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Whether you love shopping or loathe it, hunting for a great credit card is one of those shopping expeditions that is well worth it. The deal you snag now on a new card can pay off handsomely in coming years. But before you jump in and start comparing credit card interest rates, fees or rewards, there’s one step you won’t want to overlook: reviewing your credit reports and scores.

This first step is crucial because the information in your credit reports — and the scores that are calculated as a result — will be critical in determining which cards you get and how much you pay for them.

But be forewarned: Card issuers don’t disclose specific details about their credit score requirements up front. And the credit scores they use are most likely “customized,” which means they are not the same scores that you will see when you request them yourself.

Why, then, should you bother to review your credit reports and scores before you get a credit card if you won’t see what lenders see? There are three good reasons:

Spotting Credit Report Mistakes

The first is that if you do find a mistake on your credit reports that may be affecting your credit scores, you’ll want to dispute it and wait for a correction before you apply. Otherwise you could pay more for your next piece of plastic. In a recent study of the credit report dispute process, the FTC  found that 5.2% of participants experienced a change in their score such that their credit risk tier decreased; meaning they may have qualified for a better rate. (In that case they were looking at auto loan rates, but the same principal applies to credit cards.)

Where Do You Stand?

The second is that you want to get your credit scores to see what credit “tier” you fall into. In other words, is your credit excellent, good, fair or poor? The answer to that question will help you avoid applying for credit cards that you aren’t likely to be approved for. Again, most credit card issuers don’t reveal their credit score minimum requirements, but they may state what type of customer they are looking for when it comes to a particular program. For example, a search for credit cards on Credit.com shows that many of the cards offering the lowest rates or most generous reward programs are geared to customers with excellent credit, but there are some available to applicants with good credit. There are also cards geared specifically to consumers with poor credit who are trying to get their credit scores back on track.

Shop With Confidence

The third reason to check your credit scores is so you are prepared to take advantage of great credit offers when they come along. For example, let’s say you see an offer online or in your mailbox promising a big cash-back offer if you qualify. If you already know your credit is in good shape, you’ll be able to take advantage of the offers when you see them rather than worry that you might hurt your credit scores by applying.

Two particular factors you’ll want to look at when checking your credit scores and credit profile are the “age” of your credit history and “inquiries.” In Credit.com’s Credit Report Card, for example, if you score “A”s for both of those factors, then applying for a new card should be no big deal. But if you earned a B- or below, then you’ll want to be more cautious about opening new credit cards and take your time between applications.

Ultimately, shopping for a new credit card is more like shopping for a car than a new pair of jeans. You’ll have to do your homework to snag the best deal. But the payoff will be there every time you pull out that card in future shopping trips. Remember that you can get your credit reports for free once per year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.  You can also monitor your credit score and review and easy-to-understand breakdown of the information in your credit report  for free using a service like Credit.com’s Credit Report Card.

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Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.



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