How to get started earning rewards with your first credit card

Card Best for Welcome Offer/Sign Up Bonus Earning Rate Annual Fee
Chase Freedom Unlimited® Best for future value $200
  • Earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.
  • Earn 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 3% on dining and drugstores.
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card Best for flexibility 20,000 miles
  • Earn unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day.

Citi® Double Cash Card Best for cash back N/A
  • Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.

Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card Best for entertainment $200
  • Earn 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023.
  • Earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®).
  • Earn 1% on all other purchases.

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card Best for using abroad $200
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Best for travel rewards 100,000 points
  • 2X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel.
  • 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.


This page includes information about the Discover it Secured Credit Card that is not currently available on The Points Guy and may be out of date. 

Now that you’ve seen a snapshot of these cards let’s take a closer look at each one.

Best first-time credit cards

Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for future value

chase freedom unlimited
(Photo by The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: $200 bonus after spending $500 in their first three months from account opening. Plus, earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target® or Walmart® purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 5% back on travel booked through Ultimate Rewards, 3% back on dining and drug stores and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Why it’s a great first credit card: The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a great starter card (and the first on this list) because it’s buildable. When you have this card by itself, you’re earning at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases. However, as you get more comfortable with credit card rewards, this is an easy card to pair with other Chase cards to round out a complete credit card strategy.

When you combine this with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, you can merge the rewards you earn on the Freedom Unlimited with your other point balances to effectively convert your cash-back earnings into full-on Chase Ultimate Rewards points — which means you can transfer the points you earn on it to one of Chase’s 10 airline or three hotel partners or redeem them for added value directly in the Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Ultimate Rewards points are some of the most valuable points for travel redemptions, and who doesn’t love free travel?

Read our full Chase Freedom Unlimited review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Freedom Unlimited

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: Best for flexibility

(Photo by Eric Heglas/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 20,000-mile bonus after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 1.25x miles on all purchases.

Why it’s a great first credit card: When you’re first starting in the credit card rewards game, juggling different bonus categories and trying to figure out the best redemption options can be confusing and time-consuming. The Capital One VentureOne makes earning travel rewards much simpler. You’re always getting at least 1.25x Venture miles on every single purchase, and the redemption process for those miles is super simple.

You can redeem them at a fixed value to cover travel purchases on your statement, which means you know you’re getting 1 cent per mile out of your rewards. This means the sign-up bonus is worth $200. However, as you get more advanced with travel and award charts, Capital One also lets you transfer your miles to 15+ airline and hotel partners, where you could potentially get even more value. Read our full Capital One VentureOne review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for cash back

(Photo by Josh Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: N/A

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 2% back on all purchases — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill each month.

Why it’s a great first credit card: Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, this is a great card to start with because it’s easy to pair later on when you start to dig into more transferable rewards currencies. Right off the bat, you’re earning 2% cash back on everything, which is a stellar flat rewards rate. That 2% adds up really quickly when you use this for most of your monthly expenses.

However, the Citi Double Cash is another card that allows you to convert those rewards into points when paired with an eligible card.

If you have a Citi ThankYou point-earning card such as the Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Premier® Card, your rewards can become ThankYou points, which are more valuable than straight cash back due to their ability to be redeemed through the Citi travel portal or by transferring to 16 airline partners. The one major downside to this card is that you don’t get a sign-up bonus — but you’ll want to think about the long-term 2% rewards rate from this card.

The information for the Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Read our full Citi Double Cash Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Citi Double Cash Card

Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for entertainment

Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 3% cash back on dining and entertainment; 3% cash back at grocery stores; 3% cash back on popular streaming streaming services; 1% on all other purchases.

Why it’s a great first credit card: The Capital One SavorOne is one of the most rewarding no-annual-fee cash back cards. You’re getting an excellent 3% on dining and entertainment — two vast and common bonus categories — on top of 3% back at grocery stores and on popular streaming services.

Capital One also has the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card, which comes with 4% cash back on dining, entertainment and popular streaming services, and 3% cash back at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart and Target) in exchange for a $95 annual fee.

The information for the Capital One Savor card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

However, for those who are brand new to the credit card market, the SavorOne is easier to be approved for and provides a lot of value without charging an annual fee — especially since you won’t pay foreign transaction fees when traveling outside the U.S.

Read our full Capital One SavorOne Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for using abroad

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase.

Why it’s a great first credit card: If you’re hoping to stay in the cash-back rewards universe, the Quicksilver is a great beginner credit card. You’re getting cash back on every purchase, which makes it a simple and straightforward card to have in your wallet. It has no annual fee and even waives foreign transaction fees, too. Once you’re more comfortable with credit cards and credit card rewards, you can always add other cards with higher bonus category earnings to your lineup. Using the Quicksilver as a card for all spending that doesn’t fall into another bonus category is simple, straightforward and rewarding — what more can you ask for in a first credit card?

Read our full Capital One Quicksilver Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Capital One Quicksilver Credit Card

The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express: Best for getting started with Amex

(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

Welcome offer: 10,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $1,000 within the first three months of account opening. These points are valued at $200 based on TPG valuations. However, be sure to check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a higher bonus offer.

Annual fee: $0

Rewards: Earn 2x at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in purchases per year; then 1x)

Why this is a great first credit card: This is a credit card for points-and-miles beginners because it earns valuable Membership Rewards without charging an annual fee. It earns 2x at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $6,000 spent each calendar year, then 1x) and 1x on everything else — plus you get a 20% bonus if you swipe it 20 times or more in a billing cycle.

The fact that it earns Amex Membership Rewards points is a large part of its appeal. Like Citi ThankYou Points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can pool your rewards once you start earning more rewards with more premium Amex cards — and Amex points are some of the most valuable out there.

For example, you can transfer your Amex points to Delta, which frequently has flash sales to destinations all over the world, so you’re looking at an easy way to jump-start your free travels. You can also transfer your Amex Membership Rewards points to 19 airline and three hotel programs, including Delta and Marriott, to really get a lot of value out of them.

The information for the Amex EveryDay card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Read our full Amex EveryDay Credit Card review for more details.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for travel rewards

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 100,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. TPG values this bonus at $2,000, depending on how you redeem them — either by transferring them to an airline or hotel or directly through Chase’s travel portal.

Annual fee: $95

Rewards: Earn 2x on travel and dining, 5x on Lyft (through March 2022) and 1x on everything else.

Why it’s a great first credit card: If you’re an avid TPG reader, you know we recommend this card a lot — and with good reason. After all, it is one of the best credit cards on the market, and it even won Best Travel Rewards Credit Card in the 2020 TPG Awards. Those 2x points on dining and travel add up quickly — travel especially is a broad category and includes everything from Uber to public transit to (of course) flights. The points you’ll earn can be transferred to Chase’s various partners or redeemed for 1.25 cents each through Chase’s travel portal.

Right now, Chase is offering some perks for Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders, including new redemption options with the new Pay Yourself Back feature through Sept. 30, 2021. However, keep in mind that the Chase Sapphire Preferred typically requires you to have at least a little bit of credit history and a decent credit score.

Read our full Chase Sapphire Preferred review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Cards for those with fair/bad credit

(Image courtesy of FICO)

Your credit score* is one of the primary factors issuers look at when deciding whether to approve you for a credit card. So what if you have fair or bad credit?

Related: From debt to over 20 credit cards: the story of my personal finance journey

Unfortunately, if your credit isn’t that good, you may not be able to be approved for the rewards credit cards listed above. However, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. There are plenty of credit cards for fair or bad credit you can apply for to help you improve your credit score before you apply for a rewards credit card. But note that credit limits tend to be lower and the APRs for these cards tend to be higher.

Related: 6 things to do to improve your credit in 2021

Credit One Bank® Platinum Visa® for Rebuilding Credit

If you have a lower credit score, the Credit One Bank Platinum Visa for Rebuilding Credit offers you a way to repair your credit score over time while still offering you some of the benefits you get with a rewards credit card. However, it does charge an annual fee — $75 for the first year, then $99 annually. The annual fee for the second and future years may be divided into 12 equal portions and one portion will be billed each month of the applicable year, depending on your account. And note that the APR is higher than cards requiring better credit scores.

The card earns 1% cash-back on categories including eligible gas and groceries as well as your monthly mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV services.

Check out our guide to Credit One Bank credit cards for more details.

OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card

The OpenSky Secured Visa doesn’t come with a credit check, which means you can be approved even if you have fair or bad credit. You’ll pay a $35 annual fee and you’ll need a minimum of $200 for the security deposit. Subject to approval, you could potentially have a credit line of up to $3,000 (though this is a secured card, so you’ll have to have that much cash to put down as the deposit to cover the line of credit).

Check out our guide to the best secured credit cards for more details.

Discover it Secured Credit Card

The Discover it Secured Credit Card is one of the only secured credit cards that still earns good rewards. You’ll put down a minimum of $200 as a security deposit (for a $200 credit limit), earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in purchases each quarter you enroll and 1% cash back on everything else. And just like Discover’s other rewards credit cards, the issuer will match the cash back you earn (with no limit) at the end of your first year.

Discover waives your first late payment penalty fee, and you’ll have access to your FICO credit score for free. After you’ve had the card for eight months, Discover will review your account to see if you are eligible to move to an unsecured card (and get your security deposit back).

The information for the Discover it Secured card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Check out our guide to Discover credit cards for more details.

Why you should get a credit card

Using your debit card has virtually no point — pun intended.

You’re spending money and not getting anything back in return. For all the money you spend on food, clothing, skincare, workout classes, transportation and everything else in your life, you could be earning valuable points or miles toward your next vacation.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but we promise the points really do add up. Plus, one day, you’re going to want to get a house or a car, and we guarantee some people in suits will be asking you for your credit score.

Related: The 5 credit cards this recent grad keeps in her wallet

Applying for your first real credit card is a big step towards financial freedom, and it’s also a way for you to start racking up valuable points and miles that you can use to start traveling the world for little to no out-of-pocket cash. However, before we get into that, let’s set a few ground rules.

Related: Why a credit card is a smarter choice than a debit card

How credit cards work

Redeem your points and miles to book a trip to the Conrad Bora Bora. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Travel credit cards can help you earn points and miles. In other words, these pieces of plastic (or metal) are putting you one step closer to a (mostly) free trip to your dream destination, wherever that might be.

There are many ways to pick up points and miles, from flying on airlines or staying at hotels to online shopping portals when making online purchases. However, the biggest and the best way is through sign-up bonuses and welcome offers. This is a fancy way of saying, “if you spend a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time, you’ll earn a certain amount of points.”

Related: 3 mistakes people make when they get their first credit card

It varies from card to card, which we’ll break down shortly. Nothing happens if you don’t hit the minimum spending requirements to earn the bonus; you’ll just miss out on a big haul of points or miles. You will, though, get points for whatever spending you do put on it. Again, this varies from card to card.

A lot of credit cards will also offer bonus points for spending on certain categories of purchases. For example, if you get 3x on dining and your dinner costs $15, you’d earn 45 points. Those 45 points won’t get you anywhere by themselves, but they do add up over time.

Of course, points and miles aren’t the only reason why having credit cards is important for your overall financial health. They also help you build credit.

Related: 7 things to understand about credit before applying for cards

Another option: becoming an authorized user

(Photo by Thaninee Chuensomchit/Shutterstock)

If you’re looking for a way to build credit but cannot apply for your own credit card, becoming an authorized user on someone else’s card is another option.

As an authorized user, you’re added to a primary credit cardholder’s account. You’ll receive a card with your name on it linked to the main account holder’s card. You can then use this card like they would their own — and some of the best cards for authorized users even offer perks.

When you are an authorized user, it helps you build up your credit history before applying for your own credit card. Just keep in mind that any charges you make are the primary account holder’s legal responsibility. So you’ll need to make arrangements for how you’ll pay off your account, how much you can spend each month and more.

Related: Everything you need to know about authorized users

Why building credit is important

Someone checking their credit score on a smart phone
(Photo by cnythzl/Getty Images)

We live in a world where credit scores have a huge impact on your financial life. Your credit report (which includes your payment history, accounts and more fun stats about your borrowing history) and credit score are what lenders look at when deciding to approve you for credit.

This includes mortgages, small business loans, car loans, credit cards, and possibly apartment rentals. The better your score, the more likely you are to be approved — and the better your interest rates on accounts.

Credit cards aren’t the only way to build credit, but they are the easiest. And while we’re a bit biased here at TPG, it’s also one of the most rewarding and fun ways to build credit. How many people can say they are helping their long-term financial health while also funding their next tropical getaway?

Related: 6 things to do to improve your credit in 2020

Tips for using your credit card to your advantage

Having a credit card is just one part of the equation. You also need to manage it well — in fact, not using your card responsibly can actually hurt you.

If you take nothing else away from this article (or really, any article on the site), it’s this: Pay your bills on time and in full every single month. Having a credit card is not Monopoly money in your pocket, and by not paying off your credit card in full, you’re negating the value of any points you earn. In short: Spend what you can afford. Period.

Related: 10 commandments for travel rewards credit cards

When you use your credit card to your advantage, you could turn your rewards into a vacation fully funded on points, miles and/or cash back. (Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

Now once you get your new credit card, understand that the points or miles you’ll earn are valuable — but they’re not all created equally. TPG’s monthly valuations are a good resource for figuring out how much each of yours is worth. At the end of the day, you never want to pay more for a flight in points or miles than if you just booked it outright using your credit card. Besides, you’ll generally get the most value from when you use your points or miles for your next vacation, not your Amazon or food-delivery order.

Related: From no credit to free flights: An inside look at a 23-year-old’s credit journey

Understanding APR and interest

If you pay off your credit card every month, you don’t have to worry about interest charges piling up. However, sometimes things happen and you end up carrying a balance on your card — at least for a few months. In those cases, it’s important to understand what your APR is and how much interest you’ll be charged on your card.

When you carry a balance, your credit card issuer will charge you a percentage of that each month until you pay off your card. The amount of interest you are charged is based on a credit card’s annual percentage rate (APR).

Typically speaking, a card will advertise a variable APR rate that is listed as a range. Variable means that your rate can change over time based on an index interest rate — such as the prime lending rate that’s determined by the Federal Reserve Board (commonly referred to as ‘The Fed’). The better your credit score, the lower your APR on your credit card will likely be.

Related: The complete history of credit cards, from antiquity to today

How old do you have to be to get a starter credit card?

Adding your children as authorized users to your credit cards will help them build a credit history and will (hopefully) lead to better credit scores as they transition to adulthood. (Photo by Maskot / Getty Images)

At the end of the day, having a credit card is the equivalent of borrowing money (even if you pay that money back at the end of each month). Because of this, there are restrictions in place to make sure you are old enough to understand and manage the consequences of having a line of credit open in your name.

The Card Act of 2009 states that if you aren’t at least 21 years of age, you can be subjected to additional qualification rules, such as showing you can independently repay charges (as opposed to your parents paying while you are in college). So, if you aren’t old enough to buy a glass of wine at dinner and don’t yet have the ability to pay off your bills on your own, you may not yet be able to open one of these rewards cards.

However, you can apply for a credit card at 18 years old if you have a co-signer or can provide proof of your own income to your issuer. If you are under 18, the only way to start building credit is by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account.

Related: Will authorized user status help you build credit?

Bottom line

We know there are many options out there, and it can be hard to find your Cinderella slipper when it comes to a first credit card. However, no matter how you start your points and miles journey, these cards will help you get started without getting overwhelmed.

There’s no need to go straight to the big leagues with a premium travel credit card just yet. Start small and build your credit, and we promise these points will add up faster than you can say “award redemption.”

Related: One card for every year I’ve been alive: My journey from college student to points pro

The Points Guy credit ranges are derived from FICO® Score 8, which is one of many different types of credit scores. If you apply for a credit card, the lender may use a different credit score when considering your application for credit.

Additional reporting by Stella Shon.

Featured photo by The Points Guy.

Madison covers all things credit cards for TPG. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, her travel bucket list includes swimming with sharks off the coast of South Africa, skydiving in Thailand and cliff jumping in Greece.


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