Whether you report your own income or the income of someone else in your household, you should be able to qualify for a credit card before your first job. Learn more about how to get a card and what role income plays in your application process.
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 and qualify for a credit card before you start working. But if you’re new to the job market and are about to start your first job, don’t worry; you have some options to secure a credit card before you start that 9 to 5.
Let’s examine how to qualify for a credit card before your first job, what type of credit cards you’ll likely be approved for and how to improve your credit, giving you a better chance of getting a credit card before you’re more established in your career.
How to qualify for a credit card before starting your first job
No matter your employment status, the key is to be honest when you apply for your first credit card. Generally, credit card issuers will trust you regarding your stated income and won’t require proof or launch an investigation to confirm you’re making what you say you’re making.
The CARD Act of 2009 imposed restrictions on young adults’ access to credit cards. These days, they must either be over 21 or prove they have a steady income to qualify for a card. For much of the information new cardholders put down, card issuers adopt the honor system. However, if someone says they’re employed, the issuer may also ask for the 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 a higher credit limit. If you inflate your earnings on the application and then one day find your debt going delinquent, the 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.
Alternatively, you could be looking for your first job but would like to start your financial journey now. The CARD Act also made it so cardholders over 21 can report their total household income, such as a parent’s or spouse’s income, as their own on their credit card application. The issuer mainly cares that there’s someone in the house to cover the bills.
Income is only part of the qualifying process
Income is only one aspect of the qualification process, so if you don’t have any yet, you typically won’t be immediately rejected 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 is 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, it’s normal to have a pretty bare credit report.
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, request your credit reports for free from AnnualCreditReport.com. Credit scores typically run from 300 to 850, and the higher your number, the more card issuers will consider you a low-risk credit user. In addition, the higher your credit score is, the easier it will be to qualify for credit products, higher 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 generate a steady income. To qualify for top rewards credit cards, you need a high credit score and a decent income.
That being said, there are some solid starter credit card options on the market for those who are about to start or have just started their careers. Using these starter credit cards responsibly can help you build your credit score and boost your future odds of being approved for other cards.
Let’s examine the credit card possibilities that you’ll encounter while shopping for your first card so that you can narrow down the choices.
Student credit cards
Student credit cards are specifically geared toward young adults with thin credit files, and as such, they’re relatively easy to qualify for. 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 with a secured credit card. Secured cards are similar to debit cards in the sense that you can only spend money you already have, which is backed by your deposit. Such cards require a deposit, which acts as both your collateral and 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 acting as your own lender in a way, this type of credit card is easier to qualify for than an unsecured credit card.
Unsecured credit cards
If you already have some positive credit activity on your credit reports, you may be eligible for an unsecured account that requires no deposit. An unsecured credit card is harder to qualify for because these cards tend to have higher credit limits, generous rewards structures and more competitive APR rates. Some unsecured cards are designed for people with fair credit, so 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 boost 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 in relation 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 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. The hope is that the main account holder will make on-time payments for the authorized user’s account to help the child improve their 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 timely payments to the credit bureaus, which can help improve your score.
- Get a credit-builder loan or secured credit card: Making 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.
Once you have a credit card, make sure that you use it to add positive activity to your credit reports. This means paying on time and sending the issuer the full amount of the bill so you never get into 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 spending 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.