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First credit card dilemma: Student card vs. secured card

You're about to apply for your first card – which one should you choose? Learn now how to decide


Student cards and secured cards are good options for first-time cardholders, but both have pros and cons. Here’s how to decide between them.

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If the time to apply for your first solo credit card has come, you’ll most likely be choosing between a student card or a secured card.

If you’re new to credit and don’t know the difference between them, don’t worry. Both types of cards look exactly like any other card in your wallet – and on your credit report.

With both cards you can make everyday purchases, as well as begin to build a credit history. This will be key when you want to apply for a car loan, a mortgage or even rent a new apartment.

Should you get a student card or secured card? Fret not – we’ve got you covered; keep reading to find out what fits your needs best.

Case for a student card as your first credit card

“I would be more strongly in favor of the well-researched student card,” said Jonathan Fox, professor and director of the Financial Counseling Clinic at Iowa State University.

The reason: “I don’t want to give someone an interest-free loan [of a security deposit],” he said. “I want to get [a short-term loan] from the credit card company.”

Unlike secured cards, you don’t typically need to make a security deposit to get a student card. However, note that student cards usually start with modest credit limits.

While the median credit limit for Americans is $31,015 (typically spread across multiple cards), the average college student can expect a more modest credit limit. First-time card owners with no credit history typically receive an initial credit line of $500 to $1,500, with some student cards offering credit limits as low as $100.

Low credit limits can be a challenge, as experts recommend never using more than 30% (much lower is even better) of your available credit in any one billing cycle. Otherwise, you could hurt your credit score.

Smart money: Keep a low credit utilization – the amount you have borrowed compared to your credit limit, and the second most important credit scoring factor after timely payments – by charging something small you would have purchased each month anyway. Then pay off the bill in full.

Benefits of student cards

  • These are traditional unsecured credit cards. Unlike secured cards, no security deposit is required.
  • Age may not matter, as long as you’re a student.
  • The average APR is around 16% – slightly lower than cash back, rewards or credit building cards.
  • Some student cards offer cash back rewards.
  • Many student credit cards charge no annual fee.

Drawbacks of student cards

  • They usually come with an initial lower credit limit.
  • Credit history may be required in order to qualify.
  • You must prove sufficient income.

Questions to ask potential issuers when considering a student card:

  • Who qualifies for a student card, and do you fit that profile? Issuers will verify your enrollment during the application process.
  • How long can you retain a student card? With some cards, such as Discover, you can keep a student card for life.
  • If you want a higher credit limit later on, how does that work? It can vary widely depending on the card and the applicant.

Case for a secured card as your first credit card

If you have the money, “I think that I’d go with the secured card,” said Jim Hawkins, law professor at the University of Houston Law Center and a consumer borrowing expert.

You control the credit line. Since the credit line is determined by – and often equal to – your security deposit, you and your wallet pretty much set that limit.

But some secured cards may give you a little more leeway. The Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card, for instance, sets the initial credit limit at $200. But the security deposit is $49, $99 or $200, depending on your credit history and credit score.

Because you pony up a deposit, many believe that money will cover purchases until they “reload” the card (similar to how debit cards, student ID account cards and gift cards work), Fox said.

Instead, users need to realize that the security deposit simply puts the card in their hands. And they need to pay for any purchases they make on the card – in addition to that deposit, he added.

If you’re shopping for a secured card, “the most important thing is to get the best secured card that will convert to an unsecured card and refund that deposit,” Fox recommended.

After a period of time, if you’ve paid bills in full and on time, you should have a pretty solid credit score. So, what’s the issuer’s road map for getting you an unsecured card?

  • Not every card converts. And there’s no norm when they do. Some card issuers will automatically start evaluating you for an unsecured account after a certain number of months.
  • Others make you ask. And some require that you apply for one of their unsecured cards and close the secured account to regain your deposit.
If you’re shopping for a secured card, “the most important thing is to get the best secured card that will convert to an unsecured card and refund that deposit,” Fox added.

Benefits of a secured card

  • Secured cards work like traditional credit card cards. They are easier to get with little or no credit.
  • They open up the path to graduate to an unsecured card. If you can establish a positive payment history, your card issuer may extend your credit limit or graduate you to an unsecured card.

Drawbacks of a secured card

  • You make a security deposit as collateral to secure the credit line. Credit lines are usually equal to your deposit, from several hundred dollars, up to five figures.
  • Issuers keep that security deposit until you close the account and pay off all your charges.
  • You must have sufficient income to qualify, despite the deposit.
  • Annual fees are common.
  • Many secured card issuers run a credit check.

Questions to ask potential issuers when considering a secured card

  • What’s required to retrieve your deposit when the time comes, and how long does that take? Issuers’ rules may differ so it’s important you know this information before you sign up.
  • How quickly can you increase your credit limit? For example, the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card gives you access to a higher credit line after making your first five payments on time.
  • How easy it is to turn your secured card into an unsecured card? For example, starting at seven months, the Discover it® Secured Credit Card automatically reviews the account monthly to see if it qualifies for a transition to an unsecured line of credit. If it does, you simply get back the deposit and keep the same card and account.

Remember: Your first card is a keeper

Regardless of which type of card you apply for; this will be your first card.

While you’re likely to graduate to a more “grown-up” card in the future, you’ll want to keep your first card open for a long time. Closing your oldest card can impact your length of credit history, which accounts for 15% of your FICO score.

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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