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How to check your odds of getting approved for a credit card without hurting your credit score

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Looking to open a new credit card but not sure if you'll get approved? There's a simple feature that many card issuers offer for free: pre-qualification. You can submit a pre-qualification form online to see whether you may qualify for a card.

In fact, you can submit multiple pre-qualification requests without any damage to your credit score, since it involves a soft inquiry of your credit. A soft inquiry (also called a "soft pull") isn't connected to a specific application for new credit (a mortgage or a credit card, for example) and doesn't require your permission, so it doesn't show up on your credit report.

Once you submit an actual application though, you give the card issuer permission to check your credit, which is called a hard inquiry (or "hard pull"). This can sometimes result in a slight ding to your credit score, which is why it's recommended you only apply for a credit card every six months. Applying for many cards at once is a red flag to issuers and can have a bigger impact on your credit score.

How to pre-qualify for a credit card

Using a pre-screened offer

You may receive targeted offers in the mail or via email saying you've been "pre-screened" or "pre-selected to apply" for a credit card. These offers typically provide an invitation code that you enter on the card issuer's site and a date when the offer expires.

These offers can help you kick-start the credit card search process, but you should still compare other cards to find the best fit for your needs. A pre-screened offer may seem tempting because it's personalized, highlights the main perks of the card and is time-sensitive. That doesn't necessarily make it the best choice of credit card for your lifestyle, however.

As with any financial product, you should do your research and make sure the card is a good fit for you before submitting an application.

Using the card issuer's website

Many card issuers provide pre-qualification links where you can check if you may qualify for a credit card. When you click on the link, there's a statement that says checking your qualification chances does not affect your credit score.

These online forms typically ask for your name, address and the last four digits of your social security number.

At the end of the form, there is also a disclaimer that you need to acknowledge that expresses this is not an official application and if you submit an application, your credit will be pulled.

Here are some card issuers that provide pre-qualification forms:

Does pre-qualification mean approval?

Pre-qualification is not a guarantee of approval. There's a chance you'll pre-qualify for a card and still be denied during the official application process.

A pre-qualification form only provides the lender with partial information. If you decide to submit an actual application, lenders will receive a more holistic picture of your finances. Multiple factors, such as your monthly housing payment and employment status, are taken into consideration.

What to do if you pre-qualify

When you submit a pre-qualification form, you'll typically receive several credit card offers that you have good chances of approval for. Once you choose an offer, you still need to submit an official application.

Here are two steps to take after you pre-qualify for a card:

  • Compare credit cards. Pre-qualification is a great way to shop around for the best credit card offers without hurting your credit score. We recommend submitting multiple pre-qualification requests so you can compare the fees, rewards and added perks to find the card that provides the most value for your needs.
  • Submit an official application. Once you decide which card is the best fit, submit an official application. You'll typically receive a decision immediately, though it can take longer in some cases. If you're approved, great! If you're denied, you can submit an application for one of the other cards you were pre-qualified for.

What to do if you don't pre-qualify

If you were denied, it's not the end of the world — you still have options. After all, pre-qualification only looks at part of your finances. An official credit card application provides the lender with more information on your financial situation.

Here are some actions you can take if you didn't pre-qualify for a card:

  • Apply for the card anyway. While this is an option, you most likely have slim chances of approval. Still, an official application takes more factors into consideration, such as income and employment status, which may improve your odds. Just beware that each application you submit results in a hard credit inquiry and may lower your credit score by a few points.
  • Try to pre-qualify for different cards. If you were denied pre-qualification by one card issuer, try another and you may have better luck. Since it doesn't hurt your credit score, you can submit multiple pre-qualification forms to increase the chances you'll pre-qualify.
  • Improve your credit. Take some time to work on raising your credit score. Practice responsible credit behavior, such as making on-time payments and using a small amount of your credit. If you don't have a credit card yet, ask a family member with good credit if they'll add you as an authorized user. This allows you to piggyback off their positive credit. After you've seen improvements in your credit score, try to pre-qualify again.
  • Consider applying for a secured card. If you don't have much credit history and are struggling to get approved for a credit card, another option is signing up for a secured card. With a secured card, you put down a deposit (typically $200) and have access to a credit limit up to that amount. The Discover it® Secured, for example, requires at least a $200 deposit, but you have the opportunity to earn rewards while building credit. 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.
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