When you joined the military, the recruiter may have told you about perks like educational benefits, health and dental care, and even special home loans for veterans. But you may not have heard about credit card benefits you’re entitled to receive as a service member — and they’re an important perk to know about.
Credit card benefits for active duty military can help you save hundreds each year and allow you to take advantage of special incentives and rewards programs. You can use these benefits to book free vacations and get a substantial amount of cash back — without paying annual fees and while enjoying a low APR (annual percentage rate) on your credit card balance.
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and Military Lending Act (MLA) essentials
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are over 1.29 million people currently serving in the military. Military service members face unique challenges, which is why the government passed two bills to help you with your finances: the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and the Military Lending Act (MLA).
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act
The SCRA was designed to ease the financial burden service members face during periods of military service. It’s a federal law that can help you with issues like apartment leases and interest rates for mortgages and credit cards.
For credit cards, the SCRA limits the amount of interest that a company can charge you. For debt that is incurred prior to your military service, a lender can charge you no more than 6% interest per year, including most fees. That’s significantly less than the APR everyone else has to pay. According to the Federal Reserve, the average APR on all cards that assess interest was 16.91%, as of 2019.
You qualify for SCRA protections if you meet the following criteria:
- You serve as a full-time active duty member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard
- You are a reservist on federal active duty
- You are a member of the National Guard on federal orders for a period of more than 30 days
- You are a commissioned officer in active service with the Public Health Service (PHS) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- You are a dependent of a service member
To qualify for SCRA protections, you must provide your creditor with written notice of your eligibility and a copy of your military orders. The written notice must be sent within 180 days of the end of your military service.
Military Lending Act
The MLA protects military service members from certain lending practices. Under the MLA, there is a capped Military Annual Percentage Rate (MAPR) that prohibits lenders from charging service members 36% or more in interest and fees. That may sound incredibly high, but the MAPR doesn’t just take into account the APR; it also factors in annual fees, credit insurance premiums or fees, and fees for add-on products.
To comply with the MLA, many card issuers opt to waive fees completely on their credit card products, making it cheaper for you to own a credit card and easier to use the card to pay your bills. With a lower APR and no fees, you have less of a financial burden while you’re serving in the military.
Members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard who are on active duty are covered by the MLA. The MLA also protects those serving on Active Guard and Reserve duty, as well as their dependents.
How credit card companies follow the SCRA and MLA
All credit card companies must abide by the rules set out by the SCRA and MLA. However, some companies go above and beyond for military service members, completely eliminating some fees. That perk can help you save lots of money, while taking advantage of the card’s other benefits.
Here’s how different companies handle fees and interest rates for active military service members:
|Card issuer||Specific fees waived||APR offered
as of June 2019
|Includes cards opened on while active duty?||Learn more|
|American Express||Annual fees||6% APR on balances||Yes||1-800-253-1720|
|Bank of America||N/A||6% APR on balances||No||Bank of America Website|
|Chase||All fees||4% APR on balances||No||1-877-469-0110|
|Citi||All fees||0% APR on balances||No||1-877-804-1082|
|5.9% APR on balances||Yes||1-844-337-4645|
|Wells Fargo||N/A||6% APR on balances||No||1-800-642-4720|
Annual fees, your spouse, and your military benefits
With most credit cards, cardholders can add spouses and dependents as authorized users with no fee or a reduced annual fee. But those authorized users won’t get the same benefits as the primary cardholder. Things are different for military members, though.
Not only is the annual fee for some cards waived for military members, but military spouses and other qualifying dependents can also have their own cards without paying the annual fee. That means your family can get double the benefits without any cost, which can really rack up some spending rewards.
For example, if a military member and their spouse each sign up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve and meet the minimum spend requirement for the sign-up bonus, they’ll each earn 50,000 bonus points. If they use those 50,000 points toward travel through the Chase travel portal, they would be worth $750. That’s $750 worth of travel for the military member and another $750 for the spouse.
Plus, each cardholder can also cash in on the $300 annual travel credit, for a total of $600 in credits. Depending on the size of your family, the bonus and the credits can add up to thousands of dollars in free travel with no annual fee. That’s a lot of value with no upfront costs.
The best credit cards to get the most from military benefits
Cards with high annual fees typically also come with the best benefits. Thankfully, the fees on some of the best travel credit cards are waived for active-duty military members, so you can get premium rewards at no cost.
It makes sense for military members and their spouses to sign up for the best rewards credit cards with the most benefits because they won’t have to weigh the value of the card against the cost of the annual fee. In other words, aim for the most expensive credit cards that come with the best rewards that fit your needs because they’ll be free for you.
Below are our picks for the three best credit cards for military service members. These cards come with a ton of perks. You can get free checked bags, statement credits for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fees, lounge access, free hotel nights, free meals at Priority Pass restaurants, and a lot more. Depending on the card you choose, you might even get some free rideshares or food delivery.
1. The Platinum Card from American Express
With The Platinum Card from American Express, you can enjoy some luxurious benefits. With an annual fee of $550, this charge card is cost prohibitive for some, but military service members have that fee waived.
As a cardmember, you’ll get perks like:
- 5X points per dollar spent on eligible airfare and hotel purchases, and 1X points per dollar on all other eligible purchases
- $200 airline fee credit
- Fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck — a $100 value
- Access to the Global Lounge Collection, including the ultra-exclusive Centurion Lounge
- $200 in Uber ride credits
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
2. Chase Sapphire Reserve
Chase waives all fees, including annual fees and late fees, for military service members. That means you can use the Chase Sapphire Reserve without worrying about its sizeable $550 annual fee. Chase goes even further, giving you a low interest rate — just 4% APR — for up to a year after your military separation.
The card offers benefits like:
- Earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
- $300 annual travel credit
- 10X points on Lyft rides, 3X points on travel (excluding $300 travel credit), 3X points at restaurants, and 1X points per $1 spent on everything else
- Fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck — a $100 value
- Complimentary airport lounge access
- $60 annual DoorDash credit (available Jan. 12. 2020)
3. Citi Prestige
With a $495 annual fee, the Citi Prestige is expensive. But because military service members have the annual fee waived, you can enjoy the card without worrying about its cost. And it offers hundreds of dollars in added perks and benefits.
The Citi Prestige offers benefits like:
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within 3 months of account opening
- 5X points on airline purchases and restaurants; 3X points on hotels and cruise lines; and 1X points on all other purchases
- Complimentary fourth night hotel stay
- VIP airport lounge access
- $250 travel credit
Bottom line on how the military can use credit cards
There are many credit card benefits for active duty military. Some companies honor SCRA and MLA regulations, but others go even further, slashing fees and offering other perks. However, you should still pay attention to each company’s typical policies; once your service term is over and you no longer qualify for the SCRA or MLA, your fees will be reinstated, and the APR will revert to the standard APR charged to all consumers.
While these military benefits can help you take advantage of credit cards without worrying about annual fees, being in the military doesn’t guarantee that you’ll qualify for the card. Each credit card company has their own requirements for credit score and income, which you’ll have to meet to get approved.
Credit card companies will sometimes make adjustments to their offerings for military service members, so it’s a good idea to contact a company directly before applying for a new card to get the most up-to-date information. Many companies have dedicated customer service websites or phone lines exclusively for military service member inquiries.