Here are five tips on how to choose one — and how to avoid getting burned.

WHEN TRYING TO get a small business off the ground, it's not essential to have a credit card. But it sure helps.

Packing some plastic can help alleviate cash-flow crunches. And while it's not the best source of capital, a credit card can obviously come in handy when a purchase is necessary and cash is tight. Many cards also come with handy software, making it easy to track expenses and keep records for tax purposes.

But there are drawbacks to small-business credit-card usage as well. And knowing them beforehand could save you a lot of heartache. Perhaps the biggest: Your personal and professional finances are blended, at least for the first few years. A business credit card carries the same personal liability as a personal card. So if the business defaults on credit-card payments, a creditor can come after the person who signed the card for payment. Most lenders require borrowers to agree to this provision on the card application.

Moreover, your small-business credit card will be noted on your personal credit reports. (Meaning those provided by Experian, Transunion and Equifax.) A few late payments could seriously damage your personal credit score, while a big debt run-up by the business could make you look more overextended than you really are, regardless of the payment history, explains Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook."

The good news is, the personal-liability agreement isn't always set in stone. After a few years of regular payments, a lender might be willing to remove the personal-liability component, says Jeffrey Langer, an attorney with Dreher Langer & Tomkies, who specializes in consumer financial services and banking law. But "it would inevitably have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis." And no matter what, once your business has established its own credit history, you should be able to remove your small-business credit card from your personal credit reports.

One other word of caution: Because business credit cards are meant to be used by companies, not consumers, they come with fewer consumer protections than a personal credit card. For example, with consumer cards you can dispute billing errors on the account within certain time limits, and during that time the credit-card company cannot list that disputed amount as delinquent, or cancel the card. Not so with business credit cards.

The same goes for asserting "claims and defenses" when you order merchandize and receive it in poor condition. With a personal credit card, you can dispute the charges, and if the vendor won't cooperate, the credit-card company will step in on your behalf. With a business card, the credit-card company won't get involved with the dispute.

So is it even worth it to carry a small-business card rather than a personal card? You bet. Once your business has established a solid track record of its own, you can take steps to separate that account from your personal finances — which is obviously a good thing. But you need to wield the card wisely. Here are five tips on how to get a small-business credit card — and how not to get burned when using one.

1. Register With the Business Credit-Reporting Bureaus
Your first step is to register with the major business credit bureaus: Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) and Business Credit USA. Their job is similar to that of the consumer credit bureaus: They collect information about your business from your creditors, such as how much credit you have, how long you've had your accounts and whether you pay your bills on time.

The difference between the consumer and business credit bureaus is that the business ones also collect information about the business itself, such as how many employees you have, how many years you've been in business, the company's sales volume and its litigation history. Even if you don't have any credit yet, you can still create a file with the bureaus and begin providing positive information. "If you register the business and provide the information upfront, you are in a better position to present your business in the best light," says Karen Liser, financial controller of Fiducial, a professional business outsourcing service for small businesses. Otherwise, a file will most likely be started automatically once you actually secure a credit line.

Another reason to be proactive: Based on the information the bureaus get, your business will be given a credit score. In addition to your business's credit history, that score will be based on the robustness of the business itself, as measured by various criteria, including how long the business has been in place and the number of employees it supports. Healthy growth and solid revenues are a definite plus, says Liser.

And attention con artists: If you try to give your credit score a kick by sending inflated financial results or other false business information, the credit agencies will find out. "We have a quality assurance process to make sure (the information) is correct," says Julie Hiner, a spokeswoman for D&B. The company's database contains 80 million businesses world-wide, she says. "And within a year, we make sure each one of these files is reviewed."

Keep in mind, it's not just creditors that can access this information. Any business can check your company's credit report to see if they want to do business with you, Liser says. (Of course, you can also check them out.) "You can give them as much information about your business as you see fit," says Liser. "You can give them your full financial statements, so anybody looking you up can find out exactly what you're doing."

Of course, when you're just starting out and you don't have much information to share, you'll just "start with the basics," she says. "Then, as the business develops, you should call back and help build your file. Provide as much information as you can, when you can." For a sample credit report from Business Credit USA, click here.

2. Get Your Personal Credit in Order
Building a solid credit history for a burgeoning business doesn't happen overnight. It could take anywhere from two to five years, says Fiducial's Liser. In the meantime, your business credit will be linked to your personal credit. And it better be good.

If your business doesn't have any credit history, "personal credit is among the factors considered" when you apply for a business credit card, says Alice Bredin, a small-business adviser for American Express. "Small business owners need to make sure their credit histories are accurate and as spotless as possible."

Once you have your small-business credit card, if your business doesn't yet have a business credit record, the card will likely be listed in your personal credit report. So handle the payments responsibly. "As soon as possible, start making purchases as a business, and pay them off," says Bredin. "It's in your best interest to do this credit-building on the business side so that you pull yourself from that personal crutch." Once your business has a track record of its own, be sure to call the credit-card company and request that it no longer be reported to the consumer credit bureaus.

3. Securing a Business Credit Card
A good place to start is with a bank that you already do business with. Assuming you have a good track record there, you're likely to be approved for a small-business credit card.

If you don't have a flawless record — or if your bank's decision maker is a heartless Internet bot — you might have to jump through some hoops to get a credit line. The lender might ask you to deposit $5,000 in an account or a CD, for example, and in turn, it'll give you a credit card with a $5,000 limit. Once you've proven yourself to be a responsible borrower, the collateral will be given back to you, with interest, and your credit limit will probably be increased, says Liser.

4. Which Business Credit Card Is Best?
If you decide to forego the business credit cards offered by your bank and do your own research, you'll soon find yourself in a sea of offers. American Express alone has five types of charge cards and eight types of credit cards. VISA and MasterCard each have four types of cards for small businesses, offered in partnership with hundreds of banks.

Needless to say, finding the card that's best for your business could turn out to be a full-time job in itself if you don't narrow down your options smartly. Here are some questions to ask before you choose.

  • First, how quickly do you plan to pay off your balance? "Some businesses want the discipline of charge cards. Others know that, given the spending they have upcoming in their business, the flexibility of paying off a balance over time is what they're looking for," says AmEx's Bredin. If you anticipate making large purchases, keep in mind that charge cards typically don't have spending limits — but you'll have to pay off the balance in full within 30 days.
  • Next, what kind of rewards do you want? "It used to be just flyer miles. Now, you can get points toward all kinds of things," says Bredin. Cash back, discounts when you shop at certain merchants — the good news is, those rewards are often targeted to the needs of small-business owners, say a discount at Kinko's, or double points at Staples.
  • If you're going to need more cards for your employees, check to see if the card provider offers additional cards for no fee.

Click here for CardWeb.com's October 2003 survey of business credit cards. You'll find a list of 32 cards with low interest rates and low or no annual fees. (Keep in mind, you'll likely need good credit to qualify.) Bankrate.com also has a handy tool that lets you search for business cards that offer the best deals.

5. Words of Warning
We can't say it enough: Because you will be personally liable for your debts, be sure to use your credit card wisely. "I've had several people complain to me that they were held personally liable for their company's credit cards and they didn't know (that would be the case)," says credit expert Detweiler. Negotiating the removal of that personal-liability clause from your agreement won't be easy, says attorney Langer. But it isn't impossible. (Follow our tips on building a good credit name for the business, and you're in a much better negotiating position.)

Also, if you notice an employee has abused the account, immediately call the bank and see what you can do. Otherwise, you might get stuck with the bills. To be on the safe side, lower the credit limits for your employees.