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- When you receive your new credit card, there are steps you'll want to take before you start using it. You should activate your card immediately upon arrival — don't put it off!
- Be sure to call to check the terms of welcome bonuses and benefits so you know you're getting what you signed up for. It's best to deal with any discrepancies right away.
- Benefits guides are drab reading material, but skim them anyway so you're savvy about what each card offers.
- Align new accounts with the rest of your finances by changing the statement closing date and setting up bill payment during the first cycle.
- Read Business Insider's guide to the best rewards credit cards.
What to do when you get a new credit card
A new rewards credit card presents a medley of opportunities and pitfalls. By following this checklist of things to do when you receive a new credit card, you'll stay organized and ensure you won't miss out on valuable benefits or a welcome bonus.
Here are 10 steps I take whenever I open a new credit card to help me maximize its usefulness and avoid mishaps, presented in the order I usually take them.
Activate the card
This is an elementary but vital first step, since a new credit card (and its benefits) won't function until activated. I've made the mistake of hastily placing a new card in my wallet with a vague plan to activate it later, only to forget and see it declined when needed.
To stave off such blunders, I now activate new cards immediately upon delivery (along with any authorized user cards), and I don't remove the activation reminder sticker until the process is complete. Activation is mostly automated these days and can be done online or by phone in less than a minute, so there's little excuse for putting it off.
Confirm the welcome bonus terms
Many credit cards offer welcome incentives such as bonus points, lower interest rates, or special benefits like an airline companion ticket or free hotel nights. Card issuers usually live up to their ends of these bargains, but sometimes a wire gets crossed and the wrong offer gets attached to an application. Because of those occasional errors, I like to verify that the bonus offer on a new card squares with my expectations before I start using it.
To get confirmation, I call customer service and ask a representative to repeat the offer on my account, including the bonus amount, the spending requirement and deadline to meet it, and other salient terms (like the duration of a 0% APR or low interest period). If there's any discrepancy, identifying it right away leaves me ample time to address it before the bonus period ends.
Adjust the billing cycle
I have over 20 active credit card accounts, so for the convenience of paying my bills all at once, I arrange for each monthly statement to cycle around the same time. For efficiency, I usually do this on the initial service call after I've confirmed my welcome bonus.
You may also find this step useful to synchronize credit card payments with your rent, mortgage, or other bills. Card issuers are typically flexible about the timing of your billing cycle, but some set the schedule by the due date instead of the statement closing date, so be clear about which one you're trying to change.
Activate all benefits
Many rewards credit cards come with benefits like airport lounge access or hotel elite status that require activation before use. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express offers a $200 annual airline incidental fee credit, elite status with both Hilton and Marriott, monthly Uber credits, and other benefits that must be activated.
Much like activating the card itself, there's little advantage to delaying this step, so I typically activate all benefits during my initial customer service call (or after I hang up for benefits that are more easily managed online).
Set a calendar reminder
Credit card welcome bonuses can provide a lot of value, so I try to give myself every opportunity to earn them. Once I've confirmed the welcome bonus terms on my new card, I add a note in my calendar to help me meet the spending requirement in the allotted time.
I aim to complete spending at least one week before the deadline (in case charges process slowly), so I set a reminder for two weeks before the deadline to provide an additional buffer.
Update financial records
To keep track of all my accounts, I maintain a spreadsheet where I can quickly reference essential details of each one — that goes for bank accounts and loyalty accounts as well. I add new credit cards to the list as soon as they're active, including the card name and the last four digits for easy identification, as well as the account opening date, annual fee, credit line, and terms of the welcome bonus. I also note any authorized user cards associated with the account.
Gathering all this information in one place is convenient, but it's also a potential bonanza for bad actors, so I use password protection to secure sensitive files.
Set up online bill payment
Paying late is one of the most fundamental mistakes people make with credit cards, so to facilitate on-time payment, I add new cards right away to the list of payees in the bill payment service my bank offers online.
If the card issuer isn't one I deal with regularly, I send a small test payment before any balance is due to make sure the transaction processes smoothly. Setting up payment early means I don't have to scramble to do it at the last minute, and helps me avoid delays when my bill comes due. I recommend taking similar measures if you use autopay instead.
Save the customer service phone number
Credit cards generally list customer service and international collect numbers on the back, but that's of no use if the card itself is lost or stolen. You may be able to find those numbers or interact with customer service directly online, but only if you have internet access.
To improve my chances of reaching my card issuer in a pinch, I add customer service numbers to my phone and anywhere else I keep emergency contacts (including a hard copy when traveling internationally). That way I can report loss or theft quickly so long as I can still make calls.
Take note of bonus categories
Many credit cards offer bonus rewards for select purchases, such as 5x rewards on groceries or other rotating categories. Knowing which purchases qualify for a bonus is essential to maximizing returns, so each time I add a new card to my portfolio, I diagnose when using it will be most profitable.
I keep a spreadsheet in my Google Drive that lists earning rates for each card and which one(s) to use for common purchases like gas, groceries, restaurants, etc. When I get a new card, I update the spreadsheet accordingly. That system works for me, but if you prefer a low tech option, you could simply keep a note in your wallet that tells you when to use each card, or even use blank postal stickers to write reminders on the cards themselves.
Read the benefits guide
Many credit cards come with benefits that aren't widely publicized, such as purchase and return protections, roadside assistance, and flight delay insurance. I rarely use these secondary benefits, but I'd never use them if I didn't know they exist, so I leaf through the benefits guide of each new card to at least know my options.
Reading benefit guides line by line is an exercise in masochism, but you can get the gist of what your card offers with a quick once over.
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For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.