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Can I apply for a credit card before I start my first job?

Issuers typically base proof of income on the honor system, so you can sign on the dotted line once you have one

Summary

With a solid job offer post-graduation, it’s time to fill out that credit card application and get started on your credit journey.

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Whether your first job is months away or you have one lined up and are just waiting to get started, you might be wondering if you can apply for and qualify for a credit card before you start working. You’re in luck, you do have some options for securing a credit card before you start that 9 to 5.

Let’s examine how to qualify for a credit card before you begin working, what type of credit cards you can qualify for and how to improve your credit to make it easier to get your hands on a credit card before you become more established in your career.

How to qualify for a credit card before starting your first job

No matter where you are in your employment journey, the key is to be honest when you apply for your first credit card. Generally, credit card issuers take your word regarding what your stated income is and won’t require proof or do an investigation to confirm you’re really making what you say you’re making.

The Credit CARD Act imposed restrictions on young adults’ access to credit cards, requiring them to prove they have a steady income, but even for those under 21, credit card issuers still usually use the honor system. If you tell the credit card issuer that you’re employed, they might ask for your company’s phone number or verification of employment.

As tempting as it may be, don’t fib or fluff the numbers when it comes to your income, even if doing so could lead to getting a higher credit limit. If you inflate your earnings on the application and then one day you get in over your head and the debt goes delinquent, unpaid or you file for bankruptcy, the credit issuer has the right to take legal action against you. In that case, your fib would be considered fraud. If you’re starting your job in a few weeks, you can use that income on your application, but don’t exaggerate it.

Income is only part of the qualifying process

Income is only part of the qualifying process so if you don’t have any yet, you won’t be immediately disqualified from getting a credit card. The credit card issuer will also check your credit history to see how you’ve handled any past and current credit products. That information about your past credit behavior is listed on your consumer credit reports.

There’s a chance that your credit reports are already populated with some positive data, such as a student loan in good standing or a car loan that you’ve been paying on time, but when you’re young your credit report might be pretty bare.

Credit scores, which are derived from the financial data on your credit reports, will also be pulled as a part of the application process because they give the credit card issuer an idea of how much risk you pose as a borrower.

Before you apply for a credit card, pull your credit reports for free from AnnualCreditReport.com. Credit scores typically run from 300 to 850, and the higher your number, the better risk a lender sees you as. In addition, the higher your credit score is, the easier it will be to qualify for credit products, larger credit limits and lower interest rates.

Your credit card options

When you’re young, your credit card options may be more limited until you’ve had a chance to establish your credit history and start generating a steady income. To qualify for top rewards credit cards, you need a high credit score and high income.

That being said, there are some solid starter credit card options on the market for those who are about to, or just started, their careers, and using these credit cards responsibly can actually help you build your credit score and boost your future odds of being approved for better options.

Student credit cards

Student credit cards are specifically geared toward young adults with thin credit files. Because these credit cards are designed for borrowers who are new to credit, they tend to come with lower rewards rates and higher interest rates. They can, however, serve as a good introduction to using credit while you’re in school.

Secured credit cards

If you don’t have an established credit profile at all, you may have to start one by taking out a secured credit card. Secured cards are similar to debit cards in the sense that you can spend only money you already have. They require a deposit that you put down as collateral, which serves as your credit line.

You can’t charge more than your deposit, and each time you pay off your balance your credit limit resets. After a year of using the secured card responsibly, you can most likely apply for an unsecured credit card. Because you’re the one acting as the lender, this type of credit card is easier to qualify for than an unsecured credit card when you’re young.

Unsecured credit cards

If you have some positive credit activity on your credit reports already, you may be eligible for an unsecured account that requires no deposit. An unsecured credit card will be harder to qualify for, but if you’re starting a job soon and will have a consistent source of income, it’s worth researching which ones you might qualify for.

How to improve your credit score

Having a strong credit score can help balance out having a lower income or a lack of a steady income. Even before you land your first “real” job, there are a few steps you can take to improve your credit score, which can in turn improve your eligibility.

  • Make on-time payments: The best way to improve your credit score is to simply make on-time payments on any credit products in your name, such as a credit card, student loan or auto loan. Before you borrow any money, make sure you can afford to make all your payments on time every time they’re due.
  • Decrease your credit utilization ratio: Your credit utilization ratio represents how much credit you’re currently using to how much credit you have available to you. The less credit you’re using, the lower your credit utilization ratio will be. To keep your credit utilization ratio nice and low, try to avoid carrying a balance on any of your existing credit cards.
  • Become an authorized user: Many parents add their college-aged children as authorized users to their existing credit card accounts to help them improve their credit. If you have a family member who is willing to do this for you, when they add you as an authorized user their (hopefully) on-time payments will help you improve your credit score.
  • Get credit for paying rent: Generally, rent payments aren’t reported to the credit bureaus that issue credit reports, but you can work with a rental reporting agency to change that. These rental reporting agencies – like Rent Reporters, Rental Kharma and LevelCredit – will report your on-time payments to the credit bureaus, which can help improve your score.
  • Get a credit-builder loan or secured credit card: Making on-time payments to a secured credit card can help you build your credit history and improve your credit score. You also have the option of applying for a credit-builder loan, which is a small loan that you take out for the sole purpose of paying it back and having your responsible credit behavior reported to the credit bureaus.

Bottom line

Now that you have a card, make sure that you use it to add positive activity to your credit reports. This means paying on time and sending the full amount of the bill so you never get into consumer debt. This simple two-part system can be harder than it sounds. You’ll have to maintain a running total on what you’ve already spent, then stop when you’re at your personal limit. Do this for a year and you’ll be in a far better financial position than you are today.

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.

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