Applying for a credit card: what’s involved?

Getting a credit card can help you spread the cost of a purchase or transfer balances from several cards to just one. Using a credit card responsibly may also boost your credit rating, as long as you make your payments on time and remain under your credit limit. Not doing so could harm it.

With lots of different card types, providers and options available, it can be tricky to know where to start or which is right for you. 

The good news is you can check if you’re eligible for a credit card and the features you might be offered before you apply, without affecting your credit score. 

This guide looks at what to consider and the steps to take before you apply, plus the details you’ll need to hand when you do.

Check if you’re eligible for a credit card

To apply for a credit card in the UK (including Northern Ireland) you need to be over 18 and living here. Other factors affect your eligibility too.

To check if your application is likely to be accepted, use a tool that won’t affect your credit score like our credit card eligibility checker.

A full application would involve running a full credit check that leaves an entry on your credit record. In contrast, an eligibility check asks you a few questions so that a ‘soft check’ can be run. Based on this you’ll receive a decision and an idea of the features, APR and credit limit you may get on any cards you’re eligible for.

Which credit card features will suit you?

Once you know your chances of being accepted, the next step is to think about the kind of features you might need from a credit card. For instance:

  • Is the main reason you’re getting a card to pay for things? If so, a card that offers a long period of 0% interest on items you buy may be a suitable option
  • Do you want to transfer balances from several cards to just one? If so, a card that offers an extended interest-free period on balance transfers may help make clearing them more manageable. This is known as a balance transfer credit card
  • Need some help improving your credit score? A credit builder card may help. These have a lower credit limit and initially higher APR to encourage repayment in full each month and help build up your creditworthiness. To build your credit rating use your card sensibly by making your monthly minimum payment on time and staying below your credit limit. Remember, not doing this could harm your credit rating

It’s important to compare the features and benefits of different credit cards to make sure the one you choose works for you.

What else to look out for

  • Annual Percentage Rate (APR)

    This is the average annual cost of using your card compared with what you spend on it over a whole year. It includes both interest payments and fees.

    Check the APR you see when you apply will be the APR you’ll get if successful. Some providers offer the advertised APR to most but not all cardholders – so you may not always get the rate you expect

  • Credit limits

    Credit limits are the maximum amount of credit that card issuers will extend to you. They’re based on your credit score and other factors, which help build a picture of the credit you'll be able to manage. If you aren’t offered the credit limit you’d like, consider your other options to avoid borrowing more than you can comfortably pay back

  • Fees and charges

    It’s important to know the extra charges that will apply in different scenarios. For instance, all credit cards will charge a fee for going over your credit limit, or for late or missed payments. Many also charge you to buy currency or withdraw cash at an ATM with your credit card. Make sure you know the charges involved and consider using a debit card for such transactions instead to avoid them

  • Introductory offers – and what happens when they end

    Check closely what happens after any introductory offers on your card end. For instance, after an initial interest-fee period on purchases or balance transfers, could you end up paying high interest if you haven’t cleared them? It’s easy to get caught out

What do you need to apply for a credit card online?

The details you’ll need to perform a credit card eligibility check typically include:

  • Your name and date of birth
  • Your UK residential address and status
  • Your employment status and gross income (before taxes)
  • Any dependents and additional household income
  • Your email address and phone number

To apply for a credit card you’ll usually need all of the above plus:

  • Any previous residential address(es) from the past two years
  • Your bank account number and sort code (to set up a Direct Debit for repayments)
  • Details of any credit cards you’re transferring balances from (if you are)

To support your application, card issuers may also ask you for other details or documents, such as a photocard driving licence, bank statement, utility or council tax bill, council tenancy agreement or rent card, or a document from HMRC.

What do credit card providers look for in an application?

Your credit score is an important guide for lenders in deciding whether you’re eligible for a credit card, although it’s not the only factor. Card issuers will also look for:

  • Proof of your home address and how long you’ve been there
  • Your current work role and how long you’ve been in it (as proof you have a regular income)
  • If you have a current account (and how long for)
  • Your regular outgoings (such as monthly bills, etc)
  • How much you’ve already borrowed (personal loans, other credit cards, etc)
  • How well you’ve managed previous credit and debt repayments (eg, paying your bills regularly and on time)
  • If you’re registered to vote (as this helps confirm you’re who you say you are)

If your application is accepted

If your credit card application is approved, the next steps may vary by the issuer but you’ll usually receive your card and PIN separately in the mail within a few days, along with details of how to use and manage it.

With Post Office, your card should arrive within 7-10 working days and you PIN a few days earlier. Once you get your card simply activate it to start using it right away.

If your application is turned down

If your eligibility check wasn’t successful or your application for a credit card was turned down, it may be because:

  • You don’t earn enough right now to comfortably make card repayments
  • You’ve recently applied or have an application in progress for another credit card
  • Your credit history shows you already have too much debt or too many missed payments

It’s not recommended to keep applying for cards if an application’s already been rejected, as this can damage your credit rating. Instead, wait a few months before checking your eligibility again as you may not always be ineligible for a credit card.

If your application was declined, you can find out more about why by checking your credit score. It’s a good idea to do this regularly anyway in case anything’s changed due to factors you’re not aware of – like an admin error or identity theft. You can do this for free with the credit reference agencies EquifaxExperian and TransUnion.