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New Federal laws impose restrictions on issuing credit cards to individuals under 21 unless the applicant has the independent ability to repay debt, or has an adult co-signer who agrees to accept joint liability for the account. Learn More.
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Because credit cards can have immediate and long-term consequences, lawmakers have restricted the eligibility of young adults to secure them.
Under the Credit CARD Act of 2009, if you're younger than 21 years old, you need one of two things: proof of financial independence (i.e. income or savings) or a co-signer at least 21 years old.
If you meet those requirements, you can be eligible for a student credit card, which are targeted to the first-time cardholder. They come in two styles -- secured or unsecured.
Unsecured student cards are just like traditional credit cards -- only smaller. They look the same, but with miniature credit lines compared to their grown-up counterparts. As with any credit card, you receive a line of credit for purchases that can be repaid in full each month or through minimum monthly payments. You'll also see the usual array of perks such as cash-back rewards, sign-up bonuses and a 0 percent introductory APR.
As a first-time cardholder, expect to be treated as a high-risk customer until you prove you can handle a card responsibly. That means in addition to the low credit limit, you can expect a high interest rate that will make carrying a balance very costly.
The other option is a secured card, which requires a deposit to secure your line of credit. It can be a good option. Without a credit history, you're more likely to be approved for a secured card than an unsecured card. Establishing credit history with a secured card can also improve your chances of being approved for an unsecured card later on.
If you choose a secured card, make sure the financial institution reports to all three credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- and try to avoid fees as much as possible. Fees on secured cards can be the usual ones all consumers face, such as annual fees or over-limit fees. Secured cards also tend to sport some creative fees not found elsewhere, such as a preapproval application fee.
Whichever option you choose, try to apply for only one card because each new credit card application lowers your credit score. Once you own the card, don't go crazy. Stay under your credit limit to avoid over-the-limit fees and stay away from cash advances, which charge interest from the moment the money is in your hands. And here's a lesson as important as any you'll learn in school: To stay out of financial trouble, pay off your monthly balance in full and on time.
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