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By Ben Luthi / NerdWallet
May 27, 2015

Applying for a credit card these days is as simple as entering your information into an online form and clicking “submit.” But getting approved for a credit card requires proactive planning that should start long before you apply.

1. Know your FICO score

Your FICO score is one of the most important factors in a credit card issuer’s decision to approve your application. Although there might be some variation depending on the bank you’re working with, FICO scores are typically classified by lenders as follows:

300-629: Bad credit
630-689: Average credit
690-719: Good credit
720 and up: Excellent credit

Most rewards credit cards require good or excellent credit. So if you’ve struggled to maintain a good credit history, it may be worth it to put off applying until you can get your finances in top order. You can do this by making payments on time, keeping your balances low on existing credit cards and avoiding new debt.

Nerd note: When checking your credit score, make sure it’s a real FICO. Several companies and even the credit reporting bureaus offer a proprietary credit score, but lenders are not as likely to use these in credit decisions.

2. Reduce your debt

A full 30% of your credit score is determined by how much you owe. High credit card balances can be especially damaging. Your credit utilization ratio — your balance divided by your credit limit — should be below 30% on each credit card. So if, for example, you have a credit limit of $10,000, it’s recommended to keep the balance below $3,000 at all times.

You can lower your credit utilization by creating a plan to pay down an existing balance as quickly as possible. Additionally, consider paying off purchases more than once a month to keep your balance lower throughout the month.

3. Don’t apply for the first offer you see

If you don’t have good credit, you may find it difficult to get approved for a card with a large sign-up bonus and a lucrative reward structure. Each credit card application ends up on your credit report, so the Nerds recommend using our tool to find a card that fit your credit profile before applying. If you’re still unsure, call the card issuer and ask about a specific card’s requirements.

4. Include all of your income in the application

Your credit score is a good indicator of your overall creditworthiness, but it doesn’t tell lenders about one important thing: your income. Credit card issuers need your income level to calculate your debt-to-income ratio, which helps determine your ability to make payments. There are two ways to lower this ratio: increase income or decrease debt.

If you earn money outside your full-time job, include it on your application so that an accurate debt-to-income ratio will be reflected. However, resist the temptation to overstate your income. If an issuer finds that you knowingly provided false information on your application, you could be charged with credit card fraud, which is punishable by up to $1 million in fines and/or 30 years of imprisonment.

5. Don’t give up

If you think you’ve done everything right and your application is still denied, don’t move on just yet. Credit card issuers have reconsideration lines you can call to plead your case.

Have a plan before you call. Get a copy of your free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com so you can understand why you may have been denied. Formulate a convincing argument as to why you want the card and why you are fiscally responsible. Above all, be polite. Customer service agents are much more likely to respond positively if you have a pleasant demeanor.

The bottom line

Being denied for a credit card hurts — both psychologically and in terms of your credit score. That’s why it’s essential to take stock of your credit situation before you apply for your next card. Also, make sure give accurate information during the application.

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