A guide to student credit cards
The best student credit cards help young adults build credit, learn good spending habits, and even reap rewards while 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.
Exploring the top offers will help find the perfect student credit card for you. Note that there are federal restrictions on issuing credit cards to individuals under 21, but there are some exceptions to look into.
In this guide to college student credit cards, you’ll learn:
Editor’s picks: Student credit card details
Discover it® Student Cash Back: Best for everyday spending
Why we picked it: The Discover it Student Cash Back gives 5% cash back on a different category each quarter (such as gas stations, restaurants, Amazon.com, etc.) up to the combined quarterly maximum, then 1% (activation required), plus 1% cash back on all other purchases. With calculated spending, students can take advantage of strong rewards while sticking to a college budget.
Pros: With the good grades program, you can earn a $20 statement credit each school year that your GPA is 3.0 or higher (for up to the next 5 years), giving you a little extra cash in your pocket. The no annual fee card also offers a 0% intro APR for your first 6 months on purchases (12.99% to 21.99% variable thereafter), allowing you to carry an interest-free balance during that time period. Also, Discover will match the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, increasing the value of your rewards. Thanks to this perk, it’s no surprise that this card and the Discover it Student chrome are considered to be two of the top choices by our experts.
Cons: The rotating categories may not be helpful for someone just starting out because it takes a fair amount of organization to use – you have to sign up each quarter and track which categories apply for those 3 months. Also, there’s no sign-up bonus, so you have to wait until the end of your first year to get your boosted rewards.
Who should apply? Any student prepared to get started with a credit card should take a good look at the Discover it Student Cash Back. Its affordability and consistent rewards are some of the best in its class, and you can take advantage of Discover matching your cash back at the end of the first year.
Read our Discover it® Student Cash Back review.
Discover it® Student chrome: Best for cash back
Why we picked it: With this no annual fee card, you’ll earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants for up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter (then 1%) and 1% on all other purchases. Plus, all the cash back you earn is matched at the end of your first year thanks to Discover.
Pros: This card comes with several perks: no credit history required, access to your FICO score, no APR changes for late payments and Discover’s good grades rewards. Another notable feature is the 6-month introductory 0% APR on purchases (then 12.99% to 21.99%, variable).
Cons: There aren’t many downfalls when it comes to this card – just be sure to pay your bill on time to avoid any interest charges. Even though there is no penalty APR for late payments, a late payment fee of up to $40 will apply after your first time.
Who should apply? Thanks to high-traffic categories, matching cash back and a slew of benefits, the Discover it Student chrome might be the most well-rounded student card out there. It’s a great option for anyone getting started.
Read our Discover it Student chrome review.
Chase Freedom® Student credit card: Best for sign-up bonus
Why we picked it: The Chase Freedom Student is one of the rare student credit cards to offer a sign-up bonus: New cardholders earn a $50 bonus after their first purchase is made within the first 3 months from account opening.
Pros: Cardholders earn 1% cash back on all purchases, and through March 2022, you can earn an additional 4% cash back on Lyft rides. There’s also a $20 Good Standing Reward: Cardholders receive 2,000 points (or $20) after each account anniversary year for their first 5 years if their account is in good standing (meaning their minimum payments are being made on time). Additionally, this card comes with no annual fee, a low APR (14.99% variable) and access
to a free look at your credit score each month.
Cons: While the base rewards earnings (1% cash back on general purchases) are good, there are a few student credit cards that could net you more cash back, depending on your spending habits. For instance, the Discover it® Student Cash Back offers stronger rewards on rotating quarterly bonus categories.
Who should apply? Students looking for consistent earnings without extra homework would benefit from this card. Plus, getting started with a Chase card can lead to great graduation opportunities in the future and the chance to get familiarized with Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Read our Chase Freedom® Student credit card review.
Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card: Best for no fees
Why we picked it: Students shouldn’t have to worry about paying credit card fees. To get you off on the right foot, the Petal 2 Visa credit card comes with no fees whatsoever – no late fee, international fee, annual fee or any other kind of fee.
Pros: You’ll get 1% cash back on eligible purchases, and after you make 12 on-time monthly payments, your cash back rate increases up to 1.5%. For students just beginning to learn the ropes of credit, this is a great incentive for creating healthy financial habits. Also, you can earn 2% – 10% cash back at select merchants.
Cons: Watch out for the high APR on purchases, which is 12.99% to 26.99%, variable. If you can’t pay in full each month, you’ll do better to find a credit card with a low interest rate.
Who should apply? Any student prepared to make the payments required with a credit card should look into the Petal 2 Visa card. With cash back opportunities and no fees, this is an excellent choice if you can avoid carrying a balance.
Read our Petal 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card review.
Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students: Best for Amazon Prime
Why we picked it: This card offers some benefits that are hard to come by – for instance, an intriguing sign-up bonus: One year of Amazon Prime Student after spending $500 in the first 3 billing cycles (lifetime value of $59), a unique feature for the student who buys textbooks on Amazon.
Pros: The Deserve EDU Mastercard is a solid option to help build your credit history. Like our other top picks, it comes with no annual fee, plus other perks like no foreign transaction fees, no credit history needed, price protection, travel assistance, extended warranty and ID theft protection.
Cons: This card’s 1% cash back on all purchases can be easily beat by its competitors. Also, there’s no introductory APR offer or cash sign-up bonus.
Who should apply? This card can be a great choice if you don’t have a traditional credit history, if you’re an international student or if you’re especially interested in the free shipping and streaming options provided by Amazon Prime. Otherwise, if you qualify for competing student cards, you may want to look in their direction.
Read our Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students review.
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One: Best for students studying abroad
Why we picked it: The Journey Student Rewards card not only rewards you with up to 1.25% cash back if you pay on time for the month – a nice incentive for young cardholders to build good financial habits – it also comes with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee, making it a good choice for a semester abroad.
Pros: The Journey Student Rewards card will automatically consider you for a credit line increase after paying on time for your first 6 monthly bills. Also, there are bonus incentives for paying on time, which is made easier by the fact that you are allowed to choose your own monthly due date.
Cons: There’s a lot to love about the Journey Student Rewards card, but you’ll have to avoid carrying a balance if you’re a cardholder. Its APR is on the high side of things (26.99%, variable).
Who should apply? Those looking to study abroad or spend internationally should consider this card. Any student or novice cardholder looking for solid rewards and a flexible payment schedule might be a perfect match.
Read our Journey Student Rewards from Capital One review.
Greenlight Debit Card: Best for kids
Why we picked it: The Greenlight Debit Card isn’t a credit card; it’s a prepaid debit card designed to help parents teach their kids about saving, spending and the basics of personal finance. Learn how the Greenlight Debit Card works.
Pros: The Greenlight Debit Card pairs with an educational app that helps kids track their balances, complete chores to earn money and more. The app comes with parental controls, so parents can – among other things – turn the card on or off, make sure their kids only spend at certain places, give allowances and create savings goals for their child.
Cons: You’ll pay a monthly fee of $4.99 to $9.98 (or $59.88 to $119.76 per year), depending on what Greenlight plan you opt for. Also, although it’s a great teaching tool, the activity from this debit card won’t impact your credit score.
Who should apply? Parents trying to get a young adult up to speed on how to manage a card account could find the Greenlight to be a great choice. However, if you’re looking for rewards or a way to boost credit, this card isn’t the answer for you.
Read our Greenlight Debit Card review.
Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card: Best for no credit history
Why we picked it: The Petal 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card charges no annual fee and, unlike some other cards geared to people with no credit, it doesn’t require a security deposit, so it’s an option for students who are looking to minimize the costs of a credit card.
Pros: Cardholders could get a relatively high credit limit (anywhere from $500 to $5,000), depending on their credit history and financial standing. The Petal app also features money-management and credit building tools that students may find useful. Also, although there used to be no rewards offered with this card, now you can earn 2% to 10% cash back with select merchants.
Cons: The card touts a pricey purchase annual percentage rate of 19.99% to 29.49% variable, so it’s not ideal for students who may carry a balance. If you fear you might fall into that category, particularly in an attempt to earn rewards, you might be better off looking into a secured credit card with a lower APR.
Who should apply? If you’re just beginning your journey towards good credit, this card’s low cost and credit building capabilities make it a good choice to start with. Just remember to pay off your balance to avoid those high interest charges.
Read our Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card review.
Discover it® Secured Credit Card: Best secured student credit card
Why we picked it: If your credit score is preventing you from opening an account, secured cards can be a surefire way in. Like most secured credit cards, the Discover it® Secured Credit Card requires a security deposit to open an account. This option’s minimum deposit is quite low at just $200. Plus, there’s no annual fee.
Pros: Not all secured cards offer the ability to earn rewards. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card truly stands out, offering 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants (up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, then 1%) and 1% cash back on all other purchases. On top of that, they’ll match all the cash back you earn in your first year. Additionally, this card comes with benefits built to help your credit score, such as a review for a credit line increase after 8 months.
Cons: The APR for purchases is unusually high (22.99%, variable). If there’s a chance you might be carrying a balance, you should prioritize a low interest rate over this card’s excellent rewards structure. Also, putting down the deposit up front might not be a realistic payment schedule for everyone.
Who should apply? Those looking to get started with a secured option should look no further. The Discover it Secured card might be the best of its kind, offering easy access, strong rewards and credit building opportunities.
Read our Discover it® Secured Credit Card review.
Comparing the best student credit cards
Our experts at CreditCards.com analyzed 109 student credit card offers to find our top recommendations. Below are our picks for the 9 best student credit cards. The Discover it Student Cash Back tops our list as the best credit card for students because of its rewards rates and special perks, but there are several strong options:
|Credit Card||Best For||Annual Fee||Review Rating|
|Discover it® Student Cash Back||Everyday spending||$0||4.1 / 5|
|Discover it® Student chrome||Cash back||$0||4.1 / 5|
|Chase Freedom® Student credit card||Sign-up bonus||$0||3.5 / 5|
|Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card||No fees||$0||4.2 / 5|
|Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students||Amazon Prime Student||$0||2.6 / 5|
|Journey Student Rewards from Capital One||Students studying abroad||$0||2.8 / 5|
|Greenlight Debit Card||Kids||$4.99 per month||N/A|
|Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card||No credit history||$0||3.1 / 5|
|Discover it® Secured Credit Card||Secured||$0||4.1 / 5|
How we picked the best student credit cards
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.
What is a student credit card?
Student credit cards are designed for people with limited credit history, whether they’re building credit while in school or they’re just a newcomer to the world of credit. Student credit cards differ from regular credit cards in a couple ways. For example, when compared to traditional rewards cards, student cards lack the large sign-up bonuses, the required credit score will usually be lower for a student card, and you won’t start with as high of a credit limit. Finally, student cards will sometimes have special features specific to the needs of college students.
The specific features of student cards can vary greatly. For example, only 2 of the 11 student cards we surveyed offered a bonus worth more than $200, and one had a $50 sign-up bonus.
Still not sure why you should get a credit card? Because of the way scoring models are set up, the easiest way to build credit is with a credit card. In addition, credit cards are safer than debit cards because of federal protections that are in place.
How do student credit cards work?
Here we’ll look at how to get your first credit card and how to understand the features of the card:
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.
How to get a student credit card with no credit or bad credit
Just because you’re a college student doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get approved for a student card. Because of the Credit CARD Acts of 2009, a consumer under 21 must have their own source of income, even if the card requires no credit. Otherwise, applying for a card, no matter your credit, is pretty much the same – you need to make sure you have the right required credit, and you will be asked a series of questions on the application that will help the card issuer decide if you are a good credit risk. If you don’t qualify for a student card, a secured credit card may be a better choice for you.
Is a secured card a good choice for a student?
One thing to note: 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 17.79%.
How do I build my credit as a college student?
When used responsibly, a student credit card can be a great tool for building your credit history. It’s just imperative that as a college student, you’re on top of your spending and you know what it takes to stay on track financially. Here are some good tips to keep in mind as you begin your credit journey:
- Pay your balance in full each month. This is one of the most important habits to establish as a new cardholder. When you pay off your balance each month it helps your credit score and prevents interest from accumulating.
- Track your spending. Use your card for the smaller, everyday purchases, like gas and groceries. Some cards offer tools like spending trackers, but there are also apps that you can download to keep track of where you have room to spend more and where you need to cut back. You can also set alerts that will notify you when you’re reaching your monthly spending limit.
- Budget. You need a budget and a limit for emergencies when they inevitably happen. It’s important to plan out a certain amount each month for emergencies, so if something does happen, you won’t be left with an unexpected balance you can’t pay off.
- Be responsible with your payments. Set up a system in which you pay the same time every month, like a bill. Some cards offer a monthly reminder to pay on time, but if your card doesn’t offer that feature, designate a day and time each month to pay off your balance.
- Last but not least, check your credit score and credit reports. You can access your credit reports for free each year through AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can access your credit score through MyFICO.com for about $20 each. Also, some cards offer the feature of free access to your credit score.
A secured card, which requires a refundable deposit, can also 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, but a secured card is a good Plan B. You can build credit with a secured card, and in some cases, the issuer will consider advancing you to an unsecured account for good credit habits.
Understanding your student credit card’s features
There are a number of moving parts to a credit card, for example:
APR – The annual percentage rate is the interest you will be charged on balances carried from month to month.
Credit limit – The credit limit is the maximum dollar amount you can charge at any point. For most student credit cards, the limit is $1,000 or less.
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 travel, gift cards, electronics, and other prizes.
There are also fees to be aware of, including:
- 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. These fees can run 3%-5% or $5-$10, whichever is greater.
- Cash advance fees. Users can pull cash from their credit card, usually with an extremely high APR.
- Foreign transaction fees. Typically about 3%, these can put a crimp in your plans to travel abroad for Spring Break or to study, so check for this.
- Convenience fees. Occasionally charged by the merchant, you can end up paying about 3% for tuition by using your credit card, so ask your school first.
There are also penalty APRs that can come into effect when minimum payments are not met. Penalty APRs are usually the highest interest rates credit cardholders will experience.
Credit card tips for parents with college students
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 their credit relatively easily – make them an authorized user.
For this example, let’s say you’re making your daughter an authorized user – meaning she’ll benefit 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.
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. She can access her credit reports for free each year through AnnualCreditReport.com, and she can access her credit scores through MyFICO.com for about $20 each.
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 become a problem. 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 begin to freely make purchases without a care in the world.
What should you do with your student credit card when you graduate?
If you are preparing to graduate this year, you’ll likely want to think through your credit and credit card. Should you add a card? Maybe lose the card you have? And what do these actions do to your credit? Here’s what we have to say about that.
Should I get rid of my credit card?
Unless you have an annual fee, there is pretty much no reason to get rid of the credit card, and even then you want to make sure there are no benefits to counterbalance getting rid of the card. In fact, holding onto the card may help your credit score, and it may be time for some upgrades.
Can I get a credit limit increase?
The biggest change you might want to make is to get the credit limit increased. Here’s how: Once you start your new job out of college, contact the card issuer, and just ask. With your new salary, you should get a sizable increase, which helps with your available credit if you have a balance.
Can I upgrade my card?
Here’s another tip: Check with your card issuer and see if you qualify for an upgrade that will allow you to keep your credit history. You might be able to graduate from a 1% cash back card to a 1.5% cash back card, for example. Just make sure it’s an upgrade and not a new account so that your history continues to grow. Also, there should be no hard inquiry if it’s an upgrade.
Should I add a credit card?
With all the cards available today, you can build points and cash back, earning for spending every day. They can even reward you for your loyalty to your favorite airline or hotel. Also, credit cards are one of the fastest ways to a great credit score, unlocking doors to new opportunities. Look at our best credit cards to see if there is one that suits you.