The Best First Credit Card
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The best first credit card is going to depend on what you qualify for — someone with a poor credit score likely won't get approved for a card with really juicy rewards, for example. But our favorite starter cards have a few things in common, including no annual fees and no penalty APRs, and each offers some great perks, from cash back to long 0% intro APR periods. Take a look to see which one is right for you.
Both of these cards offer 5% cash back on rotating categories, plus 1% cash back on everything else. Even better, they each have at least a year of 0% intro APR — but you'll only be approved if you have a good credit score.
Your best first credit card is the one that will give you the best benefits for the best terms: high rewards, low APR, no fees — the list goes on. The trick? Finding what you qualify for. To most people, “the best” credit cards are the ones with really fat rewards, but those are almost exclusively for people with good or excellent credit — which you may not have if you’ve never used a credit card before.
Our mission was to find the best for different sorts of people: those who do have established credit and can qualify for a rewards card, those with not-so-great credit who need to build it up — even students. We’re huge fans of the Discover it® cards, which offer great terms, like low APRs and even lower intro APRs, as well as some of the highest cashback rewards opportunities out there. However, we know that there are still a handful of merchants out there that don’t accept Discover, so we’re pairing our Discover it® recommendations with a few other top cards.
The Chase Freedom® is similar to the Discover it® Cashback Match™ card: Both offer 5% cash back on rotating categories each quarter, plus 1% cash back on everything else. We like that the Discover it® Cashback Match™ doubles all your rewards at the end of your first year, but the Chase Freedom® has a longer 0% intro APR (15 months to Discover’s 12).
For those with poor credit, we recommend getting a secured card. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card - No Annual Fee* and the Capital One® Secured Credit Card are both excellent. With a refundable down payment, you can access a limited line of credit, which you then can use to build up better credit history and then get access to more credit (and better credit cards). The Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee* matches your line of credit with your down payment, while the Capital One® Secured Credit Card starts everyone off with a $200 credit line, which is great if you don’t have a ton of cash to spare for the deposit.
College students hit the sweet spot when it comes to credit cards. Even with a shorter credit history, they may be eligible for the Discover it® for Students card, which has the same 5% cashback opportunities as the Discover it® Cashback Match™ card, plus bonuses for 3.0+ GPAs. The Capital One® Journey Student Credit Card is another great pick, with 1% cash back on every purchase ever.
How We Found the Best First Credit Card
We wanted to find cards that provided a little bit of forgiveness as you master using credit — as well as some perks (there’s nothing like some positive credit reinforcement). All our top picks have a few things in common:
- No annual fees. Some credit cards charge you for the privilege of being an account holder — this is especially common with cards that have really juicy rewards, but you might see annual fees creeping in on even basic credit cards. There are definitely occasions where the amount of cash back can make an annual fee worth it, but we wanted to keep things simple for first-time cardholders.
- No penalty APRs. Some credit cards jack up your rates if you miss a payment. The first rule of credit cards is to never miss a payment, but we get that there might be a learning curve, and we didn’t want you to be dinged for slipping up.
- Five out of our six top picks offer cashback rewards, which is to say you receive a small percentage of your purchase back. Different cards will have different types of rewards (points, for example, or airline miles) but cash back has universal appeal: You can use the money you receive to help pay off your balance each month.
- Three of our top cards offer 0% intro APR on purchases for as long as 15 months. You can use that time to learn how to budget for credit card purchases and pay those purchases off every month without worrying about getting charged interest if you accidentally buy more than you can afford.
Our Picks for the Best First Credit Card
Best for Rewards
Discover it® Cashback Match™ 5% cash back on rotating categories, plus 1% back on all other purchases.
If you’ve got a good credit score and you’re looking to earn cash for your credit, we’ve got two great cards for you.
Both the Discover it® Cashback Match™ and the Chase Freedom® get you 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in categories that change every quarter (think restaurants, Amazon purchases, and so on), as well as 1% cashback on all other purchases. The Discover it® Cashback Match™ also doubles that cash at the end of your first year.
Here’s a chart to show how much you could earn from each card if you max out your 5% cashback spending and also make an additional $1,000 in purchases each quarter:
|Discover it® Cashback Match™||Chase Freedom®|
|5% cash back on $1,500 in qualifying purchases per quarter||$75||$75|
|1% cash back on $1,000 in additional purchases per quarter||$10||$10|
|Times four quarters per year||$340||$340 (total)|
|Doubled at the end of the first year (Discover it® only)||$680 (total)||N/A|
So sure, you could earn significantly more with the Discover it® Cashback Match™ during your first year. Does that mean it’s automatically the better card? Not necessarily. Keep in mind that Discover will only double that cash at the end of your first year, not any year afterward.
Another Great Rewards Card
Plus, the Chase Freedom® has two big advantages. First, it gives you a 15 month 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers, compared to the 12-month 0% intro APR offered by Discover it®. If you wind up carrying a balance, those three extra interest-free months can save you lots of cash.
Second, the Chase Freedom® also gives you a $150 cashback bonus if you spend $500 in your first three months of account opening. Depending on your spending habits (say you don’t max out those 5% cashback categories), Chase’s $150 might actually earn you more.
The best way to figure out the right card for you: Take a look at your spending history over the course of a year, and do the math for each card.
- You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. We’ll automatically match all the cash back you earn at the end of your first year. New cardmembers only.
- Earn 5% cash back now at Amazon.com, Department Stores, and Sam’s Club on up to $1,500 in purchases through Dec 31st when you activate. Plus, unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.
- Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.
- 100% U.S. based customer service.
- FICO® Credit Scores for free on statements and online.
- No annual fee.
- Click “Apply Now” to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
- Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
- Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate
- Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – it’s automatic
- 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 14.24-23.24%. Balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum
- Enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months like gas stations, restaurants, and wholesale clubs
- Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
- No Annual Fee
Best If You Have Poor Credit
Discover it® Secured Credit Card – No Annual Fee* A line of credit that matches your deposit, plus the chance to earn cashback rewards.
If your credit score isn’t so good, you can make it better with the Discover it® Secured Credit Card - No Annual Fee* or the Capital One® Secured Credit Card. Both of these cards are “secured,” which means they require a refundable deposit in exchange for an initial line of credit — these types of cards are often the only ones available for people with low credit scores. (We go more in depth on this in our review of the best credit cards for bad credit.) These two cards are each set up a little differently.
The Discover it® Secured Credit Card matches your credit line to your deposit ($200 – $2,500) and gives you cash back: 2% on restaurant and gas station purchases (for up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter) and 1% on all other purchases. Like the other Discover it® cards on our list, that cash back doubles at the end of your first year.
Discover will also consider graduating you to a standard credit card at the end of your first year, if you’ve established a history of responsible credit use — and Discover provides your FICO credit score with every credit statement, so you can watch that score grow.
Another Good Option
Capital One® – Secured Credit Card Everyone starts with only a $200 line of credit, but you may only have to pay $49 to get it.
The Capital One® Secured Credit Card, on the other hand, gives everyone an initial credit line of $200 for a deposit that can be as low as $49 (the amount of your deposit depends on your creditworthiness). You can automatically increase your initial credit line by making your first five monthly payments on time. This is a great option for people who want a credit card, but don’t have a lot of money to tie up in a security deposit.
The Capital One® Secured Credit Card won’t graduate you to a standard credit card on its own, but it will give you the tools to help you understand when your credit is good enough to apply for a standard card. The Capital One® CreditWise app lets you track your TransUnion credit score and has a simulator that shows how different types of credit choices, like making on-time payments or paying off your balance in full, can affect that score.
- Once approved, your minimum security deposit amount of $200 or more will establish your credit line (up to the amount we can approve).
- Monthly reviews start at 12 months to see if you qualify to get your security deposit back while you continue to enjoy your Discover card benefits. Reviews are based on responsible credit management across all of your credit cards and loans.
- No annual fee. No late fee on your first late payment. Paying late won’t raise your APR.
- Earn 2% cash back at restaurants & gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Earn 1% cash back on all other purchases.
- Discover matches all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year – automatically. New cardmembers only.
- Reports to 3 major credit bureaus so you can build or rebuild credit with responsible use.
- FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements & online.
- Click “Apply Now” to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match(TM) details & other information.
- No annual fee, and all the credit building benefits with responsible card use
- Unlike a prepaid card, it builds credit when used responsibly, with regular reporting to the 3 major credit bureaus
- You will get an initial $200 credit line after making a security deposit of $49, $99, or $200, determined based on your creditworthiness
- Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time with no additional deposit needed
- Easily manage your account 24/7 with online access, by phone, or using our mobile app
- It’s a credit card accepted at millions of locations worldwide
Best for Students
Discover it® for Students 5% cash back on rotating categories, 1% back on all other purchases, plus a yearly 3.0 GPA bonus.
If you’re still in college, Discover and Capital One also both offer great starter credit cards — and both cards come with cashback rewards. Student cards are great because banks are willing to accept lower credit scores and shorter credit histories, and you don’t have to shell out for a deposit on a secured card.
The Discover it® for Students card gives you the same cashback options as the Discover it® Cashback Match™ card: 5% on rotating categories for up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter and 1% on all other purchases. Discover it® for Students also gives you a $20 cashback bonus each year that your GPA is 3.0 or above, for up to five years. And yes, all of this cash back gets doubled at the end of your first year.
Capital One® Journey Student Credit Card 1% cash back gets bumped up to 1.25% cash back if you make on-time monthly payments.
The Capital One® Journey Student Credit Card gets you 1% cash back on all purchases, which bumps up to 1.25% if you make on-time monthly payments. Its APR is a little higher than the Discover it® for Students, and its cashback percentages are a little lower, but you’re still going to get solid rewards as you work toward establishing your credit history — like an increased credit line if you make your first five monthly payments on time.
We like both of these cards a lot. If you can’t decide on the best one for you, review your spending history, and see which will provide you better cash back. Also, like we mentioned, Discover isn’t accepted with all merchants, so you’ll want to have a backup debit card if you go with Discover. Want even more options? Check out our review on the best credit cards for students.
- Discover matches all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year – automatically. Only for new cardmembers.
- Earn 5% cash back in new bonus categories like gas, restaurants, Amazon.com, Sam’s Club and more, on up to $1,500 in purchases every quarter you activate. Plus, unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.
- Good Grades Rewards: $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
- No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
- Get 100% U.S. based customer service & FICO® Credit Scores for free on statements & online.
- Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
- 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 13.24% – 22.24%.
- Click “Apply Now” to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
- Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
- There’s no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn, and rewards don’t expire
- Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
- Pay no annual or foreign transaction fees
- Fraud coverage if your card is lost or stolen
- Pick the monthly due date that works best for you
Did You Know?
You’ll want to come prepared to apply for a credit card.
Whether you visit a bank in person or complete a credit card application online, expect to provide the following information:
- Address and contact information (email, phone)
- Social Security Number
- Employer and employer contact information
- Bank account information
- Monthly rent/mortgage payment
In some cases, you learn the results of your application within minutes. If a credit card company declines your application, it is required to clarify the reasons why. Once your application is approved, the credit card company will mail you a credit card. Activate the card according to the provided instructions, and start building your credit history!
It’s helpful to know your credit score before you start shopping for a credit card.
That way you’ll know what kind of credit opportunities are available to you, and you aren’t applying for cards that you’ll automatically get denied for. If you don’t know your credit score, some banks provide it as one of their online features — or you can take a look at our list of best credit report services and consider signing up for a service that’ll help you check and monitor your credit.
Wondering how you got your good credit score — or your less-than-good score — even though you’ve never had a credit card?
Some people have no credit history or credit score, but many of us open our first credit card with a credit history already in progress. That’s because your credit score includes all the forms of credit given to you, such as student loans and car loans. Also, if you fall behind on your day-to-day bills, like your utility or smartphone bill, a non-payment could get reported to the credit bureaus and affect your credit score.
The best thing you can do for your credit history is to pay off your balances in full.
Ideally, you’ll do this every month and avoid interest charges. If you do have to carry a balance on your credit card, focus on getting it paid down as soon as possible. You’ll save money on interest and improve your credit utilization ratio — but more importantly, you won’t get caught in a credit card debt trap where you’re paying interest every month on a balance that’s too high to pay off. Buy only what you can afford and pay it off as quickly as you can.
Rewards credit cards come with some risky pitfalls.
First-time credit cardholders risk getting that starry-eyed look when seeing the cashback potential a rewards card has.
You might spend more than you can afford just to hit your rewards limit. Just because you can spend up to $1,500 every quarter doesn’t mean you should. Can you actually afford to pay off those purchases? Don’t get caught in the trap of justifying a purchase simply because “it gets 5% cash back” or “I want to maximize my rewards.”
You might use too much of your available credit — which isn’t good for your credit score. If you’re putting a bunch of credit on your card with the idea that you’ll earn rewards now and pay your balances off later, you need to be aware of your “credit utilization ratio” — the amount of credit you’re using compared to the amount of credit available to you. Your credit score looks better when your balances are lower (which is to say, when you utilize less credit.) Keep those balances small to keep the credit bureaus happy.
You might run up a balance you can’t pay off. Yes, both our recommended rewards cards offer lengthy 0% intro APR periods, so you won’t be charged interest if you can’t pay off your balance right away — but you’ll have to pay off that balance eventually. Don’t run up a balance that your future self can’t afford to pay off. Get in the habit of paying off your balances in full; it’s a great way to build a strong credit history and a good credit score.
Speaking of rewards: You’ll need to remember to “activate” them.
Some credit cards, including the Discover it® Cashback Match™ and the Chase Freedom®, require you to activate their high-level rewards. Credit card issuers do this for obvious reasons: A large part of the population is going to forget to activate, which means the credit card companies save money because they don’t have to hand out 5% cash back. Watch your email for activation notices or visit the card issuer’s website to activate your rewards — and don’t forget to re-activate every quarter!