What is APR and how does it work?

APR means annual percentage rate. It represents the price to borrow money.

Read on to learn more about APR, including why APR is important, how APR works, the difference between APR and interest rates, and the different types of APR.

Key takeaways

  • APR is the price you pay for a loan. It typically includes interest rates and fees.
  • APR can sometimes be the same as a loan’s interest rate, like in the case of most credit cards.
  • APR may be fixed or variable, meaning the rate may stay the same or it might change with market factors.
  • Fixed and variable APRs could still change based on other factors, but lenders typically have to notify borrowers upfront or before a change occurs.

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APR definition and importance

Understanding APR can be an important part of making more informed credit decisions. That’s because it gives an idea of how much it costs to borrow money. And, if you’re deciding between credit cards, APR is one factor to compare to help determine which credit card might be best for you.

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), APR is a more comprehensive measure of the cost of borrowing money. It’s expressed as a yearly percentage that includes the loan’s interest rate plus additional costs, such as lender fees, closing costs and insurance. 

APR vs. interest rate

It’s easy to lump interest rate and APR into the same category, but they’re actually two different types of rates. An interest rate is the percentage charged on the principal loan amount. So unlike APRs, interest rates don’t include fees, closing costs or insurance. 

But if there are no lender fees, the APR and interest rate may be the same—and that’s typically the case for credit cards.

How does APR work?

APR gives you an idea of the amount you’ll pay to borrow money. It considers the interest rate you’ll pay as well as the fees and costs associated with the loan or line of credit. The amount you’ll pay will depend on whether your card or loan has a fixed or variable APR.

In the case of credit cards, APR is usually the same as interest rate. And it’s especially important if you carry a balance from month to month. If you pay off your balance on time every month, you won’t be charged any interest. But if you carry a balance from month to month, you’ll be charged—based on the APR—for the unpaid portion.

Your credit history, credit scores and credit activity can affect what APR you’re offered and whether you receive a fixed or variable rate.

Fixed APR vs. variable APR

Both fixed and variable APRs will determine the amount you pay for what you borrow. Take a closer look at how they work:

  • Fixed APR: A fixed APR generally doesn’t change over the life of the loan. But as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) notes, a fixed rate doesn’t mean “the interest rate will never change.” But the issuer generally must notify you before the change occurs.
  • Variable APR: A variable APR is tied to an index interest rate, such as the prime rate. If the prime rate increases, so does the variable APR. So while the loan may have a lower APR at first, the rate can increase over time.

How to calculate APR

Banks and credit card issuers use an APR formula to determine how much interest borrowers must pay on their outstanding balances. APR can be calculated daily or monthly, depending on the loan or card. 

And credit card issuers are required to disclose how they calculate APR. In general, their calculations rely on:

  • The loan balance
  • How many days there are in the loan term for the year
  • The interest rate of the loan
  • Any fees related to the loan

APR formulas vary by loan

The factors that go into an APR calculation can vary based on the type of loan you’re seeking. For example, an APR for a mortgage could include the interest rate, points, origination fees and more. 

In the case of an auto loan, the APR may be determined based on your credit history, loan amount, down payment and the age of the car.

What are the different types of APRs?

Understanding the different types of APRs can help borrowers choose the credit card that’s best for them and their spending habits. Keep in mind, the applicable APR can sometimes depend on the type of transaction. 

The APR can also be different depending on the type of credit you’re applying for. A credit card’s APR is usually higher than that of a car loan or a home loan. And how the credit card is used can affect the rate too.

Here are a few types of APRs to be aware of:

Purchase APR

A credit card’s purchase APR is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the rate that’s applied to purchases made with the card.

Cash advance APR

The cash advance APR is the cost of borrowing cash from a credit card. This rate tends to be higher than the purchase APR. 

And keep in mind that there are other transactions that might be considered cash advances—even if cash never touches your hands. These include buying casino chips, purchasing lottery tickets or exchanging dollars for foreign currency. 

Cash advances usually don’t have a grace period. This means that interest will likely start accruing immediately.

Penalty APR

If a borrower violates the terms of their card’s contract by doing things like missing a payment or being late with a payment, the APR on their card may increase for a period of time. Be sure to check your card’s terms and any notices the issuer sends related to your account.

Promotional APRs

There are two common types of promotional APRs:

  • Introductory APR: A new credit card may come with a lower, limited-time APR. Different card issuers have different standards for what qualifies as an introductory APR, so it’s important to read the terms and conditions. For example, you may only get the introductory APR for purchases above a set amount.
  • Balance transfer APR: A balance transfer may qualify a borrower for a special APR on a new or existing credit card. While this promotional period may last anywhere from six to 18 months, the balance transfer APR may only apply to the balance transferred. 

But keep in mind that a separate APR can apply for new purchases, even while a balance transfer APR is in effect. So make sure you review all the interest rates—in case there are multiple—and any fees, like a balance transfer fee or foreign transaction fees.

Tips to get a lower-APR card

There’s no single answer to getting a low-APR credit card. But maintaining good credit scores can help lenders see you as a better candidate for cards with low APRs and additional benefits. The CFPB has a few tips that can help you get and keep good credit scores, too: 

  1. Use your current card responsibly and pay your bills on time. Late payments can have a negative effect on your credit. Consider automating payments or setting reminders to help you remember. 
  2. Avoid getting too close to your credit limit. Scoring models factor in how close to maxing out you are, known as a credit utilization ratio. Credit utilization is a measure based on all your available credit. And experts say not to use more than 30% of your available credit across all revolving accounts. So if you have a single credit card with a $5,000 credit limit, that means not going above $1,500.
  3. Keep building your credit. Credit scores are based on your experience with credit. That means the longer your credit report shows you paying your loans on time, the better.
  4. Apply for only the credit you need. Be careful about applying for a lot of credit over a short period of time. It could suggest to lenders that your financial situation has changed negatively—even if that’s not the case.
  5. Monitor your credit. Everyone is entitled to free credit reports from each of the major credit reporting agencies through AnnualCreditReport.com. CreditWise from Capital One is another tool that can help you monitor and track your credit. Using it won’t affect your credit, and it’s free for everyone.

Ways to make informed decisions about APR

APR is just one factor to consider when comparing credit cards. But knowing what it is and understanding how it impacts your required monthly payments can help you make an informed decision.

Remember, financial situations vary from person to person, so it’s tough to say what a bad APR for a credit card is. If you’re thinking about applying for a new credit card, keep these things in mind:

  • APR and interest rate are two different things.
  • Fixed APRs generally don’t change over the life of a loan.
  • Variable APRs can fluctuate based on index rates, such as the prime rate.

How you plan to use your card can affect rates. There may be additional APRs based on the transaction type, for example.

Annual percentage rate FAQ

Still have questions about APR? These frequently asked questions might help.

While it might look similar to APR, APY is actually much different.

APY stands for annual percentage yield. And it’s sometimes also known as EAR, or effective annual rate. APY is the measure of the interest you earn when you save. That’s why APY typically applies to money you place in a deposit account—not to money you borrow. APR, on the other hand, measures the amount of interest you’ll be charged when you borrow. Check out this deep dive into the differences between APR and APY to learn more.

Your credit card’s APR can be found in your account opening disclosures as part of the Schumer box and on your monthly credit card statement. In many cases, you can find your current APR—and determine whether it’s based on the prime rate—by looking on your card statement at the section about interest charge calculation.

A good APR may be different for everyone’s financial situation, so there’s no real answer to what a good APR is. What’s considered good might also depend on the type of credit you’re seeking. But if you’re comparing credit card APRs, pay attention to the current average credit card rate. In general, a good credit card APR might be at or below the national average.

APR in a nutshell

APR is the cost of borrowing expressed as a yearly percentage. This figure is calculated based on the loan’s interest rate and any fees that are part of its terms. The APR may be fixed or variable, depending on the type of loan. 

Knowing a bit more about how APR works can help you make an informed choice about loans and credit cards. If you’re interested in a low-rate credit card, consider checking out 0% introductory APR credit cards from Capital One. View important rates and disclosures.

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