- 1 Introduction
- 2 Won’t This Ruin My Credit?
- 3 Types Of Credit Card Bonuses
- 4 What To Do Before You Get Started
- 5 Credit Card Issuers Application Rules & Tips
- 6 Record Keeping
- 7 Getting Started
- 8 Best Credit Card Offers
- 9 Additional Reading & Resources
- 10 F.A.Q
Signing up for new credit cards can be extremely lucrative, there are offers worth up to $500 cash or enough airline miles to fly first class or give you two free nights at luxurious hotel properties (or lots of nights at less luxurious properties). In this guide we’ll give you all the information you need to get started in one place.
Unlike other websites, we do not use any credit card affiliate links – this means we do not receive any commission from any credit card issuer when you sign up for a credit card. This allows us to give you unbiased advice and point you towards the best offer as we have no financial incentive to do otherwise.
Before we get started, there are two golden rules of chasing credit card bonuses:
- Always pay your balance in full. Interest rates on credit cards are extremely high (often in the 20%+ APY range). If you carry a balance, you’ll quickly cannibalize any profit you may have made from bonuses.
- Research thoroughly before getting started. The biggest mistake most new people make when they get started is jumping in head first, it’s a better idea to dip your toes in to get started. Start slow, read and research as much as you can and ask questions. That way you’re less likely to make mistakes and more likely to reach your goals. Start by reading this guide in full, at the end of the article we have additional reading resources for you to make use of.
Won’t This Ruin My Credit?
One of the most common concerns people have when I tell them about credit card bonuses is that they are worried that signing up for these credit cards will cause their credit to be ruined. Most people find that their credit generally stays the same or slowly improves over the long term.
Information about your credit is collected and maintained by three nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs): TransUnion, Equifax & Experian (they are also commonly known as credit bureaus). They collect information such as new loans, payment history, length of loans and a variety of other factors and compile all of this information into your individual credit report.
Lenders (in our case credit card issuers) use the information found in your credit report to help determine if you should be approved or denied for a loan and also what rates and other terms they should set. Because most lenders process a massive amount of loans on a daily basis, they don’t have time to manually go through each individuals credit report. Instead they rely on credit scoring models to give them an indication of how credit worthy somebody is.
It’s very important to understand how credit scoring models work to explain why you score won’t be ruined by signing up for new cards. There are lots of different credit scoring models, but FICO scores are used in 90%+ of all lending decisions so it’s the score we will focus on to help demonstrate why signing up for credit cards won’t ruin your score.
How Is The FICO Score Calculated?
Your FICO score has a range of 300-850, a lower score means you’re less credit worthy (and less likely to be approved for a loan or credit card) and a higher score means you’re more credit worthy (and more likely to be approved for a loan or credit card). There are five different scoring criteria that are used to calculate your FICO score and each one has a different weighting on your score (e.g some affect your score more than others).
- Payment History 35%: This is the single biggest factor that affects your score. It looks at if you’ve made payments on time and if they were late how late they were. For the best score, a history with only on time payments is best. The later your payment, the more it’ll negatively impact your score (e.g 15 days late is a lot better than 120 days late). It also takes into account how long ago the late payments were made (e.g if it was from six years ago it’ll affect your score less than it being from six months ago). This should make sense as obviously lenders want to make sure you’ll pay back your debts and pay them back on time.
- Credit Utilization 30%: This is calculated by taking the amount of credit you’ve used and dividing it by the total amount of credit you have available to you. For example if you have one credit card with a limit of $1,000 and you’ve used $100 of this limit then your credit utilization will be 10%. For the best score, you want a credit utilization under 10% and anything over 30% will start to really cause your score to drop. Lenders care about your credit utilization because somebody going through financial hardships will usually have a high credit utilization and be less likely to be able to repay their loans.
- Length Of Credit History 15%: This looks at how old your credit accounts are, the older the better. If your credit history is very old then the other information is statistically more significant. For example, somebody with on time payments for 15 years is more likely to continue to make on time payments than somebody who only has a credit history of six months but also has made all of their payments on time. It’s not only your oldest account that matters, they’ll also look at your average age of accounts as well.
- New Searches For Credit 10%: Having a lot of new searches for credit is considered risky by lenders, as people under financial duress are often trying to open a lot of new accounts in a short period of time.
- Types Of Credit Used 10%: There are two main types of credit: installment loans (e.g auto loans & mortgages) are when you borrow a fixed amount and repay it over time and revolving credit (e.g credit cards) where you have a maximum credit limit and can borrow against that limit, pay it back and then borrow against it again. The more different types of credit you have, the better.
What Factors Are Affected By Signing Up For New Cards & How To Minimize This?
Now let’s look at the above scoring criteria and see what is and isn’t affected by signing up for a new card. We’ll also look at how we can minimize any potential negatives and other ways you might boost your score.
- Payment History: As mentioned at the start of this guide, you should always be paying your credit card balances in full and on time. As long as you continue to do (and I cannot stress how important this enough) then your FICO score will improve over time.
- Credit Utilization: This is something that could be affected by signing up for a new card, especially if it has a minimum spend requirement (e.g spend $3,000 or more within the first three months of account opening). But it’s something we can easily control, most people think that paying off their balance in full each month means they’d have a utilization of 0%. That’s not the case, credit card issuers report your balance to the consumer reporting agencies (e.g TransUnion, Equifax & Experian) at different times. You need to pay off your balance in full before this date to keep a low credit utilization. Most card issuers will use your statement balance and report that to the consumer reporting agency. In that case as long as you pay off your card in full before your statement closes then you’ll have a utilization of 0%. But not all card issuers do this, thankfully we have a blog post with the date that each of the major credit card issuers use when it comes to reporting your balances to the consumer reporting agencies.
- Length Of Credit History: One thing you don’t want to do is close your oldest account, as this will affect your length of credit history. Although it’s worth noting that this won’t start affecting your score until after it falls off your credit report and that takes seven years to happen. Opening new credit card accounts will lower your average age of accounts, but this isn’t a major factor in your FICO score and over time your average age of accounts will increase naturally anyway. You can help to improve your credit history by keeping your cards open, if they come with an annual fee that you don’t want to pay then instead of closing the card you can downgrade it/product change it to a card with no annual fee. We discuss the best downgrade options for each credit card issuer in this linked post.
- New Searches For New Credit: Whenever you apply for a new credit card, a hard pull or hard credit inquiry will be done to check your credit report, this will obviously hurt your credit score. Thankfully, it’s not as bad as it seems. These hard inquiries stay on your credit report for a maximum of two years and affect your FICO score for a maximum of one year. Most people find that their score will drop anywhere from 2-5 points and after three-six months they’ve regained that drop (as the effect on your credit diminishes over time).
- Types Of Credit Used: If anything, the different types of credit used will only increase as you sign up for more cards, so this is actually a positive.
As you can see, a maximum of 25% of your score could be affected by applying for new credit and most of those effects are very short term in nature. That being said, if you have plans to apply for a large loan (e.g mortgage or home loan) in the next two years then it’s generally recommended that you don’t apply for any new cards as your approval odds and the interest rate you receive could be effected.
I’ve personally seen my credit score increase slowly over time and I apply for a lot of credit cards each year.
Types Of Credit Card Bonuses
There are two main types of credit card bonuses:
- Bonuses you get for signing up for the credit card. These will usually be in the form of “spend x amount of dollars within the first three months and receive a bonus of x”, this is known as a minimum spend requirement. Some bonuses don’t have a minimum spend requirement and instead are triggered when you’re approved or after your first purchase (you can find those opportunities in this linked post). These are the most lucrative bonuses, but unfortunately you have to sign up for a new card every time you want another bonus and as we’ll see later there are limits to the number cards you can apply for/be approved for.
- On going spend/category bonuses. A lot of cards will offer you a higher rewards rate when spend money in a specific category, these are known as category bonuses. For example, a card might offer you 5% cash back on all purchases made at a grocery store and then 1% cash back on all other purchases. If you spend a lot of money in a specific category, it might be a good idea to get a card that earns at a high rate in that category. We’ve compiled blogposts for some of the more popular categories that list the credit cards that earn at the highest rate for that credit card:
- Best Credit Cards For Every Day Purchases
- Best Credit Cards For Restaurant Spend
- Best Credit Card For Grocery Store Purchases
- Best Credit Cards For Office Supply Purchases
- Best Credit Cards For Home Improvement Stores
- Best Credit Cards For Telecommunication Expenses
- Best Credit Card For Department Store Purchases
- Best Credit Card For Drugstore Purchases
- Best Credit Card For Charity Donations
- Best Gas Credit Cards
- Best Credit Cards For Amazon Purchases – Up to 5x Points/5% Cash Back
- Best Credit Cards For Bookstore Purchases
- Best Credit Card For People With Very High Spend
- Best Credit Cards For Travel Purchases
Most people will want to focus on sign up bonuses, as they provide significantly more value than on going category bonuses. That being said, if you spend a lot of money in a single category and won’t have any issues meeting minimum spend requirements on other cards then it’s probably worth picking up a card that earns at a high rate in that category.
What To Do Before You Get Started
Before you get started, it’s really important to get a proper understanding of a few pieces of information about yourself. This information will become much more helpful as you start applying for credit cards and also gives you a proper reference in case you need to come back to any of these points at a later stage.
Check Your Credit Score & Set Up Credit Monitoring
There are now a lot of different ways to get your FICO score for free (in fact a lot of credit card issuers now provide this as a benefit on their cards). If you can’t get a FICO score that way, then there are also many free credit monitoring sites that provide a free credit score. The score they provide isn’t a FICO score (it’s usually a VantageScore, another score that is used by lenders but not as commonly used) but it gives you a good idea of your overall credit health.
In addition to this free score, those sites also provide you with free credit monitoring and will alert you whenever a major change to your credit has occurred (e.g a hard pull on your credit report or a late payment). As mentioned earlier there are three nationwide consumer reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax & Experian), so you’ll want a combination of services that monitor all three. I personally recommend a combination of Credit Karma & Credit.com, as those two will cover all three agencies. But below are a list of all the free monitoring sites and what consumer reporting agencies they cover:
- Credit Karma – provides information based on your on Equifax & TransUnion credit report
- Credit.com – provides information based on your Experian credit report
- Credit Sesame – provides information based on your on TransUnion credit report
- WisePiggy – provides information based on your on TransUnion credit report
- Mint – provides information based on your on TransUnion credit report
- WalletHub – provides information based on your on TransUnion credit report
- Quizzle – provides information based on your on TransUnion credit report
Most credit cards with high sign up bonuses are referred to as prime credit cards, this means they are designed for people with excellent credit. If your score is below 700, then chances are you’ll receive denials based on your credit score. If it is lower than this, I’d recommend trying to improve your credit first (as you now understand how credit scoring works, you should be able to improve your score quite easily) before getting started. If your score is above 700 and you’ve set up credit monitoring then move onto the next step.
Determine How Much You Spend/Could Spend On Credit Cards Each Month
As mentioned in the types of credit card bonuses, most have a minimum spend requirement to receive the bonus. You don’t want to start making frivolous purchases just to meet the minimum spend requirements, so before you get started it’s important to work out how much you spend per month on credit cards.
You should be able to do this quite easily by looking at your current credit card statements, but in addition to this think about any purchases you make with cash (or directly via your bank) that could be made by credit card. There are also things you can do to increase your spend without making purchases you wouldn’t otherwise normally make, we’ve outlined these in this linked post.
Once you have your monthly number, it’ll be easier to work out what cards you should target and how often you’ll be able to apply for them. For example, somebody that spends $500 per month on credit cards will be a lot more limited than somebody who spends $5,000 per month. Even if you spend very little, there are still opportunities out there for you. In fact some bonuses only require you to make a single purchase. We’ve compiled those offers in this post here.
Write Down Your Goals
Your goals should determine what credit cards you apply for and not vice versa. For example, if your goal is to visit Paris then applying for a Chase Southwest card won’t do you much good as the bonus can really only be used for Southwest flights (excluding gift cards and other less than ideal redemption) and they don’t fly to Paris.
The clearer your goal, the better. For example a really good goal might read like “I want to earn as much cash back as possible so I can pay off my student loans earlier” or “I want to travel to Paris for four nights, I want to fly business class and stay in luxury properties near the Eiffel Tower”.
If you have a travel related goal, then you’re going to need to familiarize yourself with the loyalty programs of companies that have partnerships with credit card issuers. Not all points are created equal, for example 50,000 Starwoods Preferred Guest hotel points will get you a lot more than 50,000 Hilton hotel points. The relevant information for each loyalty program is usually found in their award chart and can usually be found by doing a google search for “hotel/airline name award chart” (e.g “Hilton award chart”).
There are then a few tools that make your life easier rather than trying to memorize all of this information. If you want to search for hotels in a specific region, then you can use AwardMapper or Hotel Hustle and it’ll show you the properties in that area that can be booked with hotel points from each of the major hotel loyalty programs and how much each property costs per night.
There are similar tools that work for airline loyalty programs. My current favorite is probably the Award Maximizer by Travel Codex (although you can find a full list of other tools and their pros & cons here). You enter the two airports you want to travel between and it’ll show you how many miles are required for each airline program, it’ll also useful information like if fuel surcharges are collected or not.
If you don’t have a clear travel goal, you have two options:
- Focus on credit cards that offer flexible points that can be transferred to lots of different travel partners. Three credit card issuers (American Express, Chase & Citi) offer their own points, these points can then be redeemed with a lot of different airline and hotel partners. By focusing on these points, you’ll have more flexibility in the future. It’s still not an ideal outcome though as they might not transfer to the best option when you do have a clear travel goal. The names of these flexible points are as follows:
- American Express Rewards
- Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Citi ThankYou Points
- Focus on credit cards that offer a cash reward. Cash has the ultimate flexibility, you can always use cash towards travel or any other expense you have. We have a list of the best cash sign up bonuses here.
After reading this section, you should know your credit score and have set up credit monitoring on the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies, know how much you spend per month on a credit card and also have a clear goal (or a list of clear goals). This might seem super boring to do, but I promise it’ll make your job much easier to do in the long run.
Credit Card Issuers Application Rules & Tips
There are a lot of different financial institutions that issue credit cards, but there are a few that have dominant marketshare – especially when it comes to travel co-branded partners. Each credit card issuer has certain rules (sometimes published officially and sometimes not) that you should be aware of before applying for any credit card. Below are a list of these rules for the major players and also some tips for approval.
The following rules only apply to cards issued by American Express. Other issuers sometimes issue cards that run on the American Express payment network that don’t follow these rules (also known as third party issued American Express cards).
American Express offers two types of cards:
- Credit cards. These cards allow you to carry a balance month to month.
- Charge cards. These cards must be paid in full every month, you cannot carry a balance.
The type of card is indicated in the name of the card, for example the ‘Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express’ is considered a charge card and the ‘Amex EveryDay® Credit Card’ is considered a credit card. You can also go on their website, click view all cards and then you can sort by charge or credit card. This distinction is important to know because of the following American Express rules:
- You can have a maximum of four credit cards and ten charge cards issued by American Express at any one time
- You’re limited to one credit card application per day (if you apply for multiple in the same day they’ll usually put them on hold until the following day). No limit on the number of charge cards you can apply for in a single day.
The other rule you should be aware of with American Express is that you can only get the sign up bonus once for each card. This means that if you apply for the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest personal credit card, get the bonus, cancel and then apply for it four years later you won’t get the bonus. This means you really want to make sure you’re getting the best possible bonus on each card.
If you don’t currently have any American Express cards, I’d recommend waiting until you receive one of their higher than publicly available sign up bonuses. They market aggressively to non-cardholders, so you’ll usually receive a lot of mail offers with high sign up bonuses. Unfortunately after you apply for your first card, these offers usually disappear. So wait for something like a 100,000 or 150,000 offer on the personal platinum card if you’re not an existing cardholder.
You can read more about American Express cards and their quirks by reading our post ‘25 Things Everybody Should Know About American Express‘.
Bank of America
Bank of America has something known as the ‘2/3/4 rule’. The rule is as follows:
- Bank of America will only approve you for at most two cards per rolling 2 months, three cards per rolling 12 months, and four cards per rolling 24 months.
You can read more about Bank of America and their credit cards in our post ‘23 Things Everybody Should Know About Bank of America Credit Cards‘.
There are no hard and fast rules with Barclaycard, although in most cases you’ll be denied if you’ve had more than 6 new cards in the past 24 months (similar to the 5/24 rule outlined below for Chase). Read more about Barclaycard in this post ‘28 Things You Should Know About Barclaycard Credit Cards‘.
Chase has something called the 5/24 rule (this doesn’t affect all Chase cards, but most of them). The rule is as follows:
- You will not be approved for this Chase card if you have opened 5 or more bank cards in the past 24 months
This includes all cards that have been opened, not just Chase cards that were opened. This might not seem too bad if you’re just getting started, five new credit cards in two years is quite a lot! I can assure you that once you get started and see the rewards you can receive you’ll realize that you want to apply for a lot more than five cards every two years. Because of this, it’s generally recommended to target Chase cards as some of your first credit cards before applying for cards with other credit card issuers. As once you hit that limit of five, you won’t be able to get approved for any of their cards and they have a lot of great credit cards. It’s sometimes possible to bypass this rule as well.
In addition to this:
- You can be approved for a maximum of three Chase cards per month.
- If you’ve received the sign up bonus on a card you’re not eligible for another sign up bonus on the same card until 24 months has passed
If you want to learn more about Chase cards, I’d recommend this post titled ‘26 Things Everybody Should Know About Chase Credit Cards‘.
Citi probably has the strictest application rules that you should be aware of. They are as follows:
- You can only apply for one Citi personal card every 8 days
- You can apply for no more than two Citi personal cards every 65 days
- You can apply for one Citi business card every 95 days
You can find more information about Citi credit cards in this post ‘19 Things Everybody Should Know About Citi Credit Cards‘.
- A cardmember can be the primary cardholder on two Discover accounts
- You can only apply for your second Discover card after you’ve held your first card for a minimum of one year
Read more about Discover in this linked post: “17 Things Everybody Should Know About Discover Credit Cards“.
U.S Bank doesn’t have any strict application rules, although for the U.S. Bank Altitude Rewards card you normally need to be an existing customer to be able to apply online. Read more about U.S Bank in this post ‘22 Things Everybody Should Know About US Bank Credit Cards‘.
Wells Fargo limits you to getting one sign up bonus every 15 months. The rule states:
- If you opened a Wells Fargo credit card within the last 15 months, you will not qualify for the introductory rate(s), fees and bonus offers.
They usually want you to have an existing relationship with them before they’ll approve you, the easiest way to do this is by setting up a checking account with them. The plus side is they frequently offer sign up bonuses on their checking accounts, click here to see if there any currently available. Read more in this post ‘17 Things Everybody Should Know About Wells Fargo Credit Cards‘.
Tips That Work For All Credit Card Issuers
If you’re denied for a credit card, that’s not the end of the line. It’s possible to turn that denial into an approval by calling the reconsideration line for that card issuer. Sometimes they’ll just want a little bit of extra information about you before approving you. The two following pages should help with this:
Make sure you’re aware of the application rules and tips for each credit card issuer, it’ll help your odds in being approved. It might be a good idea to bookmark this section of the guide so you can quickly reference it before applying for any cards. This should also prove how important it is to keep accurate records of things (see next section).
As mentioned above, keeping accurate records will help you out in the long run. I like to keep track of the following things:
- Date that I applied for a credit card
- Date that I was approved for a credit card
- Date that I reached the minimum spend requirement
- Date that I received the sign up bonus
- Date that I cancelled the credit card
If you keep good records, you’ll thank me later. If you don’t keep good records, you’ll see why I said it was so important later. If you want you can use this sample spreadsheet.
Now that you’ve read all of that, it’s time to start looking at some credit card offers. By now you should have a clear idea of the following:
- Your credit score
- How much you spend per month on credit cards
- Your goals
- Application rules for each card issuer (and some idea on what cards to go for first, for example: Chase first & wait for a good targeted American Express offer if you don’t currently hold one of their cards)
- A good recording keeping system
In most cases if you’re just starting out and have very few cards in the last two years I’d recommend starting out by focusing on Chase credit cards. This is due to the Chase 5/24 rule that we mentioned previously, in particular we want to focus on Chase cards that this rule applies to. If you don’t focus on these cards early on, it’s possible you won’t be able to get them at all later. The Chase cards most people will be interested in are:
- Chase Freedom
- Chase Freedom Unlimited
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Chase Southwest Plus personal card
- Chase Southwest Premier personal card
- Chase United MileagePlus Explorer personal card
As you can see I’ve listed 7 cards above and at most you’d be able to get 5 of these so it’s important to prioritize. Again the best cards for each individual will vary based on your travel goals and also what each card is offering as a sign up bonus at any one time. One card that I would recommend to people starting out is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. One of the reasons I like to suggest this card is that the value proposition is easy to understand. Here’s why:
- Bonus is usually a minimum of 50,000 points
- Points can be redeemed for 1¢ each (making the sign up bonus worth $500) or can be transferred to travel partners (holding this card also lets you transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned on other cards to travel partners)
- Card has an annual fee of $95, waived first year
Worst case scenario you’ll get $500 in “profit”. Once the Chase 5/24 rule applies to you, I suggest moving onto the other card issuers we listed above.
Best Credit Card Offers
Finding the best sign up bonus for a specific card can be challenging, as these bonuses change on a frequent basis. We have one page that help with this:
- Best Current Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses & Offers. This will show you what we think are the best current sign up bonuses and why we think these are the best.
Additional Reading & Resources
- Flyertalk Forums. The biggest forums for all things relating to loyalty programs (including hotel loyalty programs). They have a different subsection for each loyalty program and also another subsection for credit cards. If you have a question, it’s probably been answered there already.
- Reddit.com/r/churning. A subreddit for everything to do with credit card bonuses, they also have something called ‘Moronic Mondays’ where you can ask stupid/basic questions and get an answer (this runs all the time even though it’s called ‘Moronic Mondays’, a new thread is created each week and then stickied to the top of the subreddit each week).
If you have a question that’s not answered before (and you’ve done a basic google search trying to find the answer) then feel free to ask it in the comments below and we’ll answer it for you. You’ll find that people in this community are more than happy to answer questions, as long as you’ve done the basic research and aren’t asking a question that’s been answered multiple times before.
Can I get the sign up bonus on a credit card more than once?
This varies by card issuer and is usually spelled out in the fine print. If you can get the bonus on a credit card multiple times then it’s considered to be churnable. In this blogpost we’ve compiled a list of rules on what cards are churnable by card issuer.
What about annual fees? I don’t want to be stuck paying $100’s in annual fees each year.
A lot of cards with sign up bonuses do come with annual fees. Often the annual fee is waived the first year and then you pay it from year two on wards (although it’s always wise to read the fine print to see if this is the case or not). Usually these cards come with some ongoing benefits, for example the Chase IHG card comes with a free night at any IHG property worldwide annually and only has a $49 annual fee. These benefits might make the card worth keeping long term. If you don’t think the card is worth keeping long term then you two options:
- Cancel the card. If you cancel the card you don’t have to pay the annual fee for that card any longer. Depending on when you cancel you can either get the annual fee fully refunded or prorated. The rules for each card issuer can be found here. Remember if you cancel a card it won’t fall off your credit report for 7 years and will continue to age, not negatively affecting your credit score.
- Downgrade the card. Most card issuers allow you to downgrade cards with annual fees to other cards with no annual fees. Some of these no annual fee cards are actually extremely useful and worth downgrading to. We share the rules and best options for downgrading with each card issuer here.
I don’t have a credit score/credit history, what should I do?
If you don’t have a credit score, it’s generally because you have no credit history. In cases like this it’s important to build your credit history, make sure you familiarize yourself with how credit scoring works and always make payments on time. You’ll want sign up for a credit card to build your credit history, generally speaking most cards with a high sign up bonus won’t approve people with no history. Some options for people in this situation can be found here:
- Starter Credit Cards – Best Cards For People With No Credit History
- Shopping Cart Trick 2020 – Get Credit Cards Without The Hard Pull