Question: How do I know what kind of credit card to choose and from what issuer?

Answer: Because applying for many credit cards in a short time can damage your FICO credit score, it's important to compare credit cards carefully and pick just one or two that you think you'll want to stick with for a few years. Many banks offer similar features and benefits. That's why I often recommend thinking about just two factors:

  • How much experience do you have with credit cards?
  • What kinds of extra rewards and perks would you use the most?

Making the comparison this way goes beyond just stacking rates and fees against each other:

Are you experienced? If you're new to credit cards, you'll have to start with a card that caters to consumers with light credit profiles. It's easy to get taken in by some dodgy subprime credit card offer that will stack you up with plenty of fees and a tiny credit limit. If you are a college student start off with one of the student-oriented cards from Citi and Discover. As you build a stronger credit history, you'll qualify for some of the best credit card deals from American Express, Capital One, and Chase.

Choose the right rewards. The best rewards credit cards give you lots of flexibility for earning and redeeming special perks. Even though banks make it easy to sign up for affinity cards, it's not a great fit to get an airline credit card when you don't travel very much, or a hotel credit card for a chain you rarely stay in. Cash back credit cards make rewards easy to track. Think about other perks, too: American Express and Visa have launched a culture war over special access to sporting events, film festivals, and concerts.

Choose the right bank. Avoid signing up for a credit card from the same bank where you keep a checking account. While it sounds like extra hassle, you'll be thankful if an accounting glitch or an identity theft attempt locks you out of your entire account profile. Carrying at least one credit card from a separate lender has saved the day for me more than once.

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