Best starter credit cards, regardless of your creditworthiness

You can start earning rewards with your first-ever card; these options can help

Aaron Broverman
Personal finance journalist
Host of the podcast Speech Bubble

Best starter credit cards

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date. Please see the bank’s website for the most current version of card offers.

Ready for your first credit card? You may be wondering where to begin – the options can be endless!

Fret not. We’re here to help.

Maybe you’ve just started building, or rebuilding, credit. Maybe you’re a student. Or maybe you’re a consumer with great credit looking to get in on the rewards game.

Regardless of your credit profile, here are a few starter cards that can provide reward incentives and help you adopt, or maintain, great credit habits right away.

Best starter credit cards

Best starter card for credit builders: Discover it Secured

With less than stellar credit, finding a credit card that offers cash back can be challenging, but the Discover it Secured card proves it’s not impossible.

Here’s what you need to know about it:

  • Minimum security deposit of $200 required, which serves as your credit limit, up to $2,500.
  • 1 percent cash back on all purchases.
  • 2 percent cash back on restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in purchases each quarter.
  • Discover will match all the cash back you earn at the end of your first year.
  • No annual fee – a rarity among unsecured cards.
  • No late payment fee for first-time offenders and no penalty APR if you pay late.

While the rewards are modest, Discover offers a clear path to upgrading to an unsecured card. After eight months, Discover will do monthly reviews to see if you’re ready for an unsecured card. Once you qualify, you can keep your same account.

Alternative: Capital One Secured Mastercard

If you don’t care about rewards, but are looking for a security-deposit amount lower than Discover it Secured card’s, with a similar fee structure and APR, look no further than Capital One’s Secured Mastercard:

  • $49, $99 or $200 refundable minimum-security deposits according to creditworthiness.
  • Credit limits start at $200 with access to a higher credit limit available when you make your first five payments on time.
  • No annual fee.

“For secured cards, the Discover it Secured card is one of the best for consumers as it provides cash back and has a straightforward upgrade process. The Capital One Secured Mastercard is good for starting with a low deposit,” says Brandon Yahn, founder of StudentLoansGuy.com. 

Tip

Pro tip: Looking for more credit-building options? See our full list of credit cards for limited or no credit history.

Best starter card for students: Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

Journey Student Rewards is a great starter card for students looking for cash back and studying abroad with no foreign transaction fees. It also encourages great financial habits early by offering a cash back boost when you make your payments on time.

It also offers:

  • 1 percent cash back on all purchases.
  • A total of 1.25 percent cash back on purchases when you pay your bill on time.
  • No limit to the cash back you can earn and no rewards expiration.
  • Higher credit limit after making your first five payments on time.
  • No annual fee.
  • No penalty APR for late payments. 

Though the cash back rewards are only 1.25 percent, the cash back is unlimited and can be redeemed at any time for any amount as a check or statement credit.

You also can set automatic redemption for a specific date or hitting thresholds of $25, $50, $100 or $200. There’s no penalty interest if you pay late.

Pro tip: You won’t want to carry a balance on any of these cards, as their APRs are very high.

Alternative: Discover it for Students

If you’re looking for a cash back return higher than Journey’s, Discover it for Students has the highest cash back for a student card in rotating purchase categories.

  • 5 percent cash back on categories that rotate quarterly on up to $1,500 in combined purchases – you need to enroll every quarter.
  • 1 percent cash back on other purchases.
  • Discover will match all the cash cash back you earn at the end of your first year.
  • Get a $20 statement credit each year if your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to five years.
  • Use your cash back rewards at Amazon.com checkout.
  • No fee on first late payment.
  • No penalty APR for late payments.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

Pro Tip: “What I like about Discover it for Students’ $20 bonus for a 3.0 GPA or higher is, it would take you around $1,800 in spending order to get the $20 via the card’s two rewards rates. For students who have meal plans and don’t have many expenses, it could take three to four months to rack up $1,800 in spending,” says J.R. Duren, a credit card analyst with HighYa.com.

Best starter card for good-to-excellent credit: Bank of America Travel Rewards

With no interest charges for a year, no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and unlimited rewards, the Bank of America Travel Rewards card offers applicants ample time to get their financial feet under them.

There may be better flat-rate options available, but flexibility and simplicity make this a great starter card.

  • Unlimited 1.5 points for every dollar spent.
  • 20,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days – redeemable for a $200 travel credit.
  • No blackouts, restrictions or points expiration.
  • Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars or baggage fees. (Redemptions for cash or gift cards hold a lesser value.)
  • Bank of America customers get a 10 percent points bonus on every purchase with a Bank of America checking or savings account. 
  • Preferred Rewards clients get a 25-75 percent bonus.
  • No annual fee.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 0 percent intro APR for 12 months.

If you prefer cash back, Capital One Quicksilver offers the same baseline rate (1.5 percent) in the form of cash back with no annual fee and the same variable APR.

 

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It has a modest sign-up bonus of $150 cash back when you spend $500 in the first three months.

Alternative: Chase Freedom

If you’re looking for more substantial cash back, Chase Freedom offers the same sign-up bonus as Capital One Quicksilver, but has a higher cash back rate in rotating categories.

Chase Freedom, which is part of the Chase Ultimate Rewards family, also offers:

  • 5 percent cash back in rotating categories every quarter up to $1,500 in combined purchases.
  • 1 percent unlimited cash back on all non-category purchases
  • $150 cash back bonus after spending $500 within the first three months.
  • Earn another $25 cash back when you add an authorized user in the first three months.
  • No annual fee.
  • 0 percent APR on balance transfers over the first 15 months.

Cardholders looking for a consistent cash back rate can get Chase Freedom Unlimited, offering 1.5 percent unlimited cash back on every purchase without having to activate purchase categories every quarter.

Pro Tip: “For travel cards, convertible points/miles are the best structure starting out. Flexible cards where you can spend points toward various travel partners are better than a specific airline’s credit card that only allows you to use points toward their flights,” says Kevin Payne, financial blogger at familymoneyadventure.com. 

Payne also advises to always look at the minimum spend required to earn the sign-up bonus associated with the card, “and the time limits to earn the rewards before signing up.”

See related: First credit card dilemma: Student card vs. secured card, Chase Freedom versus Chase Freedom Unlimited, Best flat-rate cash back cards for 2018

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Updated: 04-26-2018