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RECENT headlines may have led borrowers to believe it is easy to get a good deal on a credit card. Far from it. There may be attractive rates on offer (see table, below), but most applicants will not qualify for them.

Meanwhile, the long-term cost of borrowing on cards - the rates applying at the end of any promotional period - is at a record high and climbing, despite the Bank of England base rate staying at an all-time low for 18 months.

Many people welcome card companies' growing reluctance to lend, believing plastic credit was too readily available for too long.

But for the millions of people with large card debts, and who are in the habit of switching it continuously to find low or zero interest rates, today's options are few.

In 2004 and 2005, when the credit card marketing spree was at its height, two out of three applicants were accepted. Latest industry figures show that today one in two are rejected. Of those who succeed, up to one in three fail to qualify for the advertised rate and are instead offered far costlier terms.

Individual card firms refuse to reveal what proportion of applicants eventually receive advertised rates. Credit rating agencies, which store data and help lenders devise credit 'scorecards', are also cagey. But sources tell Financial Mail that just two in five of all applicants for bestbuys - such as those below - will typically succeed. The rest, including applicants with apparently blemish-free credit histories, will be offered costlier deals or rejected outright.

According to accountancy group PricewaterhouseCoopers, which analyses the card market every year, there has been a 'striking drop' in lending that is 'leaving consumers surprised at the cost of credit and the difficulty of gaining access to it.'

The number of cards in circulation fell almost ten per cent last year as lenders made terms less attractive and spending dropped. Meanwhile, many existing cardholders on good deals have had their balance limits shrunk.

PwC even suggests that the feefree credit card could die out, saying a combination of regulation and borrowers' bad debts make today's model unsustainable.

'Annual or monthly fees will become the norm,' PwC predicts.

The average card annual percentage rate is already rising fast, without lenders applying yearly fees. The latest data shows that the average APR of the most popular 25 cards was 16 per cent at the start of the credit crisis in 2008. It is now more than 17 per cent.

The Bank of England's base rate, by comparison, has been at a historic low of 0.5 per cent since February 2009.

Sandra Quinn of the UK Cards Association, which represents card issuers and the payments industry, says: 'Lenders are being more choosy and looking more carefully at all aspects of an applicant's credit history. We are a long way from the time when credit was shoved at you from all directions. …