Credit cards can be a cheap way to borrow money, but there are good and bad ways to use them. Our guide discusses, how to use a credit card, what can you use them for? What are the benefits? And in what circumstances should they be avoided?
To get the most out of your credit card, you need to use it properly. Find out the best way to use a credit card to ensure that you get a good deal and pay low interest rates.
You can use your credit card to make payments in the same way you would use a debit card or cash. The difference is that the money does not leave your bank account straight away, as it would with a debit card. Instead, you have a set period of time from the date of your purchases before you will receive a statement telling you how much you need to repay. Then you have to repay the credit card provider (who essentially paid the money for your purchase in the first place). So you are paying on credit.
The credit card issuer will usually give you between 45 to 56 days to pay them back. It's always better for you to pay off the balance in full, but you can do it in instalments.
Always pay off at least the minimum amount due. This will be shown on your credit card statement. The minimum amount is the sum you need to pay to avoid extra charges and black marks n your credit score. Even if you cannot pay off your whole credit card bill you should pay off the minimum amount on time.
Avoid paying interest or late fees by setting up a direct debit from your current account. That way, you also will not forget to pay. You can usually choose a direct debit to pay either the minimum or the full balance each month.
Make sure you get the right kind of credit card for you. Some cards are designed for dealing with debt, while others are better suited to regular spending. Do not only pay attention to headline interest rates, but think carefully about the advantages of each one.
For example, some credit cards reward you for spending, others give cashback, some do not charge fees even if you use them abroad, and others can help you build up loyalty points at retail outlets.
The best credit card for you is the one that works for your lifestyle. If you cannot clear you credit card bill each month then a card with a low interest rate (APR) would suit you better. If you always pay off your bill in full then you might want to consider a credit card with perks or rewards so you can make the most of your spending.
Compare different types of credit card using our comparison table.
Using a credit card for payments is much like using a debit card, except that you have an interest free period with your credit card that is not available with debit cards. If you're paying in store then you will need to either use the pin that you have been given or make a contactless payment. At present, the credit card limit for contactless payments is £100.
When your credit card statement comes it will explain when you need to make your payment to your credit card provider, and what the minimum payment is. You can pay off the balance in full if you want to avoid interest charges, or pay the minimum amount in order to avoid any penalty fees.
The various pros and cons of credit cards largely depend on how you use them. Good spending habits can help you get a more out of them.
The pros of a credit card are that they can help you with budgeting. For example, if you have a large item or service that you want to buy, you can spread the cost of repayment over several months, rather than having to have the money straight away.
In addition, credit cards provide some protection if the goods or services are faulty or do not arrive.
The cons of a credit card is that it is possible to get into debt and find that you are being charged interest on any credit card spending that you cannot pay back. It can be easy to spend money on your credit card without having a plan to pay it back, so make sure you are aware of how much you spend and think about how you will find the money to settle your bill at the end of the month.
How can I use a credit card to get instant and free money borrowing?
With a credit card, you can buy something even when you do not have enough money in your current account. You just need to make sure you can pay it off later.
You can pay off your credit card balance in full or in instalments, whichever is more convenient.
But remember, the borrowing is only "free" if you pay your balance in full each month, or if you have an interest-free credit card. The length of an interest-free offer varies from card to card. When you are accepted for a credit card, you may not get the full interest-free period - it depends on how the credit card provider views your financial situation.
Do not use a credit card for cash withdrawals. You'll be charged interest from the moment you make the transaction and you may incur extra fees as well.
Some cards apply additional charges for purchases in a foreign currency too. If you have a credit card with no foreign currency charges, you can still buy goods and services on it without being charged immediate interest.
How can I use a credit card to improve my credit score?
Your credit score gives an indication as to the state of your credit file. Your credit file is your financial record dating back six years. It shows applications for financial products like credit cards, mortgages and some current accounts.
If you always repay your debts in full and on time, then you are likely to have a good credit rating. A good rating makes it easier to get different debt products, credit agreements, and contracts like broadband and mobile phone contracts in the future.
If you have never had a debt product before, there will be little evidence in your credit file to show you can repay money. Or, you might have a bad credit rating because of previously irresponsible financial behaviour.
Getting a credit card could boost your credit score. It will help show potential credit card providers that you are a safe person to loan money to.
If you have had debt problems, or problems getting a credit card in the past, then compare our best bad credit credit cards to find a suitable one for you.
The biggest protection for credit card purchases is made possible under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. This means that if you spend more than £100 but under £30,000 on goods or services on your credit card, and they are faulty, then you have consumer protection.
With Section 75, you have protection if the goods you purchased were faulty, damaged or were never delivered, or the retailer refuses to refund you. It enables you to claim your money back though your credit card provider.
Section 75 makes the retailer and the credit card provider equally liable if something goes wrong.
For example, you used your credit card to purchase a new TV, which turns out to be faulty. You've contacted the retailer, but they refuse to refund you (or they've gone bust). Under Section 75, because the credit card provider is equally liable, it can refund you instead.
You can claim a refund, repair or replacement so long as the price of the goods or services you purchased were more than £100 and less than £30,000.
You will even be eligible for this consumer protection if you didn't pay the total cost on your credit card. So, if you pay just the deposit with your credit card and the rest by cheque, you can still claim a refund for the full amount under this legal protection.
If something goes wrong with a purchase, you must first contact the retailer you bought the goods or services from. They may be able to help you directly.
If you can't contact them, they have gone out of business or they refuse to refund you, it’s time to get in touch with your credit card provider. Make sure you keep track of any receipts to help the process run smoothly.
If your credit card company refuses your claim then you can refer the case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). They will act as an independent mediator and find a solution.
Some reasons you may not be able to claim are:
You used a charge card or a store card to make the purchase
Your purchase was under £100 or over £30,000
You used a company credit card
You used credit card cheques
The purchase was made through PayPal (or any other third party seller)
Your credit card provide will often refund you if your credit card is stolen and used fraudulently. But if the lender determines that you were negligent, you may not get it back.
To protect your purchases online, credit cards also have 3D Secure technology. It is an extra layer of security to make sure it's really you making an online purchase. Visa cards use Verified by Visa, while MasterCard uses SecureCode.
You may be able to transfer existing debts onto a 0% balance transfer credit card. So, if you owe money on other credit cards, bank account overdrafts or store credit that all charge you interest, you could make a saving.
You can put any money you save on interest towards paying off the debt itself. This reduces the chance of your debt getting significantly worse.
Not everyone can get a 0% balance transfer card, especially the ones with long interest-free periods. To get the best one, you need a really good credit rating and solid credit file.
Explore more about balance transfer cards.
You could even earn money as you spend money with a cashback credit card.
You can earn other rewards too. For example, airline credit cards let you earn Air Miles when you spend. And supermarket credit cards can earn you points to use in store.
See all our best rewards credit cards and learn more about them.
Credit cards can cause financial difficulty for those who are not careful with their finances. Just because you can borrow money, does not necessarily mean you should.
Credit cards are not good long term options for borrowing.
It can be very easy to fall into the debt trap if you do not use your credit card wisely.
For instance, if you:
Only plan to pay the minimum monthly repayment
Always use the full amount of credit (in other words "max out" the credit card)
Forget to make a repayment every month
Instead of thinking of your credit card as quick and easy money, you should consider it to be nothing more than a short-term loan. It may be called a "credit" card, but it is in fact a debt card.
Always have a repayment plan and always be aware of how much APR interest you are paying. If you are struggling to keep up with repayments you can contact a debt advice charity like National Debtline or StepChange. They will give you credit card debt advice for free. You do not need to pay for debt advice and counselling - these charities will help you free of charge.
Interest rates may not be the only added cost of using a credit card.
Other potential additional costs include:
Late or missed payment charges
Cash machine withdrawal fees (particularly when abroad)
Foreign currency fees: eg, bad exchange rates
Fees for exceeding your credit limit
Monthly or yearly fee (just for having the card)
You can use your credit card on goods and services, or to pay bills. Avoid using your credit card for cash withdraws because you will incur a charge as soon as you make the withdrawal and it damages your credit score.
Credit cards, particularly those with 0% interest, are well suited for big, expensive purchases. This is because you do not have to save up for the full amount of the item before you make the purchase. Instead, you can pay off the balance in instalments, as and when you do have the money.
As long as you meet the minimum payments each month and have an interest-free card, you should not need to pay interest on your purchase. You only pay back what you spent, nothing more.
And thanks to Section 75 and 3D Secure technology, using your credit card for big purchases gives you extra protection.
In shops you can use your credit card wherever it's accepted. Some shops or websites may charge a fee for using a credit card because it costs them to pay the credit card provider for the transaction.
The top 4 things to buy on a credit card include:
Travel cards and travel season tickets
Holidays, hotels and flights
One-off big purchases
If you get the train to work and back five days a week, every week, chances are you already buy a monthly train ticket.
By paying for a travel card or travel season ticket with a credit card, you can avoid having to pay that lump sum up front but pay at the end of the month instead. If you have a good interest-free period and can pay back the cost of an annual season ticket within that period, that could work too. Otherwise, it may be worth taking out a loan to pay for an annual season ticket.
Paying for your holidays, including the accommodation and flights, on a credit card makes sense when it comes to protecting your large purchases.
It's not uncommon for travel agents or airline to go bust. If you do not yet have insurance, and did not pay using a credit card, you may not be able to get your money back.
Some holiday booking sites may add on extra fees at the checkout for using a credit card - so keep an eye out.
Credit cards are great for the one-off big purchases, like TVs, a sofa, or a new mobile phone.
Just like with a travel season ticket, if you have a 0% purchases credit card, you can spread the cost and avoid paying interest for a few months.
Some shops selling these expensive products offer ‘0% finance’ for a year or two, but they often mark up the prices as a result. Always shop around and compare prices before committing to make sure you're getting the best deal.
Christmas comes but once a year, and it's an expensive time at that. But using a 0% purchase card for the bulk of your spending could help you tackle the cost afterwards.
However, paying off last year's Christmas may amount to the same as saving for Christmas this year. So if you can, it's better put money aside each month to save up gradually . That way you'll have enough when December comes around, and may even have some leftover if you managed to spend less that you budgeted for.
Any purchases over £100 be protected (by Section 75), so if the company fails to deliver your goods when it promised it would, you could get your money back.
Never use your credit card to withdraw cash. You'll be charged interest from the moment you take the money out of the machine, and will be charged the daily rate of interest until you've paid it back in full.
You may also get charged a fee for the withdrawal as well because it's seen to be the same as buying money with your credit card. Credit card issuers will charge you a high price for doing so.
Additional charges on credit card cash withdrawals are not limited to cash machines.
You'll incur extra charges if you use your credit card to buy foreign currency, betting chips in a casino, or gaming money on a gambling website. This is because you are, once again, using your card to buy money.
You can, however, use your credit card to buy vouchers for a specific retailer, as long as it's not used in exchange for money, like in a casino.
Credit cards are not best suited for long term loans. They're more effective for short-term borrowing and spending tools.
If you are keen to reap rewards when you spend but are restricted by a bad or non-existent credit rating, the good news is that there are still cashback cards available to you. These are not nearly as rewarding as others on the market though, so your priority should be to rebuild your credit rating to make yourself eligible for these more competitive cards in the future.
To rebuild your score you will need to use your credit card regularly, never missing a payment and always staying within the limit.
Use your cashback card to get a small reward for repaying in full every month while you work towards rebuilding your credit rating. Only get these cards if you can pay the balance off in full every month as the interest rate is likely to be higher than standard cards.
If you end up building up debt on these types of cards you could wipe out any cashback gains you might have made and risk landing yourself deeper in debt and damaging your credit rating further.