How we rate our cards

While some cards we review are offered by our advertising partners, we observe strict editorial integrity in rating cards. Here’s how we do it.

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Each card can earn a maximum of 5 stars. The requirements for earning each star varies based on the type of card (travel, cash back, secured, etc.) and, in some cases, whether the card has an annual fee. By customizing our requirements to card type, we strive to get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible. For example, we wouldn’t rank a secured card based on the standards we’d use for a travel rewards card.

Therefore, when shopping for cards, you should not assume that a four-star secured card is somehow “better” than a three-star travel-rewards card. Instead, determine which type of card you need and then compare ratings within that category.

While you should always choose a card based on your individual needs (which may vary from our rating standards), we hope our reviews will help you make that decision.

Within each review, you can expect to find:

  1. Our overall star rating
  2. A detailed description of the card’s benefits
  3. A breakdown chart of why we gave a card its particular star ranking



Read on for our ratings requirements by category.

CASH BACK

How we define this category
Cards that advertise a percentage cash back on spending; cards for which cash back (via check, deposit or statement credit) or equivalents (such as gift cards) is the advertised primary mode of redemption.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Discover it
  • Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited
  • Costco Card
  • Citi Double Cash
  • Capital One Quicksilver
  • AmEx SimplyCash and SimplyCash Plus business card
  • U.S. Bank Cash Plus

Star criteria

Cards can earn a star (up to 5 total) in the following categories:

Full starRewards-earning rateNo-annual-fee cards: Offers above 1 percent on ALL spending, OR at least 3 percent in at least one bonus category: For example, the Quicksilver card would earn this star, as it gives 1.5% cash back on all spending. So would the Discover it, as it offers just 1 percent on all spending, but 5 percent in the bonus categories. However, the Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard would not earn this star, as it offers 1 percent back on all spending and 2 percent back in its categories.

Annual-fee cards: Offers at least 2 percent back on all spending OR above 5 percent in at least one bonus category.
Full starCash-back redemption valueThe redemption value when redeeming for cash back must be at least 1 cent per point.
Full starRewards simplicity and transparencyCard will be penalized if category-enrollment is required, rewards earnings are capped or if rewards expire.
Full starBonus-earning opportunitiesTo earn this star, the card should offer redemption bonuses, a sign-up bonus and/or shopping portal/deals program.
Full starUnique perksTo earn this star, a card must offer free FICO score access or other consumer-friendly benefits and make the automatically available to all cardholders.

FLEXIBLE REWARDS PROGRAMS

How we define this category

Cards that advertise “points” that can be used for a variety of redemption options, from cash back, to travel redemptions (via a portal), to transfers into travel partners, to gift cards, to merchandise, to online shopping.

Because of the extreme flexibility of these programs, our ratings are more lenient on the “return on spending” requirement, compared with cash-back cards. We also do not reward a star for “flexibility,” as all these programs are, by their very nature, flexible. Instead, our focus on rating these cards is on whether their extra benefits justify any annual fee.

Examples of cards this category

  • AmEx Everyday, Everyday Preferred
  • Citi ThankYou cards & Citi Prestige
  • AmEx Green
  • AmEx Premier Rewards Gold
  • AmEx Platinum
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred

Star criteria

Cards can earn a star (up to 5 total) in the following categories:

Full starRewards earning rateNo-annual-fee cards: Offers at least 1X points on all spending and at least 2X points in at least one bonus category that is NOT tied directly to the issuer -- for example, offering double points via the issuer’s proprietary travel portal, instead of all travel, would not earn this card a star if it doesn’t also offer at least 2x points in a broader category.

Annual-fee cards: Offers at least 1X on ALL spending and at least 2X in at least TWO bonus categories NOT tied directly to issuer.
Full starRewards valueAt least one redemption option is guaranteed to get you a value of 1 cent per point.
Full starUnique perksFree FICO score, lounge access, credits against travel incidentals and other unique shopping and travel perks would all qualify for this star.
Full starFair annual feeCard has no annual fee OR has perks whose value justifies an annual fee each year. These would include things with direct monetary value (like travel reimbursements).
Full starBonus opportunitiesCard has advertised sign-up bonus, redemption bonuses or bonus-shopping portal.

GENERIC TRAVEL REWARDS CARDS

How we define this category

These cards advertise generic “miles” or “travel points” that can be redeemed for statement credits against travel, independent of airline or hotel chain. These are the cash-back cards of the travel realm, but they’re geared at travelers due to perks like waived foreign transaction fees and an emphasis on redeeming points for travel.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Discover it Miles
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus
  • No-fee Barclaycard Arrival
  • Capital One Venture
  • Capital One VentureOne
  • Wells Fargo Propel World
  • U.S. Bank FlexPerks travel

Star criteria

Cards can earn a star (up to 5 total) in the following categories:

Full starRewards earning rateNo-annual-fee cards: At least 1X miles on regular spending OR at least 2X miles in at least one bonus category

Annual-fee cards: At least 2X miles on regular spending OR at least 3X miles in at least one bonus category.
Full starBonus-earning opportunitiesExamples include redemption bonuses, sign-up bonus and miles doubling.
Full starRewards simplicity or flexibilityRewards don’t expire and can be redeemed easily via statement credit.
Full starUnique perksFree FICO scores or other travel benefits like refunds for incidentals.
Full starFair annual feeCard has no annual fee, OR has perks whose monetary value justifies an annual fee. These would include things with direct monetary value (like travel reimbursements).

Co-BRANDED AIRLINE CARDS

How we define this category

Cards that are co-branded with an airline.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Aadvantage cards
  • United MileagePlus cards
  • Delta SkyMiles cards
  • Southwest cards
  • Jet Blue card

Star criteria

Cards can earn a star (up to 5 total) in the following categories:

Full starBonus-earning opportunitiesThe following can contribute toward earning this star: sign-up bonuses, redemption bonuses, anniversary bonuses NOT tied to spend, or other ways to earn more miles or points than advertised, including extra miles or point incentives for travel partner purchases. Or, card has bonus categories outside affiliated-airline purchases.
Full starRewards flexibility/simplicityFactors contributing to this stair include: Rewards do not expire. Can use miles with other alliance partners.
Full starUnique travel perksSuch perks could include lounge access, primary rental car insurance, elite status progress, free Wi-Fi, Points and Cash options, free FICO score, and reimbursement for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Full starCompanion benefitsCard offers companion-ticket benefits, or helps you with progress toward the airline's companion-ticket benefits.
Full starFair feesMost airline cards charge fees. But cards rewarded this star either have no annual fee, or have perks whose monetary value added together offsets fee with three or fewer round trips per year. Charging foreign transaction fees will cause a card to be docked half a star, as we feel cards geared at travelers should not charge for purchases made overseas. Fuel surcharges will also cause the card to be docked half a star, as fuel surcharges are a major barrier toward using rewards.

CO-BRANDED HOTEL CARDS


How we define this category

Cards that are co-branded with a hotel loyalty program.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Marriott Card
  • Starwood Preferred Guest
  • IHG card
  • Hilton HHonors cards

Star criteria

Cards can earn a star (up to 5 total) in the following categories:

Full starBonus-earning opportunitiesCard has bonus categories BESIDES purchases with its affiliated airline/hotel chain OR has redemption bonuses.
Full starFree nightCard rewards free anniversary night. We reward a star for this because a free night goes a long way toward balancing out an annual fee.
Full starUnique perksOffers unique travel perks (like 1-1 point transfers outside program, or other unique travel perks, free Wi-Fi)
Full starProgress toward elite statusCard gives automatic progress toward elite status, without requiring spend.
Full starPoint worthHotel programs are notorious for low point worth (below 1 cent). To gain this star, card must have a point worth of at least 1 cent per point (according to the most current Points Guy valuation).

SECURED CARDS

How we define this category

Cards that require a refundable deposit to secure a credit line.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Discover it Secured card
  • Capital One Secured MasterCard
  • USAA Secured card
  • First Premier Bank Secured Card

Star criteria

Full starLow feesClear and reasonable annual fee (or no annual fee), and NO one-time or maintenance fees (such as application fees and account-maintenance fees).
Full starAbility to graduateIssuer has stated review process for graduating you to an unsecured product – and has high-quality unsecured products you can graduate to.
Full starAbility to get higher credit line than depositCan get higher limit with lower deposit, based on credibility.
Full starRewardsOffers rewards on spending
Full starUnique perksFree credit score and progress-tracking

BALANCE TRANSFER CARDS

How we define this category
Many rewards and travel cards do offer introductory balance transfers. However, this category includes only cards that advertise 0 percent on balance transfers (and lengthy balance-transfer periods) as their primary perks.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Citi Simplicity
  • Chase Slate
  • U.S. Bank Visa Platinum

Star criteria

Full star0% period lengthHalf star rewarded if BT period is more than 12 months. Full star rewarded if more than 15 months. Because these cards generally have few other perks (like rewards), a lengthy 0% introductory period is important
Full starAbility to avoid balance transfer feeIf the card lets you avoid paying a balance transfer fee, it gets a star.
Full starForgiving termsBalance transfer cards appeal to those who need a fresh start, so we reward a star to any cards that have stated policies for waiving late fees.
Full starLow go-to APRWhen the 0 percent period expires, consumers will want the lowest possible APR. The card gets half a star if its go-to-APR range dips below 15 percent and a full star if the lowest possible APR is below 12 percent. Keep in mind, however, your own APR could be higher, based on your creditworthiness.
Full starCredit-management toolsBecause many consumers seeking balance-transfer cards are trying to eliminate their debt and improve their credit, we reward cards that help them do it, with debt-management tools or free FICO score access.

Store/private label credit cards

How we define this category
Cards in this category are branded with a specific store or website and offer rewards and financing for purchases at that store or site.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Macy’s Credit Card
  • Wal-Mart Credit Card
  • Lowe’s Credit Card
  • Target REDcard Credit Card
  • Amazon Credit Card

Full starOffers introductory interest-free financingBecause in-store financing is a big draw for consumers seeking store credit cards, some form of 0 percent financing is one of our star-requirements.
Full starOffers ongoing rewards/discountsThis is a huge incentive toward keeping a card long-term (after financing expires), and therefore one of our must-haves for the ideal retail card.
Full starFair interest termsStore cards are known for high and retroactive interest. That aside, we will reward this star if the card makes some attempt at lowering that burden. Examples include a standard APR below the average store card APR (according to CreditCards.com's latest retail card survey) OR ongoing opportunities to get a lower APR on certain purchases.
Full starConsumer-friendly incentivesTo earn this star, a store card must offer things like free shipping, longer return periods, exclusive in-store events or other nice-to-have perks for loyal customers.
Full starCan be used anywhereSome store cards are usable only within the co-branded store. To get this star, a card must have a Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express label, which indicates it can be used anywhere.

Loyalty program co-branded cards


How we define this category

These are cards tied to pre-existing travel and shopping loyalty programs that allow you to boost your earnings in these programs.

Examples of cards in this category

  • Expedia-branded credit cards
  • CheapOAir
  • Stash Credit Card
  • Plenti Credit Card

Star criteria

Full starRewards-earning rateBecause these rewards programs are more restrictive than flexible-rewards programs, we have higher standards for the rewards-earning rate.

No-annual-fee cards: Must earn at least 1X on all spending and at least 2X in 2 bonus categories.

Annual-fee cards: Must earn at least 1X on all spending and at least 2X in 3 bonus categories.
Full starRewards valueAt least one redemption option must yield a value of at least 1 cent per point.
Full starUnique perksFree FICO score, lounge access, credits against travel incidentals and other unique shopping and travel perks would all qualify for this star.
Full starFair annual feeCard has no annual fee OR has perks whose value justifies an annual fee each year. These would include things with direct monetary value (like travel reimbursements).
Full starBonus opportunitiesProgram has advertised sign-up bonus, redemption bonuses, a bonus-shopping portal or other ways to earn beyond the advertised number of points on purchases.

Credit cards for bad credit (unsecured)


How we define this category

These cards are unsecured (meaning they require no deposit), but are designed for those with bad credit. As a result, they may have less-favorable terms than mainstream cards, such as higher APRs and annual fees, despite not having rewards. They are meant to be used as pay-your-dues cards – a place to start until you qualify for a fair- or good-credit card.


Reviews of cards in this category

Star criteria

Simple/transparent fee structureNon-secured cards for credit building will almost always charge fees. So, to earn this star, the fee structure must be clear and simple – a disclosed, non-fluctuating annual fee and NO additional fees (such as processing fees or monthly maintenance fees).
Grace periodWe reward this star if the card offers a grace period (time to pay your bill without accruing interest). Many bad-credit cards don’t.
RewardsRewards shouldn’t be a concern if you’re credit-building, but getting even a small kick-back on spending will be rewarded with a star.
Credit-limit increasesWe rewarded half a star if the card has an official policy for credit-limit increases. It gets a full star if it doesn’t charge a fee for the privilege.
Progress-tracking benefitsA card gets this star if it offers the ability to track your credit-building process, either via a free credit score or credit-report access.