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Whether you’re a seasoned cardholder or a first-timer, you may be surprised at how many types of credit cards are available. Depending on your credit score and the length of your credit history, you may not be able to qualify for the ones with the most favorable terms and lowest interest rates. But chances are, there’s a card that fits your needs and—if used responsibly—may help you build credit.
Broadly speaking, there are four different types of credit card categories:
- Cards That Help Build Credit
- Cards That Can Save You Money
- Cards That Offer Cash Back and Rewards
- Cards for People With Bad Credit
Here, we’ll break down each category, discuss the specific card types and explain each one’s unique benefits so that you can make the most of your card.
Cards That Help Build Credit
If you’re new to the world of credit, you may be wondering how to build credit quickly, without going into debt. If you’re in college, you may have the added load of student debt. When you’re just starting out, it’s important to find a card that’s right for you and manage it carefully to start your credit health out on the right foot. You may even be able to earn some rewards along the way.
1. Student Credit Cards
Student credit cards operate exactly the same way that standard credit cards do. The main difference is that their total credit limits tend to be lower. Additionally, since they are marketed toward students who likely don’t have much of a credit history, the requirements for approval are typically more lenient.
Benefit: Some student cards offer incentives for good grades, like a small cash reward for each school year that you earn a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Example: Discover it® Student Cash Back
2. Starter Credit Cards
Starter credit cards are designed for those with little to no credit history. Consider getting one if you’ve never had a line of credit, or if you have one that hasn’t been open very long. These cards typically don’t offer great rewards programs or cash-back incentives, and they come with high interest rates. However, if you can find one with no annual fee, it can be a great option to begin building credit.
Benefit: Establish your credit and build a solid payment history with this type of credit card, which is generally easy to qualify for.
Example: Capital One Platinum® Credit Card
3. Joint Credit Cards
Unlike authorized user credit cards, joint credit cards require both parties to apply together. Both parties are equally responsible for paying the balance. Therefore, late or missed payments may ding both credit scores—while consistent, on-time payments will benefit both scores.
Benefit: If a person doesn’t have a high enough credit score to qualify for a good credit card, they may consider applying with their partner for a joint credit card with more favorable terms.
Example: Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Cards That Can Save You Money
Sometimes applying for a credit card is a strategic move. Maybe you want to transfer your balance to a card with a lower interest rate, avoid paying interest for an introductory period or customize features for your business. These cards can help you save money—your way.
4. Zero Percent Purchase APR Credit Cards
Sometimes cards will offer temporarily lower APRs for an introductory period. Cards that boast zero percent APR don’t require you to pay interest on new purchases for a set amount of time, usually about 12 months.
Benefit: Save money on interest by borrowing money essentially for free. Just make sure to pay off your balance by the time your introductory period is over to avoid interest charges.
Example: U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card
5. No Annual Fee Credit Cards
Many credit cards charge annual fees for the convenience of having the card and for the benefits and rewards they offer. Depending on how elite the card is, these fees can be up to $450 or more. However, almost three-fourths of cards offer no annual fee—and many of these still come with decent cash back programs. Scan your credit card offer or the terms and conditions to make sure your card has no annual fee.
Benefit: Save an average of $58 each year by avoiding unnecessary annual credit card fees.
Example: Citi® Double Cash Card
6. Balance Transfer Credit Cards
Similar to zero percent purchase APR credit cards, balance transfer cards offer temporarily low introductory rates—but specifically for balance transfers. This is a great option for those who want to save money on a high-interest credit card. Rather than closing the unfavorable card—which may lower your credit score—a balance transfer may be a better option.
Benefit: Avoid paying hefty amounts of interest by transferring your balance to a card with a much lower introductory rate.
Example: Wells Fargo Platinum Card
7. Business Credit Cards
If you’re a business owner, you may want to apply for a credit card specifically for business use. This will help you separate personal and business expenses, and the rewards may help your business save money. You’ll then begin to build business credit. To apply you’ll need decent credit and either a federal tax ID or employer identification number (EIN).
Benefit: Enjoy business-specific perks like higher credit limits, expense management reports and the ability to add more cards for employees.
Example: Costco Anywhere Visa® Business Card by Citi
Cards That Offer Cash Back and Rewards
In order to get the most out of their spending, most cardholders gravitate toward credit options that offer cash back and rewards.
8. Cash Back Credit Cards
Cash back credit cards allow you to earn a certain percent—typically ranging from one to five—of the money back every time you make a purchase with the card. Some issuers will pay this amount annually, while others pay monthly.
Benefit: Find a card that allows you to customize where you get your cash back. For example, certain cards allow you to earn five percent cash back in a store category of your choice.
Example: Chase Freedom Unlimited®
9. Retail Credit Cards
Retail or store credit cards are offered by specific businesses and can only be used to make purchases with that store. While these cards aren’t ideal for everyday purchasing needs, they’re a great way to earn generous rewards with stores that you frequently shop at. There are over 300 store credit cards available, from Walmart and Target to Lowe’s and JCPenney.
Benefit: Store cards typically don’t charge annual fees, don’t require excellent credit and offer substantial first-purchase discounts as well as long-term cash back rewards.
Example: Amazon Prime Store Card
10. Hotel Credit Cards
Hotel credit cards are affiliated with a specific hotel chain and offer rewards on a “points” basis. Typically, they’ll offer some points for purchases made at unrelated businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. But the main attraction is the bonus points earned on eligible purchases made directly with the hotel.
Benefit: Earn generous sign-up bonuses, rewards when you spend money on hotel bookings and yearly free nights.
Example: Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card
11. Airline Credit Cards
Certain credit cards offer rewards on purchases made with a specific airline, while others allow you to earn rewards with any airline or travel-related expense. These rewards rack up in the form of “miles.” For example, many cards offer two miles for every one dollar spent on flights.
Benefit: For frequent travelers, airline credit cards are a great way to score free and discounted flights.
Example: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
12. Gas Rewards Credit Cards
Not to be confused with gas station credit cards—which operate like retail cards—a gas station rewards card offers cash back when you pay at the pump. It can be used anywhere, but you’ll enjoy bonus rewards at gas stations.
Benefit: Earn up to three to five percent cash back on gas purchases, often with no annual fee and a zero percent introductory APR.
Example: PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card
13. Charge Cards
Charge cards operate in exactly the same manner as regular credit cards, except for one major caveat: you must completely pay off the total balance each month. Failure to do so results in late fees and penalties and will cause a drop in your credit score. On the flip side, they typically come with sizable initial bonuses and rewards.
Benefit: Enjoy higher credit limits and generous point systems—oftentimes offering up to five points per one dollar spent.
Example: ThePlatinum Card® from American Express
Cards for People With Bad Credit
If you’re struggling to get approved for credit cards, loans or other lines of credit because of bad credit, don’t be discouraged. There are credit cards with terms designed specifically for those with poor credit.
14. Secured Credit Cards
Most credit cards are unsecured. This means that you are not required to put up a security deposit. Secured cards, on the other hand, require an up-front payment to act as collateral in the event that you can’t pay your balance. Credit card issuers see borrowers with bad credit scores as riskier, so this deposit helps mitigate some of that risk.
Benefit: Secured cards give borrowers with poor credit access to credit when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to qualify for a card.
Example: Capital One® Secured Mastercard®
15. Prepaid Cards
Prepaid cards aren’t technically credit cards, because they don’t involve borrowing money. Instead, a cardholder loads a set amount of money onto the card, and purchases are subtracted from the card’s balance, similar to a gift card. The spending limit then renews if and when the card is reloaded.
Benefit: Prepaid cards help you stay within a budget and avoid getting into credit card debt.
Example: American Express Serve® FREE Reloads
What Type of Credit Card Is Best?
Ultimately, the decision for which card to get is up to your personal preferences and financial goals. However, there are a few good rules of thumb when looking for the best credit cards. Remember to read the terms and conditions carefully before signing up. Generally, cards with any of the following perks may be worth pursuing:
- Zero percent introductory APR
- Low APR after the introductory period
- Sign-up bonus
- Solid rewards or cash-back program
- No annual fee
All of the different types of credit cards may seem daunting at first, but once you understand the unique benefits of each one, you’ll be able to find a card that fits your needs. Remember that—regardless of credit card type—good credit management is the key to keeping your credit healthy. After years of on-time payments, low credit utilization, a good mix of credit and few hard inquiries, you’ll be well on your way to your best score yet.
Reviewed by Kenton Arbon, an Associate Attorney at Lexington Law Firm. Written by Lexington Law.
Kenton Arbon is an Associate Attorney in the Arizona office. Mr. Arbon was born in Bakersfield, California, and grew up in the Northwest. He earned his B.A. in Business Administration, Human Resources Management, while working as an Oregon State Trooper. His interest in the law lead him to relocate to Arizona, attend law school, and graduate from Arizona State College of Law in 2017. Since graduating from law school, Mr. Arbon has worked in multiple compliance domains including anti-money laundering, Medicare Part D, contracts, and debt negotiation. Mr. Arbon is licensed to practice law in Arizona. He is located in the Phoenix office.
Note: Articles have only been reviewed by the indicated attorney, not written by them. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only. Use of, and access to, this website or any of the links or resources contained within the site do not create an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship between the reader, user, or browser and website owner, authors, reviewers, contributors, contributing firms, or their respective agents or employers.