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Identifying the Most Transparent Credit Card Companies

It’s no secret that credit card companies aren’t always up front with their customers. There’s no way to truly know what you’re getting into when applying for a credit card unless you meticulously read the fine print (something few people have the time or patience for).

In case your one of these people who have better things to do than read your credit card agreement all weekend, here is a quick checklist of the absolutely essential information you should look for on your credit card application before you apply:

  • The introductory and regular APRs for new purchases and balance transfers
  • The annual fee
  • The balance transfer fee
  • Details on how to earn rewards and what your rewards points/miles are worth

Since this information is critical to the agreement, you would think it would be front and center on an application. However, the CardHub.com Summer 2010 Credit Card Application Study found that this is not the case with many issuers. The study evaluated the 10 largest credit card issuers on the information that could be gathered from their credit card applications without reading the fine print, as this is what most people see before applying for a credit card.

The issuers that ranked the highest in clarity were Capital One and Bank of America, with scores of 96.4 percent and 95.0 percent, respectively. The issuer that performed the worst was U.S. Bank, with a score of 59.3 percent, followed by USAA with 77.5 percent and American Express with 78.3 percent.

The most common problem on the applications evaluated was poor disclosure of the balance transfer fee. As a consumer this is certainly something you want to be aware of, as it can cost you a lot of money, is generally hidden, and is not something that applicants always know to look for.

The next biggest problem was the description of rewards programs for non-cash back rewards credit cards. Generally, most credit card applications were relatively upfront on how to earn rewards (i.e. $1 spent = 2 rewards points). What was more difficult to find was how much your rewards points or miles were actually worth (Does 5,000 points get me a night at the Four Seasons or a Motel 6?).

So, if you want to know what you’re getting into at a glance, Capital One and Bank of America offer the most transparency on their applications. Whether the issuers who scored lower are doing it intentionally or not (and my guess would be that it’s not an accident), they are still keeping their customers in the dark on essential information.

You can’t depend on the credit card companies to give you everything upfront, but if you know to be on the look out for these essential components before you hit ‘Apply Now’, you’re off to a good start.

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