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Best credit cards for college graduates

College graduates don't always know where to start when looking to establish strong credit and avoid debt, but this guide will help them on their way

Summary

Just graduated from college? This guide offers options to help you build a good credit score and avoid debt.

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Just finished school? Congrats! It wasn’t always easy, but you made it. As you get started on your credit journey, here are some of the best credit cards for college graduates, whether you just walked across the stage or are gearing up for more in grad school.

However, since the CARD Act went into effect in 2010, it became difficult to get a credit card before turning 21. It’s technically possible to get a credit card in your own name as long as you’re at least 18 years old and have proof of income, though lenders are much stricter now.

New high school grads, who aren’t yet 18 and have no income, should go for a secured credit card or become an authorized user on a parent’s (or any trustworthy adult’s) credit card. This can jump-start your credit history and help you access more rewards later on.

However, new college graduates have more options available to them since many of them are at least 21. For those of you with no credit history, you could opt for a student credit card, to build up healthy credit habits and steadily increase your score. New grads that have some credit history have more options. Check out our picks below.

Petal 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa Credit Card: Best for limited credit

Why we picked it: It’s possible that you don’t have a credit score, or it’s still relatively low. In that case, we recommend the Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card. It offers a rewards structure that incentivizes responsible card usage, which can help you train yourself to become a responsible cardholder. To start, you’ll earn 1% cash back on eligible purchases. This rate then will increase to 1.25% cash back on eligible purchases after you make six monthly payments on time, then to 1.5% on eligible purchases after 12 on-time, monthly payments.

Pros

  • Petal uses cash flow technology to approve applicants with no credit history
  • Up to 1.5% cash back on eligible purchases
  • No fees – annual fee, foreign transaction fee, penalty APR and more
  • Up to $10,000 credit limit

Cons

  • High APR of 15.24% to 29.24% variable
  • Unsecured credit cards could foster bad credit habits

Who should apply: Students or new grads who have no credit history or a lower score should consider this card. It’s also a great first unsecured credit card for someone who spends modestly and doesn’t mind earning modest rewards.

Who should skip: Anyone with a fair credit score, or who needs to build good credit habits with a secured card should avoid this card.

Discover it Secured Credit Card: Best secured card

Why we picked it: Secured cards that offer rewards aren’t that common, but recently, more products of this type have been coming to the market. One such product is the Discover it® Secured Credit Card, which has long been one of the best secured credit cards out there. With this card in your wallet, you’ll earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants (up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, then 1%) and 1% cash back on other purchases.

After the first seven months, Discover will review your account monthly to determine whether you qualify for graduation to an unsecured card. If that’s the case, you’ll get your deposit back.

Pros

  • Discover will match all the cash back you earn in the first year with the card
  • Earns cash back rewards even as a secured card
  • No annual fee, foreign transaction fee nor penalty APR
  • $200 minimum security deposit

Cons

  • High APR at 24.49% variable
  • Cash back on 2% categories capped at $1,000 per quarter

Who should apply: Cardholders who have absolutely no experience with credit cards should start with a secured card to build good credit habits, like fully paying off their bills, on time, every month.

Who should skip: Young people who already have some experience with credit, and who seek to build credit faster, with higher credit limits to bring down their credit utilization ratio.

Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best student card

Why we picked it: The Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card is perfect for anyone continuing their education as a graduate student. Like other student cards, it has more relaxed approval requirements and generally accepts those with no credit. Its main attraction is its generous rewards structure – 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and grocery store purchases and 1% cash back on other purchases.

The Capital One SavorOne is also recommended as an entertainment card thanks to its 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023.

Pros

Cons

  • APR at 16.49% to 26.49% variable
  • The 3% cash back on grocery store purchases does not include superstores like Target and Walmart

Who should apply: Grad students, with some credit experience, but not enough to have good or higher credit scores. The Capital One SavorOne is great for someone who’d like to earn solid cash back on their everyday spending (dining, groceries, etc.), but doesn’t have the time or energy to pay attention to rotating categories.

Who should skip: New grads with no credit history and who may be tempted to overspend due to the card’s rewards.

Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for fair credit

Why we picked it: For young adults with fair credit, you should check out the Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card. You’ll earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, which is a simple rewards structure great for those just starting their credit card journey. Capital One will also consider you for a credit limit increase after the first six months of on-time payments.

The only caveat is the card’s $39 annual fee, which can eat into your cash back rewards. Still, if you put most, or all, of your spending on the Capital One QuicksilverOne, the rewards can be decent.

Pros

  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back
  • Automatic review for a higher credit limit after 6 months of timely payments
  • Access and monitor your credit score with CreditWise

Cons

  • $39 annual fee
  • Limited redemption options

Who should apply: Anyone with fair credit or anyone who needs to improve their credit, without having the time (while you adjust to a new job or postgrad life) to pay much attention to your rewards.

Who should skip: Cardholders who have good or higher credit could earn better rewards with a different card. If you have no or poor credit, you shouldn’t apply – the hard pull will only hurt your score.

Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best starter travel card

Why we picked it: New grads usually have two goals on their minds: earn money and pay off student debt. However, for those who graduated not only with a degree, but also with a good credit score, you may be considering getting into travel credit card rewards. The Chase Freedom Unlimited® is a great card to get started.

The card earns 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 5% cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2025), 3% cash back on dining and drugstore purchases and 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. It also has a sign-up bonus of earning an additional 1.5% cash back on everything (on up to $20,000 spent) in the first year.

Pros

Cons

  • 3% foreign transaction fee
  • Earns travel rewards relatively slowly

Who should apply: Young working adults with good credit should definitely apply for this card. Though it earns rewards more slowly than mid-tier travel cards, it’ll serve you well in your first few years after college. The Chase Freedom Unlimited is also perfect for anyone looking for a gateway into Chase Ultimate Rewards but isn’t ready to pay an annual fee.

Who should skip: If you’re still struggling to establish healthy credit habits, you should go for a different card.

Comparing the best credit cards for college graduates

Unsecured or secured? Cash back or points? For young adults who’ve never had a credit card, it can all feel overwhelming. Here we compare all our recommended cards in a table to see how they compete.

CardCredit score neededRewards rateAnnual fee
Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit CardNo credit history
  • N/A
$0
Discover it® Secured Credit CardNo credit history
  • 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants (up to $1,000 in purchases per quarter)
  • 1% cash back on other purchases
$0
Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit CardNo credit history
  • 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart and Target)
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
  • 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023
$0
Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit CardFair credit
  • 1.5% cash back on every purchase
$39
Chase Freedom Unlimited®Good credit
  • 5% cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2025)
  • 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 3% cash back on dining
  • 3% cash back on drugstore purchases
  • 1.5% cash back on all other purchases
$0

How to choose a credit card as a college graduate

Before we talk about picking a card, it’s crucial to highlight the importance of paying your credit card bills in full and on time. With an average interest rate north of 16%, it’s expensive to carry credit card debt from month to month.

Many young adults shy away from credit cards for this reason. They generally prefer debit cards, and they often use “buy now pay later” services such as Affirm and Afterpay when they need a little more time to pay off a purchase (hopefully without interest). However, credit cards offer better buyer protection, and there’s tremendous rewards potential as you get more established.

  • What is your credit score? Some students may be authorized users and not even know. Some have no credit history at all and don’t know how to start. The first step is to find out what your credit score is and check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • Should you get an unsecured card? For students with no credit history, we encourage you to opt for a secured credit card to establish good credit habits and get used to paying bills on time and in full. For young cardholders who already have experience, feel free to shop around for a card that falls in your credit score range.
  • Cash back or points? Most cards for poor or fair scores either offer no rewards or only cash back. If your score falls in those ranges, there’s no shame in going for one of those cards. However, if you have a good score and want to apply for a travel card that earns points, you should go for it.
  • Is the annual fee worth it? For those new to credit, an annual fee can feel difficult to fit into your budget. However, if the rewards are generous enough, sometimes the annual fee is worth the initial expense.

Bottom line

You won’t get rich off the rewards on most of these cards, but that’s not the point. When you’re new to credit, it’s all about establishing a strong track record of on-time payments while avoiding too much debt. Even if you just put an occasional small purchase on the card and pay it off right away, you’re making progress toward a good credit score, which will serve you well in the future.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

Credit Card Rate Report
Reward
18.00%
Student
18.66%
Airline
17.81%
Business
16.07%
Cash Back
17.95%

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