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How to Activate a Credit Card

How to Activate a Credit Card
Austin Kilham
Austin KilhamUpdated June 3, 2024
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
If you’ve signed up for a new credit card or are replacing one that expired or was lost or stolen, you’ll need to activate your new card before you can use it. When you activate your credit card, you’re letting your bank know that you’ve safely received the card and they have the go-ahead to start processing transactions. Activation is usually a fairly swift and painless process. Here’s a closer look at the steps you’ll need to take to activate a credit card.

Credit Card Activation Explained

Your credit card is vulnerable to loss and theft while it is in transit to you in the mail. To make sure that a functioning credit card doesn’t end up in the hands of fraudsters before it makes it to you, banks require that you personally activate the card before it can be used.Before it’s activated, the card can’t be used for purchases and any attempted transaction with the card will be denied. That said, just because a card isn’t active doesn’t mean your account isn’t open. If you’ve opened a new account with a bank, it may already be active. And if you’re replacing a lost, stolen, or expired card, your account will remain open while you wait for a replacement. 

Are Credit Cards Automatically Activated?

Once you’ve applied for a credit card and you’re approved, your account will be opened automatically. However, you’ll receive your physical card in the mail a week or so later. It is not activated automatically; you’ll have to do it yourself. In some cases, you may be able to use your credit card account even before you receive your physical card. You may be able to do so by looking up your credit card information online and using it digitally.You can usually activate your credit card over the phone or online. A sticker on the card will provide instructions for how to do each. You’ll need to provide personal information to verify your identity, and the steps required will often vary by card issuer. The whole process should only take a few minutes, and is largely the same whether it’s a rewards credit card or a credit-building credit card.Before activating, prepare yourself with personal information including your name, Social Security number, ZIP code, and date of birth. You’ll also likely need the credit card number and the security code that’s usually found on the back of the card. If you’re a new cardholder, you may be asked for even more details.

Call the Number on the Card

The instructions sticker on your card will provide a number for you to call. If you can, call from the number that was on your credit card application or is otherwise associated with your account. In some cases, using a different number may cause the activation to fail.Once on the phone, you’ll be asked to provide the set of personal information required by your issuer. After you do, you’ll receive a confirmation that your credit card is active and ready to use.

Activate Online

To activate your card online, look for a website listed on the sticker on your new card or provided in the letter you received with your card. You may also be able to do this from your credit card company’s mobile app. Visit the website, where you’ll be asked to fill in your personal information. Submit your information and wait for confirmation that your card is active.Once your card is active, be sure to sign the back of your card. This is an important security measure. As a precaution, merchants are supposed to check the signature you provide on receipts against the signature on the back of your card.

How Long After Activating a Card Can I Use it?

Once you activate your card, you can typically use it immediately.Some credit card accounts allow you to use them even before you have a card in hand. These so-called “instant use” accounts often come with additional rules. For example, you may already need to have an open card with the issuer.

What Happens If I Don’t Activate a Card?

When you receive your credit card in the mail, you’ll want to activate it as soon as possible. While many issuers don’t set any time limits for credit card activation, some will only allow a brief window of a month or two. Remember that even if your card isn’t active, your account is. That means that you’ll still be responsible for any annual fees that your issuer may charge. This is why it’s important to think carefully about when you should get a credit card.What happens if you have second thoughts and no longer want the card? In this case, you may want to give your credit card issuer a call to explain the situation. They can help you close the account if you need to, and they may be able to help you by waiving some, or all, of the annual fee. Should you cancel a card you never use? It depends. Canceling a card can have an impact on your credit score. It can affect your credit utilization ratio, by lowering the total amount of credit you have available, and it may also reduce your credit history and decrease your mix of credit, both of which can hurt your score.

What Is the Easiest Way to Activate a Credit Card?

Either method of activation — online or over the phone — should only take a few minutes. However, activating your card online may be the fastest, easiest method of activation.

The Takeaway

Credit card activation is a swift process that alerts your bank that you’ve safely received your card. You can do so either online or over the phone by providing the requested information. Once activated, you can use your card to make transactions immediately.Perhaps you already have your new card in hand and simply need to know how to activate a credit card, or maybe you’re looking for a new credit card. If you’re shopping for a card, Lantern by SoFi can help you compare credit cards and their key features so you can more easily find one that’s right for your needs, whether that’s a credit building card or a rewards card.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I activate my credit card?
Can credit cards be automatically activated?
What is activating a credit card?
Photo credit: iStock/VioletaStoimenova

About the Author

Austin Kilham

Austin Kilham

Austin Kilham is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles. He focuses on personal finance, retirement, business, and health care with an eye toward helping others understand complex topics.
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