If you’re a military member serving on active duty, you need to know about the special credit card perks available to you and your fellow service members. From the Service Members Civil Relief Act to no-interest purchases on military clothing, a wide range of benefits exist for those serving in our nation’s Armed Forces. We’re going to talk about credit card perks offered by specific companies and how you can maximize your savings when you use a card while on active duty.
The Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) was signed into law in 2003. Modeled after a similar provision for service members in the early 1940s, this legislation lays the ground work for the active duty credit card perks you’ll find today. It also provides service members additional benefits for mortgages, auto loans, evictions, and insurance.
The SCRA does several things when it comes to credit cards: caps loan interest rates at 6% for active duty service members, offers interest rate protection for up to a year after your service ends, and forgives interest in excess of 6%.
To receive the SCRA mandated 6% APR on your credit card, you must request relief under the SCRA with the credit card company. This means the advertised rates won’t apply to you after you ask for the SCRA benefit.
The SCRA was designed for accounts opened prior to entering Active Duty, but many card providers will apply the SCRA to accounts opened after you join the military as a way of thanking you for serving. To qualify for the SCRA, you must be on active duty in the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, or Coast Guard. National Guard members who are serving greater than 30 days active duty also qualify.
Again, the interest rate cap must legally be applied to loans obtained before you joined active duty. Lenders are being generous when they apply them to new loans or credit cards you incur after you join. However, it’s not that unusual for lenders to offer this benefit, so it’s always worth asking about.
Best Credit Cards for Military Members
I’ve created a list of credit card providers that specifically address the SCRA on their websites and offer benefits to service members. To take advantage of the SCRA, you’ll need to notify the credit card provider that you qualify. Some companies will go as far as refunding annual fees you’ve already forked over in the past, and others go above and beyond the SCRA minimum requirements to offer even sweeter deals.
Navy Federal Credit Union
Navy Federal Credit Union has a wide variety of credit cards geared toward military members and their families. Navy Federal has been around since 1933 and currently has over 8 million members (and over $95B in assets). They’ve recently tweaked their Flagship Rewards credit card which makes it just a superb offer.
The Navy Federal Visa Signature Flagship Rewards Credit Card offers a variety of top notch benefits for cardholders. First and perhaps most importantly, new cardmembers will receive a 50,000 point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months. Those points can be redeemed for $500 in cash, a statement credit, gift cards, travel or other merchandise at a 100 points = $1 ratio. The everyday rewards program offers triple points for every dollar spent on travel and double points for every dollar spent on all other purchases. Essentially means a 3% / 2% travel rewards credit card.
The annual fee on the Navy Federal Visa Signature Flagship Rewards Credit Card is $49 and it’s waived for the first year. That annual fee is very low compared to other top level travel reward credit cards. Finally, members will also receive a $100 statement credit for signing up with Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check.
The Platinum Card® from American Express – For military members; this is the best card to take advantage of. The Platinum Card® from American Express opens up with a 60,000 Membership Rewards bonus after spending $5,000 in three months. 5x points per dollar spent on flights booked directly with airlines is earned as well as on eligible hotels booked through American Express. Single points per dollar spent are earned on everything else. Cardmembers also receive up to $200 each year in Uber credits and Uber VIP status. One big additional perk is a $200 annual refund for airline fees. If you spend money on things like checked baggage and Wi-Fi, this is a big saver.
The usual catch is that the Platinum Card® from American Express has an extremely hefty $550 annual fee. But American Express kindly waives that fee for active service members. Also keep in mind that this is a charge card, not a credit card so purchases are due to be paid in full every single month.
American Express waives the annual fee on many of their cards if you request relief under the SCRA. I recently upgraded my Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express to Platinum, which has a $550 annual fee. AMEX waived the annual fee for the Gold and will do the same for the Platinum, so I took advantage of the increased perks that come with holding the platinum card. All it takes is a phone call and proof of active duty service.
And now, AMEX has added a few additional bonus categories. 6% cash back on select US streaming services (like Netflix, Hulu and others) and 3% cash back on ground transportation.
The annual fee is $95 but again, waived for all active service members.
USAA offers a 4% APR on credit cards for military members. That low APR extends up to one year after you leave active duty. They will also waive foreign transaction fees and give a 100% rebate on finance charges.
Wells Fargo offers 4% interest rates on loans that originate with their company. You can call their service line at 1-800-642-4720 to see if they’ll offer that rate for their credit cards. At a minimum, you’ll get 6% under the SCRA.
Capital One goes lower than the mandatory 6% and will limit your credit card interest rate to 4%. They’ll also do the same for other loans made by their bank.
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card – This credit card offers a big up front bonus of 50,000 miles after you’ve spent $3,000 in the first three months after account opening. Those miles can then be redeemed for the equivalent of $500 in travel. 2x miles are earned for every dollar spent on ALL purchases. No tier levels to reach, no spend thresholds to meet and the miles you earn never expire. When you book your travel using your miles, there are never any blackout dates and there is no limit to the amount of miles you can earn.
The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card has a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived for all 1st year cardholders. As Capital One waives the annual fee under the SCRA; this card should be earning you double miles without that burden. Also, when traveling abroad, Capital One does not charge a foreign transaction fee. In fact, Capital One never charges that fee for prime credit card members.
Chase offers no annual fees, no foreign transaction fees, and unlimited cash back rewards for military members. They have a survivor program for Gold Star Families and a special Blue Star Deployment Benefits option for deployed service members. The Blue Star plan gives you a total refund on interest and fees incurred over the course of a deployment. Chase offers rewards bonus points that can be redeemed for travel, cash, or shopping.
The Chase survivor program is the only one I’ve found advertised by a credit card company: if a service member dies while serving on active duty, Chase will cancel the balance of a credit card owned by the deceased. This extends to Chase mortgages, auto loans, and student loans. Read more here.
PNC did not reveal much on their website about what additional benefits they offer above the SCRA. They do ask that you contact them to discuss the SCRA and any extra bonus they offer to military members. The bank’s student loan website says that some loans may qualify for a lower interest rate and additional benefits.
US Bank will match the 6% interest rate cap on credit cards and other loans provided you had them prior to joining active duty.
The Military Star Card
If you’re in the military, you’ve probably heard about this one. We’ve been asked just about every time we go to the local post or base exchange if we’d like to sign up for, or use, the Military Star Card (MSC) to save 10% on whatever purchase we’re making that day.
The MSC is a credit card available to all active duty military members, and it offers a series of benefits not available anywhere else:
- Pay no interest on your military clothing purchases
If you purchase your military clothing and boots at an AAFES or Navy, Marine, or Coast Guard exchange with your MSC, you will pay no interest on those items. The zero interest clothing plan is referred to in the MSC cardholder agreement as the “Military Clothing Plan,” and you should be aware that you will not earn rewards points on Military Clothing Plan purchases.
As long as you’re purchasing your boots, uniforms, rank, and insignia from an AAFES Military Clothing store (or the Marine/Navy/Coast Guard), you can carry that portion of your credit card’s balance interest free.
BONUS: Each year enlisted service members receive a clothing allowance ranging from just under $250 to just over $600, depending on your individual situation and which branch of the military you joined. Turn this to your advantage by buying what uniform items you need year-round, and then paying off the zero interest balance with your annual cash clothing replacement allowance that comes the same time each year on your military anniversary.
- Get 10% off on the first day (and more)
The standard promotion for the MSC is that you’ll receive 10% off all purchases made on the first day you open your account. Every month the exchange offers 10% off promotions in different retail categories, provided you use your MSC to purchase the items.
- Zero percent interest promotions and no fees
Many items for sale in the AAFES and other branch commercial systems are offered at zero interest to MSC holders. The period of zero interest starts at six months, but can last longer. They tend to bundle product items together, and if you purchase the minimum dollar amount, you’ll get the promotional zero percent interest rate. You’ll also never pay back interest when the promotion expires.
MSC will not charge any late fees, annual membership fees, or limit fees.
- 2% cash back
Every dollar you spend on the MSC nets you two rewards points, and when you reach 2,000 points you’ll get a $20 gift card that can be redeemed anywhere that accepts exchange gift cards. This equates to 2% cash back, which is a great deal. Unfortunately, the points you earn expire each year in February, so it’s important to exceed the 2,000 point threshold to receive the $20 gift card. Otherwise you will lose the points.
Remember if you return an item, the points that you previously earned are deducted from your balance. There are no limits on how many gift cards you can earn.
- Five cents off fuel, free shipping, and 10% off food court purchases
MSC holders will receive five cents off each gallon of fuel purchased from an Exchange (AAFES) vendor. If you purchase an item off the shopmyexchange.com or myNavyExchange.com websites, you’ll get free shipping. Finally, for those who know what it’s like to have to stay “on post” for lunch, you’ll receive a 10% discount at AAFES food courts.
The most important thing to do when it comes to serving on active duty and finding credit card perks is to ask. During research for this article, more than one company wanted me to call and discuss benefits over the phone. So there’s more out there that’s not being openly advertised.
The SCRA is designed to protect you, the consumer, and many credit card companies have responded generously by going above and beyond what the SCRA mandates. You can’t go wrong with taking advantage of a maximum 6% APR on a credit card or up to $45o in annual membership fees waived.
Get started by finding out what your current card provider offers and start saving money.