Qualifying for a credit card can be a challenge if you have damaged credit. It can be difficult, too, if you have a short history of using credit or you haven’t established any credit history at all.
But there is an option if you can’t qualify for a traditional credit card: secured credit cards. These cards, which typically come with lower credit limits and few frills, can help you quickly build a credit history or steadily repair bad credit.
Amy Maliga, a financial educator at Take Charge America, a nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency based in Phoenix, said secured cards are one of the most important tools for consumers who need to build or rebuild their credit.
“Secured credit cards can be a lifeline for consumers who may have a hard time obtaining credit through other channels,” Maliga said.
But what are secured cards, and how do they compare to unsecured credit cards?
How do secured credit cards work?
There are some important similarities between unsecured and secured credit cards: You can use both types of credit cards to make purchases. You pay back these purchases each month. And if you don’t pay off everything you owe by your due date, you’ll be charged interest on your unpaid balance.
But there’s one big difference between secured and unsecured credit cards, and it has to do with your credit limit.
With a secured credit card, you first make a deposit with the bank or financial institution issuing the card. That deposit becomes your credit limit. If you deposit $500, you can charge up to $500 on your secured card. If you deposit $1,000, your card’s credit limit is $1,000.
Traditional credit cards – which are also known as unsecured cards – don’t require any deposit from borrowers. These are the cards you are probably most familiar with: They’re the standard Visa, American Express, Discover and Mastercard credit cards issued by banks and credit unions.
Your past credit history determines your credit limit on an unsecured credit card. If you have a history of paying your bills on time and a strong credit score, your credit limit will be higher.
The pros of secured credit cards
There are several benefits to secured credit cards for consumers with weak or bad credit.
They’re easier to get
The deposit arrangement is what makes secured cards attractive to borrowers with little or bad credit. If you fail to make your card payments on time, the bank or financial institution issuing your card can take what it is owed from your deposit. Because you can’t charge more than you deposited, you can never owe more than what your bank can take.
This offers financial protection to banks and makes it less risky for them to pass out secured credit cards to consumers with a short credit history or ones with blemishes on their credit reports. It’s easier, then, for consumers to qualify for secured cards than it is for them to nab unsecured credit cards.
“Think of the monetary deposit with a secured credit card like the deposit for a rented property,” said Jim Pendergast, senior vice president of AltLINE Sobanco, a company partnered with Alabama’s Southern Bank Company. “It acts as an assurance that you’ll pay your balances. Just like for a renter’s deposit, you can earn your deposit back by using the card responsibly.”
To qualify for a traditional credit card, especially one with a strong rewards program and a lower interest rate, you’ll need a stronger credit score. With a secured card, though, your credit score isn’t as important because of that initial deposit.
You can use them to build better credit
Every time you make an on-time payment on your secured credit card, it is reported to the three national credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. As these payments are recorded, your credit score will gradually build if you haven’t had enough credit to generate one or will slowly improve if you have a score that late or missed payments have damaged.
Once your credit score improves, you can then apply for a traditional credit card. At first, you might qualify only for basic credit cards with no rewards programs. But if you make your payments on these cards on time each month, too, your credit score will continue to improve until you can qualify for cards that offer cash back bonuses, miles or rewards points.
The cons of secured credit cards
Secured credit cards also have their drawbacks.
Limited spending power
Your credit limit will usually be lower if you’re using a secured card. That’s because this limit is typically based on your deposit. If your deposit is a low one – say $300 – your credit limit will be low, too.
Secured cards rarely come with rewards programs. You typically won’t qualify for cash back bonuses or free miles when using a secured card.
How long before a secured card becomes an unsecured one?
The good news? You can transition from a secured credit card to a traditional card if you make your payments on time each month. Doing this will boost your credit score over time. And soon, you’ll have a strong enough credit score to ditch your secured card and apply for an unsecured credit card. The provider that issued your unsecured card might even upgrade you automatically after, say, six months to a year of on-time payments with your secured credit card.
Wendy Terrill, a retirement counselor in Burlington, North Carolina, understands this. She had cancer in 1999, and the financial struggles brought about by this caused her FICO credit score to fall below 400. Terrill rebuilt her credit by taking out a secured card, putting down a security deposit of $200. She used that $200 of credit to slowly rebuild her credit score, making small purchases and paying them off on time.
In fewer than six months, Terrill had improved her score enough to qualify for a traditional unsecured card.
“Some don’t understand why you’d pay someone $200 to get $200 of credit,” Terrill said. “You want to build your credit, that’s why.”
Best secured credit cards
Ready to build your credit and looking for the right secured card? Maliga recommends that consumers look carefully at the fine print when choosing a secured credit card. Some secured cards come with annual fees or monthly maintenance fees.
Here is a look at three secured cards that might meet your needs.
Secured Mastercard® from Capital One
One of the benefits of this card is that it comes with no annual fee, so you won’t have to pay to use it. Capital One requires a security deposit of $49, $99 or $200. Once you make your deposit, you’ll get a credit line of $200. Capital One will automatically consider you for a higher credit line in as few as six months.
Discover it® Secured Credit Card
This is a rare secured card that offers a rewards program. You’ll earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in purchases each quarter. You’ll earn 1% cash back on all other purchases. There’s also no annual fee with this card.
Citi® Secured Mastercard®
Looking for a higher credit limit? The Citi Secured Mastercard might be a good option. You can get a credit limit of up to $2,500, with a deposit of that same amount. This card also charges no annual fee.
Best unsecured cards for people with limited credit history
But what happens after you’ve properly used your secured card, making charges and paying them off in full? Doing this will help you build a credit history, and your credit score should steadily grow stronger.
Eventually – it might take about six months of on-time payments with your secured card – you’ll be ready to apply for an unsecured credit card. You might not have enough credit to qualify for the top credit cards, the ones offering valuable rewards and cash back bonuses. But you might qualify for one of the cards listed below, all available to consumers with shorter credit histories or average to good credit scores.
Capital One Platinum Credit Card
This is a no-frills card – but it doesn’t charge an annual fee, which is always a positive. And Capital One will review your payment history regularly. You’ll be automatically considered for a higher credit line in as little as six months. You’ll also gain access to your free credit score and credit profile through CreditWise from Capital One.
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card
This card offers a basic rewards program. You’ll earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase you make with the card. You can also earn a $200 cash bonus if you spend $500 within three months of opening your account. This card also charges no annual fee.
Petal credit cards
The Petal credit card pitches itself to applicants with little to no credit. Instead of relying on a traditional credit score, Petal creates what it calls a Cash Score based on your income, spending and savings. Petal says this score could help you qualify for a better Petal card.
There are two versions – the Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card and the Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card – that come with credit limits ranging from $500 to $10,000, depending on the card. You might also qualify for cash back bonuses of 1% to 1.5% of the purchases you make or 2% to 10% at select merchants.
Secured cards are an easy and accessible way to start building or rebuild your credit – and start earning cash back along the way, in some cases. Use them diligently, making sure to pay them in full, and in a few months, your credit will be strong enough to qualify for an unsecured credit card.