February 23, 2024

CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through the LendingTree affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective.

While many people believe applying for a credit card will hurt your credit, that’s often the opposite of what happens in practice. As long as you pay your credit card bills on time, credit cards can help you improve your credit score. This can make it easier to qualify for an auto loan or mortgage in the future.

This is when a starter credit card can help. These credit cards have a low or no annual fee, help build your limited credit history and earn rewards. Since it’s best to start building your credit as early as possible, there’s no better time than now to jumpstart your credit card journey.

But getting started can be overwhelming. And with so many credit cards out there, it’s hard to know which starter credit card to apply for first. Fortunately, we put together a list of our top contenders to get you well on your way.

The credit cards listed below are good picks for those relatively new to credit. They may require limited credit history to qualify for, but include simple rewards and other benefits that reward you on your everyday purchases.

Let’s dive into the details of each of these cards and see how they compare to one another.

Although there are many great starter Chase credit cards, the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited® is the most straightforward option. It earns a flat 1.5% cash back on all purchase categories. Additionally, you’ll earn 5% on travel purchases made through Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining (including eligible food delivery services) and 3% at drugstores.

The card also includes everyday benefits like purchase protection and extended warranty protection for purchases you make with the card. With purchase protection, you are covered against theft or damage of your new purchase for 120 days after the purchase. Purchases are covered at a maximum amount of $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.

Additionally, extended warranty protection can come in handy if the manufacturer’s warranty has already run out. On eligible purchases with a warranty of three years or less, this benefit extends your warranty an additional year. Purchases are covered up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per account.

If down the line you open a more premium Chase Ultimate Reward credit card — like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® — you can convert cash back earned with your Freedom Unlimited to Chase Ultimate Rewards points. This gives you the opportunity to redeem for cash back or travel based on your needs at the time.

Welcome bonus: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (up to $20,000 spent in the first year) — worth up to $300 cash back.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

Learn more and apply for the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

A smartphone with a broken screen.

Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ is also a no-annual-fee card, but the earning potential is significantly different. You have the opportunity to earn 5% cash back on quarterly rotating categories, up to $1,500 spent per quarter. You need to activate this bonus by a set date each quarter, although it should only take an extra 30 seconds of your time.

In addition to the rotating categories, you’ll earn 5% on travel purchases made through Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining (including eligible food delivery services) and 3% at drugstores. All other purchases earn 1% cash back.

Similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, you’ll receive the same purchase protection and extended warranty protection, as well as the opportunity to redeem your points for travel rewards once paired with a premium Chase card at a future time.

The big benefit of this card is included cell phone protection. This is a rarity for a no-annual-fee card and can save you a decent amount of money per month by declining your carrier’s own protection plan. If your phone is lost or stolen, you’ll be covered for up to $800 per claim with a $50 deductible. You’re allowed to file up to two claims per 12-month period, with a maximum reimbursement amount of $1,000 during that time period. Just note that you have to pay your cell phone bill with the Freedom Flex to qualify for cel phone protection.

Welcome: Earn $200 in bonus cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Chase Freedom Flex.

A United Airlines Airbus A319 in Houston, Texas

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® is one of the best starter credit cards for those looking to earn travel rewards. Although the card carries a $95 annual fee, its benefits can outweigh the cost, especially when you factor in the sign-up offer.

With the card, you’ll earn 2 points for every dollar you spend on travel (or 5 total points on travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards), 3 points per dollar on dining, select streaming services and select online grocery purchases, 5 points per dollar on Lyft (through March 2025) and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

Unlike the Chase Freedom Unlimited and Chase Freedom Flex, this card earns premium Chase Ultimate Reward points, opening up more redemption opportunities. You can book travel directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal or transfers to one of Chase’s travel partners.

When using your points through the travel portal, your points are worth a fixed 1.25 cents point. So if you have 60,000 points in your account, you can redeem them for $750 in travel. This works very similar to booking travel through a third-party travel agency like Expedia where you can book hotels, airfare, car rentals and even some activities.

To potentially get even more value from your points, you can transfer them to one of Chase’s 14 airline and hotel travel partners, such as Hyatt or United. Frequent flyer website, The Points Guy, values Ultimate Reward points at 2 cents apiece when redeemed this way.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred also includes more expansive purchase and travel protection benefit than no-annual-fee Chase credit cards. The Sapphire Preferred offers the same purchase protection and extended warranty benefits, but its travel benefits are significantly better.

The card also offers trip cancellation/interruption insurance up to $10,000 per person or $20,000 per trip. You’re also covered by trip delay insurance if your flight is canceled or delayed (for a covered reason) for more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay and get lost baggage and baggage delay coverage and primary rental car coverage. Generally, you’ll have to pay for your travel with your Sapphire Preferred to be eligible for these benefits.

Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

A side view of a Delta Air Lines jet.

Interested in travel rewards, but don’t want to worry about award availability or booking through a specific travel portal? If so, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is a great card option.

This earns a straight 2 miles for every dollar you spend, so there’s no need to worry about category bonuses. You can redeem your miles at a fixed 1 cent per mile, which means you are effectively earning 2% towards travel on every purchase you make.

To redeem miles, just book your reservation as you normally would and pay with the Venture card. Then, you can redeem your miles toward the cost of the purchase within 90 days of making it. This lets you any airline ticket that works best with your schedule or even offset the cost of everyday expenses, like Uber rides or subway fare.

As time goes on and you become more familiar with frequent-flyer programs, you can opt to redeem your miles by transferring them to Capital One’s airline and hotel partners. There are 18 travel partners in total, including Air Canada, Choice Hotels and Wyndham.

The card charges a $95 annual fee, so make sure the miles earned and the benefits received are worth the expense. Some card benefits include up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, purchase protection, extended warranty, travel accident insurance, secondary rental car coverage, lost baggage coverage and no foreign transaction fees.

Welcome bonus: Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Capital One Venture Credit Card.

The Citi Double Cash will reward you with 2% cash back on all purchases.

The Citi® Double Cash Card has been picked as our favorite cash back credit card due to the strong 2% cash back return — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your statement — with no annual fee. There’s no rewards program to learn or category bonuses you need to worry about. Just spend on the card and enjoy a rebate on your purchases.

Although the card doesn’t offer as many protection benefits that come with some of the other cards on the list, it does include a long 18-month introductory 0% APR for balance transfers (variable 18.49% to 28.49% after the introductory offer ends) for new cardmembers. This can save you on interest payments if you’re looking to pay off existing debt.

Even though the card is marketed as cash back, you’re actually earning Citi ThankYou points. You can redeem these points for cash back or instead transfer your points to a limited number of travel partners. If you pair the Double Cash with a premium Citi ThankYou Rewards credit card like the Citi Premier® Card, you can combine your accounts and transfer your points to 16 partner hotel or airline loyalty programs.

Welcome bonus: There’s currently no welcome offer for this card.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Citi Double Cash Card.

Learn more and apply for the Citi Double Cash Card.

If you find yourself in a money pinch and need a way to pay for large purchases over time, you may consider a starter credit card with a 0% introductory interest rate on purchases. This lets you make a purchase and pay it off over time without paying interest. We don’t suggest getting a credit card to incur debt, but there are times where there’s way around it.

This is where the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express comes in handy. This no-annual-fee card offers a 0% interest rate on purchases for 15 months (18.49% to 29.49% variable afterward, see rates and fees), while also offering cash back on every purchase you make.

On the rewards side, this card earns 3% cash back as a statement credit at U.S supermarkets (up to $6,000 annually, then 1%), U.S. gas stations (up to $6,000 annually, then 1%) and on U.S. online shopping purchases (up to $6,000 annually, then 1%). All other purchases earn 1% cash back.

You can also earn up to $284 per year in statement credits with the Blue Cash Everyday Card. This includes up to $15 per month in Home Chef credits and up to $7 per month when you charge the $12.99 cost for a Disney Bundle Subscription (enrollment is required for both before using these benefits). If you already pay for these services, this is effectively cash back in your pocket.

Unfortunately, the card doesn’t offer many other benefits. While you’ll receive car rental loss and damage insurance when using your card to rent a car, there’s no other travel or purchase protection perks.

If your supermarket purchases are quite high, you might be better off with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express instead. This card earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year, then 1%), as well as 6% back on select US streaming subscriptions, 3% on transit (including ride-sharing, taxis, parking, tolls, trains, buses & more) and 3% at U.S. gas stations. The card has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 annually (see rates and fees).

While the Preferred card still offers a 0% APR on new purchases (18.49% to 29.49% variable afterward, see rates and fees), it’s only for the first 12 months instead of 15 months. It also offers a $250 bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first three months of opening your account.

Welcome bonus: Earn $200 cash back (in the form of a statement credit) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first 6 months (see rates and fees).

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express.

Learn more and apply for the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express.

A street in New York City.

The Bilt Mastercard® is a relatively new player in the credit card world — and it has a unique value proposition. Like some of the other cards on this list, you’ll earn points every time you make a purchase with your Bilt card. The card earns 3 points per dollar on dining (including food delivery services), 2 points per dollar on travel when booked directly with an airline, hotel, car rental or cruise company and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. However, you will also earn Bilt Rewards points when you pay your rent.

Specifically, the card earns 1 point per dollar (on up to $50,000 in rent payments per year) on rent when you pay through Bilt Rewards. You can pay rent fee-free to almost any landlord as the service will mail a check or deposit funds via an ACH transfer to your landlord. Just note that you must make five transactions a month on your Bilt card in order to earn points from purchases or rent payments.

You can redeem Bilt Rewards points for a variety of different things, including cash back on rent, a downpayment on a home and travel. Redeeming points toward a rent payment only yields 0.55 cents per point in value. However, redeeming for travel is a much better deal. You can get 1.25 cents per point through Bilt’s travel portal or you can transfer to travel partners like American Airlines, United Airlines and Hyatt, among others.

The card also includes a variety of benefits, like cell phone insurance, purchase protection, rental car coverage and trip cancellation and delay coverage. You’re also eligible for up to $60 per year in Lyft credits and a three-month DoorDash DashPass membership.

Welcome bonus: There’s currently no welcome offer for this card.

The Citi Custom Cash℠ Card earns extra cash back on the purchases you make the most. With this card, you’ll earn 5% cash back in your top eligible categories on a monthly basis, up to $500 spent per billing cycle, then 1% cash back.

Included categories include many common everyday purchases, like gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement, fitness clubs and live entertainment. With these mainstream purchases being included, it’s incredibly easy to earn cash back. Best of all, you don’t have to decide on a category ahead of time — Citi will automatically calculate your purchases and find the category where you spent the most

Similar to the Citi Double Cash card, if you end up getting a premium Citi ThankYou Rewards card, you can convert your points earned to travel partners. This opens up many additional travel redemption opportunities.

Welcome bonus: Earn $200 in bonus cash when you spend $1,500 on purchases within three months of opening the account.

Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Citi Custom Cash Card.

Learn more and apply for the Citi Custom Cash Card.

A person holding a credit card above a contactless credit card terminal.

If you are looking to build your credit through a new credit card, then a starter credit card is a great place start. This can improve your credit score credit score and, if you’re financially responsible with your new credit card, you can reap many credit card perks.

Chase credit cards a number of starter credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom Unlimited and Chase Freedom Flex. If you’re comfortable paying an annual fee, the Sapphire Preferred is your best bet for travel. But, if you want prefer a no annual fee card, consider the Freedom Unlimited or Freedom Flex. The Freedom Unlimited is the most straightforward earning structure, but the Freedom Flex will give you slightly more benefits.

Citi also offers many good credit cards for beginners. The Citi Double Cash is one of the best credit cards for cash back, but the Citi Custom Cash might earn you more rewards if you spend a lot in one category.

Meanwhile, the Capital One Venture is great for those looking for flexible travel rewards and the Bilt Mastercard rewards renters for their rent payments. But, if you need to carry debt for a few months, the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express will allow you to do that interest free.

However, many of these credit cards require that you already have some sort of credit. if you don’t fall into this category, you might want to first start with getting a credit card for bad credit, a credit card for no credit card or a student credit card — depending on where you currently stand.

Click here for rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday card.
Click here for rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred card.

Looking for a new credit card? Read CNN Underscored’s guide to the best credit cards currently available.

Get all the latest personal finance deals, news and advice at CNN Underscored Money.


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