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Black cards are the ultimate status symbol—but what are they?

CNBC Select uncovers the benefits of having a black card, finds out who qualifies and asks whether black cards are worth it.

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Premium luxury credit cards, or "black cards," are the most exclusive credit cards on the market. 

There's a lot of mystery and myth surrounding these elite cards with wild stories of how the ultra rich use them to make outlandish purchases, from the horse from "Dances with Wolves" to sand from the Dead Sea.

While it's hard to know how many of those rumors are true, there are a few things we know for sure about black cards: they come with very high annual fees, they have very high spending requirements and they are not marketed toward the average consumer (sorry).

But are black cards actually worth it? 

Below CNBC Select digs into the additional value of having a black card, who qualifies for a black card and other premium credit cards you might consider instead.

What is a black card?

The credit card most associated with the phrase "black card" is the Centurion® Card from American Express, or the "Amex Black Card." It was released in 1999 and created such a buzz that other card issuers wanted to create their own deluxe credit cards to reward their highest-spending customers.

Enter the age of the black card. Now there are many alternatives to the Amex Centurion for consumers of all income levels and credit histories. Many premiere rewards cards have borrowed the black color for their best credit card products, and card issuers have found ways to make their most popular travel rewards cards feel upscale.

The Amex Black Card helped launch the metal card trend, and these days many consumers have at least one metal card in their wallets. But a true black card is invitation-only and was designed for only the most top-tier spenders.

Who qualifies for a black card?

It's hard to find precise information on exactly who qualifies for a black card. Some invitation-only credit cards,  such as the Chase J.P. Morgan Reserve®, are an additional perk that comes if your assets are managed by a particular banking institution, while others require that you've been a cardholder with an issuer for a certain number of years.  

There are also very high spending requirements. Generally, a card issuer invites only their most loyal customers who spend upwards of six-figures or more a year to become a black cardholder.

The latest Census Household Income Report found the median American household income is $61,937 per year, which makes a minimum spending requirement in the six figures well out of reach. While the average consumer will likely never use a black card, there are now many affordable credit cards that offer welcome bonuses that have spending requirements as low as $500.

What are the perks of a black card?

Some of the rewards offered by black cards are similar to what you get with more accessible, high-end credit cards, like The Platinum® Card from American Express or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® credit card. These include opportunities to quickly rack up points on travel, dining and shopping around the globe, plus other perks like exclusive lounge access.

But the high-end perks that come with the ultra elite black cards remain out-of-reach for even those who are willing to pay an annual fee to access the best international travel cards.

The privileges of a black card include upgrades and special permissions for rental cars and access to some of the most breathtaking hotel suites in hard-to-reach destinations. Black cards also offer private concierge service, and some are even rumored to provide charter jet service.

In other cases, having a black card can help cardholders navigate the rigor of a high-demand business lifestyle with services like Royale Lifestyle Management that comes complimentary with the Dubai First Royale Mastercard.

As for the original black card, Centurion cardholders have access to the new Amex Centurion lounge, opening in March 2020 at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The lounge offers travelers a place to relax with a full complimentary bar, spa services and premium amenities. 

However Centurion customers won't be the only Amex cardholders who can access the new LAX Centurion Lounge. Cardholders with the Amex Platinum, The Business Platinum Card® from American ExpressDelta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express CardDelta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express CardDelta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card can also use the lounge when they pass through LAX, or one of the other 11 airports with Centurion lounges. (Note: Delta Skymiles Reserve card members are only eligible to visit the Centurion Lounge when flying on a same-day Delta-marketed or Delta-operated flight.)

How much are the fees for a black card? 

The fees for these exclusive cards vary quite a bit. In the case of the Dubai First Royale Mastercard, the card issuer doesn't disclose its annual fee publicly.

It states in the Amex Centurion Black Card cardholder agreements that the annual fee is $5,000, and there is a one-time initiation fee of $10,000 when you sign up. And with the Chase J.P. Morgan Reserve®, sites such as Value Penguin report it has a $595 annual fee.

What cards compare to a black card?

It's been 21 years since Amex launched the original black card, and card issuers are increasingly offering more and more luxury perks at a more accessible price point to a larger portion of their customers. 

The biggest draw of elite rewards cards are the many travel benefits they offer.

If you want a luxury travel card that's not invitation-only, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® delivers a lot of value with an annual fee of $550. When cardholders take full advantage of Chase's welcome bonus, the $300 travel credit and generous rewards program, it is quite possible to make the fee completely worthwhile. The Sapphire Reserve lets you earn 10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (once you earn your annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants worldwide and 1X point per $1 on all other purchases.

Others might prefer the American Express® Gold Card, with its current welcome bonus of 35,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months from account opening.

Information about the American Express Centurion Card and Dubai First Royale Mastercard has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.


Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.