bill up until midnight on the day it's due.
  • Earn cash back on purchases you likely make quite often. 
  • You might be able to qualify for this card even with a fair credit score.

CONS:

  • Discover isn't as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard, and so that's always something to consider.
  • This is another card for students so if you're not a student and looking for your first credit card, you'll want to consider one of the other options on this list.

Read our full Discover it® Student chrome review.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 86.3 81.1
Rewards Program Satisfaction 8.7 8.2
Customer Service 8.6 8.0
Website/App Usability 8.5 8.3
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 8.8 8.6
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 8.6 7.8

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD WITH NO CREDIT CHECK

4
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
With no credit check, applying this card is extremely simple. Your credit limit is set based on your deposit amount, which protects against falling into debt. Cardholders have access to a wide range of online and e-newsletter financial literacy tools. These useful tools can help you to understand your credit score and manage your debt. In addition, the issuer reports to all three major credit bureaus. So, if you use the card responsibly and pay your bill in a timely fashion, you can get your score trending in a positive direction.

The Bonus: There is no bonus with this card.

The Rewards: There are no rewards with this card.

The Annual Fee: $35, plus a minimum security deposit of $200.

Credit Score Needed: Fair/Poor/Bad/No Credit

PROS:

  • There’s no credit check when you apply so you don't have to worry about where you credit score is starting out.
  • OpenSky provides credit tips and a dedicated credit education page to help you build a positive credit rating.
  • You can add authorized users to the card – with no authorization fee.

CONS:

  • There are no perks or rewards offered with this card.
  • This card charges an annual fee, in addition to a security deposit to establish your line of credit.

Read our full OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card review.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 73.5 76.4
Features Satisfaction 7.3 7.7
Customer Service 7.3 7.6
Website/App Usability 7.3 7.6
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 7.9 7.9
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 7.3 7.5

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD FOR BAD CREDIT

4
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
Although it's secured it comes with benefits such as extended warranty, auto rental insurance, travel accident insurance, roadside assistance and price protection. For a first credit card it's nice because there's also no annual fee and it requires a low deposit. You could qualify for an account with a deposit of just $49. Access to an authorized bank account is required to make your $49, $99 or $200 refundable security deposit.

The Bonus: No bonus with this card but you may be able to get access to a higher line of credit in as little as six months with no additional deposit.

The Rewards: This card has no rewards program but it includes benefits such as fraud coverage and 24/7 customer service, extended warranty offers, auto rental insurance, travel accident insurance, 24/7 travel and roadside assistance and price protection services.

The Annual Fee: $0, plus a security deposit of $49, $99 or $200 to establish your initial $200 credit line.

Credit Score Needed: Limited, Bad

PROS:

  • There are no foreign transaction fees so it's ok to use this card on purchases abroad.
  • You’ll get extra benefits with this card, including auto rental insurance, price protection and 24/7 roadside assistance.
  • Get access to a higher credit line in as little as six months with no additional deposit needed.

CONS:

  • You'll want to try hard not to carry a balance as the ongoing APR rate (26.99% (Variable)) is fairly high.
  • This card doesn't offer rewards on purchases.

Read our full Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card review..

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 81.7 81.4
Features Satisfaction 8.1 8.1
Customer Service 8.2 8.2
Website/App Usability 8.2 8.2
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 8.6 8.4
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 8.1 8.0

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD WITH CASH BACK FOR BAD CREDIT

5
About Our Ratings
Why We Like It:
As a secured credit card, your credit limit is set based on you're deposit, protecting you from falling into debt. However, unlike some secured credit cards, the Discover it® Secured Credit Card also offers a nifty first-year bonus and the opportunity to earn rewards. Cardholders also have access to numerous online credit management tools, providing additional means to help repair damaged credit and boost your credit score. Plus, after eight months, Discover will review your account and if you qualify, you will receive an unsecured card and have your deposit returned.
  • 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 after being approved. Bank information must be provided when submitting your deposit.
  • Automatic reviews starting at 8 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.
See More

PROS:

  • This is one of the rare secured credit cards that offers a rewards program.
  • It's also rare to offer a welcome bonus to new cardholders. The match offer is unique and has the potential to pay off big.
  • This card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees so it's safe to travel abroad with.

CONS:

  • While there's no annual fee, the minimum security deposit amount could be difficult to come up with.
  • Rewards are capped when you hit $1,000 in spending each quarter.

Read our full Discover it® Secured Credit Card review.

Current Scores Past Scores
Overall Score 83.3 82.3
Features Satisfaction 8.3 8.2
Customer Service 8.4 8.2
Website/App Usability 8.5 8.1
Likelihood of Continuing to Use 8.7 8.6
Recommend to a Friend/Colleague 8.2 8.3

*Scores above reflect the results of surveys with actual cardholders. Full methodology below.

WHAT IS THE BEST FIRST CREDIT CARD?

When you're starting out in the world of credit cards, you might find that there isn't much to get excited about. The Chase Freedom Unlimited® is one of the few first credit cards that offers a rewards program, sign-up bonus and 0% introductory APR offer with no annual fee or security deposit. Basically, it comes with everything you'd want to start out with on a credit card and the benefits can be valuable even for people on their second, third or fifth credit card. Because of this, CardRatings experts rate this card as the best first credit card.

However, the best first credit card for you will depend on your creditworthiness, your spending and the goals you have in mind for the first card you sign up for. For many people, a secured credit card like the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card is actually better to start with because having a security deposit on the line helps stay on track.

SHOULD I GET A CREDIT CARD?

Building a strong FICO/credit score is foundational to a healthy fiscal adulthood. A credit card, used properly and responsibly, can be an effective tool in building your score. If your credit is damaged, a card can be used to repair it. Making purchases with a credit card offers layers of security that cash does not. Should it be lost or stolen, it can easily be cancelled and replaced. Most credit card companies also offer purchase protection, in case items you buy are stolen or damaged within a certain window of time. Some companies offer car rental insurance (a significant savings) and some offer cell phone protection if you use your card to pay your bill.

While using your card responsibly and paying your bill on time each month will help build good credit, some companies also offer free access to your credit scores and credit management tools you can access online.

CAN I GET A CREDIT CARD?

Applying for a credit card is a fairly straightforward process. You need to be at least 18 years old and have a social security number. The type of card you are applying for has a great deal to do with how much information you will need to provide. In general, you need to provide your personal information (full name, address, phone, etc.), your financial information (employment status, gross income, monthly expenses, assets, checking account, etc) and security information (date of birth, social security number, etc.)

HOW DO I CHOOSE A FIRST CREDIT CARD?

Picking your first credit card is not unlike picking your first apartment or your first car. What you NEED is more important than what you WANT. You want a card that is functional for your lifestyle, will help you build your credit and, if possible, provides some useful benefits. You don't want a card that only offers perks you would never use. You also want to apply for a card you have a good chance to be approved for. Applying for and being rejected for cards not only wastes your time but can actually be damaging to your credit score.

Therefore, you want to know your credit score and your credit history before starting the process. Take an honest look at your lifestyle and your spending habits. Take time to shop through a number of cards, looking at terms, interest rates, bonus offers, rewards and other benefits. You will also want to take a close look at the various fees a card charges. These fees can catch a first-time cardholder by surprise if you are not prepared.


Survey Methodology: CardRatings commissioned Op4G in September and October 2020 to conduct surveys among 1,746 cardholders nationwide. CardRatings website analytics from Jan. 1, 2020-Aug. 31, 2020 were used to determine a selection of the most popular cards and additional cards were added to add survey breadth. Responses to each of nine questions were given on a scale of 1-10 and respondents' scores were then averaged under broad topics. To determine the overall score, responses from questions 1-8 were summed and the answer to "How likely are you to recommend this card to a friend, coworker or family member?" was double weighted.

Ranking Methodology: CardRatings experts review the fine print, details, perks, rewards and features of hundreds of cards and compare them side-by-side with similar cards. A card that makes an excellent balance transfer card may not make a great cash-back rewards card even though it offers those rewards. While the Best of the Year list is announced annually, that list – and all other “best of” lists on CardRatings – are regularly reviewed and updated as issuers change the terms and features of each card often.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is believed to be accurate as of the date it was written. Please keep in mind that credit card offers change frequently. Therefore, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information in this article. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. See the online credit card application for full terms and conditions on offers and rewards. Please verify all terms and conditions of any credit card prior to applying.

This content is not provided by any company mentioned in this article. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such company. CardRatings.com does not review every company or every offer available on the market.

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