December 19, 2022
“See if you pre-qualify” and “you’re already pre-approved” are both phrases you’ve likely come across related to credit card offers. Here’s what they mean, and what the differences are.
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Ever visited a credit card website and learned that you could see if you “pre-qualify” for their card simply by entering a few pieces of information? Or received an email or letter informing you that you’re “pre-approved” for a new credit card?
If so, you may have been confused—as are many people who don’t work in the credit card industry—by these two similar yet distinctly different terms. What’s the difference between the two? Does either mean you’re guaranteed a credit card? Can either affect your credit score and, if so, how?
These are the right questions to ask and should precede taking action on either of these pre-word offers that sometimes generate just as much confusion as excitement.
The primary difference between pre-qualified and pre-approved, when it comes to credit card offers, has to do with who initiated the process.
If you are actively shopping for a credit card, then you’re likely to come across ads or webpages that invite you to see if you pre-qualify for a card. Credit One Bank, for example, has “See if You Pre-Qualify” links on its homepage. Clicking any of these links will take you to a webpage where you’ll be asked to fill out a few fields of information before clicking on a “See Card Offers” button.
If you elect to fill out the information on a pre-qualify page to check for offers, you are authorizing the credit card company to do a “soft” inquiry into your credit in order to determine which of their cards you may qualify for. You are then presented with a recommended credit card offer, or offers, or informed that you don’t qualify for any of their products. But you initiate the process.
On the other hand, if you receive an email or letter telling you that you’re pre-approved for a credit card, you are being invited by the credit card company to check out a card offer they believe you will qualify for because they’ve already done a soft inquiry on your credit. But they initiate the process, and you follow up only if you’re interested.
There is some overlap in defining initiation when you are invited by a credit card company to see if you pre-qualify for one of their credit cards. In that case, the credit card company has identified you as a prospect for one of their cards but has not taken things to the next level by doing a soft inquiry to see if you’re pre-approved. Yes, they are technically reaching out to you, but you will need to initiate the process of allowing them to run a soft inquiry to see if you qualify for any of their cards.
There is one more scenario worth mentioning. A number of credit card companies offer the ability to run a check in their system to see if you already have an active offer with them awaiting your acceptance. If you do, and you’re interested in taking advantage of it, all you have to do is accept the card offer. If it turns out there is no active offer waiting for you, you’ll likely be invited to see if you pre-qualify for an offer.
Since both pre-qualifying and pre-approving you for a credit card involve making soft inquiries to your credit reports, neither affects your credit score. Your score may only be affected if you actually apply for a credit card and fill out a more extensive application. At that point, a “hard” inquiry will be made to your credit reports, which could lower your credit score, although typically no more than 5 to 10 points.
However, if while shopping for a credit card you submit multiple credit card applications, each one of these can trigger a hard inquiry and could lower your credit score substantially. What’s more, credit card companies may interpret multiple applications as a sense of desperation on your part—or an indication that you’re looking to run up balances on multiple cards—which could result in a greater negative impact to your credit score. It may also paint you as a riskier prospect, which could result in being denied credit or being offered less-favorable interest rates or terms from credit card companies.
And therein lies the beauty of pre-qualified and pre-approved offers. They allow you to see which credit cards you may be able to get without lowering your credit score. Without the ability to see if you pre-qualify or are pre-approved, you would have to fill out an application for any card you’re interested in, which could result in multiple hard inquiries and lower your credit score.
One thing both pre-qualified and pre-approved have in common is that neither guarantees you a credit card.
“But wait!” you may exclaim. “I understand that checking to see if I pre-qualify for a credit card doesn’t constitute a guarantee, but didn’t you say that a pre-approved offer is extended after the credit card company conducts a soft inquiry into my credit? Since they’ve already looked at my credit, why isn’t a pre-approved offer guaranteed?”
While it’s true that the credit card company may have “looked” at your credit with a soft inquiry, once you actually apply and authorize them to do a hard inquiry, they’re likely going to look closer. And they may see things they didn’t in their original soft inquiry. Or your credit or income picture may have changed since they last examined it.
Say, for example, you’ve missed several payments on other accounts since the credit card company did their soft inquiry. Or perhaps you lost your job and no longer have the steady income you did a few weeks ago. Or maybe you’ve been applying for several different credit cards, which now shows up on your credit reports and, as mentioned, makes you look like a higher-risk applicant.
The bottom line is that you may get the card you apply for, you may be offered the card with less-favorable terms (lower credit line, higher interest rates, etc.), you may be offered an alternate product, or you may be denied outright. It all comes down to your credit score, what’s in your credit reports, and what your income situation is at the time you actually apply.
So the next time you get a pre-approved offer from a credit card company or are presented with a chance to see if you pre-qualify for a credit card, take these pre-word offers for what they actually are: tools to help you research credit card offers without affecting your credit score.
If your research reveals that the card is a good fit, then you may want to go ahead and formally apply for it. Your credit score may take a slight hit, but if you get the card and make consistent, on-time payments, that initial drop should be more than offset by the positive payment history you build. You can get started by checking to see if you have a credit card offer from Credit One Bank awaiting your acceptance.
After realizing he couldn’t pay back his outrageous film school student loans with rejection notices from Hollywood studios, Sean focused his screenwriting skills on scripting corporate videos. Videos led to marketing communications, which led to articles and, before he knew it, Sean was making a living as a writer. He continues to do so today by leveraging his expertise in credit, financial planning, wealth-building, and living your best life for Credit One Bank.
Being approved for credit (coupled with responsible use) can give your spending power a real boost, while also contributing toward a healthy financial life. However, that doesn’t mean you should just start applying for every credit card you see all at once, so you have a large collection of credit cards at your disposal. Doing so can have some unintended consequences.
Before 2009, you could pretty easily get a credit card at the age of 18. Now you can still technically have a credit card at 18, and it can even be your own account. But it has become harder to do so before the age of 21, except with one of the following two scenarios: