Pros: Excellent service, flexible rewards programs, large selection of cards
Cons: No smart chips on premium cards, high annual fees on some cards
When I first took a card with First USA, I expected the worst. I have since replaced my original account with several cards issued by the bank, including the First USA VISA Signature card. Surprisingly, this card has become one of the ones I use the most. Here's why:
A MYRIAD OF PREMIUM FEATURES...
After the bank discontinued all of its cash-back options, I closed my Titanium account and opened a VISA Signature card instead. The travel rewards program associated with the card offers a typical 1 mile per dollar spent structure, redeemable towards travel on any airline. The unusual benefits include a very low annual fee for the Signature card (competitors charge anywhere from $80 to $125 for similar programs) and no extra fee for the rewards program.
Points expire after 4 years (in December of the fourth year, to be exact) and may be redeemed for a selection of gift certificates and merchandise. Miles can be tracked and redeemed online via a separate web site -- another great feature not offered by many similar programs. An alternate recommendation is the Citi.You card from Citibank -- see "ALTERNATE OPTIONS bellow for details, and other suggestions.
As far as financial web sites go, First USA's is among the best. Like many others, it offers you the ability to check current charges and recent statements. Newly redesigned, the site is intuitive and extremely useful. However, surprisingly few credit card issuers allow you to contact them easily by email for anything outside a limited menu of forms. First USA does not limit the scope of your emails, although I must admit I prefer the immediacy of contacting telephone representatives.
An asside: First USA was one of the first to join the "Verified by VISA" program, which protects your account with an added password on partner web sites. However, not all cards can currently be enrolled in the program. You'll have to wait until after you receive your card to see if it qualifies. (Sign up via the First USA web site, after logging in to your account.)
Perhaps most importantly, I have been very pleasantly surprised by First USA's service in response to a variety of phone inquiries. Up until about 4 years ago, First USA was synonymous with disastrous customer care... but for the past few years, the company has made a real effort and the results are impressive.
The service I have received has been better than almost any other issuer, even compared with the likes of American Express and MBNA Quantum. Most representatives have made special efforts to resolve complex issues in a timely manner, and hold times are rarely more than a few seconds. This has been true with all of my accounts at the bank -- they are all Signature cards but service was good even before I had them upgraded. Note that there is a dedicated support line for Signature cardmembers.
I realize this description does not match the numerous expressions of dissatisfaction on this board. Each cardmember's situation varies widely and, sadly, it is known that an institution's level of service often varies greatly depending on the customer. Payment and spending history, as well as a multitude of other factors, encourages issuers to give their best customers their best service. This may not seem fair but it makes good business sense.
First USA's array of products is near-impossible to beat. From affinity groups to merchants, you are very likely to find a card that suits your needs. First USA is even one of VISA's smart card issuers. I only wish the company would follow Fleet Bank's lead and add smart chips to all their cards. I suppose all banks will eventually convert their cards to smart chip cards.
Obviously great service and rewarding features are more important than new technology, which is why I can highly recommend First USA but do NOT at all recommend Fleet. For a good smart card, you might try the Citi.You card from Citibank -- the first smart chip MasterCard in the U.S., which offers a nice rewards program and points that do not expire. Their web site is among the best and feature-rich. One drawback: a high $85 annual fee, which some may find worth spending for the flexibility of the rewards program (you can make up your own reward) and points that don't expire. (Note: I was one of the lucky few that was solicited for a no-fee version of the card but this was only available by invitation, during the testing phase of the card.)
The Citi.You card is a World MasterCard, which is an equivalent to the VISA Signature product. It provides no pre-set spending limit and a concierge service but I would note that VISA Signature offers many more premium features (in the way of hotel upgrades, etc.) than does MasterCard. VISA has also been continually adding features, while the World MasterCard has remained stationary.
Another little-known card is the VISA Infinite product, issued by only a handful of banks. The cards are by solicitation only and build on the array of Signature benefits, adding many more "first class perks." These cards carry an annual fee of anywhere from $150 to $300, in a bid to only attract the most affluent consumers. The card makes an effort to surpass VISA Signature by offering guaranteed reservations at top restaurants and hotels worldwide, as well as many enhancements to its concierge service. Currently offered by only three U.S. financial institutions, the card has only recently started to make a forray into the elite card market, even though it was introduced to banks at the same time as the Signature card. It remains to be seen whether it will be adopted by more institutions, and whether it can serve as a viable competitor to the Centurion card by American Express (as it claims to do).
ON THE OTHER HAND...
Every company has its downfalls. Here are a few drawbacks:
- High annual fees on airline-specific mileage cards (British Airways, United Airlines...). I accepted the United Airlines Platinum card to take advantage of the offered bonus miles but the $60 fee seemed steep to say the least... However, my card was upgraded to a VISA Signature account (see my review) and the annual fee no longer seems too high, especially compared to cards such as the British Airways VISA Signature ($85), also issued by First USA.
- No truly customizeable rewards programs. I like the fact First USA allows me to redeem my miles for things other than air travel... but I cannot make up my own rewards. This is something all VISA Infinite cards offer, as well as the Citi.You card mentioned above, as well as the Diners Club Carte Blanche (both issued by Citibank -- most likely not a coincidence).
- Foreign exchange fees on non-cobranded cards. When I use my Mileage Plus VISA, I get charged the 1% imposed by VISA but when I use my First USA Signature card, the bank adds on 1% of its own. This is pure greed on the bank's part. (NOTE: Citibank and many others have similar policies.)
Along with its good travel rewards option, the First USA Signature VISA card offers great premium benefits and excellent service, forming an appealing package. The annual fee for the First USA VISA Signature card is relatively low (on average, about $49), especially when compared to most other VISA Signature offerings (some upwards of $100). Signature accounts are a good value for those seeking a premium account, with fees far bellow those of VISA Infinite and American Express Platinum/Centurion accounts. Among the many options available, the First USA VISA Signature card is well worth considering.
*** NOTE: My review concerns the various aspects of this card that are NOT interest-rate related. ***