skip to main content

See the results of our 2021 Family Budget Survey. Click Here to Learn More!

What are Unsecured Personal Loans?

By
Ashley Altus
Ashley Altus covers personal finance topics that relate to the average American household, ranging from loans and mortgages to credit cards and personal relationships with money.
Fact Checked by
Tamara Altman
Dr. Altman has over 25 years of experience in social science, public health, and market research, statistics, evaluation, and reporting. She has held positions with, and consulted for, many government, academic, nonprofit, and corporate organizations, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Park Foundation, Stanford University, UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UCLA.
Updated on October 25, 2021
A woman looking at her laptop with a pad of paper next to her
Because unsecured personal loans can be used for just about anything, they’re convenient to pay for large purchases and covering unexpected expenses.

With credit, there are plenty of ways to borrow. But how do you access it? In order for a borrower to qualify for credit, lenders typically review their credit history, which is used to assess that borrower’s risk. A personal loan can be helpful for those seeking to finance a large purchase or cover an emergency expense.

What is a personal loan?

Personal loans can be used to fund a wide range of expenses. They can be used to pay for home improvements, medical bills, and emergency expenses. 

Personal loans can also be used for debt consolidation. Instead of keeping track of multiple debt repayments, you combine all your debts into a single payment. In some instances, you may end up paying a lower interest rate. 

Personal loans are available at banks, credit unions, and through online lenders. The better your credit score, the more lenders and loan options you’ll have to choose from.

Borrowers receive a lump sum when they take out a personal loan. Repayment for the loan amount typically occurs through installments with interest, and possibly fees, depending on the lender. 

Borrowers may qualify for unsecured and secured personal loans depending on their creditworthiness, which is what lenders use to justify an extension of credit.

Unsecured vs secured personal loans

Unsecured personal loans

With an unsecured personal loan, lenders approve borrowers for a loan amount based on their creditworthiness.

Lenders use financial information such as a borrower’s credit score and credit history to determine eligibility. For this reason, borrowers with a low credit score may face higher interest rates. 

When a lender grants an unsecured loan, it trusts the borrower will pay the money back. Examples of unsecured loans include student loans, consolidation loans, and general installment loans.

Secured personal loans

When a borrower takes out a secured personal loan, property or an asset is used as collateral. Because of the collateral, lenders may be more willing to extend credit to riskier borrowers. Secured personal loans include mortgages, home equity loans, and car loans. 

For a secured personal loan, the creditor has the title or an interest in the property until the borrower completely pays the loan off. If the borrower fails to repay the loan, the lender can repossess the asset to recoup the loss. For example, borrowers who fail to make mortgage payments may have their property repossessed by their creditors.

Unsecured vs secured loans: What’s the difference? 

Unsecured Secured
Collateral No Yes
Loan amount Based on an applicant’s creditworthiness and income Based on the value of collateral
Interest rate Typically higher than secured loans Typically lower than unsecured loans
Default Risk Lender can’t take personal property Your property may be sold to pay off the loan

Source: CFPB

5 steps to get an unsecured personal loan

1. Assess your budget

Taking out too much debt at once can strain your finances. Review your current debt and income to determine whether you’ll be able to realistically make timely repayments on a new debt. It may also be worth asking your lender if they provide an autopay discount on interest rates for setting up automatic payments.

2. Review your credit history

In order to gain an understanding of the type of loans you may be eligible for, check your credit score. The better your credit history, the better chances you have of qualifying for an unsecured loan.

You can review your credit history for free from the three major credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also find and dispute errors, which could end up impacting your credit score.

3. Compare lenders and prequalify

After reviewing your credit history and assessing your budget, it’s time to start researching lenders and loan options. Some factors to take into consideration when shopping for lenders include the loan amount, monthly payment, and interest rate.

Some lenders will prequalify borrowers, so you’ll be able to see the types of loan terms and the interest rate you qualify for without having to submit a formal application. Prequalifying for a loan doesn’t impact your credit score. Shop around and compare loan rates to find the best deal for you.

4. Gather personal financial information

Once you decide on a loan to apply for, collect your personal financial information. Lenders may ask for your Social Security number, tax returns, and checking account information during the application process. 

5. Apply for one loan

Once you’ve gathered the necessary personal information, it’s time to fill out the loan application. It’s best practice to apply for a single loan at a time, as too many credit checks within a short time frame on your credit report can look unfavorable to lenders. Depending on the lender you choose, you may receive loan funding as soon as the day you apply or the next business day.

What to avoid when looking for a personal loan lender

It’s important to be wary of scams when applying for a new loan. 

Lenders with confusing loan terms

Before applying for a loan, review a creditor’s website. Reputable companies are transparent about their lending practices and loan rates. Online reviews from websites like the Better Business Bureau can help you determine if a lender is legitimate. 

Loan offers over the phone

It’s illegal for a lender to offer someone a loan over the phone. A loan offer must be in writing. 

Lenders that ask for money upfront

Some lenders do charge an application fee or other fees, but reputable lenders disclose this information to borrowers. It’s best to stay away from any lenders that ask you for money in exchange for a lower interest rate. Legitimate lenders won’t have customers hand over money before they’re approved for a loan. 

What’s the interest rate for an unsecured personal loan?

There is no universal interest rate for an unsecured personal loan. Every lender will have different rates they charge based on an applicant’s credit score, credit history, and overall financial picture.  

Typically, borrowers with good credit scores can expect to receive better rates, better loan options, and more favorable repayment terms. 

In quarter two of 2021, the average interest rate on a 24-month personal loan from a commercial bank was 9.58%, according to the Federal Reserve.

It’s also important to note that late loan payments can result in late fees or potentially impact your interest rate.

What to look for in an unsecured personal loan

APR

The annual percentage rate, also known as APR, for a loan is the total price you’ll end up paying to borrow. It includes costs such as the interest rate, origination fees, and prepayment penalties. 

Generally, the APR for your loan will be based on your credit score and credit history.

Interest rate

Generally, unsecured personal loans have fixed interest rates, as they’re paid back in installments. A fixed interest rate will give you an established monthly payment. Some lenders do offer loans with variable interest rates, where the interest owed can fluctuate over the life of the loan. 

An unsecured loan may have a higher interest rate than a secured loan because they don’t require collateral. There is no set standard interest rate for an unsecured personal loan. A lender may take into account your credit score, annual income, and debt-to-income ratio when determining a borrower’s interest rate.

Monthly payment

Before taking out a new personal loan, it’s important that it’s sustainable for you to make the monthly payments. Make sure you are comfortable paying back the loan on a consistent basis after you choose it. Review credit card debt and any other financial obligations you have that may impact repayment. 

Loan term

The loan term refers to the length of time it takes to repay the loan. Generally, the longer the loan term, the more interest you’ll end up paying over time. Lenders offering unsecured personal loans will have different loan terms so it’s important to research and compare options. A personal loan calculator may be able to help you figure out the overall cost of the loan, based on the loan term, interest rate, and amount you plan to borrow.

Can I get an unsecured personal loan with a bad credit score?

With a low credit score, it may be difficult to qualify for an unsecured loan. Because there’s no collateral, lenders often impose high credit score requirements. 

There are still some lenders who specialize in lending to people with bad credit, but you may end up paying high interest rates. Every lender has different requirements they use to qualify borrowers, so it’s worth doing research to find a loan that is aligned with your credit score. 

What happens if I default on an unsecured personal loan?

Just because the bank won’t come and repossess collateral, doesn’t mean there aren’t any repercussions for defaulting on an unsecured loan. Failing to make on-time repayments can lower your credit score, which can make borrowing more difficult in the future. If a borrower fails to repay an unsecured personal loan, the lender can start the debt collection process, report negative credit information to credit bureaus, and in some cases, sue you.

Alternatives to unsecured personal loans

Unsecured personal loans are just one type of credit option for borrowers looking for funds. You may want to consider the following options, as well. 

0% APR credit cards

If you have an excellent credit score, you may be eligible for this type of credit card. With a 0% APR credit card, there’s no interest charged for a specific introductory period, which typically range from 12 to 20 months. When paid on time, a 0% APR credit card is like an interest-free loan.

Payday alternative loan

Payday alternative loans, also known as PALs, are small-dollar loans distributed by credit unions. While it is necessary for borrowers to be credit union members, you don’t need the best credit score in order to qualify for one. Instead, the lender will review your income and ability to repay.

Personal line of credit

If you don’t need a lump sum of cash, a personal line of credit may be a good loan option for you. A personal line of credit works similarly to a credit card. The lender will assign you a specific credit limit and you can take out funds as needed. Borrowers only pay interest on the amount they’ve taken out. 

The Bottom Line

An unsecured personal loan can help give you credit when you need it most. While unsecured loans often have higher interest rates than secured loans, they’re not backed by collateral, so a lender can’t seize your property if you default on the loan.

To find the best loan option for you, make sure to compare interest rates, lenders, and loan terms.

California Residents, view the California Disclosures and Privacy Policy for info on what we collect about you.