Best student credit cards
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If you’re in college and starting your financial life, a good student credit card can give you a head start in building your credit. If you pay your bills on time and borrow responsibly, the positive credit history you build now will pay off when it’s time to buy a new car, finance your first home or apply for a more exclusive credit card.
Our three Best Student Credit Cards include credit education tools and rewards and perks tailored to students attending classes on a campus (or in a country) far from home.
To help you pick the best card for your upcoming school year, CreditCards.com evaluated some of the top-rated cards in the student card category and asked a panel of judges to rate the CreditCards.com staff’s top three picks.
Judges for the Best Student Credit Card competition were personal finance expert Holly Johnson (clubthrifty.com), millennial money expert Stefanie O’Connell, personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner, CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray and CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.
First Place: Discover it Chrome for Students
Other features: No penalty APR, no late fee on first payment, no over-limit fee, no foreign transaction fee
The Discover it Chrome for students card, with its student-friendly rewards program and forgiving stance toward first-time late payments, won first place in our Best Student Credit Card contest.
“Forgiveness and a little knowledge: Those are two things I could have used with my first credit card,” says CreditCards.com Editor-in-Chief Daniel P. Ray. “I got my first card in the days when card issuers gave away free hats, T-shirts and pizza to college students who filled out applications on campus.
“I got a free Mizzou hat, which when I failed to understand what credit cards really were, became the most expensive hat I ever wore.”
The Discover it Chrome for students card helps students avoid such costly mistakes. For example, the “Credit Cards 101 online feature answers many of the questions first-time card users have,” says Ray. “Wish I had it when I got my first card.”
Personal finance journalist Lisa Gerstner notes that “The Discover it Chrome for students offers a decent payback on purchases the typical college student might make.”
Students earn 2 percent cash back on restaurants and gas station purchases, which is an especially nice perk for students who don’t live on campus or regularly drive home for weekend visits with their parents.
“But what elevates the card into A+ territory is its package of other student-friendly features, including a yearly cash bonus for students who get high marks in class,” she adds.
“The $20 annual cash bonus for students who earn a GPA of 3.0 or higher isn’t going to make much of a dent in tuition, but it does provide a little pocket money to celebrate a job well done at school,” says Gerstner.
Discover’s forgiving policy toward students’ first late payment was especially popular with our judges.
“That’s a big deal,” says CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. “Mistakes are bound to happen with your first card and the ability to slip up once without paying a fee takes a lot of pressure off the cardholder.”
Our judges also noted that Discover matches student cardholders’ cash back earnings after the first year. That robust cash back program and that the Discover it Chrome for students doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees (for that semester you might study abroad) put the card at the head of the class for millennial money expert Stefanie O’Connell.
“Not only does the Discover it Chrome card for students come with a robust cash rewards program and perks like no foreign transaction fees (for that semester you might study abroad), it also provides helpful resources for first-time credit users – a free FICO score to track your newfound credit, a Spend Analyzer tool to track your finances and set up payment plans, and even a little leniency on missed or late payments,” she says. “All of these can be extremely valuable when you’re just starting out.”
A quick lesson for using the card: Students should be careful not to overspend on the Discover it Chrome for students card. Though the regular APR is very reasonable for a student card, it can still get expensive if you carry a large balance.
Second Place: Bank of America Cash Rewards Card for students
Other features: 0% APR on new purchases and balance transfers for 12 months, 10% customer bonus on rewards points
The Bank of America Cash Rewards card for students offers some of the best card rewards students can get on everyday purchases (3 percent back on gas, 2 percent at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 1 percent back on everything else).
“Since college students spend most of their extra money on food and gas, this earning structure can be advantageous for students who want to maximize their cash back,” says personal finance expert Holly Johnson.
The Bank of America Cash Rewards for students card offers an above average sign-up bonus, $150 for cardholders who spend $500 in the card’s first three months, and extra incentives for Bank of America account holders
“I like that the card encourages savings via a 10 percent bonus for those who redeem their cash back into a Bank of America checking or savings account,” Ray says.
Student-tailored credit tools include a free FICO credit score so that students can stay on top of their evolving credit history and an extensive collection of videos produced with Khan Academy.
A quick lesson on using the card: The Bankof America student card isn’t nearly as forgiving as the Discover student card. For example, the Bank of America student card charges a 29.99 percent penalty APR, a $38 late payment fee and a 3 percent foreign transaction fee. The Bank of America student card’s APR also is relatively high.
Third Place: Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa
Other features: Up to $1,200 cellphone protection, budget management tools, free money management courses
The Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa, with its low APR and 3 percent rewards in some popular everyday spending categories for the first six months, placed third in our Best Student Credit Card contest.
The Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa’s low APR was a standout feature among our judges. Students who have already built a good credit history could potentially earn a very low APR. Even the card’s maximum APR is lower than the maximum APRs charged by some competitors.
For the card’s first six months, students earn a healthy 3 percent cash back on gas, grocery and drugstore purchases. But after six months, cardholders earn 1 percent cash back, which is well below average for a cash back card.
“Wells Fargo’s Cash Back College Visa card is a solid choice for students getting their first taste of credit,” says CreditCards.com's Ray. “The generous 3 percent back for the first six months helps give a nice jump-start to building rewards.”
Wells Fargo also offers a number of educational tools that can help students learn to responsibly use credit.
A perk of the Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa that can have a big payoff for students is the card’s cellphone protection. The coverage will reimburse you for damage or theft of your smartphone up to $600 per occurrence and $1,200 per 12-month period. The coverage is included as long as you use your Wells Fargo card to pay your phone bill.
A quick lesson about using this card: The Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa charges a late fee of up to $37, but there is no penalty APR. The card charges a 3 percent foreign transaction fee, too, so it’s not the card to pack if you’re spending a semester overseas.
the best cards contest
This is the second year that CreditCards.com has held a contest for best cards in their class. To help choose the best cards for each category, the CreditCards.com staff consulted credit card and personal finance experts and nominated the top three cards as finalists. CreditCards.com staff also rated cards through its credit card reviews program.
A panel of five judges – including credit card and personal finance experts and two members of the CreditCards.com staff – were asked to independently judge the three finalists and rank them in order of preference. The card with the best average rank was chosen as the winner.
Applying for your first card?
If you’re new to credit and are having a hard time getting approved because you don’t have a traditional credit score, don’t sweat. There are credit-building steps students can take to help them get approved for their first card. If a parent or other family member is willing to let you use their card, ask if you can sign on as an authorized user. That will help build your credit history over time and make it more likely that banks will eventually trust you with your own card. Or you may want to consider a secured card that’s easier to get.
See related: Back-to-school credit guide 2017, 10 ways students can build good credit, Q&A: Why a recent graduate should get a second credit card, Can I co-sign on secured card to start child's credit?
All best credit card stories are prepared by CreditCards.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the story is accurate as of the date of the story. Check the credit card terms and conditions link on the issuing bank’s website for the most current information.