How do Credit Card Bonuses Work?

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There are many ways to earn points, but if you’re just getting started, the credit card signup bonus is a critical part of your strategy for saving on your next trip. In today’s post, we’re going to cover how signup bonuses work and everything you need to know to start building your points balances.

Why Do Banks Offer Signup Bonuses?

Travel rewards cards are a lucrative business for the big banks. The competition for the best customers is fierce, so credit-card issuers use signup bonuses (also known as “welcome bonuses” or welcome offers”) to attract new cardmembers.

You can think of these offers as an upfront payment that the bank makes to you at the start of your relationship. The bank is hoping you'll remain a cardmember for a long time, and they'll recover the cost of acquiring your business over the course of the relationship. Many of the best rewards cards are a great long-term value, so this is a win-win situation. Pass go, collect $200.

What is a Credit Card Signup Bonus?

There are lots of different kinds of signup bonuses (we’ll get into more examples in a minute), but the most simple and common format gives you a limited time window to spend a certain amount of money on your new card. In exchange, the bank awards you a one time bonus—usually points, miles, or cashback.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Annual Fee$95
Welcome Bonus Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
Our #1 recommended beginners rewards card featuring a 60,000 point signup bonus after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That's 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide
  • 1X point per dollar spent on all other purchases

In the case of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, one the top cards we recommend to points and miles beginners, the current offer is 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Annual Fee$0 intro for first year; $95 after that
Welcome Offer $300 Cash Back after you spend $3000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • $300 Cash Back after you spend $3000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • 4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases
  • Plus, earn 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through May 2020
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • $0 intro for first year; $95 after that
  • 4% cash back on dining and entertainment
  • 2% at grocery stores
  • 1% on all other purchases
  • Plus, earn 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through May 2020

The Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card is a good example of a cashback welcome offer. Instead of awarding points, you'll get a one time credit of $300 applied to your statement after you spend $3000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening.

In either case, the new cardmember bonus will give you a huge head start on using rewards for your next trip. Before we move on, here are a few terms you'll see often on the AwardWallet blog.

How Does the Minimum Spend Work?

The amount you need to spend to earn your bonus is called the “minimum spending requirement.” If you don’t meet this requirement within the timeframe, you won’t get the bonus points.

Important: The clock starts ticking on your time to meet the minimum spend the day you are approved for the card—not the day you receive the card in the mail or activate it. This means you may actually lose a week or two while you're waiting for your card to arrive. If you expect to complete your minimum spend close to the deadline, it's a good idea to call the number on the back of your card to confirm the exact timeline.

Tiered (Multi-Part) Minimum Spends

Most signup bonuses come with a straightforward spending requirement as discussed above, but some offers use a tiered structure. For example, you might be able to earn part of the total bonus with a lower spending requirement with the option to earn even more points for reaching a more ambitious spending target.

British Airways Visa Signature® Card
British Airways Visa Signature® Card
Annual Fee$95
Welcome Bonus Earn up to 100,000 bonus Avios. Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening. Plus earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on your purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
  • Plus earn an additional 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $20,000 on your purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • 3 Avios per $1 spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and LEVEL
  • 2 Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations, plus 1 Avios per $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • 10% off British Airways flights starting in the US when you book by March 31, 2020
  • Every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa card, you'll earn a Travel Together Ticket good for two years.
  • Pay no foreign transaction fees when you travel abroad.
  • Simply tap to pay with your contactless British Airways Visa Signature Card. Just look for the contactless symbol at checkout. It's fast, easy and secure!
  • 3X Avios per $1 spent on purchases with British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and LEVEL
  • 2X Avios per $1 spent on hotel accommodations
  • 1X Avios for every $1 spent on all other purchases

Generally, the second tier of these offers is cumulative. In the example above, you need to reach $20,000 in total spending within the first year to earn the full 100,000 points—not $20,000 in addition to the $3,000 minimum spend for the first spending requirement. This can vary, so be sure to read the offer carefully to make sure you know the requirements and deadlines.

How Do I Meet the Minimum Spend?

The biggest key to earning your bonus without creating extra stress is to pick a welcome offer that falls within your normal spending patterns. Your goal should generally be to meet the minimum spend with purchases you would make anyway (rather than increasing your spending to earn a bonus). You may need to switch any bills you have on autopay, like cable, phone, internet, and subscription services, to your new credit card.

If you worry about being able to meet the minimum spending requirement, then consider timing your credit card signups for when you have a large purchase to make. New tires, medical or dental procedures, shopping for gifts, etc. are all examples of purchases outside of the norm that may help you to meet a more ambitious minimum spend.

If you need a little extra spend to get yourself to the finish line, consider buying gift cards to places you normally shop (like your local grocery store, gas station, Amazon, etc.). This strategy lets you pre-pay for future purchases on your new card. Then, you can spend down the value on those gift cards at your own pace.  If you do this, be careful and make sure you can pay off the bill in full each month—credit card interest will negate the value of any rewards you earn.

Need more ideas? Check out our dedicated post on how to meet minimum spending requirements.

Earn a Bonus After Making Your First Purchase

It's worth noting that not all cards require you to meet a minimum spending requirement to earn a lucrative bonus. Although far less common, some cards award the bonus after you make your first purchase. If you have limited expenses you can put on a rewards card, this can be a great way to boost your rewards balance. Buy yourself a pack of gum and get ready to start planning your next trip.

Important: Make sure to pay attention to the timeframe in which you need to make the first purchase. Although these offers don't come with a traditional minimum spend, there is usually a deadline to qualify for your bonus.

AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®
AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard®
Annual Fee$99
Welcome Bonus Earn 60,000 AAdvantage bonus miles after making your first purchase in the first 90 days and paying the $99 annual fee.
The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red Mastercard® is one of the few rewards cards offering a sizeable welcome bonus after making your first purchase. For those with limited monthly spending, this card is an outstanding option to increase your American Airlines mileage balance.
  • Earn an introductory companion certificate, good for 1 guest at $99 (plus taxes and fees) after making your first purchase in the first 90 days and paying the $99 annual fee..
  • Get $25 back as statement credits on inflight WiFi on American Airlines operated flights.
  • Receive 25% inflight savings when you use your card for food and beverages on American Airlines operated flights.
  • Earn a companion certificate each anniversary year, good for 1 guest at $99 (plus taxes and fees) after spending $20,000 on purchases and your account remains open for 45 days after your anniversary date.
    • Earn 2X miles on American Airlines purchases
    • Earn 1X miles on all other purchases

    Annual Fees

    Many of the best rewards cards come with an annual fee. In some cases, that fee will be waived for the first year as part of the new cardmember welcome offer. This gives you the opportunity to get the signup bonus and try out the card for a year for free. After that first year, you can decide if it is worth it for you to keep the card and pay the annual fee.

    In other cases, the annual fee will be billed to your account at the time you're approved for the card. This adds to your cost of opening a new account, but any signup bonus that is worth considering will more than compensate for an upfront annual fee. Often, the benefits you get for holding a card will far outweigh the annual fee, making it worthwhile to keep for the long term. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card card offers a free one-night stay every year on your account anniversary. If you stay with Marriott at least once per year, it should be easy to get more value from your free night than the $95 annual fee.

    Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card
    Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card
    Annual Fee$95
    Welcome Bonus Earn 75,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
    • Earn 75,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
    • 1 Free Night Award (valued up to 35,000 points) every year after account anniversary.
    • Earn 6X Bonvoy points per $1 spent at over 7,000 hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy™.
    • 2X Bonvoy points for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
    • Automatic Silver Elite Status each account anniversary year. Path to Gold Status when you spend $35,000 on purchases each account year.
    • 15 Elite Night Credits each calendar year.
    • No foreign transaction fees.
    • Earn unlimited Marriott Bonvoy points and get Free Night Stays faster.
    • 6X Bonvoy points per $1 spent at over 7,000 participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels
    • 2X Bonvoy points for every $1 spent on all other purchases

    There are also cards that come with annual fees that are much higher, from $250-$550. These cards come with benefits like access to airport lounges, statement credits towards travel purchases, hotel or airline status, more comprehensive travel insurance, the ability to earn more points on certain purchases (like 3x the points on dining purchases) and more! These cards aren’t for everyone but, if you are able to utilize the benefits, then they can be well worth the annual fee.

    Chase Sapphire Reserve®
    Chase Sapphire Reserve®
    Annual Fee$550
    Welcome Bonus Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
    Chase's flagship Ultimate Rewards card. You get a $300 travel credit, airport lounge access courtesy of a Priority Pass membership and industry-leading travel insurance benefits. New cardholders earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
    • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
    • Named "Best Premium Travel Credit Card" for 2018 by MONEY® Magazine
    • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
    • 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. $0 foreign transaction fees.
    • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
    • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
    • Access to 1,000+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select
    • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✔®
    • One Year Complimentary Lyft Pink ($199 minimum value). Complimentary DashPass subscription from DoorDash after activating by 12/31/21.
    • 3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit
    • 3X points on dining at restaurants
    • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

    Types of Signup Bonuses

    Besides points and miles, you may encounter other types of bonus incentives. These could be statement credits after making purchases with certain merchants, subscriptions or memberships, elite status with a partner loyalty program, or free hotel nights.

    Below are a few historical examples.

    • Hilton's co-brand cards have offered a free weekend night in addition to bonus points
    • Hyatt's co-brand cards have offered two free nights
    • Southwest's co-brand cards have offered a one year Companion Pass
    • American Express has offered a one year WeWork Membership
    • Delta's co-brand cards have offered $100 or more in statement credits when you make a Delta purchase.

    Please note that these examples are for illustrative purposes only; they do not represent the current offer for the cards mentioned.

    Timing is Everything

    Although it's cliché, the right timing can make a huge difference in the number of points or miles you can earn from welcome bonuses. Most credit cards have a standard signup bonus which is in effect for most of the year. But periodically, many of them will offer limited-time, increased signup bonuses.

    For example, the lineup of Southwest co-brand credit cards typically offer a standard bonus of 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. Every so often these cards launch a limited time offer for nearly double the standard offer.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
    Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
    Annual Fee$69
    Welcome Bonus Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
    • Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
    • 3,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary.
    • 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
    • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
    • All points earned count towards Companion Pass.
    • No blackout dates or seat restrictions.
    • Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events, and more.
    • 2X points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases
    • 1X point per $1 spent on all other purchases

    This cycle between standard and increased offers is common for almost every rewards card. If you are patient, these limited-time offers are great opportunities to maximize your points! We cover these offers on the AwardWallet blog, so add us to your favorite RSS reader to make sure you never miss a better-than-normal deal. We also send one-to-two emails per week featuring especially noteworthy offers. Create a free AwardWallet account (if you don't have one already) and make sure your notifications settings include promotional offers.

    While it's always best to snag these limited-time offers when they're available, it may be possible to get the bank to match a recent offer if you miss an opportunity. If you have signed up for a credit card within the past 90 days, and you notice the bonus has gone up, contact the credit card company and ask if they'll match the higher bonus. This doesn't always work, but many of our readers have reported success.

    Not All Points Have the Same Value

    Be careful when comparing offers that earn different types of rewards—all points are not created equal. You may see an offer for 100,000 Hilton Honors Points and see another offer for 60,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points. Your mind wants to tell you that the Hilton offer is better because a bonus of 100,000 points is more than 60,000 points. However, Chase Ultimate Rewards are much more valuable than a Hilton Honors points. Typically, Hilton points are valued at ~0.5 cents each, while a Chase Ultimate Reward point is valued at around 2 cents each.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    When Will My Bonus Post?

    Each credit-card issuer handles this a little differently. Typically, your bonus will post within a few weeks after the statement closes on the month you meet the spending requirement. Your statement closing date is the day your bank creates your bill for the previous month's charges. Any purchases made after this date will end up on the subsequent billing statement.

    You might assume you'll see your bonus post soon after meeting the spending requirement, but you may end up waiting for a month or more if you cross the spending threshold at the beginning of a new statement cycle. You can get your bonus faster if you're able to time your spending to make sure to reach the requirement right before your statement closes.

    Will Opening Cards Hurt My Credit Score?

    In general, opening a new card won't hurt your credit score in any significant way. In fact, there is a good chance that a new card will actually improve your score in the medium to long term. In the short term, however, a credit card application will result in a hard inquiry on your credit report which will ding your credit a few points. In most cases, you'll only see a hard inquiry with one of the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, or Transunion, so two of the three should be unaffected. (Capital One is a notable exception; they post an inquiry to all three bureaus for new applications.)

    Your credit is a huge asset in your quest for points and miles, so take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the factors that impact your score, and especially how they are weighted. Here's the short version:

    The most damaging thing to your credit score is to miss payments. As long as you pay your card on time each month you'll be in great shape. The second most important factor in your credit score is credit utilization. Credit utilization is the amount of available credit you are using. It's ideal to have a lot of available credit and use only a small percentage for purchases.

    Can I get a signup bonus more than once?

    The major banks have tightened their application rules in recent years to discourage folks from earning multiple bonuses for the same card. While this is still technically possible with some cards, it's generally not a good idea. If you're just starting out, there are plenty of great card products that can help fuel your travel adventures for years to come.

    If you already have a portfolio of rewards cards, check out our guide to application rules and restrictions before applying for your next card. In some cases, holding one card may make you ineligible for another card.

    Final Thoughts

    Building a strong portfolio of cards is a marathon, not a sprint. Credit-card signup bonuses can be an awesome way to boost your rewards balances, but there are lots of other factors to consider when picking a new card. You'll earn far more points in the long run if you wait to take advantage of limited-time offers. But make sure to choose offers that fit your normal spending patterns. If can't meet the minimum spending requirements, you won't earn a bonus.

    Remember that some types of points are worth more than others, so don't fall into the trap of picking the biggest bonus without considering your future travel plans. For more help with building your strategy, check out our beginner's guide to award travel planning.

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    Comments

    • Very interesting information

    • Very helpful introductory post for beginners.

    • This a comprehensive article that will be very valuable for those who are considering getting into this game. I have no doubt that sign up bonuses are great! I have taken advantage of many of them over the years.

    • Always nice to get a big bonus to jump start my points accumulation

    • This is a great reminder: “The clock starts ticking on your time to meet the minimum spend the day you are approved for the card—not the day you receive the card in the mail or activate it.”

      I got fouled up by this difference last year on the JetBlue Plus card. I had a charge reversed that moved me just below the minimum spend threshold and the clock ran out before I discovered it and made another purchase. I thought had enough time based on activation date, but I was wrong. Cutting it too close on spend was another mistake I made. Two lessons learned 😀

      PS – You have a typo at the end of the paragraph from where I grabbed that quote, a superfluous “Yo.”

    • Will the card issuer put me on their watch list if I cancel the card after getting all the points. If not I will apply any credit card and get all bonus points. And I will apply whenever the card issuer has a promotion. Will this affect my credit score?

      • It’s a bit of a complicated question, but I’ll do my best to answer. First, we don’t recommend opening cards just for the bonus and then closing them after you’ve earned the reward. The banks frown on this, and they do have teams dedicated to eliminating “rewards abuse”. That said, they aren’t looking for someone who changes their mind about one card. The main goal is to pick a card that has benefits that outweigh the annual fee so that it’s an easy win to keep the account open for the long term. Which cards you want depends on your travel habits, but there should be plenty of options.

        It is a good idea to time your applications when there is a big bonus. That will ensure you get the most value for each application. You can learn more about the factors that impact your credit score here. As long as you don’t open too many cards all at once, you should see your credit get stronger as you show responsible use of your available credit and build a history of on-time payments.

      • If you do this, banks can see this and may decline you for a card even if you do have the right income and credit score. Amex does this the most so know you you could get blacklisted by Amex for doing this to non-Amex cards even.
        And yes, adding hard pulls and new accounts will lower your score in the short/mid-term.

    • Thank you for the summary! Is there any card that has no fee?

    • I’ve started looking at cards to increase my portfolio, so obviously I’ve been comparing the signup bonuses. For beginners who are just starting to build their portfolio, is it better to lean towards a co-branded card or a generic travel rewards card? How do you determine which co-branded card to focus on if that’s the route you choose?

      • If there isn’t an obvious choice for a co-branded card based on your travel, I’d start with a card earning transferrable points. Co-brands can be a great value, but it generally only works if you already travel with that airline or stay with that hotel to use free checked bags, free reward night certificates etc. If in doubt about co-brands, start with a card earning Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards, and you’ll have far more options when it comes time to book travel.

      • It really depends on your personal travel patterns. Do you take road trips? Or fly a couple times a year? Do you look for the cheapest option or stay loyal to a brand? Generally I’d suggest a card with transferable partners and I’d probably recommend the Chase Sapphire preferred. It has lots of good partners and has both an upgrade path to a premium card if you get into it as well as a downgrade path to a no annual fee card if it isn’t for you.

    • It’s also been debated whether the bonuses should be considered taxable income.

      • I vote ‘No”, Where has this be debated. The bonus issuer of the IRS or both?

        • CC bonuses are treated differently because the CC issuers have successfully lobbied to interpret a welcome bonus as a rebate on spending. (Since you have to spend money to earn the bonus.) The banks are on your side against the IRS in this one.

      • Debated by who? The IRS classifies it as a rebate as it should be. It is in fact a rebate for spending money.

    • I am very interested in this topic. thank you.

    • I noticed that the application rules are quite tight. You can not easily get approved.

    • Always nice to have some big bonus at the opening of a credit card.
      Lately they are becoming stricter on the rules.

    • Definitely a marathon and not a sprint. Credit score sticks with you so be careful with this.

    • DAVID MORALES says:

      A win-win business for both parties, I use the Chase Sapphire card I say it from experience by giving good use to accumulated points.

    • The most responsible way to use your credit cards is to pay for your essential purchases with the cards as much as you can.

    • I have so many questions, and these posts are so helpful helping me research how to best make my travel goals a reality without going into debt. You guys are awesome 🙂 So with that being said…

      Is the idea to open cards, collect the signup bonuses, and cancel them? Or do you keep it? Is it common to cancel the card after the first year? How exactly does one go about maximizing signup bonuses without collecting too many cards? Is it better to focus on co-branded cards, or focus on general travel cards? How do you decide which brand or card to remain loyal to? What if you cancel a card, but then in 2-3 years decide it was a good card after all and you want to apply again?

      • Hi Lauren, please see my reply to Leon’s similar question on this post. Regarding co-brand vs general travel cards, I’d recommend starting with cards earning points that can be transferred to lots of different frequent flyer and hotel programs. Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Capital One Rewards are all good places to look.

    • The sign up bonuses themselves are often better than any rewards you are going to get on a particular card going forward. It is the main incentive for actually signing up to the card in the first place.

    • Love the Monopoly analogy!

    • A very nice comprehensive article for new participants in the miles and points hobby. Also a reminder to always check the details, especially the time and spending requirements to obtain your new card bonus. On the Chase App this information is now clearly listed and you can follow along in real time.

    • This is a great article for beginners! Full of good information. I wasn’t aware of bonuses, but now I know.
      You just can’t forget to pay it off every month.

    • Gotta love the cards that offer a sign up bonus after a single purchase.
      Hopefully more banks will offer those kind of bonuses.

    • In the UK, it’s all about timing AND sequencing, as some bonus’ will disqualify others from being eligible, Amex branded cards being the best example of this

    • I charge everything to my credit card, even if it’s a little purchase. those points do add up.

    • Thank you for sharing a good information.

    • This line should always be in bold in such beginner posts:

      “If you do this, be careful and make sure you can pay off the bill in full each month—credit card interest will negate the value of any rewards you earn.”

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