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PenFed credit cards: Our reviews and top picks

When perusing the market for a credit card, it can be hard to see beyond the titans of the industry, like Chase, Citi, or American Express. But they’re far from the only game in town.

PenFed credit union is a great example of a sleeper credit card issuer, and some of its offers are more lucrative than ‘mainstream’ cards.

What is PenFed?

PenFed is short for Pentagon Federal Credit Union — it’s not a bank. The biggest difference between banks and credit unions is that banks are for-profit and credit unions are not. This tends to result in special benefits for credit union clients, such as lower interest rates and lower fees than you might pay at a bank.

PenFed is one of the most well-established credit unions in America, with 2.5 million current members. If you live in any U.S. state, as well as Washington, D.C.; Guam; Puerto Rico; or Okinawa, you can become a member — and if you’re interested in opening a PenFed credit card, you’ll have to be a member. You can apply for a card as a non-member, but you’ll be prompted to create an account during the application process.

The credit union also has a program called PenFed Honors Advantage. This unlocks the full potential of some PenFed credit cards by increasing their earning rates. You can qualify for this program if you:

  • Have and maintain a PenFed checking account
  • Are active duty, reserve, honorably discharged, or retired from the military
Credit card Annual fee Welcome offer Max earn rate Special feature
PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card $95 (waived for PenFed Honors Advantage members) 50,000 points after $3,000 in purchases within the first 90 days 4x points on all travel categories for PenFed Honors Advantage members (3x for everyone else) 0% APR on balance transfers for the first 12 months (3% fee)
Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card $0 15,000 points after $1,500 in purchases within the first 90 days 5x points on gas and EV charging stations 3x supermarket category includes most Target and Walmart locations
Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card $0 $100 statement credit after spending $1,500 within the first 90 days 2% cash back on all purchases for PenFed Honors Advantage members (1.5% for everyone else) 0% APR on balance transfers for the first 12 months (3% fee)
Gold Visa® Card $0 N/A No rewards for ongoing spending Variable APR as low as 17.99%

⁺Credit Score requirements are based on Money Under 30’s own research of approval rates; meeting the minimum score will give you the best chance to be approved for the credit card of your choice. 

PenFed Pathfinder® Rewards Visa Signature® Card: Best for travel

  • PenFed Pathfinder credit card$100 annual domestic airline credit
  • Priority Pass airport lounge membership
  • TSA PreCheck/Global Entry statement credit

Who should apply for the PenFed Pathfinder card?

The PenFed Pathfinder is the most travel-centric card PenFed offers. It’s got legit travel benefits that embarrass some of the most popular travel cards on the market.

For its $95 annual fee (which is waived for PenFed Honors Advantage members, by the way), you’ll get an annual $100 statement credit which reimburses incidental airline fees for domestic flights. Incidental fees are things like:

  • Baggage fees
  • Flight change fees
  • Inflight food and beverage purchases
  • Airport lounge day passes
  • Pet kennel fees
  • Phone reservation fees

You’ll also get a standard Priority Pass lounge membership worth $99 per year. This means you’ll get access to 1,300+ airport lounges around the world (though you’ll still have to pay $32 per visit).

Plus, every four years you’ll receive a statement credit reimbursing either your TSA PreCheck application fee ($85) or your Global Entry application fee ($100). Both memberships last five years, so you’ll never have to pay as long as you’ve got this card.

Pro tip: Global Entry comes with TSA PreCheck, so it’s the no-brainer choice between the two.

Who shouldn’t apply for the PenFed Pathfinder card?

This is the only PenFed credit card that charges an annual fee. Deciding if this card is worthwhile is very simple: If you don’t travel at least once or twice each year, this card may not be for you.

The hundreds of dollars in annual benefits it offers are only useful for air travel — and the points it collects, while they can be used for things like merchandise and gift cards, are at their most valuable when used for travel purchases. Even the bonus categories the card offers revolve around travel.

Oh, and you can’t redeem your points for cash.

Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card: Best for everyday spending and gas

  • PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature cardGenerous welcome bonus
  • No annual fee
  • Excellent return on gas

Who should apply for the PenFed Platinum card?

The PenFed Platinum offers the widest and most useful number of bonus categories among PenFed credit cards. In fact, it’s competitive with the best cards on the market for gas and EV charging, offering a whopping 5 points per dollar — meaning it’s an easy choice for road warriors or anyone who loves road-tripping. Not bad for a card with no annual fee.

Other bonus categories include supermarkets, restaurants, and streaming services — all at 3 points per dollar. You can funnel some of your largest everyday expenses through this card and find yourself sitting atop a mountain of rewards without paying any fees for them (provided you make your monthly card payments on time).

Who shouldn’t apply for the PenFed Platinum card?

You can redeem the points for gift cards, merchandise, or travel. However, if you’re looking for rewards that you can use outside of travel, you may be better served with a simple cash back credit card.

Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card: Best for straightforward rewards

  • Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature CardEasy-to-earn welcome bonus
  • No annual fee
  • Competitive cash back rate for PenFed Honors Advantage members

Who should apply for the PenFed Power Cash Rewards card?

The no-annual-fee PenFed Power Cash Rewards is the best option if any of the following applies to you:

  • You’ll use the card heavily for purchases that don’t fall into a bonus category on other PenFed cards (e.g, medical bills, rent, car parts, etc.).
  • You don’t want to have to remember which spending categories apply to your cards.
  • You only want to use one card for all your spending.

This card will give you a respectable return for all your spending — 2% cash back for PenFed Honors Advantage members, and 1.5% cash back for everyone else.

Cash gives you the ultimate flexibility and the ultimate simplicity. You won’t have to worry about the best way to redeem your rewards, either. You can request a statement credit, direct deposit into your PenFed account, or even transfer the cash into an external bank account.

Who shouldn’t apply for the PenFed Power Cash Rewards card?

Again, if you’re not a PenFed Honors Advantage member, you’ll earn just 1.5% cash back on all purchases. There are a slew of no annual fee cards out there that offer 2% cash back without any prerequisites.

For example, the Citi® Double Cash Card offers 1% back when you make a purchase and 1% back when you pay off that purchase — effectively 2% back on everything (and you don’t need to join a credit union or open a checking account to reap those benefits).

Gold Visa® Card: Best for balance transfers

  • PenFed Gold Visa Card0% introductory APR on purchases for the 15 months after account opening
  • Introductory balance transfer offer
  • Low variable purchase APR

Who should apply for the PenFed Gold card?

The PenFed Gold card is great for those who may find themselves carrying a balance month-to-month. It’s worth stating emphatically that if you think it will be necessary to carry a balance, the credit card world may not be for you — however, this card can be a great tool to help you reduce your current debt.

The card offers 0% intro APR for 15 months for balance transfers made in the first 90 days; 17.99% after that. If you’ve got another card incurring crazy high interest, you can transfer that card’s balance to this card (for a 3% fee) and you’ll have 15 months to pay it off without interest. Just note that you’ll still have to make the minimum payment each month.

Also, the card comes with variable APR of 17.99%. For context, some fancy cards charge 30%+, so this is a downright philanthropic APR range.

Who shouldn’t apply for the PenFed Gold card?

The PenFed Gold is the least appealing PenFed credit card for anyone trying to earn rewards. You’ll have nothing to show from swiping your card, but this card is a solid option if  you’re looking to pay off a large purchase over time.

Which PenFed credit card is best?

In comparing the ongoing value of PenFed credit cards, the PenFed Pathfinder offers the biggest upside. It comes with:

  • $100 airline incidentals credit each year
  • Standard Priority Pass airport lounge membership, which sells for $99 per year
  • Up to $100 in statement credits every four years toward a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee

You’ll even get 50,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening. Remember, this card’s $95 annual fee is waived as long as you maintain a PenFed checking account.

These benefits are unheard-of for a no annual fee card, and can tango with the likes of cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

The least competitive among the PenFed family is the Power Cash Rewards card. There are simply too many no-annual-fee credit cards that offer 2% back or better for everyday spending, with less qualification requirements. However, if you already have a good relationship with PenFed, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the card — it’s just not unique in the slightest.

FAQs about PenFed credit cards

What are PenFed’s points worth?

I do not have a PenFed card myself, but my research indicates the points earned by the PenFed Pathfinder and PenFed Platinum have a value ranging from 0.85 cents to 1.7 cents each. PenFed’s proprietary portal appears to offer return rates that fluctuate wildly — even when redeeming for the same types of expenses.

What credit score is needed for a PenFed credit card?

Per PenFed’s website, all cards require at least a good credit score to be approved. Good credit is defined by FICO to be at least 670.

However, I recommend that you not dip your toe into rewards credit cards until your score is at least 700. Not only will you have a better chance at being approved for the card you’re after, but it’s just as important for you to know that you’ll be responsible with credit as it is for lenders to know.

What is the easiest credit card to get with PenFed?

Applicants with good credit scores are eligible to open any PenFed card. However, the PenFed Gold card appears to be aimed at lower-income consumers. If your credit score is low, you’ll likely have the best shot when applying for the PenFed Gold.

How to activate a PenFed credit card?

To activate a PenFed credit card, you can call PenFed at 877-856-9690 and follow the automated prompts.

You can also log into your PenFed account (remember, even if you didn’t previously have an account, you made one during the credit card application process). Find your credit card in your account and click “Activate Card.” You’ll have to verify that you’re holding your card with info like its expiration date and three-digit security code.

Summary

PenFed credit cards are contenders in the ferociously competitive credit card market. They’ve got a product for everyone:

  • The PenFed Pathfinder for frequent travelers (or even someone who travels once or twice per year)
  • The PenFed Platinum for road warriors and those who will spend a lot on gas
  • The PenFed Power Cash Rewards for anyone who doesn’t want to mess with bonus categories or strategize about how to “maximize” their rewards
  • The PenFed Gold Card for those expecting to carry a balance (temporarily!)

However, there are plenty of other credit cards out there that accrue rewards with the potential to eclipse PenFed credit cards in terms of value per point. If you want to know about these cards, read our post on the best rewards credit cards. You’ll be flying in fancy multi-thousand dollar lie-flat airplane seats and staying in glamorous five-star hotels for virtually free in no time.

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