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From super-prime to deep subprime, here are the 5 credit score categories you need to know

CNBC Select breaks down the five credit score levels of different types of borrowers and how your credit profile can determine your access to credit.

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Lenders who extend you credit — whether it be in the form of a car loan or a new credit card — look at your credit score to decide how likely you are to pay back what you borrow. Your credit score falls between 300 (bad) and 850 (excellent). 

But to make lending decisions easier, financial institutions categorize what kind of borrower you are by dividing consumers into five categories based on credit score. 

If you have a credit score, your profile falls into one of the following categories: super-prime, prime, near-prime, subprime and deep subprime.

These names describe where you stand in comparison to the types of borrowers who qualify for the best or "prime" interest rates and financial products.

In recent decades, banks have fallen under scrutiny for using these categorizations to justify discriminatory mortgage lending and predatory lending (characterized by unreasonable fees, rates and payments) — two issues at the center of the 2008 subprime housing crisis.

However, the categorizations are meant to help both lenders and borrowers understand what kinds of credit products you qualify for, what kind of risk both parties take on and how terms like APR and the size of your loan are determined.

So before you borrow money, it's helpful to know what kind of borrower you currently are.

Using the most recent data from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), CNBC Select breaks down the five different types of borrowers by credit score. Below, we take a look at the credit scores that make up these five categories of borrowers, why it matters and what kind of credit cards options are probably available to you.

Breakdown of credit scores

The CFPB Consumer Credit Panel defines the five different types of borrowers by the following credit score ranges.

  • Deep subprime: Credit scores below 580
  • Subprime: Credit scores between 580 and 619
  • Near-prime: Credit scores between 620 and 659
  • Prime: Credit scores between 660 and 719
  • Super-prime: Credit scores of 720 or above

These definitions can vary across different organizations. For example, the credit bureau Experian classified subprime borrowers with FICO credit scores between 580 and 669. A prime borrower, in that case, is anyone with a score above 669.

A good rule of thumb is that anyone with bad, fair or average credit scores are considered subprime borrowers, while those with good or excellent credit are considered prime.

Why it matters

Not only is it important to be aware of what level of risk you pose to lenders, but knowing your borrower classification helps you when applying for loans or credit cards.

During a recession when credit is tight, certain borrowers have more access to new and cheaper credit. 

Super-prime and prime borrowers are more likely to qualify for the best credit cards, higher credit limits, lower interest rates and more favorable terms. They'll have an easier time financing a college education, purchasing a home or earning generous sign-up bonus offers, like an introductory 0% APR period. 

On the other end, subprime and deep subprime borrowers are less likely to qualify for new credit cards and more likely to receive much higher interest rates or have to make higher down payments to finance something like a new home.

How knowing your borrower type can benefit you

Though a prime borrower with good or excellent credit has better approval odds than someone who is subprime, there are credit cards that exist specifically for those with bad credit or no credit history at all.

Now that you know the different types of borrowers, here are some examples of the best credit cards for each kind so you can compare and contrast their features.

Bottom line

If you don't yet classify as a prime borrower, you're not alone. In fact, a 2019 Experian study found that more than a third of Americans have a credit score that's considered subprime.

Once you qualify for one of the credit cards available to less-than-prime borrowers, you can work your way toward building a better credit score and moving your way up. When using your credit card, keep your balances low and make sure to always pay your bills on time.

Information about the Capital One® Secured, DCU Visa® Platinum Secured Credit Card, Citi Simplicity® Card, Petal® Visa® Credit Card, Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® Platinum Credit Card, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Chase Freedom®, and Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card, has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.