Your 18-year-old wants a credit card — which one should they get?
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information. This page includes information about the Discover it Student Cash Back that is not currently available on The Points Guy and may be out of date.
Before they reach adulthood, you can add your kids as authorized users to cards that you already have to help them build credit. But when they turn 18, it’s a different story.
Of course, every child and family is in a different situation, but here are guidelines of what you’ll want to prepare your children for when they turn 18 — and start to enter the world of miles, points, credit cards and financial responsibility.
Best credit cards for an 18-year-old
- Discover it Student Cash Back: Best for rotating cash-back categories.
- Journey Student Rewards from Capital One: Best for on-time bill payments.
- OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card: Best for limited income.
The information for the Discover it Student Cash Back has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Comparing the best cards for 18-year-olds
|Card||Best for||Annual fee||Rewards rate|
|Discover it Student Cash Back||Rotating cash-back categories||$0||Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases in select rotating categories, on up to $1,500, when you activate. Earn unlimited 1% cash back on everything else.|
|Journey Student Rewards from Capital One||On-time bill payments||$0||Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, with a boost to a total of 1.25% cash back with on-time monthly payments. Plus, earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming subscriptions when you pay on time. Exclusions apply.|
|OpenSky Secured Visa Credit Card||Limited income||$35||N/A.|
In fact, most of the cards listed aren’t going to have the huge sign-up offers or perks of the premium cards that many of us with established credit histories typically sign up for. But remember: This is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s going to take time to build up your kid’s credit to a place where they will qualify for cards with better rewards.
Because the average age of accounts is so important to your overall credit score, you’ll want to help your child pick at least one or two options that are no-annual-fee cards that they can keep long-term. Having one or two older cards will help their credit score down the road.
Related: Best first credit cards of 2021
A closer look at the best cards for 18-year-olds
Sign-up bonus: None, but Discover will match all cash back earned for the first year.
Rewards rates: Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases in select rotating categories, on up to $1,500, when you activate. Earn unlimited 1% cash back on everything else.
The Discover it Student Cash Back Card is targeted to students, meaning that depending on your income situation, you may be able to apply for it without a co-signer. Enroll every quarter to earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in various categories throughout the year, and Discover will match all cash back earned for the first year of having the card. Plus, earn 1% cash back on all other purchases.
Unique perk: You also earn a $20 statement credit for each school year that your GPA is at least 3.0, up to the next five years — so, keep those grades up.
Sign-up bonus: None.
Rewards rates: Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, with a boost to a total of 1.25% cash back with on-time monthly payments. Plus, earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming subscriptions when you pay on time.
The Journey Student Rewards card is targeted toward those with minimal credit history. While it may not earn the most valuable rewards on the market, it has many benefits that encourage responsible payment practices and can be a valuable tool for earning modest rewards while forming a good relationship with money and credit.
Unique perk: There are no foreign transaction fees in case your 18-year-old ends up studying abroad. Be sure to check out Capital One’s full lineup of student credit cards, all of which don’t charge foreign transaction fees and offer the opportunity to earn rewards.
Sign-up bonus: None.
Rewards rates: None.
With the OpenSky Secured Visa card, there’s no sign-up bonus or rewards-earning opportunities. Instead, this card is designed for those with limited (or no) credit history, and your 18-year-old can qualify even if they don’t have an income right now.
This is a secured credit card, which means you’ll have to deposit money (as little as $200) to your account, which will define your credit limit. This is somewhat counterintuitive, but it allows you to make payments on the card that are reported to the credit bureaus to help build your credit score. Once you build up your credit score, the security deposit is fully refundable as you graduate to better credit cards on the market.
Note that there’s a $35 annual fee with the OpenSky card.
Unique perk: There’s no credit check needed. All you need to qualify is to be at least 18 years old, provide your Social Security number and submit your refundable security deposit, which will define your monthly credit limit.
Signing up for a credit card when you’re 18
The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 changed a few things about how and when people could get credit cards. Most of the changes introduced were positive for consumers, including giving individuals enough time to pay their bills and making it easier to pay off debt.
Another change from the Credit CARD Act? Eighteen-year-olds can no longer sign up for a credit card without proof of independent income. This effectively eliminated the whole university campus “sign up for this card using your parents’ income and get a free T-shirt” situation that used to exist.
However, if your 18-year-old is in college, they can sign up for a student credit card instead. If your 18-year-old isn’t attending a two- or four-year college, they can open a secured credit card with a refundable security deposit instead.
Add your kids as authorized users — even before they turn 18
Another solid option is to add your children as authorized users until they can qualify for other rewards cards on their own, which gives them your credit card with their name attached to it. You’re responsible for paying off all their charges, so most parents only allow their children to use their card for emergencies. But it’s a great way to start teaching your children the importance of finances early on, plus you’ll pool all their points into your account as the primary cardholder.
I’ve personally added my children as authorized users and told them that I own their credit until they’re 21, and it’s one of my parental duties to teach them about responsible use of credit and set them up with a great credit score by the time they’re 21. Oh, and how to use their excellent credit to score tons of free travel, of course. Thus far, they are all happy with that arrangement.
Some issuers have age requirements for authorized users (American Express requires your child to be 13 years old), while others don’t have any restrictions whatsoever (Capital One and Chase, for example). Theoretically, this means you can add your child as an authorized user even as an infant. You’ll just have to consider the right time for your child to be added as an authorized user, but this can happen well before they turn 18 years old.
Length of credit is important
Another important reason to start signing up your kids for credit cards when they turn 18 (or add them to your credit cards as authorized users) is that the average age of accounts is one of the biggest factors in determining your credit score. So acquiring — and keeping — a card when you’re young can really give a boost to your credit score as you get older.
Watch out for targeted offers
One final note — watch out for targeted mailers. My 18-year-old daughter has been targeted with mailers from American Express for the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. But, sadly, I have learned in the past that for most credit card issuers, the marketing departments don’t always talk to the issuing and underwriting departments. Even with these targeted mailers, it’s unlikely that my daughter with limited credit, job history and income would be approved for a card like the Delta SkyMiles card, which typically requires good or excellent credit.
So, start small with the cards listed above, and your child will be able to move on to other credit cards as they build up their credit history over time.
These are several important considerations when getting a first credit card as an 18-year-old. With these tactics and specific cards in mind, you’ll be equipped with the right tools to start earning cash back or rewards.
Additional reporting by Stella Shon and Chris Dong.
Featured photo by Getty Images.
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