Best credit cards for college students

Aug 21, 2021

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post that has been updated with the latest 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information about the Discover it® Student Cash Back that is not currently available on The Points Guy and may be out of date.


Building credit as a college student is an essential leap to a life of financial responsibility and forming a solid relationship with the money (and plastic!) in your wallet. The idea of opening up your own line of credit as a young adult can be daunting, but the short and long-term benefits are undeniable.

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In the not-so-far future, having a line of credit attached to your name will be important when you want to apply for a car loan, a mortgage or even a deposit on utilities at your first apartment.

From valuable cash-back credit cards that are perfect for a student with an existing but limited credit history to student credit cards that are designed specifically for first-timers with no credit at all, here you’ll find the perfect mix of no-annual-fee credit cards designed specifically to fit your student needs.

Best credit cards for college students in 2021

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.

In This Post

Comparing the best credit cards for students

Credit card Best for Rewards rate Annual fee
Chase Freedom Unlimited Established credit Earn 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining and drugstores and 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. $0
Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card Most college students Earn 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®) and 1% on on all other purchases. $0
Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card Study abroad Earn 1.5 cash back on all purchases. $0
Citi® Double Cash Card Flat-rate cash back Earn 2% cash back on every purchase – 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill. $0
Discover it Student Cash Back Good grades Enroll each quarter to earn 5% back on your first $1,500 in purchases in rotating quarterly bonus categories and 1% on all other purchases. $0
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One Fair credit 1% cash back on all purchases, with a 1.25% boost to cash back total with on-time monthly payments. Plus, earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming subscriptions when you pay on time. Exclusions apply. $0

Best credit cards for college students

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.

Rewards rates: Earn 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining and drugstores and 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Why we like it: Not only is the Chase Freedom Unlimited a great credit card for students, but it’s also a valuable card for anyone looking to earn Ultimate Rewards points. The flat 1.5% cash-back rate on the card is straightforward, yet it can also set you up when you pair the Freedom Unlimited with a more premium Chase card in the future — such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve. That’s because you can combine your points into a single account, increasing their value for travel rewards through the Ultimate Rewards portal and enabling your earnings to be transferred to over a dozen travel partners, including United and Hyatt.

We’ve specifically chosen the Freedom Unlimited for students who may already have an existing line of credit thanks to their own personal card or are authorized users on a parents’ credit card. While the card may have tougher approval odds for a young adult when compared to many others on this list, the Freedom Unlimited is a viable option for applicants with good to excellent credit scores, even with a limited credit history. This is a terrific starter card for students when you factor in the cash-back rewards that never expire, plus a bevy of potential future redemption options.

Annual fee: $0.

Official application link: Chase Freedom Unlimited.

Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards rates: Earn 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®) and 1% on everything else.

Why we like it: The Capital One SavorOne Student offers high potential if you’re a college student with an active lifestyle. Offering a generous 3% on four popular spend categories, you’ll earn tons of cash back in no time. While there’s no sign-up bonus, the SavorOne Student offers no foreign transaction fees and will be the easiest for approval for students with no existing credit history. Plus, it’s an excellent starter card for students who want to build a relationship with Capital One and keep a high-earning, no-annual-fee credit card in their wallet for years to come.

Annual fee: $0.

Official application link: Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card.

Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards rates: Earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases.

Why we like it: The Capital One Quicksilver Student is a no-frills cash-back card with a simple rewards system. You can expect no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and a fair 1.5% cash-back on every purchase. If you’re the type of student who values simplicity and wants to ensure that you’re earning bonus points on all your purchases (rather than in rigid spending categories), the Quicksilver Student is the better choice for you. It’s an especially great card for studying abroad since you’re earning 1.5% cash-back on everything, whether it’s a train ticket to a new country or souvenirs at a gift shop.

Annual fee: $0.

Official application link: Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card.

Citi® Double Cash Card

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

Sign-up bonus: None.

Rewards rates: Earn 2% cash back on every purchase — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill.

Why we like it: If you’re looking to earn a solid cash-back return on everyday purchases beyond your first year, you may want to consider the Citi Double Cash Card. As its name suggests, the card earns 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay your statement. While other mid-tier credit cards may have more valuable perks, 2% back on everything leads the pack in terms of flat-rate rewards for cash-back credit cards.

Like the Freedom Unlimited, opening the Double Cash card now can unlock even more valuable rewards. You can open the Citi Premier® Card down the line and effectively convert their Double Cash earnings into fully-transferable Citi ThankYou points — which TPG values at 1.7 cents apiece. The downsides are that the Citi® Double Cash Card carries a 3% foreign transaction fee, so you won’t want to use it outside of the U.S. As with the Freedom Unlimited, this card is harder to gain approval than the student-centric cards on this list.

Annual fee: $0.

Official application link: Citi® Double Cash Card.

Discover it Student Cash Back

Sign-up bonus: Cardholders get an unlimited dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year.

Rewards rates: Enroll each quarter to earn 5% cash back on your first $1,500 in purchases in rotating quarterly bonus categories (then 1%) and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Why we like it: The Discover it Student Cash Back offers some of the highest returns with 5% cash back on the first $1,500 in purchases from rotating categories each quarter. You’ll have to activate this bonus each quarter, but you can find useful merchants like gas stations, restaurants or Amazon.com.

Instead of a sign-up bonus, cardholders will enjoy a cash-back match of all of the earnings from the end of your first year. Plus, you’ll earn a $20 statement credit each school year that you earn a 3.0 GPA or higher for up to the next five years — thus rewarding you not only for good credit habits but for good grades. If you plan on studying abroad, keep in mind that Discover has a lower acceptance than other cards issued by Visa and Mastercard.

Annual fee: $0.

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: None

Rewards rates: Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, with a 1.25% boost to cash back total with on-time monthly payments. Plus, earn $5 per month for 12 months on select streaming subscriptions when you pay on time.

Why we like it: The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One is marketed specifically to students and for good reason. 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 healthy relationship with a credit issuer. You can earn a 1.25% elevated cash-back return every month after you pay your bill on time.

While the card does not offer a traditional sign-up bonus, it does waive foreign transaction fees on purchases outside the U.S., so it’s perfect for students looking to travel while still in school. Also, you’ll get a nice $5 statement credit for select streaming services for the first 12 months, adding up to $60 in potential value.

Annual fee: $0.

Official application link: Journey Student Rewards from Capital One.

Research methodology

When determining the best credit cards for college students, we looked at multiple factors that would be most relevant to young adults. We analyzed factors such as ease of approval, student-focused rewards structures, and cards without foreign transaction fees.

We also focused exclusively on credit cards with no annual fee. While many great rewards credit cards on the market right now have an outsized value that more than make up for an annual fee, it’s always a good practice to start slow with a no-annual-fee card early on in your credit journey.

Related: Capital One’s two new credit cards are the best for college students

How do student credit cards work?

(Photo by Topalov/Getty Images.)
Student credit cards are virtually identical to traditional credit cards. (Photo by Topalov/Getty Images)

Student credit cards are geared toward individuals who are 18 (and older) but don’t yet have a credit history or credit card in their own name. For this reason, they’re typically much easier to be approved for and often do not require a good or excellent pre-existing credit score. Issuers tend to be more stringent in delineating between qualified and unqualified credit card applicants for higher-end cards.

For the most part, student credit cards work the same way that most credit cards work. You’re provided with a credit limit representing the maximum amount of money you can borrow on that specific card for that month. You’re then required to pay back the amount you borrowed by the due date when you receive your credit card statement to avoid incurring interest. For this reason, it’s important to remember that credit cards are not free money.

While managing your own finances and having a credit card in your name are big steps toward being an independent adult, make sure to check your account frequently and keep track of your spending to help get your FICO score off on the right foot.

Related: TPG’s 10 commandments for credit cards

Building credit as a student

It’s best to start early with building your credit. (Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

Before building credit as a student, get familiar with the world of credit cards and rewards. Begin by checking your credit reports for free, and make sure to find a card that fits your score, your needs, and your spending habits. Understand credit card lingo, including the following terms:

  • Annual fee: Although student credit cards usually do not have an annual fee, many premium rewards credit cards require an annual payment for maintaining a card in your name.
  • Credit limit: After getting approved for a credit card, you will receive a credit limit. This is the maximum amount of money that the issuer will extend to you on this specific credit line during that payment cycle.
  • Rewards: Many credit cards offer rewards in the form of cash-back, points, or airline miles. There are many redemption options that range from simply using a cash-back statement credit as a rebate on your spending to elaborate point travel redemptions through transfer partners. You can learn all about how to get started in the world of rewards with our beginner’s guide to points and miles.
  • Foreign transaction fees: Some credit cards incur fees when you use them outside the United States. These fees will generally cancel out and rewards you earn on the purchase, so be sure to swipe cards that waive foreign transaction fees when you travel abroad.

Check out our comprehensive list of important vocabulary terms in the credit and travel industries at the TPG glossary.

Tips for parents about student credit cards

Helping your teen get their first credit card can be nerve-wracking but undoubtedly a worthwhile process. Teaching your young adult children how to utilize credit responsibly is a valuable skill for their financial life and your peace of mind.

If you still aren’t comfortable with your student opening their own line of credit just yet, you can always add them to your personal account as an authorized user. This can usually be done directly through the credit card issuer, either online or over the phone. Even though you’ll be the sole debtor and responsible for paying the actual statement balance each month, there are significant benefits to adding your child to your account.

Most importantly, as long as the account is managed properly, your child will likely get a boost to their personal credit score, and it’ll add more depth to their credit history. If your issuer reports this information to their respective credit bureaus, then adding your child to your account could give them a FICO advantage when they are ready to apply for a personal card in their name.

Related: Will authorized user status help you build credit?

FAQs about student credit cards

Do I need a job to qualify for a student credit card?

While most credit card applications require you to input your annual income, you do not need a formal job title to be considered for most student credit cards. Many part-time jobs, internships, and personal freelance work are acceptable as a form of income when applying for a student credit card. If you have no income whatsoever, consider opening a secured credit card — which requires you to provide an up-front cash deposit before using the card or have a parent or guardian add you as an authorized user to their account.

How old do I need to be to qualify for a student credit card?

As long as you are a student in a two- or four-year college and are 18 years or older, a U.S. citizen, and have some type of documentable income, then you are the ideal candidate for a student credit card. If you’re under the age of 21 and can’t prove that you are eligible for a credit card, then you may have the opportunity to get a co-signer (usually a parent or guardian) who can take responsibility for your payments should you fail to meet them that month. However, keep in mind that this could impact both the credit score of the student and the co-signer on the account, as even one missed payment can significantly impact your credit score.

What do I do if I get denied for a credit card?

Getting denied for a credit card can be disheartening, but it certainly shouldn’t be the end of your credit journey. Issuers technically have 30 days to respond to a credit card application. Still, they’ll often respond in a few weeks by mailing an official notice of your denial with a reason (or reasons) why you were not approved. For students, the primary reason will likely be an insufficient credit history, especially if you choose to apply for a credit card that’s not specifically marketed with students in mind. However, there may be other common reasons that young people may be denied, such as a mismatch between the information on your application and the information that the credit bureau has on file.

Related: How to maximize your chances of being approved for a credit card

If you’re denied for a credit card, I recommend that you call the credit card issuer and see if you can speak to a representative about their decision. Banks have a reconsideration line, where customers may challenge their decision on a credit card application.

Before calling, make sure to have your correct identification and income information on hand to field any questions that the representative might have. The worst that can happen is that the issuer’s decision is not overturned. In that case, your credit score will likely fall by only a few points due to the hard inquiry on your credit, but these are temporary drops, and scores typically rebound quickly.

Bottom line

Students have many choices when it comes to picking their first credit card. While the best card for you will ultimately depend on what type of rewards you’re looking to earn, each card on our list provides substantial rewards at no annual cost. Many assist with promoting positive financial habits.

When starting on your credit journey, remember that the length of your credit history (which includes the average age of your accounts) is one factor of your FICO score. So while you’ll likely graduate to a more premium card in the next few years, you’ll still want to keep that first card open for the foreseeable future.

If you have an existing credit history, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is the perfect card to start building a relationship with a premium issuer. And if you’re a complete novice to the credit game, the Capital One SavorOne Student or Capital One Quicksilver Student are excellent choices for students as there are no foreign transaction fees and delivers a considerable cash-back return on your purchases.

Official application link: Chase Freedom Unlimited.
Official application link: Capital One SavorOne Student.
Official application link: Capital One Quicksilver Student.
Official application link: Citi Double Cash.
Official application link: Journey Student Rewards from Capital One.

Related guides for beginners

Additional reporting by Stella Shon. 

Featured photo by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

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More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.