Independence Day Roundup: Military vs. Civilian Credit Cards
The Big Players in Military Banking: USAA, Navy Federal, and Pentagon Federal.
There are three big financial institutions serving primarily Department of Defense personnel, as well as many less significant players. These organizations are exclusive to military personnel and relatives, and offer some great benefits not available elsewhere.
USAA is the largest financial institution serving primarily military families, with over 7 million members. Navy Federal is the largest credit union in the United States, with over 3 million members. Pentagon Federal is the third largest credit union with nearly 1 million members.
How do the major military credit card offers compare with credit cards available to the civilian population?
There are several classes of credit cards to consider, we’ll discuss each one separately. But in summary, one can safely conclude that in certain categories, there are military cards that soundly beat anything civilians can apply for.
- The most noticeable advantage for team Military is Secured Credit Cards, which are pre-approved credit cards used to help people with poor credit rebuild their credit scores. Civilian banks gouge secured credit card holders with high fees and minimal rewards, but Navy Federal has the lowest fees and it pays out rewards.
- The most noticeable disadvantage for team Military is low APR credit cards. There are many military credit unions to choose from, and we’ve listed most of them at the end of this post, but in general you’re better off with a local credit union or regional bank.
Breaking down the numbers
As you can see from the table below*, Navy Federal dominates the field in terms of the best military credit card offers, demonstrating why they are the most popular credit union in the country. Pentagon Federal stands out on the rewards card front with the Cash Back card, which pays 5% on gas and 2% at supermarkets, and PenFed also has decent offerings for low APR cards. USAA is noticeably absent, as are the popular Bank of America Military Banking cards.
Additionally, for those who want to show their pride with a specially designated card, there are a lot of options out there. These “affinity cards” include offerings for the Air Force Academy AOG, Reserve Officers Association, Society of Cost Estimating and Analysis, US Army Warrant Officers, American Society of Military Comptrollers, USO, and the Marine Corps.
The intangibles: Beyond the numbers
Despite being behind the curve in terms of offering the best rewards or lowest APRs, USAA has received great customer satisfaction feedback and has a very loyal customer base.
- USAA, 4.5/5 stars
- Navy Federal Credit Union, 4.0/5 stars
- Pentagon Federal Credit Union, 3.0/5 stars
- Note that PenFed’s negative feedback is mostly related to how difficult it is to get their “conservative” loan department to approve your mortgage or credit application
So should you get a military credit card?
We say you should take advantage of your eligibility and do it. Just make sure you do the research first to find out what will best suit your needs. Here are a few of our suggestions:
- Consider Navy Federal and Pentagon Federal credit card offers before you decide on a USAA or Bank of America Military Banking offer. In almost all cases, you can get a better card through the two credit unions rather than the two for-profit banks.
- Compare the best military offers against the best civilian cards out there before you make a final decision. You can easily do this by searching NerdWallet’s rewards credit card or low apr credit card pages, and selecting both “personal” and “credit union” in your credit card search criteria on the upper left hand side.
- You can compare all the military credit card offerings side by side at our military credit cards search page, and rank them either by name, rewards, or APRs. You can also search for your particular branch’s affinity card directly in the search box.
Appendix A: Military credit unions:
- Air Academy Federal Credit Union
- Air Force Federal Credit Union
- Andrews Federal Credit Union
- Army Aviation Center Federal Credit Union
- Ascend Federal Credit Union (serves Arnold Air Force Base)
- Barksdale Federal Credit Union
- Coast Guard Employees Credit Union
- Dover Federal Credit Union
- Edwards Federal Credit Union
- Eglin Federal Credit Union
- Fort Stewart Federal Credit Union
- Fort Belvoir Federal Credit Union
- Fort Bliss Federal Credit Union
- Fort Bragg Federal Credit Union
- Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union
- Fort Lee Federal Credit Union
- Fort Knox Federal Credit Union
- Fort Sill Federal Credit Union
- Hickam Federal Credit Union
- Huachuca Federal Credit Union
- Keesler Federal Credit Union
- Kirtland Federal Credit Union
- Langley Federal Credit Union
- MacDill Federal Credit Union
- Marine Federal Credit Union
- McCoy Federal Credit Union
- Navy Federal Credit Union
- Niagara Falls Air Force Credit Union
- Pentagon Federal Credit Union
- Redstone Federal Credit Union
- Robins Federal Credit Union
- Sea West Coast Guard Federal Credit Union
- Tinker Federal Credit Union
- Travis Federal Credit Union
- Tyndall Federal Credit Union
- US Coast Guard Community Credit Union
- Wright-Patt Credit Union
Appendix B: Eligibility requirements for the bigger credit unions
- Active, retired and honorably separated officers and enlisted personnel of the U.S. military.
- Officer candidates in commissioning programs (Academy, ROTC, OCS/OTS).
- Adult children of USAA members who have or had a USAA auto or property insurance policy.
- Widows and widowers of USAA members who have or had a USAA auto or property insurance policy.
Navy Federal Credit Union
- All Department of Defense (DoD) uniformed personnel — Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force, retirees and annuitants
- All Department of Defense Reservists — Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force retirees and annuitants
- All Army and Air National Guard Personnel — civilian employees, retirees and annuitants
- All DoD Officer Candidate programs: Midshipmen and cadets at the United States Naval Academy, United States Military Academy, United States Air Force Academy, United States Coast Guard Academy and the United States Merchant Marine Academy; Other Officer Programs
- U.S. Government employees assigned to DoD installations (including Coast Guard)
- All DoD civilian employees, including retirees and annuitants
- DoD contractors assigned to U.S. Government installations
- Family Members, including grandparents, parents, spouses, siblings, grandchildren, children (including adopted and stepchildren) and household members
Pentagon Federal Credit Union
- United States Military & Uniformed Services
- United States Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, National Guard, Reserves, Cadets, ROTC
- Member of an Eligible Association, Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), or the Reserve Officers Association (ROA)
- American Society of Military Comptrollers, Army Warrant Officers Association, AUSA, Coast Guard Auxiliary Association and more...
- United States Government Employees
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense, Department of the Army, and the Department of the Air Force
- Family Member or Housemate
- Immediate family, roommate, legal guardian...
- Employee of an Eligible Place of Business
- Andersen Air Force Base, DCVA Medical Center - Contractors, Walter Reed Army Medical Center
- American Red Cross
- You are eligible to become a member of Pentagon Federal if you are an employee or volunteer of the American Red Cross.
- National Military Family Association
- If you do not fall within our regular field of membership, you can join the National Military Family Association in order to become a member with Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
* These numbers are correct as of 07/01/2010, but are displayed for comparison purposes only.
Tim Chen of NerdWallet was formerly a hedge fund analyst specializing in credit card networks and technology companies, before becoming a victim of the financial meltdown. NerdWallet is the Kayak for credit card search, and seeks to become the number one source for unbiased online credit card information.