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How to read tarot cards, according to the pros

“Tarot is a journey, and and it takes time, trust and intuition," tarot reader Nancy Hayes says. Here's why these practitioners say it's a journey worth taking.
Full Frame Shot Of Tarot Cards
Tatâna Maramygina / EyeEm / Getty Images

Chances are, you’ve encountered someone pulling tarot cards on TikTok or Instagram. Tarot, which began as a game of playing cards in 15th century Europe, has seen a cultural resurgence of late, one made evident on social media.

Most often, tarot is used as a form of cartomancy in which practitioners draw cards to gain insight around a situation. The 78 cards in the deck each represent a different energy. Through interpreting the cards that arise in a reading, people can make predictions or simply tell a story.

But tarot’s uses are more versatile than pop culture makes it seem. The cards can be used as a companion for therapy, a springboard for journaling, or a storytelling resource. Essentially, they can be anything you want them to be.

While you can certainly visit a tarot practitioner for a reading, you can also learn to read your own tarot cards. That way, you can define your relationship with them and determine how they can fit into your life.

Becoming acquainted with all 78 cards can be daunting and challenging, especially in the beginning. The deck is separated into 22 Major Arcana cards, which are thematically significant, and then 56 cards split up into four suits, each with a different energy. Each card has a different interpretation, and takes on new meaning when pulled in conjunction with other cards.

Hearing advice from professional readers can help guide your journey — because everyone has their own tips. As a professional astrologer and tarot reader, I find that taking notes in a journal of all the cards you’re pulling on a regular basis is helpful. My great grandmother, who read tarot during the Great Depression, taught me that if you are seeing similar cards over and over that they are trying to tell you a message. Keeping track of your tarot pulls can help you see the patterns and themes to pay attention to. 

Below, we spoke to prominent and skilled tarot readers for must-know tips for beginners and experts alike.

First, clear your mind and awaken your intuition

Tarot is reliant on your intuition. When shuffling and pulling cards, you’ll stop at the cards that “feel” right, and then give interpretations based on what strikes you. Trusting yourself is essential.

So, before you start, make sure you feel relaxed and in tune with yourself. Consider meditating or taking a few deep breaths before beginning to shuffle. A scented candle could also transport you into the right mindset.

Mariah Oller, Charlotte-based Tarot reader and creator of the Tarot of Life deck, explained the importance of getting grounded. “Grounding gives you the space to ask the questions you want answered and to receive clear guidance from the reading.” Oller said. “Grounding helps us be present. It allows us to articulate our questions and take action towards our goals.”

Start with an effective question

Tarot cards are often used to provide insight on a subject matter. When approaching the cards with a question, it’s best to ask something open-ended question, rather than a yes or no. This way, the cards can be the start of a story, rather than a closed door.

For example, instead of asking, “Will I ever find love?” you can ask, “How can I attract a partner?” or “What obstacles stand in between me and opening myself up?”

You can also ask general tarot card questions, like the following:

  • What should I be focusing on?
  • How are my mind, body, and spirit doing?
  • What do I need to know?

Shuffle the cards with a question in mind

Tarot reader Caitlin McGarry, who resides in Mallorca, recommends keeping your intention or question in mind while shuffling and choosing cards.

“Let the energy transcend between your fingers and the cards. When you feel as though you are done shuffling, then you can start choosing cards or cut different piles to place them in and pick one,” McCarry said.

McGarry recommended starting with one-card readings before diving into spreads. In spreads, each placement has a different significance; the cards, put together, tell a story. Past, present, future is a popular three-card spread.

The Celtic Cross is a more complicated, multi-card spread that can give an in-depth perspective on a situation.

Before looking up the meanings, decide on one yourself

So, you’ve shuffled and pulled a few cards. What’s next? Before reaching for the tarot book or looking up a meaning online, try defining the cards yourself.

“Close your eyes and meditate on the significance of the card. What images do you see from the card? What thoughts are coming to you? Consider how the images make you feel,” Sarah Potter, a New York-based tarot reader and author of The Cosmo Tarot, said.

For Potter, this exercise is a reminder that there is no “correct” way to interpret the cards. “We relate and connect to the tarot and cards on an individualistic basis. There is not one meaning — but our own relationship to it,” she said.

Pick a deck that speaks to you

There are countless tarot decks available for purchase. The artwork on each deck provides a different interpretation of the energies and stories associated with each tarot card.

Many decks are in conversation with the images created by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider Smith Waite tarot deck, which was created in 1909 and remains a popular option.

When you’re in the market for a tarot deck, Bay Area tarot reader Staci Luna said — simply put — to go with the one you like, with art that speaks to you. “A tarot deck that tells a visual story, the clearer the imagery on the card, the less you need to memorize,” Luna said.

“Make sure you love your tarot deck," Kerry Ward, author of the Good Karma Tarot, said. "If you don’t resonate with those cards, get excited when you see them, and have a connection to the pics, then it’s not going to happen.”

Rachel True — actor and author of True Heart Intuitive Tarot, Guidebook And Deck — said she always shuffles through the cards before purchasing.

“I like to first see how the card’s art resonates for me on a visceral level, then I note which emotions are coming up and which part of the imagery I’ve focused on. This is usually a big key into what your subconscious is trying to tell you,” she said.

Luna dispelled one lingering myth: “You can totally buy your own deck, and ignore superstitious beliefs that you must be given a deck.”

When should you read your own tarot cards?

Ward said that it's always the right time to consult the cards — but it's worth coming up with a ritual so you can track your progress.

"Maybe you make a ritual of doing a reading at New Year, your birthday, the start of each season, the 1st of the month, every New Moon ... whatever date resonates. And, of course, when you feel you’ve got an unanswered question or issue, or a big decision to make, or a heartache to heal," she said.

Check out a few of the tarot books

While creating on your own interpretations of the cards is important, you may find it helpful to read books about tarot — in addition to the guidebook accompanying most decks.

A few of our suggestions for tarot books?

  • "Modern Tarot" by Michelle Tea, which blends memoir and personal experience for each card.
  • "Tarot for Change" by Jessica Dore, pairing insights from psychology with tarot cards.
  • "Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom" by Rachel Pollack, considered by many to be the ultimate tarot authority.
  • "The Easiest Way to Learn the Tarot Ever!!" by Dusty White, an interactive and frankly hilarious workbook that makes tarot accessible
  • "Tarot Masterclass" by Paul Fenton Smith, which offers detailed breakdowns of each card's meaning as well as tips for becoming a professional tarot reader.

Create a ritual for caring for your cards

As you begin to use tarot cards, you’ll develop rituals that work for you. Many readers like to practice “spiritual hygiene” on the cards, resetting them and ridding them of energies from a reading.

Astrologer and spiritualist Shawnte Cato, who’s based in San Diego, says that it’s “important to cleanse tarot cards in between readings because certain energy could still be hanging around influencing the cards themselves, or even your own energetic environment.”

Just as there’s no one right way to read the cards, there’s no right way to reset them, either.

Tarot reader, astrologer and author Theresa Reed (who also goes by “The Tarot Lady” on social media and is based in Milwaukee) recommends the following tip to cleansing tarot cards.

“One of my favorite ways to cleanse a tarot deck is what I call the ‘crystal sandwich.’ I place my deck on a large, flat crystal. Then, I place selenite wands on top of the deck. After 24 hours, my deck is cleansed and ready to go,” Reed said.

Another hack Reed suggested is to put the cards in the deck back in its original order from the Fool all the way to the King of Pentacles. Make sure every card is right side up. Then, shuffle the deck. “This ‘wakes my deck up’ every time,” she said.

Cato uses the lunar phases to restore energy. Place the deck near the window under a new or full moon along with dried lavender to bring vitality back to the cards.

Keep in mind that none of these practices are necessary. As you forge your own relationship with the cards, you’ll discern what’s necessary for you.

Sleep on it, literally

New York-based tarot reader Aerinn Hodges offered a unique (and dreamy) way of understanding the cards.

“An alternative to meditating on your daily draw is sleeping on it — literally! Sometimes I’ll place a card under the bed where my head rests. When I’m ready to drift off to sleep, I imagine myself descending into the image on the card and inviting its spirits and energies into my dream life. The images and experiences that come up in my dreams will often illuminate new ways of understanding the card that my waking mind may not have realized," Hodges said.

Think of tarot card reading as a journey

As you build a tarot habit, take note of the cards you pull and the interpretations that come to you.

Remember the “cards are not set in stone,” as New York-based tarot reader Mercedes Viera said. “Just because you get a certain set of cards over a situation today, doesn’t mean that’s how they’ll remain tomorrow. Energies shift and change, so do the cards,” they said. 

North Carolina-based tarot reader Bronx, publicly known as “Tarot by Bronx,” urges new readers to create a comprehension of the tarot based on experiences and their own understanding.

“There are cards that can be more challenging to receive or more uplifting, but there aren’t just good or bad cards. Life and tarot aren’t black and white. It’s up to you as a reader to acknowledge the in-between meanings.” Bronx, adding that tarot is a tool to understand our subconscious desires and needs. We are given the information; it’s up to us to take it in and listen.

Like everything, tarot takes time. But, you can develop a relationship with the tarot and cards through these tips. The most important thing is to forge a personal connection with each card and learn to trust yourself.

As tarot reader Nancy Hayes, who’s based in Colorado put it, “Tarot is a journey, and and it takes time, trust and intuition. Be OK where you are starting and be open to learning.”