Credit cards were introduced by Barclaycard in 1966. There were 37 million Visa and Mastercards issued in the UK at the end of last year, and about 1 million other credit cards (American Express runs a separate network).
With so many cards in issue, some companies also issue gold cards or platinum cards as a status symbol for wealthier customers. The situation is confusing because you can get gold charge cards (such as American Express, pounds 85 a year) as well as gold credit cards.
Your bank, or a US card issuer, may well offer you a gold or platinum credit card if you earn pounds 20,000 or more a year and already have a credit card. Capital One and RBS Advanta make the same offer (6.9 per cent and 7.9 per cent APR respectively) to standard credit-card holders as they do to those offered a "prestige" card. All you get is the kudos of carrying gold or platinum.
Some high-street issuers charge for their gold cards and offer extra benefits, such as generous purchase protection. The real perks are for gold charge-card holders. Customers pay more (Bank of Scotland charges pounds 70 a year) but get cheap automatic overdrafts, often at 2.5 per cent over base rate.
Free credit cards
Capital One Gold MC/Visa: 6.9% APR (until July 1999). 0800 952 5252.
RBS Advanta Gold/Platinum MC/Visa: 7.9% APR (to July 1999). 0800 077770.
Gold credit cards with a fee
Halifax Gold Mastercard: 17.9%. pounds 20 a year. Free appliance insurance; savings on hotels and travel; free card protection. 0345 283848.
Royal Bank of Scotland Gold Visa: 14.20% for 12 months from issue. pounds 35 a year. Savings on hotels and travel; free appliance insurance. 0800 161616.
American Express Green Amex: pounds 37.50 a year. Cash withdrawals charged at pounds 3/3% minimum and no automatic overdraft. Luggage and delayed travel insurance; personal liability insurance; savings on hotels and travel. 01273 620555.
Diners Club: pounds 38 a year. Cash withdrawals charged at pounds 4/4% minimum and no automatic overdraft. Luggage and delayed travel insurance; savings on hotels and travel. 0800 460800.