How Do Credit Cards Work? 7 Things You Need to Know

how do credit cards work

If you’re not familiar with how credit cards work, they can be intimidating to use.

I put off getting a credit card for years because I didn’t understand them. Plus, I was afraid of getting into massive debt. In fact, a woman I once interviewed failed to understand just how do credit cards work — and racked up a $12,000 balance as a result.

But once you understand them, you see them for what they are: financial tools that you control. Credit cards can be invaluable for quickly building credit. However, if you’re not careful, it can be too easy to charge more than you can repay.

By understanding credit card basics, you will know how to responsibly spend with one — and always pay it off.

7 essential credit card Q&As

So how do credit cards work? Let’s start with the basics.

1. What is a credit card?

Credit cards – plastic cards that banks and financial institutions grant to cardholders – have information encoded in them that ties them to your credit card account. This information is used by merchants to process purchases and charge them to your credit card account.

2. What is a credit card account?

Your credit card is tied to a credit account — which is a borrowing tool and a form of debt. But unlike an installment loan, a credit card is a form of revolving credit.

This means that instead of borrowing all the money at once like you do with a loan, you borrow as you spend with a credit card. Every time you make a purchase with your credit card, you are doing it with the issuer’s money, not your own.

A credit card account will have a limit. This is the maximum amount the credit card company will let you borrow on the account.

3. What is a credit card balance?

Any transactions charged to a credit card are added to your credit card balance. This is the amount of money you’ve borrowed by charging purchases to your credit card but have yet to repay.

You add to your credit card balance every time you swipe your credit card, and you lower it every time you make a credit card payment.

However, try to limit your credit card balance to what you can repay each month in full. This is a good guideline to follow to keep your credit balance low and ensure you don’t borrow more than you can repay.

4. What is a minimum payment on a credit card?

The minimum payment is the amount you must pay each month to keep your credit card accounts in good standing. Your minimum payment will be due on your credit card due date each month.

A minimum payment is calculated based on your credit card balance. It is usually two to three percent of your credit card balance, or the outstanding interest you owe plus one percent of the balance. Most credit card issuers also have a flat amount that is the smallest they’ll charge on a credit card each month, typically $15 to $35.

The minimum payment on a credit card is small compared to your overall balance. It’s also recalculated each month. This means that the average credit card balance can take over a decade to repay with minimum payments alone — and you’ll pay hundreds in credit card interest during that time.

5. What is credit card interest?

Credit card interest, also called a credit card finance charge, is the cost you pay to have a balance. This is set by your credit card annual percentage rate (APR), which is the rate at which your balance accrues interest.

Figuring out how do credit cards work with interest can be complicated. But put simply, you will pay credit card interest on your average daily balance for the month.

You will usually have a 25-day grace period to repay a balance with your credit card issuer before it charges interest on the borrowed money. Pay off your credit card in full each month and you won’t pay credit card interest.

But if you charge, say, $100 this month and only pay $50 back, you’ll accrue interest on the remaining $50 until you repay it.

Therefore, you should always pay more than the credit card minimum to keep balances low. It will also help you avoid credit card interest and serious credit card debt.

6. What are credit card fees?

An important part of understanding how do credit cards work is to know what your credit card is costing you.

All credit card costs, APRs, and fees will be outlined in your credit card agreement that you sign when opening a credit card. Carefully read this to ensure you understand your credit card.

Different credit cards will have their own fee schedules, and some will charge more while others will charge less ― or skip some credit card fees altogether.

The main fee you should worry about is the annual credit card fee, which you are charged each year simply for the privilege of having the credit card. Depending on your credit card, you could face an annual fee of $0 up to $500. A typical credit card fee is around $50 to $60 a year and will depend on the type of credit card you have.

Credit card companies will also charge other fees on certain transactions such as:

  • Balance transfer fees. These are charged when you use one credit card to pay off the balance on another credit card.
  • Cash advance fees. These are charged when you borrow from your line of credit in cash, rather than through a purchase.
  • Foreign transaction fees. You pay these for purchases made outside of your domestic country.
  • Late payment fees. You pay these if you make your credit card payment after your monthly due date.

7. What are the different types of credit cards?

There are various types of credit cards and some work differently than others. Here are some common types of credit cards, as well as what makes them stand out:

  • Rewards credit cards give cardholders rewards for making purchases on their credit card. Rewards can be cash back, or points that can be redeemed for travel purchases or other goods.
  • Secured credit cards require a deposit of cash that is used as collateral against the credit card balance. Because they are secured by the deposit, these cards are easier to qualify for. They can be a good option for consumers who want to rebuild credit.
  • Charge cards require borrowers to repay their balances in full every month. So the minimum payment is always equal to the monthly charges on the charge card.
  • Retail cards are credit cards that are issued by a retailer or store, rather than a credit card company or bank. These credit card accounts are with the store itself.

How do credit cards work? Simply, if you’re knowledgeable

At the end of the day, credit cards can be a tricky financial tool to use. Too many credit card users make credit card choices that hurt their finances and credit simply because they don’t understand them.

If you’re new to the world of credit cards, take your time learning about them and figuring out how does a credit card work. When you understand credit cards, you will know how to get the most benefit from them. And you’ll also avoid making disastrous credit mistakes simply because you didn’t know better.

Interested in a personal loan?

Here are the top personal loan lenders of 2018!
LenderRates (APR)Loan Amount 
1 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Finance Lender Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (
  2. Personal LoansFixed rates from 5.49% APR to 14.24% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 4.98% APR to 11.44% APR (with AutoPay). SoFi rate ranges are current as of December 21, 2017 and are subject to change without notice. Not all rates and amounts available in all states. Not all applicants qualify for the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, to qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including evaluation of your credit worthiness, years of professional experience, income and other factors. Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at 14.95%. Lowest variable rate of 4.98% APR assumes current 1-month LIBOR rate of 1.34% plus 3.89% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.

2 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Personal Loan Rate Disclosure: Fixed interest rates range from 5.99% – 16.24% (5.99% – 16.24% APR) based on applicable terms and presence of a co-applicant. Lowest rates shown are for eligible applicants, require a 3-year repayment term, and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.
  2. Loyalty Discount: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower has submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, student loans or other personal loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI and VT. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) disclosed in the Truth-In-Lending Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan, and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  3. Automatic Payment Discount: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their Citizens Bank Personal Loan during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account two or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
7.39% - 29.99%$1,000 - $50,000
Check rate nowon SLH's secure site
4.98% - 14.24%1$5,000 - $100,000
Check rate nowon SLH's secure site
8.00% - 25.00%$5,000 - $35,000
Check rate nowon SLH's secure site
5.99% - 16.24%2$5,000 - $50,000Visit Citizens
5.99% - 35.89%$1,000 - $40,000Visit LendingClub
5.25% - 14.24%$2,000 - $50,000Visit Earnest
Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print, understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.