Best Credit Cards for Active Duty Service Members: A Step-by-Step Guide

Active duty service members can benefit from luxury cards without the hefty annual fees due to MLA and SCRA. In this post, we'll focus specifically on Chase and American Express. 

Chase and American Express are some of the main credit issuers that will waive the annual fees when you call in. Learn more about how to contact each credit issuer in this post. Here's the step-by-step playbook for active duty members.

Early Game

Month 0 = Grab any secured or student card

  • The goal here is to "get on the board."
  • Use it monthly (even a small transaction is fine)
  •  Keep utilization low (ideally 1% to 10%)
  • Pay your cards weekly (push from bank's end) to keep utilization in the 1% to 10% range

Month 12 = Chase options open

Learn more about secured credit cards in this post or the video below. 

The alternative to secured cards is a starter card if you qualify depending on your relationship with the bank and/or income level. Learn more about starter cards in this post or the video below.

Important: You only need ONE secured or starter card. Adding more than one will take up a 5/24 slot.

Chase 5/24 is an unwritten rule that states you can only get approved for a Chase credit card if you have opened less than five credit cards from any issuer in the past 24 months. If you have 5 or more, you will be automatically rejected. 

Time for a bad analogy...

It's kind of like a bar that will not serve you any liquor if you have 5 (or more) of any alcoholic drinks in the last 2 hours (24 months in our case).

  • Liquor = Chase cards affected by 5/24*
  • Beers = All other cards

* ALL: Southwest, United, Sapphire, Freedom, and Ink cards
* Also: Marriott (personal), Slate

Again, after 12 months of having any secured or starter card, apply for a Chase card.

Month 0 = Grab any secured or student card

Month 12 = Freedom or Freedom Unlimited

  • The goal here is to build rapport with Chase
  • Chase Freedom or Chase Freedom Unlimited is ideal given lower requirements
  • Keep your credit utilization low and pay cards in full when you receive the statement

Chase Freedom

  • Earn 5X on each rotating quarter your activate

Chase Freedom Unlimited.png

Chase Freedom Unlimited

  • Earn 1.5X on all purchases

Credit Utilization Management

The ideal credit utilization range is 1-10%. If you need to use more than 10%, I recommend pre-paying your statement before it closes and leaving a small balance to pay off later.

For example, if the card statement opens on the first of the month and closes on the last day of the month, pre-pay 95% of the balance around the 20th. When the statement closes, it will report the 5% utilization. Pay off the balance in full after the statement closes.

  • The statement opens: Jan 1
  • Closes: Jan 31
  • Limit = $500
  • Used = $400

If you pre-pay the card (push from your bank) on, let's say, Jan 24 for $399.

When the statement closes (Jan 31), utilization = ~1% (excellent).

However, if you don't pre-pay and you used $400 of the $500 credit limit, $400 / $500 = 80% (very poor).

Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred

The reason to get a stater card like the Chase Freedom or Chase Freedom Unlimited at the 12-month mark is to build a relationship with Chase. It's hard to get approved for a premium credit card without any rapport because they don't have a profile on you.

After having the Chase Freedom card for at least 2-3 months, I recommend going for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is ideal, but if you can't get approved for a $10,000 minimum credit limit, you might have to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred instead. 


Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • 50,000 point intro offer after spending $4,000 within the first 3 months of account opening
  • $300 travel credit
  • Earn 3X on travel and dining
  • Access airport lounges via Priority Pass
  • $100 Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Redeem points at 1.5X via the Chase Travel Portal


Chase Sapphire Preferred

  • 50,000 point intro offer after spending $4,000 within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 2X on travel and dining
  • Redeem points at 1.25X via the Chase Travel Portal

Worst case, get the Chase Sapphire Preferred, and when your income increases, product change to the Chase Sapphire Reserve after the first year. 

  • Month 0 = Secured (1 of 5)
  • Month 12 = CF / CFU (2 of 5)
  • Month 14/15 = CSP or CSR (3 of 5)

[2 slots left after this]

Chase Sapphire Reserve Upgrade Requirements

1. The card being upgraded must be a: Slate, Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, Sapphire or Chase Sapphire Preferred

  • Chase Ink, Amazon, or [insert other] cards can't be product changed to a Chase Sapphire Reserve.

2. The card must be at least 12 months old

3. You must have the ability to get a credit limit of $10,000

Side note: You can have multiple Chase Sapphire Reserve cards via upgrades but NOT applications.

For example, if you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve already and applied for another one, it will get auto-rejected.

If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve + Chase Freedom Unlimited, you can upgrade the Chase Freedom Unlimited to a second Chase Sapphire Reserve.


After acquiring the Chase Sapphire card, you have 2 more slots open for Chase cards. There are a few options. Pick 2 from the list or skip them if the cards don't interest you.

a) Chase United MileagePlus Explorer = Welcome offer + free checked bag + priority boarding

b) Chase United Club = United Club access

c) Chase Southwest Priority = Welcome offer + travel credits + discounts on in-flight purchases 

d) Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited = Complete the Chase Trifecta

e) Chase Marriott Rewards Premier = avoid; One Lane Rule w/ SPG

Late Game

After finishing off the Chase 5/24 slots, I recommend moving on to American Express and some hotel keeper cards. The Chase Hyatt and Chase IHG cards are not affected by 5/24.

Chase (non-5/24 cards)

a) Chase Hyatt = Intro bonus + keeper (free annual night)

b) Chase IHG = Intro bonus + keeper (free annual night)

American Express Cards

The obvious choice here is the American Express Platinum card because of the great benefits the card offers.

a) American Express Platinum

  • Ideally your first Amex due to 100k targeting
  • Welcome bonus = 100k MR = $1,000 to $2,000 in value
  • Every year you get = $200 Uber(Eats) + $200 airline credits
  • Hotel status = Hilton Gold, Marriott Gold
  • Access to Centurion Lounges (DFW, LAS, MIA, SEA, SFO, etc.)
  • Access to Centurion Suites (STAPLES Center + Barclays)

b) Upgrade Amex Green or Amex PRG to a Platinum in Year 2

c) Other flavors (Schwab, Ameriprise, etc.)

d) Business Platinum

Some people choose to get multiple variations of the Amex Platinum card. Why? You get $200 airline credits and Uber(Eats) credit per card.

Be aware that you can have as many charge cards as you want, but you can only have 5 American Express credit cards at one time. 

Amex 5 Credit Card Cap

  • Your mileage may vary; some people have a 4 or 6 card cap, but most are 5
  • This is a shared cap between business and personal cards
  • i.e., 2 business + 3 personal credit cards = you're at your cap

Below are a few options for the additional American Express credit cards to acquire. 

a) SPG = free night (can be upgraded in Y2)

b) SPG Luxury = BETTER free night + $300 Marriott credits

c) Hilton Aspire = free night (any) + $250 airline + $250 Hilton

d) Hilton / Hilton Ascend = bonuses (can be upgraded in Year 2)

e) Delta Platinum = companion certificate

f) Delta Reserve = BETTER companion certificate + Delta Lounge*

*irrelevant w/ Amex Platinum because you can access the Delta lounge when you fly Delta

Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, vendors or companies, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. 

UGC disclosure: These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.