How Do Secured Credit Cards Work?

Updated: March 21, 2024

Updated: March 21, 2024

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Secured credit cards are designed primarily for individuals looking to build or rebuild their credit. Unlike traditional credit cards, secured cards require a security deposit, which typically determines the credit limit. The cardholder uses it just like any other credit card: buying items, making payments on time and possibly incurring interest if the balance isn't paid in full. If the cardholder defaults, the issuer can use the deposit to cover the outstanding amount. Over time, with responsible usage and timely payments, the cardholder can improve their credit score and may eventually qualify for an unsecured card or have their deposit returned.

  • Secured credit cards require a deposit that acts as a safeguard for issuers against defaults, directly influencing the card's credit limit and encouraging responsible spending by the cardholder.
  • For those with limited or tarnished credit histories, secured cards offer a structured route to establish or rebuild creditworthiness, with the potential for upgrading to unsecured cards after demonstrating consistent repayment.
  • When thinking of transitioning away from a secured card, it's important to consider potential impacts on one's credit score, ensure all balances are settled and anticipate the return of the initial security deposit upon successful closure or upgrade.

Secured Credit Card vs. Regular Credit Cards

Secured credit cards and regular (unsecured) credit cards primarily differ in how they handle credit risk, but they also have several other distinct features:

  • Security Deposit: The most significant difference between these two types of cards is the security deposit requirement for secured credit cards. This deposit acts as collateral and often determines the credit limit for the card. If a cardholder defaults, the issuer can use this deposit to cover the outstanding debt.
  • Credit Limit: Typically, the credit limit on a secured card is equivalent to the initial security deposit, or it may be a percentage of it. In contrast, the limit for unsecured cards is set based on the cardholder's creditworthiness and doesn't require a deposit.
  • Purpose: Secured credit cards are mainly tailored for individuals with no credit history or those looking to rebuild their credit. Unsecured credit cards are for those with established credit.
  • Approval Rate: Since secured credit cards have collateral in the form of a security deposit, they are generally easier to get approved for than unsecured credit cards, even with poor or limited credit history.
  • Fees and Interest Rates: Secured cards might come with higher fees and interest rates than some unsecured cards, given that they cater to higher-risk individuals. However, competition among providers may result in more favorable terms for consumers.
  • Transition to Unsecured Cards: After a period of responsible use, many secured cardholders might qualify for an unsecured credit card or get their security deposit back. Some issuers may even automatically upgrade a user's secured card to an unsecured one.

In essence, while both types of cards function similarly in making purchases and accruing interest, the fundamental difference lies in the risk management approach the card issuers take.

How Do I Get Started With a Secured Credit Card?

The process of getting a secured credit card is similar to that of obtaining a regular credit card. Typically, getting a secured credit card involves taking the following steps:

  1. Investigate various secured credit cards to find one with favorable terms. Key considerations should include annual fees, interest rates and whether or not the issuer reports to all three major credit bureaus.
  2. Choose a card and submit an application, providing the necessary personal information. This usually includes details like your Social Security number and information about employment and income.
  3. If approved, deposit the required security amount, which typically determines your credit limit.
  4. Make small purchases with your card and pay off the balance on time — ideally in full — each month to build a positive credit history.
  5. Periodically review your credit reports to ensure the card's activity is reported correctly and track your credit-building progress.

What Is the Security Deposit, and Why Is It Needed?

The security deposit on a secured credit card acts as collateral, providing a safety net for card issuers. In cases where the cardholder defaults or neglects their payment obligations, this deposit allows the issuer to recover the outstanding balance. Such cards are primarily designed for individuals either entering the world of credit or aiming to rebuild their credit standing. The presence of the security deposit addresses the perceived high-risk nature of these individuals, who might have limited credit history or previous financial errors.

In terms of determining one's spending limit, it's common for the deposit amount to directly influence the credit limit. For example, a $500 deposit typically equates to a $500 credit limit, though some issuers might adjust this slightly. The fact that personal funds are at stake serves as a compelling motivator for cardholders to adopt prudent credit behaviors, like settling their full balance monthly.

Over time, with sustained responsible usage, the issuer may deem the cardholder as less risky and return their security deposit. This refund often signifies a transition to an unsecured card or an acknowledgment by the issuer of the cardholder's improved creditworthiness.

How Do Payments and Interest Work on a Secured Credit Card?

Payments and interest on a secured credit card operate much like they do on regular, unsecured credit cards. Secured credit cards give users monthly statements detailing their transactions and overall balances. Like traditional cards, these cards come with an interest rate — often referred to as the annual percentage rate (APR) — which is applied to any remaining balance not settled by the due date. Cardholders must make at least the specified minimum payment by this date to keep the account in good standing. Many of these cards also offer a grace period, during which paying the full balance avoids any interest charges.

However, additional fees can be incurred if payments are late or missed, and the cardholder's credit score may be negatively impacted. It's important to note that the security deposit, a distinguishing feature of secured cards, is held as collateral by the card issuer and isn't used to cover monthly payments.

Ultimately, responsible and timely payments on a secured card can assist in building a positive credit history, while lapses can hinder one's credit profile.

How Long Should I Keep a Secured Credit Card?

The decision to retain a secured credit card largely hinges on credit-building objectives and the card's terms. Typically, individuals keep a secured card for 12 to 18 months, focusing on consistent, responsible usage to enhance their credit profile. After this period, many cardholders transition to unsecured cards, which don't necessitate a security deposit and often offer better terms.

Closing a secured card too soon can impact one's credit score — especially if it's their oldest credit line — due to changes in credit utilization and history length. Additionally, while annual fees on some secured cards might make them less attractive over time, weighing these costs against any unique benefits the card might provide is essential. Ultimately, the secured card should be maintained until it achieves its credit-building purpose and can be replaced by more advantageous credit alternatives.

Can I Upgrade My Secured Card to an Unsecured Card?

Many card issuers permit the user to upgrade their secured card to an unsecured one after consistent, responsible usage, typically over a 12 to 18-month period. The upgrade eligibility mainly hinges on timely payments and improved credit health. Some issuers might automatically assess for upgrades, while others require you to initiate the process.

Your initial security deposit is usually returned upon successful transition to an unsecured card, provided there's no outstanding balance. However, be mindful of potential hard credit checks during this process, which might affect your score. If an upgrade isn't possible with your current issuer, consider applying for an unsecured card elsewhere and closing the secured account to retrieve your deposit.

How to Close a Secured Credit Card

Closing a secured credit card is a straightforward process, but it's essential to follow specific steps to ensure it's done correctly and minimize any potential impact on your credit score. Here's how to go about it:

Pay Off Your Balance

Ensure your card balance is zero before closing. This might mean waiting for any pending transactions to post and paying them off as well.

Redeem Any Rewards

If your secured card offers rewards or points, redeem them before closing the account, as you may lose them once the account is closed.

Contact the Issuer

Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card or on your monthly statement. Inform the representative of your intent to close the account.

Request Written Confirmation

Once the account is closed, ask the issuer to send you a written confirmation that it was closed and had a zero balance at the time of closing.

Retrieve Your Deposit

Inquire about the return of your security deposit. The issuer will usually refund it, often in the form of a check, provided there are no outstanding dues. This process can sometimes take a few weeks.

Monitor Your Credit Report

After a few weeks, check your credit report to ensure that the account is reported as "closed by the consumer." This distinction is crucial because it shows future lenders that you chose to close the account rather than the issuer shutting it down.

Consider the Impact on Credit Score

Remember that closing a credit card, especially an older one, can impact your credit score by affecting your credit utilization ratio and the length of your credit history. It's wise to consider these factors before closing any credit account.

If you're closing a secured card to switch to another one or because you've upgraded to an unsecured card with the same issuer, you might experience a temporary dip in your credit score. However, with responsible credit behavior, your score will likely rebound over time.

Next Steps

Secured credit cards offer a valuable avenue for individuals looking to establish or rebuild their credit history. By requiring a security deposit as collateral, these cards provide card issuers with a safeguard against potential losses, making them more amenable to extending credit to those deemed high-risk. The amount of this deposit commonly dictates the credit limit, serving as both a safety net for the issuer and a motivation for the cardholder to exhibit responsible credit behavior.

Over time, consistent and prudent use of a secured card can pave the way for upgrading to an unsecured card or receiving the return of the security deposit, signaling improved creditworthiness. As with all financial tools, understanding the terms and commitments of secured cards is essential. Cardholders should remain vigilant about their spending habits, ensuring they navigate their credit journey effectively.

About Grace Pilling

Grace Pilling headshot

Grace Pilling was the Senior Content Manager for Credit Cards at MoneyGeek. She previously led personal finance teams at Bankrate, and MoneyUnder30.

Pilling has a bachelor's degree in English from Western Sydney University and a diploma in book editing, proofreading and publishing. She is focused on empowering readers to make informed financial choices that support their best lives, not a company’s bottom line.

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