Your 18-year-old wants a credit card — which one should they get?

Jun 21, 2020

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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information about the Discover it Student Cash Back that is not currently available on The Points Guy and may be out of date.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 reaching adulthood, consider adding your kids as authorized users to cards that you already have. But when they turn 18, that’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.

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Best credit cards for an 18-year-old

In This Post

Comparing the best cards for 18-year-olds

Card                  Best For Annual fee Rewards Rate
Discover it Student Cash Back Rotating cash back categories None 5% cash back on everyday purchases in select rotating categories 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 None 1% cash back on all purchases, with a 1.25% boost to cash back total with on-time monthly payments
Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card Welcome bonus None 3% cash back in one category of your choice and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined eligible spending per quarter); then 1%
Citi Rewards+ Student Card Earning ThankYou points None 2 points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations (on your first $6,000 in annual spend; then 1 point); 1 point per dollar (rounded to the nearest 10 points)
Wells Fargo Cash Back College℠ Card Gas and groceries bonus None 3% cash back on gas, groceries and drugstore purchases up to $2,500 for the first six months; 1% on everything else

The information for the Discover it Student Cash Back, Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®, Citi Rewards+ Student Card, Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Notice that you won’t see the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve here.

In fact, most of the cards listed aren’t going to have the huge welcome offers or perks of the premium cards that many of us with established credit histories typically sign up for. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s going to take time to build up your kids’ 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 plan to keep long-term. Having one or two really old cards will help their credit score down the road.

Related reading: Best first credit cards

Closer look at the best cards for 18-year-olds

Discover it Student Cash Back

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 up to $1,500 when you activate. Earn unlimited 1% cash back on everything else.

The Discover it Student Cash Back card is (duh) targeted to students. That means 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 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.

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Sign-up bonus: None

Rewards rates: 1% cash back on all purchases, with a 1.25% boost to cash back total with on-time monthly payments

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.

Plus, there are no foreign transaction fees in case your 18-year-old is traveling abroad.

Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card

Sign-up bonus: $200 cash rewards bonus after making at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening.

Rewards rates: You get 3% cash back in one category of your choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, home improvement/furnishings or drug stores) and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs with a quarterly max (on the first $2,500 in combined purchases); then 1% on bonus categories.

For this card, you’ll likely require a co-signer for applicants under 21. There’s no annual fee, however, and if you also are a Preferred Rewards member, you can increase your cash back bonuses.

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: The Citi Rewards+ Student Card gives 2,500 ThankYou points after spending $500 on purchases in the first three months of having the card.

Rewards rates: 2 points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations (on your first $6,000 in annual spend; then 1 point); 1 point per dollar (rounded to the nearest 10 points)

Your earnings can be redeemed for 1 cent apiece, but like the Citi® Double Cash Card, if you save your points and get the Citi Prestige® Card or the Citi Premier® Card down the line, you can convert your points to full-fledged Citi ThankYou Points. However, you won’t want to use it abroad since it has a 3% foreign transaction fee.

The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Wells Fargo Cash Back College℠ Card

Sign-up bonus: None

Rewards rates: The card earn 3% cash back on gas, groceries and drugstore purchases up to $2,500 for the first six months, with no annual fee. Enjoy 1% cash rewards for other purchases.

Alternative option

Another option is a secured credit card, where you deposit money to your account before you use it. This is somewhat counter intuitive but it allows you to make payments on the card that are reported to the credit bureaus to help build your credit score.

Related reading: How old do you have to be to get a credit card? 

Signing Up for a Credit Card When You’re 18

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 changed a few things about how, who 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, no retroactive rate increases and making it easier to pay off debt.

Another change from the CARD Act? 18-year-olds can no longer sign up for a credit card without either proof of independent income or a co-signer (until they’re 21). This effectively eliminated the whole university campus “sign up for this card and get a free T-shirt” using parents’ income situation that used to exist.

But for those of us with responsible teenagers, it does make things a little more complicated. I’ve personally told my children that I own their credit until they’re 21, and it’s one of my parental duties to teach my children about responsible use of credit as well as 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.

Related reading: Why Your Teen Needs a Credit Card With Roadside Assistance

(Photo via Shutterstock)
Teens are spending money, so there’s no reason for those who are responsible not to have a credit card. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Length of credit is important

Another important reason to start signing up your kids for credit cards when they turn 18 (along with adding 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.

Related reading: How Closing a Credit Card Impacts Your FICO Score

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 that typically requires good or excellent credit.

Bottom line

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 Chris Dong

Featured photo from Shutterstock.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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