Navigating the American Express US Five Credit Card Limit

If you’re thinking about levelling up your credit card game beyond what’s available in Canada, the first place to look is to our neighbours down south.

With lucrative signup offers, an extensive range of transfer partners, and an easy cross-border application process, American Express US is typically the issuer of choice if you’re getting into US credit cards.

However, just like in Canada, it’s important to be aware of the limitations on the number of different Amex US products you can hold concurrently.

Since there are a significant number of Amex US credit cards that might be worth applying for, you’ll have to think about which you should choose to keep, and which you don’t mind waiting for at a later date.

American Express US Charge Cards vs. Credit Cards

American Express US, as with their Canadian counterpart, offers charge cards in addition to the standard credit cards:

  • Charge cards have no preset credit limit, although you’re obligated to pay off the balance in full every month.
  • Credit cards come with a credit limit and allow you to make minimum monthly payments and carry a balance on the card (not that you should ever do this).

You’re allowed to hold up to 10 charge cards at once with American Express US. These include some of the issuer’s most popular products:

(Indeed, the only way you’d potentially hit the limit of 10 charge cards is if you loaded up on multiple small business charge cards at once.)

Beyond these, all of Amex US’s other products are credit cards with a traditional revolving credit limit.

And since American Express limits you to holding only five credit cards (including small business credit cards), this makes things more interesting in terms of which five cards you should pick. 

A photo of the Marriott Brilliant Card

Which Five American Express US Credit Cards?

To decide on the best strategy, we’ll need to think about which five of American Express US’s best travel credit cards are worth getting upfront for the welcome bonuses, as well as which five are worth keeping in the long run. 

It’s important to note that all of the cards we’ll discuss below have no foreign transaction fees, making them perfect for use while travelling abroad or in Canada.

Slot #1

If you’re first starting out in the US credit card market, it’s typically a good idea to start with a no-fee credit card. This allows you to nurture your credit history without an ongoing cost if you decide to close any other accounts that have annual fees in the future.

(This isn’t necessarily always the case, though. If you know for sure you’ll want to keep a certain credit card around in the long run, even if it has an annual fee, it can also make sense to start there – see Slot #2 below.)

Among no-fee credit cards from American Express US, the Hilton Honors Card is generally considered one of the most popular choices, giving easy access to Hilton Honors points, which is a useful hotel points currency that isn’t the easiest to earn in Canada otherwise. 

The welcome bonus on this no-fee Hilton Card often fluctuates around 70,000–100,000 Hilton Honors points (valued at US$350–500), and the minimum spending requirement is generally fairly low. 

Starting with the Hilton Card allows you to build credit history over time and diversify your hotel rewards game, all at the very reasonable ongoing cost of $0. 

Hilton Queenstown

Slots #2 and #3

If you’re already maximizing your credit card points in Canada, then you’ll definitely be familiar with Marriott Bonvoy.

While it’s possible to rack up the points from the Canadian-issued personal and business Amex Bonvoy cards, that’s ultimately a limited set of two credit cards that you can sign up for.

Diversifying your Marriott Bonvoy game to the US allows you to access a wider range of welcome bonuses, while also unlocking a unique benefit of the interaction between the personal and business US-issued Bonvoy cards.

As with the Canadian-issued Bonvoy cards, holding one of the cards will earn you 15 elite qualifying nights per year. However, if you hold both the personal and business versions of the credit cards in the US, they will accumulate to 30 elite qualifying nights in total.

If you hold the following combination of Marriott Bonvoy co-branded credit cards...

You will receive...

Canadian personal + Canadian business

15 elite qualifying nights

Canadian personal + US personal

15 elite qualifying nights

Canadian personal + US business

15 elite qualifying nights

Canadian business + US personal

15 elite qualifying nights

Canadian business + US business

15 elite qualifying nights

US personal + US business

30 elite qualifying nights

This means you’ll be on a fast track to Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status at 50 elite qualifying nights, where the majority of status benefits can be found, like free breakfast, suite upgrades, and guaranteed late checkout.

For most Canadians playing the US credit card game, this alone is a very worthwhile reason to apply for two Bonvoy cards as the next two Amex US credit cards in your five-card lineup, and continue holding them in the long run. 

The personal Amex US Bonvoy Brilliant Card comes with an annual fee of US$450, offset by an annual US$300 Marriott Bonvoy statement credit, and a Free Night Award worth 50,000 Bonvoy points upon renewal each year.

Meanwhile, Marriott Bonvoy Business Card has a tamer US$125 annual fee and offers a Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points upon renewal each year.

In both cases, the Free Night Award should carry enough value to offset the respective US$150 and US$125 annual fees, so you’ll be coming out ahead year after year as you leverage both cards for a major boost towards Platinum Elite status.

Get closer to Marriott Platinum Elite status by holding the personal and business US-issued Bonvoy cards.

Slots #4 and #5

There are very compelling reasons for someone who’s new to the Amex US game to put a no-fee Hilton Card in their first slot, and a lucrative set of personal and business Bonvoy cards into their second and third slots.

For the fourth and fifth slots, on the other hand, the optimal strategy is a little more freeform, depending on the specific goals that you have in applying for US credit cards.

There’s one common frustration among Canadian points collectors in the current zeitgeist: airline miles are relatively easy to collect, whereas hotel points are harder to come by.

If that’s the case for you, you might wish to fill in your remaining two slots with more Hilton credit cards, among the Hilton Surpass Card, Hilton Business Card, and Hilton Aspire Card.

The Surpass and Business cards also offer a boost to your Hilton Honors balance with their welcome bonuses, which certainly justify their US$95 annual fees in the first year. In the long run, the opportunity to earn a Free Night Reward by spending US$15,000 on the card can also justify keeping one of these cards in your five-card lineup. 

Meanwhile, the Hilton Aspire Card is one of the most useful credit cards for a frequent traveller to hold, offering an annual US$250 airline fee credit, an annual US$250 credit at Hilton properties, automatic Hilton Diamond status, and a Free Weekend Night Reward upon renewal each year. All of these perks easily outweigh the card’s US$450 annual fee. 

(Given the five-card limit, the optimal order of operations here might be to grab the Hilton Business Card and Hilton Aspire Card first, before swapping out the business card for the Surpass. That’s because you can always upgrade and downgrade among the three personal Hilton cards in the future, often taking advantage of targeted upgrade offers, whereas the business card can’t be switched to another product.)

Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi

This strategy makes sense if you’d like to use your Amex US portfolio as a means to diversify your hotel game strongly in the direction of Hilton Honors. But what if you aren’t so interested in hotel points?

In that case, the two remaining slots of your Amex US five-card limit (or perhaps more slots if you haven’t bothered with Hilton or Bonvoy at all in the first place) could be geared towards diversification on the airline side – whether that’s with additional Membership Rewards products like the Amex US EveryDay Card, or perhaps racking up Delta SkyMiles with the often impressive welcome bonuses on the Amex US Delta cards.

However, bear in mind that the most powerful products for racking up airline miles are going to be Amex US’s charge cards, such as the Platinum or Gold cards in either the personal or business flavours, and not the credit cards. 

Looking at the big picture, directing your efforts to earning points for flights using Amex US charge cards and hotel points using Amex US credit cards, as outlined above, makes for an optimal strategy for the well-rounded aspirational traveller. 

Should You Even Get Five Amex US Credit Cards?

As we’d typically like to say, the US credit card game is more of a marathon, not a sprint.

While it’s tempting to ramp up all the way to five credit cards from the outset, it might be a better idea to pace yourself when you’re just starting out, as a means to establish a more stable credit history and apply for even more lucrative credit card offers at other US financial institutions.

Attention should be paid to the Chase “5/24 rule” in particular, which stipulates that anyone who has opened five or more credit card accounts (including charge cards, but excluding most small business cards) in the last 24 months will not be permitted to open any credit cards with Chase. 

If you hurriedly apply for five or more Amex US cards when you’re first starting out, you run the risk of stifling your diversification opportunities into other programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, World of Hyatt, and IHG Rewards – or even cross-border strategies with Aeroplan via the Chase Aeroplan Card.

The prevailing strategy is therefore to pick up your first two or three Amex US products in your first year of US credit history, using small business credit cards as a means to continue earning welcome bonuses while not adding to your 5/24 total.

After about one year of credit history and having attained an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), you can get started with Chase and apply for as many Chase cards as you’d like until you’ve reached your maximum under the 5/24 rule. 

Then, once you’ve established a Chase relationship, you can comfortably turn your attention back to Amex US and fill up your five-card lineup if you’d like, as well as to other lucrative US issuers like Citi and Capital One. 

Conclusion

In the US, American Express limits cardholders to five credit cards at any given time.

While you can freely load up on the charge cards in the Membership Rewards family, it’s important to give some thought as to which products to keep in your five credit card slots, as well as how you time these applications with an eye on eligibility rules by other issuers. 

In my view, a healthy mix of Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors cards makes the most sense for cross-border Amex US cardholders to keep open in the long run, allowing you to diversify your hotel rewards game far beyond what’s available in Canada. 

What does your optimal portfolio of American Express US credit cards look like? Do you value the Bonvoy cards for combined boost towards Platinum Elite status, Hilton cards for their free night certificates, or perhaps another Amex US credit card if you aren’t so keen on hotel loyalty programs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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