Finance

What is an Instant Use Credit Card and How Do They Work

Nowadays, consumers can get instant approval when they apply for certain credit cards, but it can take another week or two before that powerful plastic rectangle arrives in the mail. For many, that’s just fine — they can just use other credit cards and debit cards in their wallets.

But what if you need to use that card the day you’re approved? That’s where instant use credit cards come in. An instant use credit card allows you to make purchases immediately, either through a barcode, digital card number or your digital wallet.

Not every credit card issuer offers instant credit card numbers, and some issuers may only offer it on select credit cards. If you don’t have time to wait for a physical credit card in the mail, prioritize applying for one of these coveted cards.

What Is an Instant Use Credit Card?

An instant use credit card allows consumers to begin using their new line of credit as soon as they are approved. Rather than swipe a physical card, consumers pay digitally — like through Apple Pay or Google Pay, with a digital account number or even using a barcode.

Co-branded credit cards — like store cards, airline cards, and hotel cards — are common candidates, but even some other common travel and rewards credit cards are available for instant use. American Express, for example, offers an instant credit card number for all of its cards (as long as you apply online).

How Do Instant Use Credit Cards Work?

Upon approval for an instant use credit card, the card issuer will provide you with a method for using the card digitally, typically through a barcode or an instant credit card number.

  • Barcode: When opening a store credit card, like the Target RedCard or Walmart Rewards Card, look for a barcode on the receipt. Use this until your physical card arrives in the mail.
  • Instant credit card number: Credit card issuers offering instant approval typically give you a digital card number that you can use online or in your digital wallet. Sometimes this number matches the physical card number; sometimes the two are unique.

In either case, you should still expect your physical credit card to arrive in the mail — usually within one to two weeks.

Pro Tip

If a credit card company doesn’t offer instant use for the card you want, you can call to try to expedite shipping of the physical card. You may pay extra for this service.

Benefits of Instant Use Credit Cards

Instant credit card numbers offer a lot of perks to those who qualify:

  • Instant access to credit: The biggest and most obvious perk? You can immediately use your new credit card for purchases. Whether you’re financing a large purchase, like a new couch, or booking a last-minute trip to Europe, having instant access to your line of credit is helpful.
  • Emergency expenses: While a new sofa and a flight to Prague are nice, the biggest value of instant access to your credit is when you need to cover an emergency. Whether it’s to cover an unexpected vet visit or a flat tire on your drive home from work, a card offering immediate approval and instant access can be a life saver.
  • Instant deals: Some store cards may get you discounts every time you swipe. That’s why cashiers often urge you to open the card when you’re checking out. Though you should exercise caution when opening a new line of credit (and the checkout line of a Kohl’s isn’t where you should usually debate the pros and cons), opening a card in this scenario could save you a lot of money right away — especially if your shopping cart is full of hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of stuff.
  • Travel rewards: Several co-branded cards, like airline cards and hotel cards, offer instant card numbers when you’re approved. That means you can immediately start using them to book hotels, flights and other travel purchases — and watch those points and miles roll in.
  • Cash back rewards: Some cash back cards are instant approval credit cards, like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card. If you wait until your physical card arrives in the mail, you’re giving up one to two weeks of expenses that you could be earning cash back on.
  • Sign-up bonus: Most travel and rewards cards offer a sign-up bonus that requires you to spend a certain amount of money in a set number of months. By getting instant access to your credit card number, you can start spending toward your goal immediately. It makes earning your sign-up bonus considerably easier.
Pro Tip

While an instant credit card number doesn’t inherently have any downsides, they make impulse buying easier. Think critically before applying.

Which Credit Card Issuers Offer Instant Use Credit Cards?

Instant use cards offer consumers a lot of perks without any downsides (as long as you can responsibly manage a credit card). But finding a card offering instant approval and instant use can be harder than you might think.

Many card issuers offer instant use for a select number of cards, meaning you’ve got to navigate through their offerings to find eligible cards. American Express is the big exception: As long as you apply on a computer or smart device, you should get instant access upon approval.

Here’s a list of major card issuers — and the low down on their instant approval credit cards:

American Express

As long as you apply for your Amex online, you should receive an instant credit card number to begin making online retail purchases, add the card to your digital wallet and even make travel purchases through Amex Travel.

This applies to core American Express cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred, American Express Blue Cash Everyday, American Express Gold Card and American Express Platinum Card.

It also applies to co-branded cards, like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card and the Hilton Honors American Express Card

Bank of America

Bank of America is one of many banks that offers some instant use cards. Several of its co-branded cards offer instant use, as do the Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards credit card and Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card.

The catch? You’ll need to apply through the mobile app. This makes it more attractive for current Bank of America members who already have the app downloaded.

Barclays

Like Bank of America, Barclays offers instant credit card numbers for some of its co-branded cards, including several airline and cruise cards. Among these cards are the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard, JetBlue Card and Carnival World Mastercard.

Capital One

If you already have Capital One, you can get an instant credit card number upon approval if you meet specific criteria. That number will be available in the Capital One app, which you can use for online retail purchases or purchases made over the phone.

Chase

Chase has credit cards on both the Visa and Mastercard networks, but only its Visa cards offer instant use — and even then, not all the Visas.

Notably, some of our favorite Chase cards do offer instant use via digital wallets, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Freedom Unlimited. Two top airline cards also make the cut: the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and the United Explorer Card.

The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card from Chase is not only instantly available for use on Amazon, but it also includes an instant sign-up bonus: a $100 Amazon gift card. This card has no annual fee and offers sizable cash back rewards. (Non-Amazon Prime members can qualify for the Amazon Rewards Card; it has a smaller sign-up bonus and lower rewards rates but is also available for instant use.)

The list of Chase exclusions is long, however. You won’t get instant use with any of the following Chase credit cards: Disney Visa Card, Disney Premier Visa, Chase Freedom Flex, IHG Rewards Traveler Credit Card and Aeroplan Credit Card, to name a few. Chase’s business credit cards are also excluded.

Citi

Citi’s core credit cards are not instant use (though all cards are eligible for immediate approval). However, some of Citi’s notable co-branded credit cards do offer instant card numbers, like the Costco Anywhere Visa Card and Citi’s American Airlines cards.

SoFi

SoFi only offers one credit card — the SoFi Credit Card — but it is immediately available upon approval.

Synchrony

Synchrony offers two co-branded retail cards that offer instant use: the PayPal Cashback Mastercard and Venmo Credit Card.

Store Credit Cards

Several co-branded store cards — like the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card by Chase, the Apple Card by Goldman Sachs and the Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard — offer instant card numbers.

Some large retailers also offer closed-loop credit cards (cards that you can only use at that store) with instant use capabilities, including the Target RedCard, Walmart Rewards Card and Kohl’s Credit Card.

What to Look for in an Instant Use Credit Card

Instant use cards offer a number of perks, but the instant gratification may tempt you to open a card without fully thinking it through. Here are some things to consider before applying:

Annual Fee

Some cards mentioned above charge an annual fee for you to keep them open. If you don’t envision yourself using the card beyond the initial purchase — or infrequently enough that it’s not worth paying an annual fee — skip out. There are enough instant use cards on the market that you should be able to find one that suits your needs without an annual fee.

APR

The appeal of immediate access to credit can lure you in to applying for a card, but research the APR before doing so. While we recommend never carrying a balance month to month (that’s how you avoid paying credit card interest), you should prioritize cards with a lower interest rate, just in case.

Some instant use credit cards offer a 0% intro APR. This makes them helpful when financing a major purchase. As long as you can pay off the balance during that introductory period, you won’t have to worry about accruing interest.

Other Fees

It’s not just the annual fee and APR you need to consider. Think about foreign transaction fees if you plan to use the card abroad and balance transfer fees if you want to carry over a balance from a high-interest credit card.

Pro Tip

Traveling internationally? While American Express offers instant use for all its cards, you’ll have more trouble finding merchants that take Amex when spending abroad.

Rewards

Getting instant access to a line of credit is great, but think about the long term. Ideally, you should choose a credit card that offers cash back (as a statement credit) or rewards points or miles for every purchase.

Looking for a great rewards credit card? Check out our favorites:

Sign-Up Bonus

Rewards cards also typically offer a welcome bonus to reward you for immediate spending. It’s easier to earn your sign-up bonus with an instant use card since you’ll have access to the card sooner.

While you shouldn’t prioritize a credit card solely because of its sign-up bonus, such welcome offers can be important to your larger overall consideration.

Other Perks

Can’t choose the right rewards credit card for your wallet? Think about other perks, like a statement credit for airfare or checked bags. Co-branded airline and hotel credit cards are more likely to offer such perks — and many are instant use.

The Platinum Card by American Express might be the most perk-heavy card available, with a statement credit for everything from streaming services to hotel stays to Uber Eats. And like all Amex cards, this one’s available for use instantly.

Minimum Credit Score Retirement

Borrowers with fair credit can usually qualify for store credit cards, but travel and rewards cards are typically reserved only for consumers with good or excellent credit. Before applying, make sure your credit score is strong enough to guarantee approval.

Contributor Timothy Moore is a writer and editor in Cincinnati who covers banks, loans, insurance, travel and automotive topics for The Penny Hoarder.


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