Do I Have to Activate My New Credit Card? (The Answer May Surprise You)

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A lot can happen in the seven-to-10 business days it typically takes a new credit card to arrive in the mail. But if you’re having second thoughts about your chosen plastic, you’d be remiss to think that failing to formally activate the account negates its existence.

Issuers typically ask that new cardholders “activate” their cards by calling them or registering the plastic online once it’s in hand. This requirement helps to prevent someone from scooping the new card out of your mail and taking it on a shopping spree, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond that.

“Activation is simply a fraud protection measure,” Nessa Feddis, senior vice president and deputy chief counsel at the American Bankers Association, said. “It’s divorced from whether the account is opened or reported [to the credit bureaus].”

In fact, issuers typically start reporting the card to the credit reporting agencies once you’ve been approved. The application will almost immediately generate a hard inquiry on your credit report and, shortly thereafter, the card’s credit limit will factor into your credit utilization rate, whether you abide by the activation request or not.

Interestingly, there’s also a chance the card itself would work at a store, should you try use it without making that phone call or registering online.

“All American Express cards are flagged as pending confirmation of card receipt when a card is mailed. We strongly recommend Card Members confirm receipt when the card arrives to help verify their identity and mitigate against fraud,” a spokesperson for American Express said in an email. “However, because of our relationship with our Card Members, we are able to selectively approve charges that we evaluate to be of very low risk, even if the card receipt has not yet been confirmed. For example, if a Card Member receives their new card, puts it into their wallet and proceeds to use it at their local coffee shop they frequent, we might be able to approve the transaction.”

Making the Call

It’s still in a cardholder’s best interest to activate a new credit card, since that’s the quickest way to ensure you won’t hit any snags when trying to make a purchase. It also minimizes the odds of fraudulent charges.

If you haven’t received a card you applied for, you should notify the issuer — they can tell you if the account has been used and/or send you a replacement. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your credit to make sure someone else didn’t run up any balances or commit any other nefarious activity in the interim. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com. A sudden drop in scores can be a sign identity theft is occurring.

If you are having second thoughts about an account you opened, you should call to formally close the card. Just be aware that doing so might affect your credit score.

Keep in mind, too, an issuer may elect to close a card if it remains inactive long enough, so you may want to address an unwanted account head on (or use it from time to time to make small purchases) rather than weather any damage a sudden, unplanned closure may do to your score. (You can find out more about the effects closing a credit card can have on your credit here.)

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