How to Get Approved for a Credit Card Without Perfect Credit History

Here are some tips to help you get approved for a new credit card without an immaculate credit history, including how to improve your credit score and more.
Updated
A hand receiving a credit card

Nearly everyone feels a little anxious when applying for a new credit card. If you've recently made a bad credit mistake or are new to the credit game, getting your application approved can be difficult and time-consuming.

Understanding a bit about the credit card approval process can save you time and help you find hacks to rebuild your credit history and improve your personal odds of approval. Every time you apply for a new card, your credit score takes a short-term hit, so it's useful to target your search. Here are some tips and tricks to help you nudge those credit card approval odds in your favor.

Behind the Scenes of Your Credit Card Application

Whenever you sign up online for a new credit card, the process starts with entering your basic information into an application form. That includes your name, birth date, and address, along with your best qualifications for the line of credit you want, such as your income and housing costs.

After you submit your application, it will be processed by an algorithm. Within a couple of weeks at most, you'll receive one of three possible replies: approval, denial, or some kind of pending purgatory.

If you get a denial letter, the card issuer is legally required to give you a reason why. You might have a history of being late on your bill payments or a bad debt-to-credit ratio. Individual credit card companies might have specific requirements, like Chase Bank's 5/24 rule, which automatically denies anyone who has applied for five or more cards in the past two years.

Pending status isn't necessarily a denial and is usually resolved in a few weeks. You may be able to speed up the pending process or even overturn a denial by giving the card issuer a call, as we'll discuss below.

Your credit score is the most important factor in whether you'll be immediately approved, put on hold, or denied.

Check Your Credit Score

A man checking his credit score online

You can get a pretty good idea of your approval odds for a new credit card by checking your credit score ahead of time. Most credit card companies use your credit score as the primary deciding factor when weighing your application.

Your score is calculated from your most important credit information, including your payment history, new credit applications, account balances, credit utilization, etc. All of these factors together make up your credit report.

In the U.S., your credit report is put together by the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO). Banks and other lenders will use your credit score on your FICO report to assess whether you'll be a good credit risk or not. FICO scores range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. They're used by 90% of the country's lenders, and a low FICO score is a deal breaker for many card issuers.

The U.S. has three top credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Any of these will provide you with their calculation of your credit report at no cost once a year via the website AnnualCreditReport.com. If you have no idea what your credit score is, or it has been a few years since you last checked, you might want to ask for all three reports at once to compare your credit history from various sources. Some creditors only report to one of the three, which can alter your score.

Read through your reports carefully to check if the information inside is accurate. If you find a mistake, it's within your rights to contact the report's issuer and dispute the report. Credit bureaus are required by law to review your dispute and correct any errors, which might be able to get your score up by a few points.

The average FICO score generally hovers around 700. Your credit history is considered good if it's above 670. Borrowers in the range of 670 to 740 have about a 60% chance of being approved for most credit cards. Borrowers with a credit score below 670 will probably have a hard time getting approved for the most attractive financing rates.

If you find out your credit score is on the low end, here are a few ways to get it back up.

Tips on Improving Your Credit Score

FICO puts slightly different weights on different categories, depending on your credit history. For most people's scores, payment history makes up 35%, credit utilization is 30%, credit history length is 15%, new credit applications make up 10%, and credit diversity is the final 10%.

Stabilize Your Payment History

A woman paying a bill

When calculating your credit score, your payment history generally carries the most weight. A single missed or late payment can make your credit score plunge by as many as 50 points.

Avoid taking these big hits by being religious about paying your bills punctually from now on. If you tend to forget your due dates, you can make things simpler by setting up your bank account to automate your payments or telling your billers to send you regular text or phone call alerts when a bill's due date is about to pass.

Get Your Credit Utilization Below 30%

Keeping low balances on the credit cards you already have is the second best way to get your credit score up. Your credit utilization refers to the percentage of your credit limit that you're already using. A credit utilization of 30% or more is unattractive to most lenders. That means if you have a total credit limit of $1,000, you should keep all your balances below $300 total.

To calculate your credit utilization, add up all your balances on one hand and all the credit limits on your various cards on the other hand, and then divide the first number by the second number. If you don't get a number below 0.3, which is 30%, then you should wait to apply for any new cards until you can pay off enough of your existing balances to get that number below 0.3.

What's important to FICO is your ratio of debt to available credit. That means you can have a lot of debt and still get a good FICO score. As long as you don't use over 30% of your total credit limit, you won't look like a risky investment to lenders.

There's an interesting paradox here. Opening new credit accounts makes you have a slightly higher credit risk for a bit. When you apply for a new credit card, your credit score will take a short-term hit. However, in the long term, every new card you get raises your credit limit, which lowers your overall credit utilization ratio. This means having more cards can raise your credit score in the long term.

Whenever you cancel a credit card, you lower your total credit limit. This usually makes your credit utilization ratio go up slightly. Instead of canceling a card, a better option might be to downgrade it to one with no annual fee or try to transfer the card's credit to another card with the same bank.

What if You Have a Low Credit Score?

If you have to start a credit card application with bad credit or you're applying for a first-time credit card with no credit history, the most attractive cards with low interest rates, premium rewards, and other perks will probably be unavailable for now. Your best option might be to apply for a higher-interest or secured card or to use a personal touch.

Here are some credit card tips to help improve your approval rate, even with bad or no credit history.

Start at Your Own Bank

Often the best place to start searching is at your own bank. If you already have a savings or checking account with a good history at a certain bank or credit union, you'll be much more likely to win approval there than at an institution that doesn't know you.

Prequalify

Remember, every time you apply for a new credit card, your credit score will take a temporary hit. You can avoid this by looking online for cards that you prequalify for. Prequalification doesn't necessarily guarantee approval, but it gives you a pretty good chance.

Use your favorite search engine to search for "credit card prequalification" alongside the name of various card issuers. Their online prequalification tools will usually ask you to submit your basic info, including your Social Security number, in order to show you a list of their prequalified card offers for your profile.

Include All Possible Income Sources

One of the saddest credit card application mistakes people make is lowballing their own income by neglecting to include all possible income sources. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) amended the CARD Act in 2013, specifically allowing people to add to their credit card applications any sources of household income that they can reasonably expect to receive. This was designed to help provide credit access to domestic partners and spouses who don't hold conventional jobs.

Even if you do have a job, the amendment means you can include any money you earn on the side. This includes disability benefits, child support, alimony, investment income, retirement fund disbursement, etc.

Make sure to only include real, reliable income sources. If a card issuer discovers the information on your application is false, they can charge you with credit card fraud.

Use a Personal Touch

If you apply for a card and initially get denied or put on hold, it might be time to use a personal touch. You can often speed up the pending process or overturn a denial by contacting the card issuer's reconsideration line and talking to a representative with the power to consider your application manually. Use the organization's customer service number, or check your denial letter for a phone number you can call.

Make a plan before you dial. Try to think of a convincing case that paints you as a fiscally responsible person. Point out the financial areas you're strong in. Stay polite, and never let yourself sound angry or entitled.

What Is a Secured Credit Card?

If your credit score is too low to get you qualified for a traditional credit card, you can start rebuilding your credit with a secured credit card. Where unsecured credit cards extend your actual credit, secured cards give you a card anchored to an initial cash deposit.

A typical secured credit card might give you a credit limit of $500, but only after you place a deposit of $500. After six months or so of making punctual payments, your credit score will begin to nudge slightly upward, which will give you higher odds of approval for a regular credit card.

You can find secured cards with credit lines that are slightly higher than their security deposits. Many offer automatic cash rewards, and some even give you the possibility of upgrading to a traditional card after as few as three punctual monthly payments.

Joseph Johnston
DealNews Contributing Writer

Joseph Johnston is a facetious scalawag who thinks he knows it all. A quarter each of stoic, skeptic, logic and panic, he often erases more than he writes. You can find him wandering the dew-drenched depths of the information jungles chasing the other side of the case, or sometimes casting for brook trout on the quiet lakes of Georgia. He is fascinated by structures, algorithms, self-organizing systems, emergent phenomena, local minima, tanha, dukkha and everything in between.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).

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