Getting Approved for a Credit Card
Getting approved for a credit card can be difficult without a positive credit history working in your favor. It's a Catch-22: To obtain a credit card, you need a good credit history. But to have a good credit history, you need to establish good credit!
This no-win cycle can keep people with a non-existent, limited or negative credit history from getting approved for a credit card. But it doesn't have to if you understand the type of credit cards available and how to build a good credit history.
When it comes to credit cards, the type of card you apply for will depend on your situation. If you're a student, you'll, naturally, sign up for a student card. But if you're a non-student with a non-existent or bad credit history, a card that is secured or obtained with a co-signer may be your best option.
Secured Credit Cards
With a secured card, you secure the card by depositing cash up front in a savings account or CD. The amount of funds you place on deposit will generally match your credit line. Your card issuer maintains a lien on the deposit account, which you stand to lose if you fail to make timely credit card payments.
While many people have heard of secured credit cards, unsecured or regular credit cards are more common. With an "unsecured" card, the issuing bank has no right to take specific assets of yours if you don't pay your bill. Instead, the bank would have to sue you or force you into bankruptcy to collect.
A secured MasterCard or Visa looks just like a regular one, and the law ensures that it has all the same consumer protections. However, a secured card typically carries a higher interest rate. But a secured card can be a good deal because it offers you the convenience of having a credit card while you work on establishing or rebuilding your credit.
Credit Cards with a Co-Signer
With co-signed credit cards, the co-signer guarantees and is responsible for the debt. This means that the co-signing person is responsible for paying the full amount of the debt if the card holder doesn't pay. In fact, when co-signed debt goes into default, three out of four times co-signers are normally asked to repay what is owed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Furthermore, the issuing bank can attempt to settle the debt without first trying to collect from the card holder. The bank can also use the same collection methods against the co-signing individual, including suing and garnishing wages. If the debt is not paid, it can leave a negative mark on the credit history of the co-signer, as well as the card holder.
Despite the risks, a co-signed credit card can be great tool for helping a friend or relative build their credit history so they can one day obtain a card on their own.
Building a Strong Credit History
Secured, co-signed and pre-paid credit cards offer viable options. But you should start building a strong credit history, so you can obtain a regular credit card on your own in the future.
First, you need to understand how credit card issuers determine credit worthiness. The approval criteria varies from among issuing banks, but generally relates to what's often called the three C's of credit: capacity, character and collateral. Capacity refers to your ability to pay based on your income and existing debt. Collateral refers to any assets you have that can secure payment, such as bank accounts or home ownership. Character refers to factors like your payment history, length of employment, etc.
To get a good idea about how your application will fare with credit card companies, check your credit history with one of the major credit reporting agencies: Experian (www.experian.com), Equifax (www.equifax.com) and TransUnion (www.tuc.com). These agencies access your payment information directly from the companies you have credit with, as well as from government agencies such as the legal court system.
Credit reporting agencies use the information in your credit history to determine your credit rating or credit score. Credit scores, also known as FICA or Beacon scores depending on the CRA, generally range from 350 to 850. Most banks will approve you for credit if your score is at least 620. If your rating is 720 or higher, banks will offer you their lowest interest rate.
Generally, your credit score is determined by your payment history for the last two years. T echnically, CRAs calculate your score using a closely-guarded formula. TransUnion, for example, determines credit scores using a variety of factors, including: how you pay your accounts, how much you owe and how often you've applied for credit.
Repairing Your Credit
You should obtain a copy of your credit report (from any of the three major credit bureaus) at least annually and check it for accuracy. As you review your report, make a list of items that are incorrect, out-of-date or misleading. In particular, look for mistakes in your name, address, phone number, Social Security Number, and for missing or outdated employment information.
You have specific rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. For example, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report if you've been denied credit, insurance or employment and request the report within 60 days of notice, or if you can prove that (1) you're unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days, (2) you're on welfare, or (3) your report is inaccurate because of fraud.
To repair questionable items on your credit report, you can seek help from consumer credit counseling agencies or law firms such as Lexington (www.lexingtonlaw.com). You can also clean up your credit report on your own, so beware of credit repair scammers that offer "exclusive" credit repair remedies for high fees.
There's no charge to dispute mistakes or outdated information on your credit record. Simply ask the credit bureau for a dispute form and submit it with any supporting documentation.
Once you're satisfied with your credit report, you can proceed with applying for a credit card with confidence. After you receive your card, be sure to use it responsibly to enhance your credit history. Never spend more than you can afford, and always pay your bills on time and in full.