What is a credit card sign-up bonus?Updated: March 21, 2019

There are a lot of reasons to get a new credit card. You might be new to the game of credit and want to build yours up with a credit card. Maybe you’ve been bitten by the travel bug and want a travel credit card that will reward you for all those dollars you’re spending on flights and hotel stays. Or perhaps you’re carrying a balance on a credit card with a high APR and the interest payments are getting to be too much, so you set your sights on a balance transfer credit card. Whatever the reason, when shopping for a new credit card, you will likely run into a number of cards offering a sign-up bonus (also known as an intro bonus), and that might be cause for some uncertainty on your end. Can you take advantage of them if you already have a credit card with the provider? Is it possible to lose your sign-up bonus? Are these offers just ploys by the credit card companies to lure you into applying for a new credit card? Stay tuned if you want to understand the basics of how credit card sign-up bonuses work, as well as find out which credit cards offer the best sign-up bonuses.

What is a sign-up bonus?

Though they come in a variety of shapes and forms, most sign-up bonuses involve you, the customer, receiving some sort of perk or benefit in exchange for meeting certain criteria when you apply for a new credit card. For rewards credit cards, these tend to be in the form of spending a certain amount of money within a certain time-frame (e.g., spend $1,000 in the first 90 days) and receiving a bonus in return (e.g., $200 cash back bonus). These offers change from time to time, so you might see a credit card with a certain sign-up bonus one month and then see it advertised with a different one the next. Additionally, it’s possible for certain consumers to receive personalized sign-up bonus offers from credit card issuers based on their creditworthiness (e.g., an advertisement received in the mail or offers shown when you use a pre-qualification tool).

Why do credit cards offer sign-up bonuses?

To put it quite simply, a sign-up bonus is meant to attract new customers to apply for a credit card. Providers know that people are always on the lookout for a good deal, so pairing enticing bonuses with opening a new account is a great way to drive new customers to their cards. While some might think these bonuses are only beneficial to the credit card providers, that’s far from the truth. The discerning consumer can make credit card intro bonuses work for them by keeping a few key points in mind before they apply.

How can you make a sign-up bonus work for you?

First, you should only apply for a credit card if it makes financial sense for you to do so. Intro bonuses can be used strategically to benefit you, but if you are taking on extra debt to meet a credit card’s intro bonus minimum, then you run the risk of winding up in financial peril. It’s ideal to only apply for a credit card when you are capable of taking on the extra responsibility. Additionally, you should only consider cards with a sign-up bonus that is realistic for you. Earning $500 for spending $3,000 in the first 90 days might sound great, but if your budget doesn’t allow for that, then you are essentially throwing money into a hole. The idea is to choose a credit card with an intro bonus that is easily attainable through spending you were already planning to do — such as using the card to cover your monthly expenses. If your new credit card also has a 0% intro APR on purchases, you might also earn the bonus by making a large purchase you have been planning for to reap the benefits (and pay it off before the 0% intro APR period ends). Make sure you read your credit card agreement thoroughly to ensure you understand the full terms of any sign-up bonus you want so you don’t end up disappointed.

What to know before you apply …

  • Most sign-up bonuses are limited to new customers only. This means that if you are already an American Express customer (or have been in the past), for example, you probably won’t be able to apply for a different American Express credit card and get the intro bonus. It might seem unfair, but as these offers are designed to entice new business, that’s the way they work with most providers. You can always try asking before applying to see if you can take advantage of an offer as an existing or previous customer.
  • It’s possible to lose your intro bonus. Of course, if you don’t meet the criteria for receiving the bonus in the first place, you won’t get it. But bear in mind that it’s also possible to forfeit a sign-up bonus through actions like not paying your monthly bill or paying late too many times. This applies to special intro APR offers, as well, which can be even worse to lose since you probably applied for a credit card with a long 0% intro APR for a reason.
  • Balance transfers do not count as purchases. Some credit cards with long 0% intro APRs on balance transfers also offer attractive sign-up bonuses that can be earned by spending a certain amount, however, if you are planning to transfer a balance, then you should know that they will not help you earn the sign-up bonus. Depending on your financial situation, it may make sense for you to choose a straightforward balance transfer credit card, so you’re not tempted to spend more to receive an intro bonus.

Which credit cards feature the best sign-up bonuses?

If you want cash back …

Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card

sign-up bonus The Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card is a great choice for someone looking for a credit card with a massive sign-up bonus, as it offers new cardholders a $200 bonus opportunity. To earn this $200 cash rewards bonus, you’ll have to spend $1,000 on purchases in your first 3 months. In addition, you’ll earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on everything you buy, making this the perfect choice for someone who doesn’t want to worry about different spending categories or limits. As an added bonus, purchases made in your first year via Google Pay or Apple Pay mobile wallets will earn an elevated 1.8% cash back. The Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card also features a 12-month 0% intro APR on purchases as well as balance transfers (with an intro balance transfer fee of 3% for the first 12 months, then it’s 5%), and it also has the slightly unusual benefit of mobile phone protection. Here’s how it works: when you used your Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card to pay your monthly cell phone bill, you’ll get up to $600 cell phone protection against covered damage or theft (subject to a $25 deductible). Cardholders won’t have to worry about paying an annual fee, though this card does charge 3% foreign transaction fees, meaning this isn’t the card to take on your overseas adventures. Earned rewards can be redeemed for cash via direct deposit into a Wells Fargo bank account, at a Wells Fargo ATM or a paper check, and you can also use them for gift cards, merchandise or travel. You must have good to excellent credit (usually considered a credit score of 700 or higher) for approval.

Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express

sign-up bonusThe Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express (a NextAdvisor advertiser) offers new cardholders a hefty sign-up bonus offer of a $200 statement credit for spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. But that’s just the beginning with this card, as it also features stellar cash back earnings in the form of 6% at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000/year of purchases, then it’s 1%), uncapped 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores and 1% cash back on everything else. Earned rewards can be redeemed for statement credits, as well as for gift cards, merchandise or travel. You’ll also get a 12-month 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers (with a 3% or $5 balance transfer fee, whichever is greater), and access to a whole host of American Express cardmember benefits like purchase protection, return protection and extended warranty. Plus, new Uber users will get a free ride (up to $30) when they connect their card to the Uber app and use a special code (UBERAMEX) before they request their first ride. It’s important to note that this card does charge foreign transaction fees (2.7%) and it comes with a $95 annual fee — if that’s a tall order, you might be interested in its sister card, the no-fee Blue Cash Everyday Credit Card from American Express, which features similar rewards and benefits and a $150 intro bonus opportunity. Both cards require good to excellent credit for approval (typically, scores of 700 or higher).

Discover it Cash Back

sign-up bonusLooking for something a little less traditional for your sign-up bonus? Take Discover it Cash Back for a spin. Instead of rewarding you a set amount at the start of your card ownership, this card features the cashback match bonus, which takes everything you earn in your first year as a cardholder and matches it. That means if you earn $300 in your first year as a cardholder, Discover will match that $300 to give you a total of $600 back! Cash back with this card is earned at a rate of 5% for purchases made in quarterly rotating categories, such as gas stations, groceries, restaurants and more, (up to the quarterly maximum, currently $1,500 in purchases) and 1% cash back on everything else. You do need to activate each quarter to earn the 5% cash back, but Discover makes it a breeze to remember with helpful reminders and an easy-to-use cardholder website. In addition to all of those earnings, cardholders also get a 14-month 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers (with a 3% balance transfer fee) — after the 0% intro APR expires, a go-to variable rate applies — don’t have to pay an annual fee or foreign transaction fees and have access to a plethora of perks like social security monitoring and special shopping discounts. Plus, cash back can be redeemed in a myriad of ways, including direct deposit to a bank account, statement credit, gift cards, charitable donations, 1:1 at Amazon.com and more. Discover it Cash Back is available to those with average to excellent credit (typically scores of 670 or higher).

If you want travel rewards …

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

sign-up bonusIf you’re looking for a sign-up bonus with a little more lift to it, the Capital One Venture Rewards Card is sure to please, as it features a whopping 50,000-mile bonus for spending $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months — equal to $500 in travel. Plus, earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, and for a limited time, get 10X miles when you book and pay for hotel rooms with your card at Hotels.com/venture (until Jan. 31, 2020). Your miles don’t expire, and you can redeem them for travel, cash, gift cards, merchandise and more — be aware that redeeming miles for travel gives you the most value. While there is a $95 annual fee with this card, it’s waived for the first year, so you can take advantage of the intro bonus without paying any of it back in fees. Perks for travelers included with this card range from a credit of up to $100 every 4 years for the cost of a Global Entry or TSA Precheck application, no foreign transaction fees when traveling outside the country, a suite of Visa benefits which include a complimentary concierge service, road assist service, travel and emergency service and extended warranty protection on items purchased with your card. The Capital One Venture Reward Credit Card requires good to excellent credit (often considered a credit score of 700 or higher) for approval.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

sign-up bonusOne of our favorite travel rewards credit cards for good reason, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has a sizable intro bonus of 60,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 on purchases in your first 3 months, as well as ongoing rewards in the form of 2 points per $1 spent on dining and travel and 1 point per $1 on everything else. The flexibility of points redemption with this card is outstanding — the intro bonus is equal to $600 in cash, $750 in travel if you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards (which nets you an additional 25% points). Not many other travel cards we review allow cardholders to transfer their points at a 1:1 value to other popular rewards programs, and you can also elect to redeem your points for cash, statement credit, gift cards or merchandise — note that points hold the most value when they’re redeemed for travel. Other perks of this card include travel accident insurance, lost luggage reimbursement and no foreign transaction fees. You will have to pay a $95 annual fee, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card’s ongoing rewards and perks may make it worthwhile. This card requires excellent credit for approval, which is typically scores of 750 or higher.

Discover it Miles

sign-up bonusLike its cash back counterpart, Discover it Miles features a matching bonus for first-time cardholders. You’ll earn an unlimited 1.5 miles per $1 spent with this card, and at the end of your first year as a cardholder, those miles will be matched by Discover. For example, if you earn 10,000 miles in the first year as a cardholder, Discover will match those 10,000 miles to give you a total of 20,000 miles. This puts the sign-up bonus earning potential in your hands, and since this card doesn’t have any categories to worry about, you can use it for your everyday purchases and rack up miles as you go. Additionally, you’ll get 14 months of 0% intro APR on purchases (after the 0% intro APR expires, a go-to variable rate applies) — note that there is no 0% intro APR on balance transfers with this card, which is par for the course with travel rewards credit cards. Discover it Miles also has no foreign transaction fees or annual fee. Every 100 miles you redeem is equal to $1, and you can easily purchase travel with your card then redeem your miles (at any amount) to pay yourself back in part or full. The benefits we discussed earlier for Discover it Cash Back, including free social security alerts and special shopping discounts, are also extended to this travel edition of the Discover family, making it a well-rounded credit card to have in your wallet. Finally, this card requires average to excellent credit (usually considered a credit score of 670 or higher) for approval.

While we covered some of the top options for sign-up bonuses, there are many more credit cards with solid bonus offers, and you can find them all by reading our rewards credit card reviews.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This content was accurate at the time of this post, but card terms and conditions may change at any time. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.