Rewards cards with all their cash-back bonuses and flashy perks are great — if you have good credit. But if you're one of the millions of Americans with no credit, or less than stellar credit, you might not qualify.
But don't stress too much. There are cards on the market for people trying to build or rebuild their credit, and one of the easiest ways to do that is with a secured credit card.
A secured card is nearly identical to an unsecured card in that you receive a credit limit, can incur interest charges and in some cases can even earn rewards. The big difference is you're required to make a deposit in order to receive a line of credit. The amount you deposit usually becomes your credit limit.
Deposits typically start at $200 and can range up to $2,500. If you want a bigger credit limit, you'll need to deposit more money.
The amount you deposit acts as collateral if you default on payments, but it's completely refundable if you pay off your balance in full and close your account or upgrade to an unsecured card.
When you use a secured card responsibly (make your payments on time and in full), this information will be sent to the credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), which helps raise your credit score and put you on the path to qualifying for an unsecured card.
CNBC Select analyzed 22 secured credit cards that are marketed toward consumers with no or poor credit to determine the best cards for building or rebuilding your credit. We considered a number of factors, including security deposit minimums, fees, rewards programs and APR. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)
Here are our picks for the best secured credit cards:
2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants (up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, then 1%); unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases
At the end of your first year, Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned
Who's this for: The Discover it® Secured is a well-rounded secured card that offers many benefits that are typically found with unsecured cards. Cardholders can earn cash back, receive a generous welcome bonus, use the card overseas without incurring added fees and more — all for no annual fee.
Cardholders earn a competitive 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter (then 1%). Plus, you can earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. The welcome bonus is also unique: Discover will match any cash back you've earned during the first 12 billing cycles. So, if you earn $50 cash back at the end of the first year, Discover will give you an additional $50.
This card requires a $200 security deposit, which is fairly standard for secured credit cards. It stands out from the crowd because it gives users a clear path to upgrading to an unsecured card (and getting their deposit back). Starting at eight months from account opening, Discover will review your account to see if you can get your security deposit back, which takes the guesswork out of wondering when you'll qualify for an unsecured card.
$49, $99 or $200 based on creditworthiness
Who's this for? If you're looking for a secured card with a low deposit, the Capital One® Secured Mastercard® is your best option. This card has no annual fee and minimum security deposits of $49, $99 or $200, based on your creditworthiness.
If you qualify for the low $49 or $99 deposits, you'll still receive a $200 credit limit. This is a great feature considering many secured cards require $200 deposits to receive an equivalent line of credit.
Capital One also grants cardholders access to a higher credit limit after you make the first five monthly payments on time — a good incentive to maintain a timely payment history (which is essential when you're trying to raise your credit score). In addition to paying on time, make sure you pay in full, since this card has a very high 26.99% variable APR.
1 point per $1 spent on all purchases
Who's this for? If you want (and can afford) a secured card with a high credit limit, consider the First Tech® Federal Credit Union Platinum Secured Mastercard®. This card has no annual fee and offers credit limits as high as $25,000, but you'll need to make a deposit equivalent to the line of credit you want.
Cardholders also earn 1 point per $1 spent on all purchases made with the Platinum Secured Mastercard®. This is a nice perk since secured cards often lack rewards programs. You can redeem your points for merchandise, travel and charity, according to the First Tech® Federal Credit Union.
This card also comes with an array of added benefits: travel assistance services, travel accident insurance, baggage delay insurance, trip cancellation and trip interruption coverage, roadside assistance, auto rental collision damage waiver, extended warranty protection and purchase protection.
First Tech® is a credit union, so you need to be a member to open this card. Anyone can join through affiliation with select organizations or employers; a relationship with a current member; work for the state of Oregon; live or work in Lane County, Oregon; attend Cogswell Poly Technical College; or join the Community History Museum (CHM) or Financial Fitness Association (FFA). (First Tech pays the membership fee for the CHM and FFA on your behalf.)
Varies based on creditworthiness
Who's this for? The DCU Visa® Platinum Secured Credit Card offers one of the lowest interest rates for a no-annual-fee secured card at 13.00% variable.
While we don't recommend carrying a balance month-to-month (especially when you're trying to build or rebuild credit), it can be a good idea to choose a low interest secured card if you have a history of carrying balances or you're looking for a safety net.
There is a higher-than-average $500 minimum security deposit to open the card. But it does come with some additional perks, including travel insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver and extended warranty protection.
Membership to the Digital Federal Credit Union is required, but anyone can join in one of several ways: if you're a friend or family member of a DCU member, live in select communities, work for select employers or make a one-time contribution (as low as $10) to a participating organization.
1 Flexpoint per $1 spent on all purchases
Who's this for? If you're a frequent traveler, you might want to consider a secured card that offers travel-centric perks and no fees on purchases made outside the U.S. The State Department Federal Credit Union (SDFCU) Savings Secured Visa Platinum Card has those perks, all with no annual fee and a reasonable $250 minimum security deposit.
Cardholders can also benefit from earning 1 Flexpoint per dollar spent on all purchases. This is a nice perk considering secured cards rarely have rewards programs. You can redeem rewards in a variety of ways: travel, event tickets, merchandise, gift cards and charity donations.
This card also comes with select travel benefits, such as travel and emergency assistance services, lost luggage reimbursement and auto rental collision damage waiver — which further enhance the Savings Secured Visa Platinum card's appeal for travelers.
Since this card is issued by a credit union, membership is required. Anyone can qualify in one of four ways: through the Department of State, an affiliation with select organizations, a relationship with a current member or by joining the American Consumer Council (ACC). Unlike some other credit unions on this list, there's no cost to join the ACC.
To determine which secured cards offer the best value for a range of consumers, CNBC Select analyzed the 22 most popular secured credit cards offered by the biggest banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join.
We compared each card on a range of features, including: annual fee, minimum security deposit, credit limit, rewards program, introductory and standard APR, welcome bonuses and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit score and customer reviews when available. We also took into account how easy it is to upgrade the card from secured to unsecured and how quickly you can get your security deposit back.
Because it's unusual for secured credit cards to have robust rewards programs, we did not analyze how many rewards points you can earn in the first year. For cardholders who are looking to rebuild credit, it's more important to practice good credit card habits — spending within your means, paying your balance on time and in full — than try to optimize your points balance.