Getting your first credit card

Taking on a credit card is not something to rush into. The sheer number of different types out there and the jargon attached can be baffling, making it hard to decide which card is right for you – if any. Here we break down the most important things to bear in mind when considering your first credit card.

What to consider before choosing your first credit card

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Applying for a credit card is not a decision to be taken lightly. It's crucial to do your research and understand the implications of taking on this form of borrowing before you go and apply.

If you're completely new to the concept of a credit card, we've a dedicated guide to how credit cards work. But in short, a credit card can be considered a 'debt card' – because when you buy something using one, the credit card company pays for it in the short term, but you then owe it the money.

Pay off what you owe in full every month and you'll pay no interest. However, you can choose to pay off a lower amount (called a minimum monthly repayment), but this means you WILL pay interest on the remaining balance each month until the whole debt is cleared. (There are special cards out there that charge no interest for a set time, which we go into below.) 

It's also important to consider whether or not you'll even qualify for a credit card – we discuss this in the next section – plus whether or not a credit card is the best way for you to borrow, with some alternatives listed below.

But if you've decided to go ahead with getting a credit card, there are a few key factors to understand first: 

APR

The annual percentage rate (APR) sets out how much interest you'll be charged on the card. Put simply, the higher the APR, the more interest you'll have to pay.

Interest-free days

That said, many cards offer a period of time at 0% interest, so go for one of these if you can. Though beware: after the 0% period ends, the APR usually jumps to a much higher rate, so be sure to pay off everything before then or balance-transfer the debt to another 0% card. 

Minimum payments

This is the lowest amount you can pay off each month without being fined and getting a mark on your credit record. It'll differ from card to card but make sure you know what you owe so you can avoid some serious financial consequences.

Credit limit

Credit cards come with a credit limit, which is the maximum amount the card company will lend you on the card. If you spend too much and go over your credit limit, you'll most likely be charged for doing so.

The average UK credit card limit varies depending on income and credit score. Typically you can expect to see credit limits of between £3,000 and £4,000, though this can be as low as £200 or higher than £10,000 based on individual circumstances.

For more info, see MSE founder Martin Lewis's full guide to credit limits.

Quick question

  • What are the alternatives to a credit card?

    You should ask yourself whether you actually need a credit card before just applying for one. On the one hand, using a credit card properly can improve your credit score, as it shows lenders you're organised enough to pay off your debts.

    On the other, missing payments can leave a mark on your credit file, making it harder to borrow again in future. Even making just the minimum repayments can lead to hefty interest piling up on top of the debt, and cause your financial problems to spiral. 

    Before jumping in and applying for a credit card, consider your other options:

    • Debit card: If you don't need to borrow to buy something, you might be better off without a credit card altogether. This is particularly relevant if you know you're not organised and therefore are likely to miss minimum repayment deadlines, or as a way of limiting any overspending.

      You'll get a debit card when you take out a new current account – and to see our pick of the top options available, see our Best bank accounts guide.

    • Overdraft: If you're getting a credit card for a one-off purchase of something a little over your budget, but you know you'll be able to pay off the remainder quickly, consider using an overdraft. While going into the red with some banks can land you with extortionate interest of over 40%, it's possible to get an arranged overdraft at 0% to cover these short-term, one-time buys.

      Overdrafts can lead you into just as much financial strife as a mismanaged credit card, so be sure to read our full guide to cutting the cost of your overdraft.

    • Personal loan: These operate in a similar way to a credit card, in that you're borrowing money and repaying it later. One way they differ is that the repayments you make are usually set with a personal loan, making them less flexible than the minimum monthly payments you get with credit cards.

      However, most importantly, when it comes to borrowing a larger amount, such as £5,000+, a personal loan may offer a lower interest rate. Check out our full guide on cheap personal loans.

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Am I eligible for a credit card?

Whether or not you'll qualify for a credit card usually depends on a number of things, such as:

  1. Your age: Almost all credit card companies won't lend to anyone under 18.

  2. Your address: You'll typically need to be a UK resident to apply for a UK credit card.

  3. Your income: Many firms consider how much you earn. A common lower limit is £10,000 a year. If you're unemployed, this may also have an impact on your chances of approval.

  4. Your finances: Similarly, credit card companies will usually want to know how you've managed your money up until this point, and your application may be affected if, for example, you've been the subject of a county court judgment.

  5. Your credit history: Arguably the most important factor. A poor credit history will significantly harm how likely you are to get a credit card.

Credit card companies will ask you to give the first three pieces of information as part of your application, so they can assess your eligibility.

But be aware that they'll also search your credit file. They do this to get the final two pieces of information. 

This is why it's important to use an eligibility calculator before applying, to see which credit cards you've the best chance of getting. That way, you can get an impression of what the card provider is going to see about you. 

What happens when I apply for a credit card?

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The application isn't usually too complicated. Alongside all the details you provide through the credit check, credit card companies will often want some extra info from you.

This usually includes the reason why you want the card – such as for home improvements, a new car or to pay off debts. You will normally need to provide some ID and you'll also need to tell them what kind of card you're applying for.

Remember: you can check whether you'll qualify for certain cards before you apply, using our eligibility calculator. This will help you to minimise the number of applications you have to make and also protect your credit score.

What to do if your application is rejected

Been rejected for a credit card? Stop! It's important to remain calm and collected. Rushing in to apply for a different card might be your first instinct, but getting rejected a second time in quick succession could imply to lenders that you're in financial difficulty. This may put a dent in your credit history and make your chances of being accepted even slimmer.

It's recommended that you wait at least three months before reapplying.

Plus, a practical step to take is to contact the card company to find out why you weren't accepted. You can be rejected for any number of reasons – from a bad credit history, a limited credit history, to a mistake on the application form – so finding out why you didn't get the card will help you to focus on what you can do next time to improve your chances.

How to choose your first credit card

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Which to choose as your first credit card will largely depend on your own personal circumstances and what you want to use a card for. Here are some points to consider when thinking about which type to choose:

  • Do you have little or no credit history? A credit building card can help you to improve your credit score – but it's crucial to repay IN FULL each month.

  • Do you want to earn rewards on your everyday spending? If so, you might want to try a reward credit card to earn cashback or receive other perks. But again, you need to repay IN FULL or the interest charged will dwarf the reward gain.

  • Do you want a card to spread the cost of a big purchase? A 0% card for spending is the cheapest way to borrow – if used correctly.

  • Do you travel a lot? If you're a frequent flyer or spend often in a foreign currency, a specialist travel card offers fewer fees and near-perfect exchange rates.

  • Do you need to borrow to buy something but the seller doesn't accept credit card? A 0% money transfer card may be the one for you.
For a full rundown, see  the different types of credit cards explained .

How best to use your credit card

Credit cards are like fire: used right, they're a great tool, but get it wrong and they'll burn. Now you've got a card, it's important to use it right:

Do make the minimum monthly repayments. Better still, pay off as much as you can afford to, to avoid paying unnecessary interest.

Don't go wild and buy everything you've ever dreamed of having. You'll have to pay everything off eventually, so don't treat your new credit card as an excuse to overspend.

Do set up a direct debit to make repayments. This ensures you never miss a payment and you'll avoid getting a mark on your credit record.

Don't get caught out by fees. Many cards charge extra if, for example, you use them abroad or withdraw cash with them. Ensure you check for these costs beforehand.

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