How CNET Money Rates Credit Cards

2 weeks ago 7
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Finding the right credit card can be challenging. There are hundreds of credit cards available, and dozens of credit card companies all vying for your attention.

That usually translates to issuers shouting at you, in a cacophony of advertisements and special offers. You either plug your ears to them all, or dive in and pick one that sounds like the right fit.

But you don’t have to make this choice alone. We tirelessly analyze all the details so you can find the best credit card for your money goals. Here’s how we do it.

How CNET rates credit cards

Card ratingWhat it means
5Exceptional 
3.6 to 4.9Good
2.6 to 3.5Average
1 to 2.5Subpar

We rate credit cards on a five-point scale, categorizing each card based on its most prominent feature: 

  1. Rewards/travel.
  2. Balance transfer/low APR.
  3. Business.
  4. Credit building.

Each card category has its own subcategories that we evaluate to calculate a weighted, composite score. 

Rewards/travel credit cards

Credit cards that primarily focus on earning rewards fall into this category. This could include flat-rate rewards cards, tiered-rewards cards, retail-specific rewards cards, general travel credit cards, and airline or hotel partner cards.

Here’s how we evaluate cards that fall into this category:

Welcome offer

A one-time bonus typically earned by spending a certain amount of money in a set period of time -- aka a welcome offer -- can be one of the most lucrative aspects of a rewards or travel credit card. It can help cover a card’s annual fee for a time or even help reduce a statement balance.

Rewards program

The card’s specific rewards program is heavily weighted in our ratings. The highest-rated cards will have a competitive rewards rate, useful redemption options or ways to increase a rewards redemption value.

Value for money

This subcategory is all about the value you can get from the card based on its cost. We weigh the value of the card’s benefits and rewards against its annual fee to calculate how valuable a card offering is.

Benefits

The card’s perks are extra features that increase its value. Though this category isn’t weighed as heavily, some cards offer helpful benefits that can save you money or protect your purchases. We also factor annual credits into this category for traditional travel credit cards.

Fees and APR

We look at any fees you might incur and the card’s current annual percentage rate, which would determine how much interest accrues on your card balance. 

Balance transfer/Low APR credit cards

Credit cards with an introductory 0% APR can have offers for balance transfers, new purchases or both.

A balance transfer credit card is designed to let cardholders transfer the balance from a credit card that’s charging interest to one that offers an introductory 0% APR for a limited time. During this specified introductory period, your payments can go toward paying down the balance, since it’s not accruing interest. When used responsibly, a balance transfer card can help if you’re struggling with existing credit card debt.

A card that provides an introductory 0% APR for new purchases allows cardholders to make purchases that don’t accrue interest during the specified introductory period. If you’re making a large purchase and want to spread out the payments, an introductory 0% APR card could be helpful.

Offer length

The length of time you get to pay down your transferred balance or large purchase is the most important thing to consider about these credit cards. If you aren’t able to pay down the card balance before the promotional period ends, your balance will begin to accrue interest at the card’s standard variable rate.

Offer terms

If there are specific terms with the offer -- like if the clock starts ticking on the introductory period as soon as you get your card, or there’s a small window of time for you to take advantage of the promotional period  -- they’ll impact the card’s overall rating.

Balance transfer fee

A balance transfer fee is charged by the credit card company for facilitating the transfer. It’s typically 3% to 5% of the transferred balance and is added to the card’s new balance. The lower the fee, the better the rating.

Ongoing value

This subcategory defines how useful the card is once the promotional period is over. A balance transfer credit card with a rewards program, for example, might rank higher here than one without.

Regular fees and APR

The card’s standard fees and variable APR outside of its promotional period play a role in the card’s overall rating.

Credit building credit cards

As the name suggests, credit building cards, with responsible use, are meant to help you establish better credit scores. They’re credit cards with more-lax credit requirements, including student credit cards and secured credit cards.

Accessibility

One of the factors we consider the most for a credit building card is how easy it is to be approved for the card. Considering that the card’s purpose is to help you build up your credit score, the credit requirements to qualify for the card shouldn’t be too restrictive.

Effectiveness

The card’s effectiveness -- how good it is at building your credit and supporting you along the way -- also determines how high we rate the card. If the card has additional tools, like educational resources and credit monitoring capabilities, that’s reflected in the ranking.

Cost

We also consider how expensive the card is. If it has an annual fee, monthly fee or requires a higher-than-average security deposit, it may not be rated as highly as other credit building options.

Other perks

If the card offers additional perks or rewards, that’ll contribute to a higher overall rating. A credit building card that also earns rewards and offers consumer protections, for instance, will get a higher ranking than one that doesn’t.

Fees and APR

A lower APR and fewer fees make the card a more enticing choice.

Business credit cards

Business credit cards are designed to help business owners earn rewards for expenses, offering useful perks like budgeting tools and employee cards. They’re typically travel cards with business-focused rewards.

Welcome bonus

Just like their reward card counterparts, business credit cards often offer a welcome bonus for new cardholders to earn. It’s one of the main selling points for business travel and business reward cards alike.

Rewards program

The business card’s rewards program is evaluated in a way that’s similar to how we judge consumer rewards credit cards. The more rewarding and versatile the program is, the higher the card will be rated.

Value for money

The value you’re able to squeeze from the card’s rewards, benefits and features is weighed against the cost of its annual fee.

Benefits

The additional card perks attached to the card -- like employee cards, spend-tracking tools and airport lounge access -- contribute to its overall rating. We consider things like how valuable they are, how easy they are to use and how often they’re available.

Fees and APR

If the card has a low interest rate and fewer punitive fees, it’ll rank better compared to its competitors.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

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