Your college years or first years in the workforce are prime time for you to start building up your credit score. One of the best ways to do it is to spend on a credit card and pay off your payments.
As a college-aged teen or young working adult, you may wonder about getting your first credit card. All in all, it’s a good idea, though the CARD Act of 2009 prohibits lenders from issuing cards to anyone under 21. The bill allows for some exceptions — you have an adult co-signer or prove that you have the income to pay off your credit card bills.
So if you’re working your first job, you might as well start building your credit score now. Of course, you could always become an authorized user of a cardholder you know and trust, such as a parent or an older friend.
However, for new cardholders who’d like full control of your account, to make use of the rewards you earn or seek financial independence, your young adult years are as good a time as ever to apply for your first credit card. Your best bet: Apply for a credit card geared toward young adults so that you don’t become overwhelmed with fees or get tempted into overspending.
Discover it Student Cash Back: Best for students
Why we picked it: The Discover it® Student Cash Back is a starter credit card designed for students with no credit history. It’s also known for its plentiful rewards, like 5 percent cash back on rotating quarterly bonus categories (up to $1,500 per quarter upon activation, then 1 percent) and 1 percent cash back on other purchases.
In addition, the Discover it Student Cash Back comes with a six-month 0 percent intro APR for purchases, then a variable APR of 18.24 percent to 27.24 percent will apply.
- No annual fee
- All cash rewards matched at the end of first year
- Earn 5 percent cash back on rotating categories (up to $1,500 quarterly) upon activation based on Discover’s cash back calendar
- No penalty APR and no late fee on your first missed payment (up to $41 thereafter)
- Enrollment required quarterly to start earning at 5 percent
Who should apply: Students with no history are the perfect candidates for this card, thanks to its lack of fees and free access to your FICO credit score, provided by TransUnion. You’ll get the opportunity to learn how to use credit while completing your college education.
Who should skip: If you already have a good credit score, there are other cards out there for you. Anyone who’s also prone to overspend should also skip this one.
Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card: Best for low credit scores
Why we picked it: The Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card is a good bet for young people with lower credit scores. The initial security deposit is low (up to a $200 minimum, depending on your credit), and you can get up to $1,000 as your credit limit. It’s good that the Capital One Platinum Secured Card caps your spending at $1,000 in the beginning — it limits how much you can spend and ensures you can pay off your bills in full to help you build credit.
- Automatically considered for a higher credit limit after six on-time monthly payments
- No annual, foreign transaction or returned payment fees, plus no penalty APR
- No rewards program
Who should apply: Young people who find it hard to qualify for many credit cards when they’re just starting their credit journey or have bad credit scores should apply. Anyone still learning about credit and forming good credit habits should consider this card.
Who should skip: Cardholders who already have a good score don’t need this card. If you’d also like to earn some rewards, however small, you should look at other cards.
Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for flat-rate cash back
Why we picked it: The Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card will serve you well with its flat-rate 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases and relatively low annual fee of $39. You may dismiss this card for its annual fee, but you only need to spend $2,600 per year to cover the $39. For young adults with lower credit scores, you should opt for a no-frills, flat-rate cash back card like the Capital One QuicksilverOne to avoid rewards structures that could tempt you into overspending.
- 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase
- Account review after six on-time payments for a credit limit increase
- No foreign transaction fee, penalty APR or returned payment fee
- High regular APR (30.74 percent variable)
- $39 annual fee
Who should apply: If you have a fair credit score, you’ll likely enjoy this card’s simplicity. Young adults who don’t have time to manage rotating categories, like students or people starting their first job, may also like this flat-rate card.
Who should skip: Cardholders who want more substantial rewards should skip this one.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for travel rewards newbies
Why we picked it: The Chase Freedom Unlimited®* is one of the best ways for you to enter the world of Chase Ultimate Rewards, one of the most valuable reward currencies on the market. In fact, Chase fulfills your bonus cash back as Ultimate Rewards points, allowing you to redeem them in a variety of ways including travel.
The Chase Freedom Unlimited earns substantial cash back, offering 5 percent cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2025), 5 percent cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3 percent cash back on dining and drugstore purchases and 1.5 percent cash back on everything else.
- No annual fee
- 0 percent intro APR on new purchases and balance transfers for 15 months (20.49 percent to 29.24 percent variable thereafter)
- Additional 1.5 percent cash back on everything (up to $20,000 spent in first year)
- Free DashPass membership for three months, then discounted for the next nine months
- 3 percent foreign transaction fee
- Penalty APR of up to 29.99 percent
Who should apply: Good credit cardholders looking for a card that earns high rewards and doesn’t charge an annual fee should opt for the Freedom Unlimited. It’s also a great choice for anyone looking to jump into Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Who should skip: Young adults who are still learning to pay their bills in full and on time should steer clear. The card’s intro APR period and bonus cash back may lead those new to credit into a debt cycle.
American Express Green Card: Best for young professionals
Why we picked it: The American Express Green® Card is perfect for young professionals who travel often for work, dine out regularly and have a good credit score. An excellent entry-level travel card, the Amex Green offers 3X points on travel, transit (including rideshare services) and dining.
American Express travel cards earn Amex Membership Rewards points. These points are best redeemed for travel on the American Express Travel portal. You could also transfer them to an Amex transfer partner and book flights directly with your preferred airline. Depending on the partner, transferring your points may even boost your point value.
- 60,000 points if you spend $3,000 in first six months
- Up to $189 statement credit per year for a Clear® Plus membership
- No foreign transaction fees
- Earn unlimited points
- $150 annual fee
- Must book rewards travel through Amex Travel
Who should apply: Anyone who wants to join the Amex Membership Rewards loyalty program will have a solid start with the Amex Green Card. The card is also best suited for young working adults (rather than college students) because of its annual fee and rewards on travel and dining.
Who should skip: Cardholders for whom the $150 annual fee is difficult to swallow initially should skip. College students and homebodies will also have a hard time maximizing this card.
Citi Double Cash Card: Best for paying down debt
Why we picked it: It’s easier to get into credit card debt than many people realize. And given how high credit card interest rates are these days, it can be difficult to get out of debt. That’s where the Citi Double Cash® Card comes in. You can transfer your existing credit card balances to this card, and you’ll get 18 months to pay them off, interest-free (variable APR of 19.24 percent to 29.24 percent thereafter).
For any new purchases, the Citi Double Cash will give you up to 2 percent cash back on all purchases — 1 percent when you make the purchase and 1 percent when you pay it off.
- No annual fee
- No category restrictions
- Cash back is earned as Citi ThankYou points
- 3 percent foreign transaction fee
Who should apply: Young adults with good credit but some debt should consider this card. Anyone who’d like to earn flat-rate cash back (rather than keep tracking of rotating or bonus categories) should also apply. Busy students may also like this card’s simplicity.
Who should skip: If you’d prefer to earn more rewards per dollar, then this card’s up to 2 percent (1 percent on general purchases and 1 percent when you pay them off) will dissatisfy you.
Comparing the best credit cards for young adults
Even among the best cards for young adults, the possibilities may seem endless. Check out the comparison table below to see how the cards compete side by side:
|Discover it Student Cash Back
|6 months (new purchases) then 18.24%-27.24% variable
|Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card
|Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
|1.5% cash back on every purchase
|Chase Freedom Unlimited
|15 months (new purchases and balance transfers) then 20.49%-29.24% variable
|American Express Green Card
|Citi Double Cash Card
|18 months (balance transfers) then 19.24%-29.24% variable
How to choose a credit card for young adults
When you’re trying to decide whether a credit card is right for you, ask yourself these questions:
- What do you hope to get out of this credit card? A better credit score? Rewards for spending? An opportunity to pay off your debt? Knowing what you want from a credit card will help you narrow down your options.
- Does this card suit your lifestyle? If a card offers a bonus for cardholders who spend $4,000 in three months, for example, be sure that spending goal matches your budget. If a card offers rewards on restaurants, ask yourself how many times you dine out every month. When a card provides rewards in categories you often spend in, you don’t have to do much to justify adding it to your wallet.
- Can I get this card with my current credit score? If you don’t already know your credit score, you might be able to find out through your bank. You can also use the CardMatch tool to see cards that are a good fit based on your credit profile. Additionally, you may be able to take advantage of preapproval or prequalification via an issuer’s website to see if you have a good chance of being approved for a specific credit card.
The world of credit cards can be intimidating, but don’t let that put you off from applying for a card that can help you earn rewards, boost your credit or cover a large purchase. And don’t let your inexperience be an obstacle — it’s best to start your credit journey now to give yourself time to build up your credit score. That way, you set yourself up for success for larger financial goals like buying a house or a car.
*All information about the Chase Freedom Unlimited has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer.