Instant Credit Cards: How They Work

Dawn Papandrea

The length of time it takes to open a credit card can vary depending on whether you apply online or in person, the type of card you apply for and the card issuer. In some cases, the process is instant, meaning you can get approved and use the card for purchases within a few minutes. For other cards, approval may come quickly, but you can't use the card until it arrives in the mail.

So what does a credit card application timeline look like? What are some instant credit cards, and which ones do you have to wait to use?

Can I Get a Credit Card the Same Day?

Gone are the days when you have to wait weeks to get a credit card, says John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who previously worked at Equifax and FICO.

"Thanks to credit scoring, instant credit really means instant credit," he says. "It's easy for a card issuer to build an approve/deny policy around a number."

In other words, credit card companies can easily pull an applicant's credit score, and after asking a few other questions, can determine if that person is a good fit for their product.

So in theory, yes, you can get a credit card the same day, depending on the circumstances. But that won't be the physical card -- it will just be account access.

[Read: Best Starter Credit Cards.]

What Credit Cards Can You Use Instantly?

Before diving into which cards you can begin using instantly, it's important to understand the difference between instant approval and instant use. In many cases, you can get approved for a credit card account instantly -- but that doesn't necessarily mean you can use it right away.

You may have to wait for the physical card to arrive in the mail before it's usable. An instant-use card, on the other hand, allows you to pay for purchases as soon as you're approved.

"An approval can happen as quickly as a few minutes, unless you have something unusual going on like a fraud alert, frozen credit report, or you're asking for an unusually large credit limit," Ulzheimer says.

In those scenarios, expect to add a few days to your timeline. The card issuer will have to do some additional investigating, or you may have to work with the credit bureaus to unfreeze your file or clear up an item on your report.

If there is nothing unusual at play, approvals are fast -- even instant. Online credit card applications typically are approved quickly, assuming you meet the qualifications, Ulzheimer says. In fact, this method of applying tends to be the fastest because you're essentially feeding your information into an application processing system directly.

Applying over the phone or in person can take a bit longer, since a person has to input all of your information. The slowest method is sending in a printed application via snail mail.

There is a disparity as to when you can begin using the credit card account once you are approved. Some cards are in fact instant credit cards, while others limit how you are able to use the card at first, and still others require you to wait for the physical card to arrive.

The most familiar example of instant-use cards is retail store cards, Ulzheimer says.

"The retail card instant scenario is strategic, meaning it's instant for a reason; the retailer wants you to have newfound capacity while you're still in the store," he says.

The whole process is intended to happen quickly, with the clerk asking if you'd like to apply during checkout and that first purchase going directly on the card.

[Read: Best Store Credit Cards.]

Which Issuers Offer Instant-Use Credit Cards?

Some issuers have instant-use cards available, but there are limitations.

Synchrony Bank issues many such store cards as well as health care-related credit cards, and confirms that once someone applies and receives credit approval, the customer is given an account number to use right away. "The customer does not need to wait for the physical card to transact," says Lisa Lanspery, senior vice president, corporate communications and public relations for Synchrony Financial.

The exception to the rule for Synchrony Bank is if the card is co-branded, meaning it's a retail store card that's also part of the Mastercard or Visa network. In those situations, the card can be used in the store upon approval, says Lanspery, but it can't be used outside of that retailer until you get your physical card.

Chase has a similar policy for its line of co-branded cards, which includes British Airways, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Amazon and Disney. "We don't supply the customer the account number, but instead supply it directly to the co-brand partner for that transaction," says Maria Martinez, vice president of communications for Chase Card Services. As such, the customer can do that single first transaction with the brand but will then have to wait until the physical card arrives to make any other purchases.

Consumers will need the actual card to begin using all other nonbranded Chase credit cards.

Bank of America allows eligible existing customers instant access to credit cards, but only if they open the new account via the mobile app. If approved, they can view and add their new card information to a digital wallet for use while they are waiting to receive the card in the mail.

American Express allows instant use for all of its products. Eligible applicants who are approved are given an " Instant Card Number," provided that American Express can validate their identity. If everything checks out, customers will get an account number that they can use online or load into a digital wallet.

Are Some Credit Cards Easier to be Approved for?

Getting approved for a credit card depends on many factors, but your credit score and income are key. Issuers each have unique qualifications for their cards, and if you meet them, getting approved is likely.

Of course, that's assuming there aren't any special circumstances such as a missing credit report, duplicate credit reports or fraud alerts. "These can all delay or derail an application," Ulzheimer says.

Some types of cards are known for having more lenient requirements and may also offer instant credit access.

For example, you don't need to have excellent credit scores or a long credit history to qualify for retail cards.

"Retail cards are essentially subprime credit cards," Ulzheimer says. "They have super low credit limits with interest rates in the 20%-plus range."

With general credit cards, each creditor's application process varies. But if you know where you stand and apply for a card that's intended for your credit level, that should improve your odds of getting the card.

Applying from a "preapproved" offer you received will boost your chances even more, Ulzheimer says. If you've been preapproved, the card issuer has already reviewed your credit report information.

"According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the card issuer must now make you what's called a 'firm offer of credit,'" he says.

[Read: Best Credit Cards for Fair Credit.]

How Quickly Can I Get a Credit Card?

If you aren't applying for an instant-use card, you shouldn't expect your credit card for at least a few days.

Some issuers, such as Wells Fargo, specify that cards will arrive via mail within three to five business days. Others, like Capital One, say it takes seven to 10 business days.

For most issuers, expect to have the card in hand within two weeks.

Instant Credit Is a Good Perk, But Consider Other Factors

With apps and digital wallets, consumers are becoming used to having everything available instantly. Yet with most credit cards, you may still have to wait a week or two before you can begin using them.

Instant access could sway you toward an issuer, but it's not the most important factor when choosing a card. Consider other features that will have a greater effect on your wallet or longer-term implications, including annual percentage rate, fees and rewards.

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, New York-based freelance writer specializing in personal finance, career and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in, Bankrate, Family Circle, Content Marketing Institute and more. Follow her on Twitter @dawnpapandrea.