Access to credit can be difficult to come by and expensive for small businesses. Small business credit cards can be flexible, invaluable tools for business owners facing short-term cash crunches. Interest rates can be lower than they are for other convenient sources of credit, such as advances against accounts receivable or credit card receipts and unsecured loans available from small business lenders on the Internet. Thanks to credit card incentive and rewards programs, it may make sense for business owners to route as much of their normal expenses as possible through their business credit card.
If you spend a significant amount on business expenses each month, you should consider applying for a business credit card. However, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of business credit cards as well as the wide array of offerings on the market.
Benefits of Business Credit Cards
Business credit cards provide business owners and entrepreneurs instant and convenient capital they can use for any business need:
- Operating capital/Cash flow management: Credit cards can bridge a gap between the need for a cash outlay and the receipt of payment by the customer.
- Startup capital: Business owners can use credit cards to pay for initial organization and expenses, purchase signage and inventory and advertising.
- Growth capital: Businesses can use business credit cards to put capital equipment, such as machinery, furniture or electrical equipment, into use now to generate current income while paying off the balance over time.
Frank Martien, managing partner and head of commercial payments with First Annapolis, a consulting firm that advises card-issuing banks, describes a common situation with seasonal businesses. “You could have a retail business in a tourist area, with really strong cash flow in the summer – and for the summer, you just use the card as a transactor,” he says. But in the off-season, the business carries a balance – “maybe using it to build up inventory in March, April and May, before the tourists show up.”
Interest rates on business credit cards are high compared to the rates of some other forms of financing, such as a traditional bank loan, but the credit cards are very convenient. If businesses can pay off purchases before the end of the grace period, the higher interest rate is a nonissue.
Separation of business and personal assets
When used correctly, business credit cards can help you demonstrate a strict separation between your personal and business finances. This is critical to ensuring that you and your family, along with your business partners, are personally protected from business liabilities.
If you are sued or go through bankruptcy, and your business records show that you have routinely mingled your personal and business accounts or used business assets for your personal benefit, you could endanger your limited liability protection. Without the limited liability protection you gain by operating your business as a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), your personal assets are at risk.
“It’s not what you have, it’s what you have at risk,” says Gerri Detweiler, author of “Finance Your Own Business, The Ultimate Credit Handbook” and head of market education for Nav.com, a San Mateo, California-based credit service for business owners. “If you have a business that has incorporated, but they continue to use personal credit cards to make personal purchases and business credit cards to make business purchases, it could potentially lead to a situation where the corporate veil could be pierced, and their personal assets put at risk.”
To avoid placing your personal assets at risk from business debts, use separate checking accounts, and do not mingle personal and business assets, debts and purchases. Detweiler suggests getting an early start at separating your business and personal assets and maintaining your business as a separate and distinct identity, wholly apart from both its parent company (if any) and its owners.
Bookkeeping and accounting features
Many business credit cards include the following useful accounting and expense management capabilities:
- View up-to-the-minute usage reports for each cardholder on the account
- Set spending limits on individual cards
- Cancel or suspend credit cards
- Instantly retrieve historical activity for each card
- Set up account alerts for individual cards
- Adjust cash advance limits
- Reconcile transactions against statements
- Send automatic data feeds to your bookkeeping/accounting software systems
- Automatically segregate expenses into categories to assist expense management
- Access to account controls via mobile devices
Maximizing tax deductions: Using credit to fund capital equipment purchases may help you take advantage of tax planning opportunities. For example, if you fund an equipment repair via a credit card before the end of the year, you may be able to take advantage of a tax deduction in the current year while paying it off later.
Tax simplification: Many of today’s business credit cards come with souped-up reporting and accounting features that make it easy to download detailed reports of all expenses charged using the card. This information can be automatically migrated to most prominent small-business accounting software programs, such as Intuit and Peachtree. It’s easy to transfer or attach credit card reports to a Schedule C and to store records of verified purchases in case of an audit.
Business Credit Cards vs. Personal Credit Cards
Business credit cards differ from consumer credit cards in these important ways:
- Business credit cards typically have higher limits.
- Business owners can distribute cards to employees; however, the business owner retains responsibility for repaying charges on each employee’s card.
- Most major business card-issuing banks report credit usage and payment information to both personal and business credit bureaus.
- Business credit cards are not subject to the same consumer protection laws as personal credit cards under the Credit CARD Act of 2009. This means that the card issuing bank could potentially make changes to grace periods and your APR with little or no notice. However, some major issuers have chosen to voluntarily extend some or all of the consumer protections under the Credit CARD Act to their business credit card holders via their cardholder agreements. Read your cardholder agreement and terms and conditions thoroughly before applying for your business credit card.
- Rewards and discounts cater to business owners, such as discounts on FedEx shipping or office supplies, or generous bonuses for frequent flying.
Many small business owners use personal credit cards to finance their businesses. Personal credit cards are usually much easier for owners of small and newly established businesses to qualify for, but they don’t report to the business credit bureaus. Also, mixing business and personal purchases on the same credit card could endanger your limited liability protection, putting your personal assets at risk in the case of a lawsuit against your corporation or LLC.
Before You Apply for a Business Credit Card
Eligibility and requirements
There are lots of different business types and business owners, and they may not always resemble a traditional view of a business. You don’t need to have a storefront or warehouse or any major facilities or hard assets to be issued a business credit card. If you have good personal and business credit and otherwise meet the issuer’s criteria, you can get a business credit card issued in any industry. So don’t be discouraged if you’re self-employed or you fall into one of these non-traditional business categories:
- Etsy sellers
- Amazon sellers
- eBay sellers
- Independent contractors and consultants
- Self-published authors
You also do not have to be profitable or have years in business under your belt before you can get approved for a business credit card, says Detweiler. “You don’t have to have a strong business credit rating or even necessarily have revenue for the business yet to be considered for one of these cards,” she explains. “These decisions … are usually based on the borrower’s personal credit, and whatever income is available.”
For new business owners, if your personal credit is bad, and you can’t qualify for a personal credit card, you probably won’t qualify for a business credit card either. You may, however, qualify for a secured business credit card, where your credit is limited to whatever amount you have on deposit with the bank.
While it’s a good idea to form a separate business entity before applying for a business credit card, it’s not necessary. It’s possible to obtain a business credit card even as a sole proprietor. However, those in sole proprietorships and general partnerships place their personal assets on the line in the event the business or even an individual business partner is sued or files bankruptcy.
Building your business credit history
Just as most of us have a personal FICO score, established businesses generally have one or more business credit scores that lenders use. Business credit scores generally range from 0 to 100, with higher scores going to more creditworthy companies. Scores vary from credit bureau to credit bureau.
Your business creditors will report your payment history to one or more business credit bureaus, which collect your outstanding balance and payment history from the following types of sources:
- Business credit card issuers
- Trade associations and organizations
- Manufacturers who provide merchandise or inventory in advance of payment
One of the most prominent business credit bureaus is Dun & Bradstreet, the developers and proprietors of the PAYDEX score. This score compares businesses’ payment histories on credit accounts to credit terms and rewards businesses for paying early. According to Dun & Bradstreet, companies that have a track record of not just paying credit accounts on time, but paying them 30 days or more ahead of schedule have the highest scores.
Like other business credit scores, the PAYDEX score ranges from zero to 100, which Dun & Bradstreet characterizes as the following:
|Significant to high risk of missed credit payments or default||Risk of late or missed payments on debts is moderate||Good to excellent business credit and payment history and outlook; risk of future late payments or defaults low|
Experian’s CreditScore Report is similar to Dun & Bradstreet’s PAYDEX score, and is scaled from one to 100. Experian’s score differs from Dun & Bradstreet’s score in that Experian looks beyond payment history to include total lines of credit in use, new lines opened in the last six and nine months, accounts in collections over the last seven years, percentage of available credit used and the number of open credit lines that are subject to terms other than net-30 days, which is a common loan term where the payment is due in 30 days.
Regardless of your personal credit history, there are some things you can do to make yourself more attractive to business credit card issuers when you are ready to apply:
- Get a separate employer identification number (EIN): Not every lender requires this, but many do. It also indicates to potential lenders that you’re serious about treating your business as a separate entity from your personal assets.
- Develop a solid business plan, including a realistic monthly budget: Your business plan helps tell creditors and other investors where your business is going and lets them take a look at how realistic your assumptions are and how detailed your planning is.
- Start building a business credit history: Over time, as your business demonstrates responsible credit usage, it establishes credit history separate from your personal credit. The more established your business credit history is, the less likely it is that lenders will require you to sign a personal guarantee for your business debts.
Know your issuer’s credit reporting policies
In order to establish a separate credit history for your business, select a credit card issuer that reports your credit activity specifically to the business credit bureaus: Dun & Bradstreet, Equifax, FICO SBSS and Experian each maintain a business-specific database and sell credit background screening to various lenders of all types. All major business credit card issuers report information to at least one business credit bureau.
Additionally, some card issuers will report all activity on business credit cards to your personal credit report. This can be good if your personal credit is weak and you are building credit history with on-time payments, but it can limit your access to personal credit if you have a very high debt-to-income ratio.
Each card issuer has different credit reporting policies. According to research by Nav.com, a company providing business credit report tools, there are several card issuers, including American Express, Capital One, Chase and Wells Fargo, that only report negative information to your personal credit report.
Card Issuers That Don’t Report All Activity to Personal Credit Report
|Issuer||All Activity||Negative Information|
|Bank of America||No||No|
|Capital One||Yes (flagged as ‘small business’ on personal credit report)||Yes|
Most business credit cards do not report usage information to the personal credit bureaus unless there is a default, explains Detweiler. “This could be an advantage in two ways: One, it would help the business establish credit in its own name. Two, it would keep that activity off of the personal credit reports. So if the business does have to carry a balance or have a lot of debt relative to the credit limit, they won’t have to worry about their personal credit score going down.”
Improving your business credit score
Just as you should work to maintain and protect your personal credit score and ensure the information in your credit report is accurate, you should do the same with your business credit score.
- Pay all your bills and invoices on time, and preferably early. This is the single most important factor in most commercially marketed credit scoring systems that lenders use.
- Form a corporation or LLC.
- Obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS.
- Open a separate business checking account under your business’s legal name and maintain strict segregation of your business and personal finances.
- Get a separate business telephone number and ensure it’s listed in your local 411 directories under your business’s name.
- Ensure your corporate filings, EIN and required business licenses are all in place before applying for credit.
- Register with one or more of the major business credit reporting bureaus so they can start a file on you. The primary business credit bureaus are Dun & Bradstreet, FICO SBSS, Experian Business and Equifax Small Business.
- Check your personal credit report for errors before applying for a business credit card.
- Check your business credit history for errors before applying for further credit.
How to Evaluate a Business Credit Card
The first step in selecting what business credit card might work best for your business is to determine how you expect to use the card based on your business plan.
1. Types of business cards
Credit card accounts are ‘revolving credit’ accounts in that they are designed to allow cardholders to carry a balance over time. You only have to make a relatively low minimum monthly payment to keep the account current and in good standing.
Charge card accounts, on the other hand, are paid off each month. There are no pre-set spending limits (within reason), and businesses are expected to pay off their balances before the end of each billing cycle or the following one. Failure to pay off by the monthly due date results in a late fee and also a negative mark on your business credit history. American Express is the most prominent issuer in this market.
Business Credit Cards vs. Charge Cards
|Business Credit Cards||Business Charge Cards|
|Strict spending limit||No preset spending limit|
|Revolving credit – you can carry a balance||Must be paid off each billing cycle; no revolving credit; substantial penalties for late payments|
|Pay what you want (subject to minimum)||Must be paid off every month|
|Affects credit utilization ratio||Does not affect credit utilization ratio|
|May be issued to applicants with moderate credit scores||Stricter credit underwriting standards – you must generally have good to excellent credit to qualify|
|Can be used to build credit history||Can be used to build credit history|
|No penalties as long as minimum payments are made each month||Late fees can be up to 3 percent of balance, or $40 + penalty rate as high as 29.99 percent|
Charge cards typically have somewhat strict credit requirements in order to qualify, but they also often come with a relatively rich set of perks. The disadvantage is that your credit account could be shut down if you miss a payment, and outstanding balances are charged a high penalty rate after just one or two late payments.
Charge cards have less overall impact on your business or personal credit score because the usage is not counted as part of your overall utilization ratio. However, payment history with your charge card is factored into your personal and business credit.
In practice, charge cards can be great for businesses with steady cash flows or substantial reserves, whose owners want to maximize their cardholder perks and who don’t want to have to worry about preset spending limits.
2. Business rewards cards
Depending on the type of business card you select, you can earn cash, trips and other rewards for regularly using your card for business purchases. Card issuers structure their rewards and incentives programs differently to attract different customer segments.
Cash back cards
Cash back rewards are generally straightforward and easy to use. They allow you to earn back a percentage of your spending, usually 1 to 5 percent depending on the card and spending category.
For example, the SimplyCash Plus Business Credit Card from American Express provides 1 percent cash back on most purchases. But for all qualified purchases from select U.S. telecom and office supply vendors, cardholders will receive 5 percent cash back.
In addition to the two cash back benefits mentioned above, the SimplyCash card allows you to select one of the following categories to receive a bonus 3 percent cash back benefit:
- Hotel charges
- Car rentals
- Gas stations
- Computer hardware and software purchases
General rewards cards
Many programs reward users with points or miles. You can exchange these for goods and services, including airfare and travel accommodations and sometimes cash and gift cards through the card’s rewards program. While a cash back program is much easier to grasp, in many cases, it’s often possible to get greater rewards value from a well-chosen points or rewards card compared to a pure cash back model.
For example, the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card offers these benefits:
- Three points per dollar spent on travel, shipping, internet, cable and phone, social media and search engine advertising on up to $150,000 per year
- One point per dollar for all other purchases
- Flexible redemption options like cash back, gift cards and at retailers like Amazon
- 25 percent more value to points when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Cobranded or loyalty cards
Cobranded or loyalty credit cards offer bonuses for spending and redemption with a specific brand. These types of cards tend to offer deeper discounts and better perks as a reward for staying loyal to that business. Popular types of cobranded cards include:
For example, the CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select card offers cardholders the following benefits:
- Two miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines purchases
- Two miles for every dollar spent on gas, telecommunications and car rentals
- One point for every dollar spent on all other purchases
- Miles can be redeemed for car rentals, hotels, vacation packages, cruises and other offers.
- If you redeem miles for airfare, the card credits you back 10 percent of the miles you redeem.
- First checked bag is free and priority boarding on American Airlines domestic flights
3. Earning potential
To estimate potential rewards and discounts from having a business credit card, anticipate your probable future expenses, especially in the following areas:
- Air travel
- Hotel stays
- General travel and entertainment (T&E)
- Telecommunications (including mobile devices, cable and satellite, internet, landline phones and VoIP)
- Shipping and mailing
- Computer hardware and software
- Office supplies
If one of these categories is especially significant for your business, that will help determine which card is the best fit for you.
4. Sign-up bonus
To recruit new customers, card-issuing banks offer lucrative sign-up bonuses designed to jumpstart card usage.
For example, the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Business Edge Travel Rewards Card grants 20,000 bonus ‘flex’ points after spending $2,000 within four months of opening your account. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card lets you earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within three months of opening the account.
5. Annual fees
Annual fees typically range anywhere from $59 to $175. Some higher-end cards designed for heavy usage charge an annual fee as high as $495. In many cases, the fee is waived for the first year. Some cards, such as U.S. Bank’s FlexPerks Business Edge Travel Rewards Card will issue a statement credit offsetting the annual fee or waive the fee if you use the card enough over the course of the year.
A high annual fee should dissuade light or occasional card users, but if you route a lot of business spending through the card, a sign-up bonus, plus all your other rewards and perks, may offset the yearly fee.
6. Extra cards
If your business has employees, you may want them to have access to the business line of credit so they can make business-related purchase. Some cards charge an extra annual fee for each extra card added to an account, while with others it’s free to add extra cards. With employee cards, the account holder can earn bonus rewards for employee spending as well.
7. Additional features
Foreign transaction fees: Some carriers charge up to a 4 percent for transactions completed in a foreign currency. Cards with foreign transaction fees may be a poor choice for businesses with frequent travel or for businesses that frequently purchase from foreign suppliers.
Cardholder benefits: Most business travel cards come with a basic package of perks and benefits that may include things like emergency roadside assistance, guaranteed returns on purchases and travel insurance. Most business cards also supply detailed spending reports and enhance bookkeeping capabilities to keep track of expenses and prepare taxes.
How to Compare Business Credit Cards
Comparing business credit cards can be complex. To help small business owners understand how to evaluate business credit cards and find the best match for your unique business needs, U.S. News selected three of the best offerings on the market today for comparison:
- Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business
- Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
- The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express
1. Types of business cards
First, understand whether the card you are considering is a credit card that allows you to carry a balance, or a charge card designed to be paid off each month. Both the Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business card and the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card are credit cards. The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express is a charge card, which would only make sense for businesses that can pay the full balance each month.
2. Rewards program type
The Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business is a cash back card. The Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express are general rewards cards where you earn points that can be redeemed for a variety of items including cash back, merchandise, gift cards and travel.
3. Earning potential
Once you have a breakdown of your business credit card spending, you can calculate the rewards you can potentially earn. For comparison’s sake, here’s a calculation of a rough estimate of each credit card’s reward potential using the following spending, based on a sample small business’s budget.
Sample $2,600 Monthly Budget for a Small Business
|Goods: $1,203||Office Expenditures: $116|
|Uncategorized: $504||Travel: $78|
|Services: $388||Utilities: $78|
|Online Advertising: $194||Insurance: $39|
The Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business is a cash back card. It earns a flat cash back rate of 1.5 percent for all purchases. So if the business owner charges the above total of $2,600 per month on the card, regardless of the category, the 1.5 percent cash back rate generates $39 per month or $468 per year in cash rewards.
The Chase Ink Business Preferred, on the other hand, has a multitiered rewards system:
- Three points per dollar on travel, shipping, telecom and internet advertising spending
- One point per dollar on everything else
Chase Ink Business Preferred Card Points and Rewards Table
|Category (and points multiplier)||Monthly spending||Points per month||Points per year (x12)|
|All other spending (x1)||$1,542||1,194||14,328|
|Rewards value at 1 cent/point redemption rate||$565.92|
With this sample budget, the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card awards 56,592 points per year based on this spending. Points for this card redeem at 1 cent per point, totaling $565.92 in rewards value per year.
The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express lets users choose one category for its triple-points reward bonus. Since shipping is the biggest line item for monthly costs, the cardholder would likely choose that.
The card also grants a double point multiplier for travel, advertising and computers, and one point per dollar for all other spending. This breaks down as follows:
|Category (and points multiplier)||Monthly spending||Points per month||Points per year (x12)|
|Travel, Advertising and Computers (x2)||$350||700||8,400|
|Other spending (x1)||$1,852||1,852||22,224|
AmEx Membership rewards points can be redeemed for between 0.5 and 1 cent per pointon over 20 different products and services. Averaging these comes to approximately 0.7 cents in rewards per point, or $314.66 per year.
Using the same small business budget, the three cards earn the following annual rewards:
Annual Value of Rewards
|Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business||$468|
|Chase Ink Business Preferred||$595.92|
|The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express||$314.66|
4. Sign-up bonus
Each card offers a sign-up bonus for the first year, and cardholders would qualify for each one given the sample budget.
Accounting for Sign-Up Bonuses (First Year Only)
|Card||Sign-up bonus||Threshold to qualify for sign-up bonus|
|Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business||$200 cash bonus||$3,000 in spending in first three months|
|Chase Ink Business Preferred||80,000 bonus points (redeemable for $800)||$5,000 in spending in first three months|
|The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express||50,000 bonus points (redeemable for $350 at 0.7 cents per point)||$5,000 in spending in first three months|
Once the sign-up bonus is factored in, the Chase Ink Business Preferred card accrues the most rewards in the first year.
First-year rewards value with a $2,600/month budget
|Card||Total first-year rewards value|
|Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business||$668|
|Chase Ink Business Preferred||$1,395.62|
|The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express||$664.66|
5. Annual fees
None of the three cards charges an annual fee for the first year. But after the first year, the Chase Ink Business Preferred card has a fee of $95 per year, and The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express has an annual fee of $175. To arrive at a net rewards value for year two and beyond, subtract the annual fees from the basic rewards value.
Net Value of Rewards, Year Two and Beyond
|Card||Subtracting annual fee from second-year rewards value||Annual net rewards value|
|Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business||$468 – 0||$468|
|Chase Ink Business Preferred||$565.92 – $95||$470.92|
|The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express||$314.66 – $175||$139.66|
Net Value of Rewards
|Card||First-year earnings||Year two and beyond|
|Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business||$668||$468|
|Chase Ink Business Preferred||$1,395.62||$470.92|
|The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express||$664.66||$139.66|
The Chase Ink Business Preferred card comes out ahead each year, assuming the same budget each year. Additionally, Chase Ultimate Rewards offers a 25 percent bonus on points redeemed specifically for travel. This increases possible first-year rewards values to as high as $1,706.25 if the owner chooses to redeem all the points for travel.
However, if future spending changes as the business grows, it would behoove owners to look closely at their business plan and project what spending categories will increase.
6. Extra cards
Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business and Chase Ink Business Preferred offer free cards for additional users. The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express offers up to five cards free and charges $35 for each additional card.
7. Additional features
Foreign transaction fees
None of these cards has foreign transaction fees, which is important for any business regularly making transactions in a foreign currency.
Additional benefits and perks
Business card issuers routinely line up a series of additional perks, protections, privileges and discounts, over and above their points, miles or cash back rewards on purchases. Here is a breakdown of some of the major perks for the three cards:
- Roadside Assistance
- Car Rental Collision Waiver
- Quarterly and Year-end Spending Summaries
- Downloadable Purchase Records
- Fraud Coverages
- Connects to Business Accounting Software
Best Business Credit Cards of 2018
U.S. News researched 129 business credit cards from a variety of card-issuing banks and evaluated them against the key business card criteria outlined above.
Different businesses have different needs, and no single card is ideal for every type of business. Spending patterns for businesses vary substantially, and not every business can qualify for the very best offers, so some options for business owners with less-than-perfect credit are included. We identified the best offering for each of the categories and spending habits that small businesses commonly fit into.
- Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
- Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card
- SimplyCash Plus Business Credit Card from American Express
- Capital One Spark Cash for Business
- Capital One Spark Classic for Business
- Bank of America Business Advantage Travel Rewards World MasterCard credit card
- Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Business Credit Card
- Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card
- CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard
- The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express
- The Business Platinum Card from American Express