After 20 hours of research evaluating 120 products, we picked Discover it® for Students as our top choice.
It’s difficult to focus on furthering your education when you’re hungry, yet approximately 50% of college students confess they often can’t afford healthy food.
Combine that with the fact that the average college textbook costs $82 and one year of tuition at an in-state public college comes to around $25,000, and it’s easy to see why many college students rely on credit cards to help them survive.
If you're going to use a credit card in college, make sure you choose one of the best credit cards for students, because they will afford you a lot of benefits.
Even if you’ve got a generous financial aid package, you may still need money to study abroad during the summer, head home to visit loved ones on holidays, or simply pay for basic necessities like soap and shampoo.
It's important to start building up your credit score now. Some employers run credit checks, and your current score might attract rejection letters rather than employment offers. You may also feel it’s important to establish a line of credit with the best student credit cards so you can buy a house or get a car loan in the near future.
More than half of college students carry credit cards, so we want to help you make informed choices about your financial future. After thoroughly researching hundreds of student-friendly credit options, we feel confident recommending the following cards as the best credit cards for college students.
Hey, before we go…
Please make sure you don’t apply for too many credit cards. Doing that won’t help your credit score - or your bank account when you’re stuck juggling all those monthly payments.
Oh, and check out our list of the best secured credit cards if you can’t score approvals for any of the best credit cards for students. Regardless of what you're looking for, we’ve got you covered!
Editorial Note: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.
This article was last updated July 10, 2018 but some terms and conditions may have changed or are no longer available. For the most accurate and up to date information please consult the terms and conditions found on the issuer website.
Application Process: Apply online and get a response within 60 seconds.
Rewards: Earn 2X points on dining out and entertainment, and 1X points on all other purchases.
Bonus Offers: Earn 2,500 points after you spend $500 in the first three months — that's worth $25 in gift cards, electronics, and other great rewards.
Annual Fee: None.Details:Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students »
Application Process: Apply online and get a response within 60 seconds.
Rewards: Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your rewards rate to 1.25%.
Bonus Offers: None
Annual Fee: None.Details:Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® »
Application Process: Apply online or visit your local Bank of America branch. Some applicants receive an instant decision online.
Rewards: Earn 1% cash back on every purchase, 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 3% on gas for the first $2,500 in combined grocery/wholesale club/gas purchases each quarter.
Bonus Offers: Online $150 cash rewards bonus after making at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening.
Annual Fee: None.Details:Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students »
Application Process: Apply online and get a response in 60 seconds.
Rewards: Earn 5% cash back on rotating categories such as Amazon.com, transportation, restaurants and more, for up to $1,500 spending per quarter with 1% cash back on all other categories.
Bonus Offers: Discover will match all the cash back you earn in your first year dollar for dollar. You'll also get $20 cash back each year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for the next five years.
Annual Fee: None.Details:Discover it® for Students »
When you’re busy studying for exams and drafting essays for school, establishing a stable financial history might be the last thing on your mind. However, the average American gets their first credit card when they’re 20 years old - so even if you aren’t interested in credit yet, you might be soon - and when you do, you'll want one of the best credit cards for college students. We know that navigating the credit scene can be confusing, so we’ve provided answers to common questions about student credit cards so you can focus on enjoying college life instead.
General Questions About Credit Cards for Students
A student credit card is a credit card that’s geared toward college students. A credit card, regardless of whether you’re a student or not, gives you the freedom to buy goods and services using borrowed funds. These funds generally come from the bank that issues your credit card, but sometimes they come from a deposit that you make on the account. We discuss this in more detail under the section titled “Fees, Deposits, and Your Credit Line.”
Generally, yes. When you apply for one of the best credit card for students (or any student card, for that matter), the card company may request information about your status as a student. You may have to verify enrollment or share your transcripts.
However, there are some exceptions. Read the card agreement before you apply for credit for students so that you can make sure you qualify. Also, you can usually keep a student credit card after you graduate college, but some companies may offer to let you upgrade to a regular card. Many college graduates take advantage of account upgrades because they find they have different financial needs after they finish school.
You have a great chance of getting a secured credit card for students if you have no credit. We’ve also found that some applicants have success getting the Discover it Chrome for Students when they have little to no credit history.
You can get approved for a credit card if you’re an international student, but we’ll be honest with you: It’s difficult. Many credit card companies require a Social Security number for approval, but you can’t get a Social Security number unless you’re legally authorized to work in the U.S.
You can bypass this requirement if you get a card from a company that doesn’t care whether you have a Social Security number. Some companies let applicants substitute an individual taxpayer identification number.
ValuePenguin agrees with our claim that it’s difficult to get a credit card if you’re an international student, which is why they recommend applying for the SelfScore Mastercard if you’re not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. The SelfScore Mastercard doesn’t require a Social Security number, but it does require you to have a passport, visa, and bank account. You’ll also need your Form I-20 to prove that you’re an international student.
Yes, you sure can. Many students dream of leaving the United States to study abroad in France, Germany, or other countries. If your dream becomes a reality, you may need a credit card to help pay for the experience even if financial aid or scholarships cover your books and tuition.
We recommend applying for a student credit card before you leave for your semester abroad. Look for a card that has no foreign transaction fees and make sure you have a way to pay the monthly bill.
Even if a college student has no problem paying for textbooks or monthly utilities, they may need a credit card to establish, build, or repair credit. Your credit score impacts everything from job opportunities to car loans, so many students like to get an early start on cultivating a strong credit history. It can take years to develop an impressive credit history, so it’s important to apply for credit as soon as possible if you plan to make a big purchase - like a home or a car - right after college.
Our current favorite is the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students. We reviewed it above if you want the full details, but we've summed up the high points below:
We also like the Discover it Chrome for Students, Bank Americard Cash Rewards for Students, and Journey Student Rewards from Capital One. The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One is a great starter card if you’re new to the credit scene, while the Discover it Chrome is perfect for students with a high GPA thanks to its annual good-grades bonus.
Applying for Student Credit Cards
Fill out an application online, contact a credit card provider via phone, or head to a local bank or credit union if you want a student credit card. Make sure you have your Social Security number when you apply, as well as information about your income and expenses.
A signature from the ‘rents isn’t a necessity in most cases, but it can potentially help you score a higher credit limit. That’s because the card company may evaluate your combined income rather than just running yours.
If a company is on the fence about approving you, having Mom or Dad offer to cosign might seal the deal as far as acceptance goes. Just make sure they have good credit or you’ll end up with awful interest rates, a low credit line, or - worst case scenario here - a denial letter from the credit card company.
Credit card companies usually don’t require applicants to have a job, but they do expect you to have some sort of income. After all, they’d like you to pay your bill on time each month, and it’s kind of hard to do that if you aren’t collecting some sort of funds on a regular basis.
No job? Focus on other sources of income when you apply. Some card companies let you count scholarships, student loans, and pell grants as a source of income. If you have a parent who receives child support arrears for payments that were due before you turned 18, you may be able to list those payments on your app. Assuming your parent gives you the money, that is.
An unsecured card is ideal, but some students prefer to launch their credit history with a secured credit card. There are also students who can’t get approved for an unsecured card just yet, so they get a secured card because their credit options are limited.
We’re not bashing secured cards because we feel they’re a great tool for students - and people in general - who need to build or repair credit. However, you’re essentially paying interest to borrow your own money, which is one reason why we recommend getting an unsecured student credit card whenever possible.
Credit cards typically arrive within 2 to 4 weeks, but some card companies offer express delivery. Keep in mind that a speedy delivery usually requires a hefty fee.
To avoid delays, make sure you include all information about your address, including the apartment number. Some companies don’t deliver to P.O. Boxes, so that’s another thing to consider when you request a card.
There’s not a specific credit score that you need to get a student credit card. Cards are available for scores ranging from 300 to 850, but remember that your score often affects your interest rate, credit limit, and deposit (or lack of).
If your score falls somewhere between 300 to 500, you probably won’t qualify for an unsecured credit card. You can build a stable credit history with a secured card and then apply for an unsecured card when you’re ready. Applicants with scores in the low to mid 500s may also struggle to get approved for an unsecured card, but occasionally you can find a lender that’s willing to take a chance on you.
Fair credit is anything from 630 to 689 and good credit ranges from 690 to 719. If you’ve got a score higher than that, congratulations - you’ve got excellent credit and probably won’t have any trouble getting a credit card company to approve your app.
Our crystal ball says that it’s impossible to predict which card you should apply for without knowing your unique needs, but we can offer some tips to help you decide:
We recommend that students start with a card that’s made just for them. Our favorites include the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students, the Discover it Chrome for Students, the Bank Americard Cash Rewards for Students, and the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One.
Companies that offer student credit cards often understand that students may have little to no credit history, so sometimes they’re easier to get than other types of credit cards. Some student credit cards also offer rewards geared toward cardholders your age, so you can build credit while enjoying awesome perks.
Fees, Deposits, and Your Credit Line
A student can get as much credit as they qualify for, which can range from a couple hundred bucks to thousands of dollars. Unless you’re a highly paid model or movie star, you probably won’t end up with millions of dollars in credit. That’s because companies often base your credit limit on your income because it gives them peace of mind that you’ll actually pay your bill.
You probably have at least one friend or family member - or maybe you’re even this type of person - who has a “what’s in it for me” mentality. That’s basically how credit cards work. They let you borrow money, but then they expect something in return for their trust and kindness.
APR stands for annual percentage rate when it refers to credit card payments. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) explains this term well, stating that your credit card APR is “the price you pay for borrowing money.” You can potentially avoid APR-related charges by paying off your card each month, but some companies don’t give you that option.
Many students get a credit card without paying a deposit, but sometimes you can’t avoid forking over some of your own funds. Start by reviewing the terms for your credit card - you can usually find these online or in a brochure that was mailed with your card. You may find that your deposit is based on something known as creditworthiness, which is just a fancy way of saying your credit score is either nonexistent or needs some help.
If you paid a deposit, that means you have a secured credit card rather than an unsecured credit card. A secured card is funded with your own money, while an unsecured card lets you spend money from the card’s bank.
Sometimes cardholders confuse monthly maintenance charges and annual fees with deposit costs. A deposit is refundable if you use your card as agreed, while you generally don’t get your monthly maintenance charges and annual fees back.
You don’t go to jail, so don’t worry about that. We’ve heard several students say that shady debt collectors have claimed that you go to jail or prison if you don’t pay your bills.
However, there are still consequences for late payments. Some cards, like the Discover It Chrome for Students, waive the first late payment fee - but very few other companies offer this perk. If you pay your card late, expect to get hit with a hefty fee and possibly even have your APR increased. You may also damage your FICO score, and that’s definitely not something you want to do. We explain why your credit score matters in the section titled “Building or Improving Credit With a Student Credit Card.”
Look, we aren’t trying to tell you how to live your life, but make sure you can handle a higher credit limit before you request one. Now that we’ve gotten that unsolicited advice out of the way, let’s talk about how you can increase your credit limit.
Some students successfully manage to negotiate a larger limit before they even use their cards. When your card arrives in the mail, contact the issuing company and explain why you feel you deserve a larger limit. Be polite, and back up your request with facts (“I make $30,000 a year and can easily pay this) rather than opinions (“I think I deserve this because you gave my sister a bigger limit and she’s not even as responsible as me.”)
Some cards have a convenient credit-limit button in their online dashboard (where you log in to pay your bill and check your balance). When you push this button, you might have to answer a couple simple questions about your current income before the bank gives you a decision. You may receive an instant response or get a letter in the mail explaining the bank’s decision.
Probably, but avoid it if you can. Many student credit cards let you withdraw cash from ATMs, but it isn’t cheap. You may have to pay a special APR that’s higher than your usual rate, plus shell out a cash advance fee based on a percentage of your ATM withdrawal.
Student cards generally don’t have membership fees or annual fees, but some of them do. If you get asked to pay any money prior to getting a card, you’re probably paying for a refundable security deposit.
Building or Improving Credit With a Student Credit Card
You can build credit by doing any of the following:
If you are responsible and make your payments on time (or make sure the authorized user does), you can build a stable credit history by doing any of the things above.
Unfortunately, it’s also possible to build a bad credit history. Try your best not to be on the receiving end of any of the following:
You should also be very careful with student loans. If you take time off from school to travel, tackle medical issues, or simply enjoy life, you may have to begin repaying your student loans. Failure to do so can damage your credit.
We’ve read conflicting reports on the best way to use a credit card, but we can tell you that it depends on your financial goals and history. NerdWallet recommends making small purchases on your card and then paying the entire bill in full each month so you don’t get stuck with high interest rates or other fees.
Unless an emergency arises, avoiding maxing out your credit card. When you max out a card, you risk going over your limit when the card company tacks on monthly interest rates. You can also damage your FICO score by maxing out a card; in general, you should keep utilization below 30%. If you have a $300 credit limit, that means you shouldn’t have more than $90 in purchases on the card at any given time.
Manage your credit card by reviewing monthly statements that arrive in the mail, if applicable, and verifying that everything is accurate. If possible, sign up for online access or account notifications so you can catch potential issues right away. For example, if your card is lost or stolen, you may not notice the fraudulent charges for weeks if you only receive paper statements.
You can also manage your credit card by calling the number listed on the back of it. Student credit cards often have automated systems that provide current information about payments, transactions, and available credit.
If you lead a hectic life, consider setting up automatic payments so you never pay your bill late. You can usually do this online, but some companies require you to call and request an authorization form for ACH withdrawals. You have the legal right to revoke this authorization with advance notice, so you aren’t locked into an automatic payment plan forever.
Many people don’t know their own credit score or even realize that they can check it. You can check your own credit score by requesting a free report from each of the 3 main credit reporting agencies once a year. Many credit cards also provide free access to your credit score on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis through a score monitoring program.
It can take weeks, months, or even years to build a decent credit history with a student credit card. The length of time varies for each student, but it’s based on the following factors:
If you notice your credit card company isn’t reporting your payments, contact them to see what’s up. Sometimes it just takes a few months for the company to notify the credit bureaus about your new card.
A student credit card can help your credit - but it can also hurt it. Use your card responsibly if you don’t want to damage your FICO score. Here are some tips for responsible use:
You have control over your credit score, so use your card wisely.
What are your post-college plans? You may want to buy a home, lease an automobile, get a job in a specific field, or get married. Your credit score plays an important role in all of these goals.
Before you buy - or even rent - a home, many owners run a credit report. If you’ve got bad credit, you might get denied or get stuck paying a large deposit. Same goes for buying or leasing an automobile.
Some jobs check your credit score to make sure that you’ve had a stable financial history. This is a common practice in jobs where you work with classified information or handle a lot of monetary transactions. If you fail the credit screening, you don’t get the job.
If you decide to get married, your bad credit can affect your spouse both financially and emotionally. Money problems cause frequent arguments in many marriages, so do your best to manage your finances before you say “I do.”