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Comparing Credit Card Offers for College Students
Updated: August 10, 2018
The best student credit cards help young adults build credit, learn good spending habits, and even reap rewards for good grades in college. Many major credit card issuers, like Chase, Citi, Discover, and Capital One, offer cards specially designed for students with little to no credit history. Use a student credit card responsibly, and you’ll be on your way to building a foundation of solid credit before you graduate.
Find the perfect student credit card for you by exploring top offers. Note that there are federal restrictions on issuing credit cards to individuals under 21.
In this guide to college student credit cards, you’ll learn:
Learn more about building your credit as a college student!
CreditCards.com's Best Student Credit Cards of 2018 (with ratings)
Our experts at CreditCards.com analyzed 109 student credit card offers to find our top recommendations. Below are our picks for the 5 best student credit cards. The Discover it Student Cash Back and Discover it Student chrome top our list because of their rewards rates and special perks for students.
|Best For:||Credit Card||Annual Fee||CreditCards.com Rating|
|Rotating bonus categories||Discover it Student Cash Back||$0||3.9 / 5|
|High cash back rates on common student purchases||Discover it Student chrome||$0||3.9 / 5|
|No foreign transaction fees and studying abroad||Journey Student Rewards from Capital One||$0||2.2 / 5|
|Additional perks like free Amazon Prime Student||Deserve Edu Mastercard for Students||$0||1.1 / 5|
|Sign-up bonus and rewards for going out||Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students||$0||2.4 / 5|
How we made our top picks
Although credit cards made specifically for students only make up a small fraction of all credit cards, we've thoroughly analyzed 109 of these student credit cards in order to choose the few best options for you. To arrive at the top 5 picks above, we used a robust set of criteria that included annual fee, regular APR, foreign transaction fee, sign-up bonus, credit needed, rewards rates and categories, redemption options, ease of application, student-specific benefits, customer service, and more. Of these different factors, the following were the most important in distinguishing credit cards from merely "good" to a top choice for students:
Credit needed: Chances are, if you are a student, your credit history is quite limited, if it exists at all. Therefore, we limited our picks to cards where you have decent approval odds, even without an established credit history or high credit score.
No annual fee: We stipulated that only products with a $0 annual fee could count themselves among the best student cards. As a student, the last thing you need is to be saddled with additional expenses.
No foreign transaction fee: In the same vein, you want to make sure you're not incurring extra costs during your spring break or semester abroad. This is where a card with no foreign transaction fees comes in handy.
Intro bonus offer: Only a handful of student credit cards come with a substantial intro bonus. These bonuses can put a substantial amount of money back in your wallet, which is one reason why Discover's cards (with their cashback match intro offer) take our top 2 spots.
Rewards: Students deserve to be rewarded for their card use as much as anyone else. Ideally, these rewards will be in relevant categories but even a flat 1% back on purchases can add up over time.
Student-specific benefits: Again, there are good credit cards and good credit cards for students. One differentiator of student credit cards versus any regular card are thoughtful benefits like free Amazon Prime Student membership or extra rewards for good grades.
Deeper dive into our best student credit cards
Discover it Student Cash Back
The Discover it Student Cash Back offers much of the same terms as its chrome variant, including no annual fee and good grades rewards. While the good grade reward feature and APR values match those of the Discover it Student chrome, the cash back does function differently with this card. With the Discover it Student Cash Back, you can enroll every quarter to earn 5% cash back on rotating categories (up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter). You'll also earn unlimited 1% cash back on everything else.
Note that unlike the chrome, the regular Discover it Student Cash Back has rotating categories and does require enrollment each quarter. But, it also offers a higher rate of 5% cash back (on up to $1,500 quarterly) on those categories. And, don't forget the great Discover feature of automatically matching your cash back at the end of your first year. When asked to pick the best credit card for students, our experts were torn between these two cards. The reality is they are both superb credit cards, especially for cash back; so the decision will come down to your personal spending preferences.
Discover it Student chrome
A cousin of the Discover it Student Cash Back, the Discover it Student chrome offers many of the same features and perks: no annual fee, no APR changes for late payments, and "good grades rewards." While those first two features shouldn't be taken for granted, a reward for good grades is definitely one of the more intriguing – and unique – perks among credit cards. Specifically, the Discover it chrome gives you a $20 statement credit for every year you finish with a 3.0 GPA or better, up to 5 years.
Where the Discover it Student chrome differs from its non-chrome variant is in how its cash back works. Whereas the regular Discover it Student Cash Back lets you earn cash back on categories that rotate each quarter, the chrome has a flat cash back rate with fixed categories: 2% at gas stations and restaurants (on up to $1,000 combined per quarter), and 1% on everything else (unlimited). But it's the cash back at year-end that makes the Discover products unique. Discover will match your cash back at the end of your first year automatically.
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One
The Journey Student Rewards card from Capital One provides all of the solid basic features you'd expect from a credit card for students, and also adds on some desirable perks to boot. One of the most important reasons to get a credit card as a student is to build up your credit, and the Journey offers access to a credit line increase after paying on time for your first 5 monthly bills. Paying on time is also made easier by the fact that you are allowed to choose your own monthly due date.
Additionally, the card earns you 1% cash back on all purchases – this cash back rate actually goes up to 1.25% if you pay on time, a nice incentive for young cardholders to build good financial habits. It also comes with no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, and even fraud coverage in the event your card is lost or stolen. With its flexibility, lack of fees, and solid cash back offering, the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One makes for a worthy first credit card in any student's wallet.
Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
The Deserve Edu Mastercard is another great option to help build your credit history while earning unlimited 1% cash back. Like our other top picks, it comes with no annual fee, helping keep money in your pockets for tuition and ramen purchases. It also offers some benefits that are hard to come by – for instance, a $49 credit for your Amazon Prime Student membership.
As part of the Mastercard network, the Deserve Edu student card provides its fair share of perks, including no foreign transaction fees, price protection, travel assistance, extended warranty, and ID theft protection. Perhaps most surprisingly, it offers a credit line of up to $5,000 which is quite high among student credit cards, even as an upper limit.
Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students
The Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students boasts a feature that is rare among student credit cards: a sign-up bonus. After making $500 in purchases in your first 3 months, you earn 2,500 ThankYou points that are redeemable for a $25 gift card. While this isn't the meatiest sign-up bonus in the world, it's still a solid chunk of change that's good for a couple movie tickets or Cards Against Humanity.
Of course, the sign-up bonus isn't the only notable feature of this Citi card. It also earns 2 points per dollar spent on dining out and entertainment, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. There are no limits or expirations on these points, so you can confidently rack up the earnings.
What Other Credit Card Experts are Saying
Stefanie O’Connell, millennial personal finance author
Favorite student card: Discover it® Student Cash Back
"With low interest rates, no annual fee and valuable tools to help new credit users keep track of their payments and build their credit, The Discover it Student Cash Back credit card is a great option."
Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, MakingSenseofCents.com
Favorite student card: Discover it® Student Cash Back
"What do good grades and your credit card have in common? Did you know that you can earn money for your good grades? The Discover it® Student Cash Back card gives you a $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to next five years."
Rebecca Lake, personal finance journalist
Favorite student card: Discover it® Student Cash Back
"Discover it Student Cash Back is my top pick, based on rewards earning potential and other card perks. The rotating 5 percent quarterly cash back rewards bonus* offers students variety in terms of where they can max out their cash back earnings, and they still get the benefit of unlimited 1 percent cash back on non-bonus category spending."
Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst, CreditCards.com
Favorite student card: Discover it® Student chrome
"The Discover It Student chrome card really keeps its target audience in mind. It gives you a $20 statement credit every year your GPA is 3.0 or higher**, along with matching all the cash back you earn at the end of the first year with the card. More important, however, it promises that students won't get hit with a penalty fee the first time they're late with a payment. Lastly, there are no rotating bonus categories to worry with. Students are busy enough as it is, and Discover seems to recognize that."
* Up to $1,500 per quarter; enrollment required
** Up to the next 5 years
Why college students should have a credit card
Adulting is hard. Don't make it harder than it has to be. Pay your bills on time. Don't take out more student loans than you have to. And for heaven's sake, get a credit card and take care of it. Here, we look at some pretty good reasons for getting a credit card.
Reasons to get a credit card
The easiest and fastest way to build credit is with a credit card. You can do it other ways, such as on-time payments of a student loan, but scoring models particularly love it when you use a credit card properly. Within a few months, you can build your credit, getting you ready to buy that sweet, sweet ride, to rent your dream apartment or even to take out a mortgage. Want to bypass getting a card? Know that you may delay building your credit to the best score you could otherwise get.
It's a good idea to have a credit card to practice on. With a student card, you can get in the habit of paying in full and on time each month, getting your score closer to your goal with each month. Also, you can practice using rewards, building your points or cash back with every purchase. Finally, by having a credit card, you can get in the habit of simply using it each month, whether for a gym membership, at restaurants or each time you get gas – because, remember, you want to make sure you keep the account active, so that your good credit habits are showing up on your credit reports.
One of the best reasons for getting a credit card is for the convenience. Rather than getting loaded down with a heavy wallet or bulky purse, sometimes it's nice to just have your keys, card and driver license. Just think – you can pay at the pump, at Starbucks or through the drive-thru in a flash. While there are a few occasions when cash is needed, increasingly, credit cards are king, particularly when shopping online.
Consumers preferred to pay by credit card...
- Department store
- In-dining restaurants
- At the pump
- TSYS study
Get an upgrade.
Many student credit card accounts can eventually be upgraded, pending good credit history. If you behave responsibly, you can get an increase in your credit limit, or even have a secured account transferred to an unsecured account, meaning your deposit is refunded or put toward your balance.
Things to watch out for
Have plans to shop for the fall wardrobe you wouldn't be able to buy otherwise? Don't. Just don't. Here are some times when you SHOULDN'T take out a card.
Don't transfer some loans to your card.
While balance transfer cards will typically allow you to transfer a non-card loan, there are some cases when it's a bad idea. For example, a low-interest student or car loan is best staying where it is.
Don't make a purchase you can't pay back.
A weekend in Vegas won't stay in Vegas when you use a credit card, because the charges will be there for you to pay when your due date comes. Avoid putting charges on your card that you don't have the funds to pay back right away. Many cards charge a late fee and might even up your interest rate, although some, such as the Discover cards, don't charge a late fee for the first late payment and APRs aren't hiked.
Don't take out a card without a budget.
Better yet, make sure you have the funds before you make any purchases. The best way to do this is with a budget that tracks what you will put on your card. That way, at the end of the month, there are no surprises.
What to expect from student credit cards
Student credit cards have a number of features, as in the case of general purpose cards. Student cards are typically unsecured, which means no security deposit is required, the credit limit is usually lower, and the average APR on student cards is 16.48%.
There are also a number of other benfits that can come with student credit cards – rewards, security, auto insurance – student cards' offerings run the gamut. Based on the 10 student cards from our July poll, here's what you should and should not expect:
- Rewards programs – Nine of the 10 cards surveyed offer a rewards program. Six offer cash back. Two offer point rewards and one offers travel rewards. Although student rewards credit cards don't necessarily require a stellar credit history, if you are under 21, they will require that you have a source of reliable, independent income. One particularly rewarding card is the Discover it Student chrome, which offers 2% back on restaurants and gas stations up to $1,000 spend each quarter and double your cash back at the end of your first year.
- Auto insurance – Four cards offer rental car coverage. Two offer extended warranty coverage and one offers price protection.
- Security – The 2 student Discover cards now offer a Social Security monitoring service that scans the dark web for stolen information. Both cards also offer credit-monitoring services that alert students when an account has been opened in their name. Some cards also help students avoid identity theft. Two cards offer credit-freezing services that allow students to instantly lock their cards if they lose them. Six of the cards surveyed offer cardholders a free FICO score.
- Rewards for good grades – Discover's student cards offer a $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years. Emina Dautovic, a senior marketing manager at Discover, says the feature is designed to connect good behavior with education to good credit behavior.
- Foreign transaction fee – Five student cards waive foreign transaction fees, including the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One.
- Miscellaneous – Two cards, including the Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card, offer cellphone insurance of up to $600 ($25 deductible) on covered damages and theft if you pay your bill each month with the card. One card offers free Amazon Prime student membership and substantial discounts.
How to get your first credit card
When you’re ready to get your first credit card, do your homework. Check your credit reports, find your credit score, and research cards that fit your needs. There are a number of student credit cards available, most with unique features and conditions. Take special notice of annual fees, rewards offered, and APRs.
Narrow your selection and apply to only one card. Every time you apply for a credit card (this is called a “hard pull”), it’s noted on your credit report. Multiple applications can negatively impact your credit score and make it more difficult to get approved for a card.
Once you have been approved, limit your spending to manageable balances and pay the bill in full and on time each month.
Understanding your credit card's features
All credit cards share similar properties, but especially in the case of student credit cards, specific features can vary greatly. Take the time to discover the conditions your card carries and you will be in a better position to take full advantage of your credit.
Key features to take note of:
- APR — The annual percentage rate is the interest you will be charged on balances carried from month to month. If you pay your credit card balance in full every month, you won’t be charged interest.
- Credit limit — The credit limit is the maximum dollar amount you can charge to your charge in any billing period (typically a month). For most student credit cards, the limit is $1,000 or less. If you pay your bills on time, card issuers may increase your limit.
- Rewards — Many credit cards, student cards included, offer rewards to the user. Rewards include cash back, points, and sign-up bonuses. Cash back is simply a percentage of the charges you make credited back to your account. Rewards points can usually be redeemed for gift cards, electronics, and other prizes. Consider your spending habits and make sure to apply for the card that offers you rewards that are most relevant to you.
Unique advantages of student credit cards
Student credit cards are specifically tailored to college students and their unique financial position. Unlike secured credit cards, true student cards don’t require deposits, or “down payments.” Although they may carry higher APR than other credit cards, student cards don’t require good or excellent credit. This spells the perfect scenario for young people:
- Gain access to credit from major credit card issuers, in spite of little or no credit history.
- Benefit from special rewards like bonuses for good grades.
- Practice good budgeting and spending habits.
The true cost of credit cards
Most college students are aware that credit cards carry an interest rate, though not all are cognizant of the various additional fees. These include:
- Annual fees. Though most student credit cards do not have annual fees, many rewards cards typically do. This fee is usually $50-$500.
- Balance transfer fees. When opening a student credit card, transferring an existing balance from a different card onto it is not advised. One can take the debt from one credit card and transfer it to another, though doing this usually comes with a “Balance Transfer APR.”
- Cash advance fees. Users can pull cash from their credit card, usually with an extremely high APR.
- Foreign transaction fees. Planning on studying abroad? Note that many cards have foreign transaction fees. Using your new credit card outside of the US will cost you extra, usually at a rate of a few percent more per purchase.
Beyond traditional fees, there are penalty APRs that come into effect when minimum payments are not met for three consecutive months. Penalty APRs are usually the highest interest rates credit card holders will experience. Also, note that failing to pay off your balance can negatively affect your credit score and rack up interest charges and potentially late fees.
Let's say you use a credit card that carries a 24.99% variable APR. If you spend $300 in the first month and choose to pay off your balance on time, you will pay a total of $300. If you fail to pay on time, your balance will accumulate interest. Next month, before paying the minimum payment, your balance will be $306.25 ($300 + $6.25 interest).
The bottom line — Use your credit card for convenience on small purchases and pay it off every month. Do this and you’ll avoid overwhelming credit card debt and a damaged credit score.
How to use your student credit card properly (and pitfalls to avoid)
With a few easy steps, you can ensure that you take wise care of your new card, all while building your credit and enjoying the convenience of having a card. We also look at what to avoid when using a card.
Tips for using your card
Excited but nervous about your new card? That's normal. By taking prudent steps and making sure you stay focused on building credit, you'll be fine. Here's what you need to know:
Stay within your limit.
Yes, you may have a $1,000 credit limit, but you can eat that up quickly with a weekend trip or a few nights' entertainment. But it's important to make sure you don't go over your credit limit, because it can trigger a fee, although some, such as the Deserve Edu, don't charge an over limit fee.
Pay in full.
One of the things scoring models track is how much available credit you have. The more the better. The best way to keep your balance low is to pay your card bill in full each month.
Another reason to pay in full each month: You will be able to avoid paying interest charges, which are incurred when you carry over a balance. Here's what will happen if you carry a balance:
|Balance||APR||Monthly payment||Interest paid||Months to pay off|
|$1,000||17%||3% or $25 minimum||$451.55||57|
|$1,000||17%||Pay in full||$0||0|
As you can see, you'll pay almost half of the balance in interest charges if you just pay the minimum. But if you pay more than the minimum, you can decrease the amount of time it takes you to pay, as well as lower the amount in interest charges. Pay in full? No interest charges.
Pay several times a month.
Because you don't know when the card issuer will send your information to the credit bureaus, there is the risk that you will not have paid off a high charge yet, even though you pay in full before the due date. The trick around this is to pay in full 2-3 times a month. That way your credit utilization ratio stays low.
Your credit utilization ratio is the amount you owe by the available credit you have. So if you have $1,000 in available credit, and you owe $100, your ratio is 10%.
Anthony Sprauve, spokesman for myFICO.com, says people with scores of 750 and above use an average of 7% of their available credit. Although those with higher credit scores tend to have higher credit limits, it is still an important lesson to learn. Sprauve says:, "If people stay somewhere between 10 and 20 percent range, that's a good place to be." By utilizing less of your credit limit, you're indicating that although you use credit, you're not overly reliant on it.
Pay on time.
Pay late, and you can end up paying a late fee and even eventually getting your account closed. Add to that, every late payment goes on your credit report and stays there for 7 years. The easiest thing to do is to simply pay on time each and every time.
Make sure you use your card.
Don't get lulled into bad advice and put your card in your sock drawer. If you want to build your credit, you have to use the card. Why? Because the card issuer might close the account for lack of use. If you're worried about going over budget, use your card for a single purchase each month, such as a recurring bill, and put it on auto debit. Just make sure the bill is paid each month.
What to avoid when using your card
Here are a few tips about the things you SHOULDN'T do with your card:
Don't forget about your card.
Whether it's paying on time or using it each month, make sure you stay mindful that you actually have a card. Use monthly reminders, put it on your calendar – anything that will help you remember to use it and pay it.
Don't incur a balance.
As tempting as it is to have $1,000 or so at your disposal, avoid spending if you might have a high balance. Not only can it impact your credit score, you can end up paying hundreds of dollars with an endless cycle of debt. As you can see here, you can save on interest when you pay in less time.
Don't lend your card to someone.
If you lend your card, know that you are responsible for any charges they make. The card issuer won't consider it theft if you gave the person access to your card. Your best bet? Just don't lend it out in the first place.
Expenses to put on your student credit card
Using a credit card in college is about keeping bills manageable and slowly building credit. If after pulling your credit report and checking your credit score, you feel you are likely to be approved for a student credit card with rewards, all the better. If not, use your first credit card as a stepping stone to the future.
How you use your card is dependent on your card's purpose.
If it's solely to build credit – Keep it simple, and use it for a single purpose, such as your gym membership. With just one charge a month, paid in full and on time, you can build your credit in no time.
If it's for rewards-building – Put everything you can on it, provided you have the cash to pay it back before the bill comes due. But beware that some merchants, such as colleges and universities, charge a convenience fee, which can negate those rewards, so ask.
If it's for convenience – Make a budget for what you plan to use the card for, and stick to it. So, you might just use it for gas, online and dining at restaurants, but not for lattes or for bills.
What about tuition?
Many universities and colleges charge a convenience fee when you pay tuition, so check before you punch in that card number. A convenience fee of say, 3%, is tacked on to your bill, and that can add up. If the charge for your semester is $5,000, then count on paying $150 just for the honor of using your card.
How college students can build credit
How college students can build credit
More than two-thirds of students said they weren't confident that they could pay off the debt they acquired in school, according to Trellis Company, and almost half say they have run out of money at least 3 times in the last year. That means the first thing you need to do when striking out on your own is learning how to budget.
In a nutshell, write down everything you spent in the last month, no exceptions. Then, add something for savings, even if it's $50. Once you add everything, pare back if you need to in order to match your incoming funds with your outgoing, although you want to save a little something for fun or you won't stick to the plan. Keep in mind that there are myriad things we forget to budget for.
If you use a credit card, build those expenditures into your budget, marking them as card spending, but making sure they are part of the bottom line. There are some excellent tools out there for helping you manage your budget, if you are so inclined.
Credit tips for students
Building credit is pretty much the same for all consumers, but there are a couple of extra hoops for a consumer under 21. That's because the Credit CARD Act of 2009 put in place protections designed to make sure predatory lenders don't take advantage of unsuspecting young adults. Bottom line: While you can get a card of your own in theory when you turn 18, you'll need your own income, no matter how small, until you are 21.
As with all adult consumers, you'll want to pay your bills on time, get a credit card as soon as you are able and keep your card debt low.
Some 43.5% of students reported that they did not have a credit card and 32% only had one card, according to Ohio State's National Student Financial Wellness Study from 2015. But one card is enough to help you build your credit. If you are under 21, as you know, there are limitations in place, but there are some ways your parents can help.
Credit tips for parents
There are a number of ways to help your kids build their credit. Whatever your comfort level, you can help them in a big way, whether it's making them an authorized user or just sharing a few valuable tips. So, here goes:
Make your student an authorized user
The easiest way and fastest way to build credit is with a credit card, but that can be a tough nut to crack for consumers under 21 years old. Luckily, there's a way to help your student improve her credit relatively easily – make her an authorized user.
An authorized user benefits from your credit habits, but she isn't responsible for the balance. Another great benefit – it's easy to be placed on the account and even easy to be taken off. However, there are a few things to know:
- When she is removed from your card, the card drops off of her credit files, which means your good habits are no longer there. That's why she needs to get a card of her own when she can.
- Make sure the card issuer will report to all three major credit bureaus for her credit files. Some don't. If you don't make sure of this, then her credit may not benefit.
- Ensure that you have good credit and keep paying your bills on time, so that she benefits.
- The authorized user doesn't have to be 18, which means you could give your underage teen a card, depending on the card issuer.
Consider secured cards
If your student has some independent income, then a secured card might be a good choice. In some cases they have rewards and even no annual fee. Ideally, you want a student card with no annual fee that isn't secured (such as the Discover it Student Cash Back), but a secured card is a good Plan B.
Teach them proper card use
If you and your student feel she's ready for a credit card, it's now time for some ground rules. Even if you choose to make her an authorized user, establish these rules:
- Have her track her spending and tell you when it reaches a certain amount during the month. If it's her card, help her set up alerts so that she knows when she's approaching her monthly limit.
- Give her a limit for emergencies, and make sure she tells you immediately when they occur. With her own card, she needs to make sure she has a place in her budget for emergencies so the card isn't a crutch.
- Make her responsible for her spending. Set up a system in which she pays you the same time every month, like a bill. With her own card, help her set up a monthly reminder to pay the card on time.
- Teach her to pay in full each month, so that she's building good credit habits.
- Show her how to check her credit score and credit reports regularly, either through creditcards.com or with MyFICO.com and AnnualCreditReport.com.
Tell your student about co-signing
A friend or roommate may at some point ask your student to co-sign for them on a card or loan, particularly if she has independent income. The simple answer: Don't do it.
Co-signing makes her equally responsible for the bills, even if it's the friend's car. Even if there's no falling out between them, your student can easily lose track of whether the payments are being made on time and only get the bad news after the account has gone in arrears. Also, it's very difficult to be removed from an account as a co-signer, unlike an authorized user. While it's unlikely she would be asked to co-sign for a card, because few if any card issuers accept co-signers, she might be asked to be on the hook for a car or personal loan.
Teach your student about budgeting
Sit down with her and show her – on a spreadsheet, an app, whatever – how you manage your budget each month. Make sure she understands that this is a monthly affair, not a one-time endeavor. Be sure to give her tips about how to track her card spending so that she doesn't do the "spending shuffle" and make purchases without a care in the world.
Griffin Miller is a personal finance writer at Bankrate, specializing in credit cards. He frequently contributes research, guides, and advice to CreditCards.com. You can reach Griffin at email@example.com.
Laura Mohammad is an editor and writer at CreditCards.com. She regularly covers the best credit cards and works to bring you the most up-to-date analysis and advice. You can reach Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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