Best credit cards for college students

Mar 13, 2021

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Starting to build credit as a college student is a great step to a life of financial responsibility and 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.

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

In the not-so-far future, having a line of credit attached to your name will be important when you want to apply for an auto 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 essentially no credit, here you’ll find the perfect mix of no-annual-fee credit cards designed specifically to fit your student needs.

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Best credit cards for college students in 2021

In This Post

Comparing the best credit cards for students

Credit Card Best For Rewards Rate Annual Fee
Chase Freedom Unlimited Established credit Earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on purchases $0
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express Gas (in the U.S.) Earn 3% cash back on the first $6,000 per calendar year at US. supermarkets (then 1%), 2% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% on all other purchases $0 (see rates & fees)
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
Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card Travel Earn 1.25 miles per dollar on all 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 $0
Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card for Students Flexible rewards categories 3% cash back in the category of your choice; 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesalers (up to $2,500 in combined choice category and wholesalers each quarter, then 1%)

1% on everything else

$0
Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express U.S. supermarkets 2X points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year on purchases; then 1X

1X points on everything else

$0
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card Study abroad Earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases $0

The information for the Discover it Student Cash Back, Bank of America Cash Rewards for Students, Journey Student Rewards and Amex Everyday has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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 unlimited 1.5% cash back on 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 valuable Ultimate Rewards points. The flat 1.5% cash-back on the card is straightforward, yet it can also set you up for more valuable rewards in the future when you pair the Freedom Unlimited with a more premium Chase card — 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. When you factor in the cash-back rewards that never expire plus a bevy of potential future redemption options, this is a terrific starter card for students.

Annual Fee: $0

APPLY HERE: Chase Freedom Unlimited

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy.)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy.)

Welcome offer: Earn $200 cash back (via statement credit) after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening

Rewards rates: Earn 3% cash back on the first $6,000 in purchases per calendar year at U.S. supermarkets (then 1%), 2% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% on all other purchases

Why we like it: The Blue Cash Everyday is a solid starter card for dipping your toes into the world of cash back rewards with some useful spend categories for college students and young adults alike. It has no annual fee (see rates and fees) to worry about, so you can keep it in your wallet indefinitely and continue building your credit. If you have a car on or near campus, then the 2% back at the pump can put some valuable money back in your pocket every semester as well.

In the future, you can graduate to the Blue Cash Everyday’s big sister credit card, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which ups the ante on your rewards if you want to earn more from your groceries at U.S. supermarkets, select U.S. streaming subscriptions, and gas purchases in the U.S. Both cards are ideal for a college student’s spending habits and approval odds may be lenient for applicants with a limited credit history — as I found was the case for myself when the Blue Cash Preferred became the first rewards credit card that I was approved for just last year. If you aren’t spending more than a few hundred dollars a month, then consider making this one of the first credit cards you add to your wallet.

Annual Fee: $0 (see rates and fees)

APPLY HERE: Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

(Photo by Eric Heglas/The Points Guy)

Sign-up bonus: 20,000 bonus miles after spending $500 within the first three months from account opening.

Rewards rates: You’ll get a flat 1.25x miles per dollar on all purchases, which equates to a solid 1.75% return.

Why we like it: The VentureOne Card is the younger sibling to the standard Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and a great starter card for students with some existing credit looking to dip their toe into the world of points and miles. There aren’t many cards without an annual fee that can teach you the ropes of how to transfer points or miles directly with travel partners, so you’ll be able to build your credit, earn rewards, and do it all without shelling out a cent to be a cardholder.

Annual Fee: $0

APPLY HERE: Capital One VentureOne 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. Plus, there’s no limit on the amount of cash back you can earn.

Like the Freedom Unlimited, opening the Double Cash card now can unlock even more valuable rewards. Cardholders who also have the Citi Premier® Card or Citi Prestige® Card can effectively convert their Double Cash earnings into fully-transferable Citi ThankYou points — which TPG values at 1.7 cents apiece. As a result, the respectable 2% earning rate plus the potential to pair it with a higher-end Citi card ranks it among one of our best rewards credit cards here at TPG.

While the Citi® Double Cash Card is part of the Mastercard network and is more widely accepted than Discover, it does carry a 3% foreign transaction fee, so you won’t want to use it outside of the U.S.

Annual Fee: $0

The information for the Citi Prestige 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.

APPLY HERE: Citi® Double Cash Card

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

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. The Journey Student Card offers Eno® — a system that reminds you when bills are due and can help you manage your account over text messages. In addition, by setting up a monthly alert on these due dates, you qualify for one of the card’s most unique offerings: a 1.25% elevated cash-back return every month after you pay your bill on time.

While the card does not offer a 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.

Annual fee: $0

Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card for Students

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: 3% cash back in the category of your choice and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesalers (up to $2,500 in combined spending each quarter at choice category, grocery stores, and wholesale clubs, then 1%); 1% on everything else

Why we like it: The Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card for Students is unique in the sense that it offers a lot of flexibility in its award earning structure. The card has a 3-2-1 cash back arrangement, and the cardholder can select which category they want to earn 3% bonus with each month. Your options include gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores, home improvement, and furnishings. The card also earns a consistent 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 1% elsewhere. However, it’s important to note that the 3% and 2% bonus categories are limited to your first $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter. Once you reach that threshold in a quarter, all your purchases revert to earning 1% cash back.

Unlike others on this list, the card offers a generous sign-up bonus: $200 in cash rewards after you spend at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. It also offers several valuable travel and purchase protections, but like the Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card (card no longer available), you shouldn’t use this card abroad, as it imposes a hefty foreign transaction fee.

Annual fee: $0

Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express

Welcome offer: 10,000 bonus points after you make $1,000 in purchases within the first three months

Rewards rates: 2x points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 in purchases each year (then 1x); 1x point on everything else

Why we like it: The Amex EveryDay card is similar to the Citi Rewards+® Card in that you earn points with it, not just cash back. But what differentiates the points you earn with this card is that they can be transferred to any American Express Membership Rewards travel partner without having any other Amex credit card. The card earns 2x points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets for up to $6,000 a year in combined purchases, and 1x point per dollar spent after that. However, you can enjoy a 20% boost in points when you make 20 purchases in a billing period, raising the above earning rates to 2.4 points and 1.2 points per dollar spent (respectively). The Amex Everyday also comes with a nice welcome bonus of 10,000 Membership Rewards points — worth $200 based on our valuations — after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months.

Though not marketed as a student card, this American Express card is generally easier to be approved for than many other cards from the issuer. However, if you’re looking to earn cash back in similar spend categories, the previously mentioned Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express may be a better choice for you with 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in spend each calendar year, then 1%), 2% cash back at select U.S. department stores and 1% cash back on everything else.

Annual fee: $0

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

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

Sign-up bonus: Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus once you spend $500 on purchases within three months from account opening.

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

Why we like it: The Capital One Quicksilver is a no-frills cash-back card that has a simple rewards system. You can expect no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and a decent sign-up bonus. The Quicksilver card is an excellent starter card for students who want to build a relationship with Capital One and keep a flat-rate, no-annual-fee credit card in their wallet for years to come.

While the Quicksilver card earns a fair 1.5% cash-back on every purchase (lower than the Citi Double Cash), the $200 sign-up bonus should be an easy target to hit, even for most students with limited disposable income. This might be an important differential to sway you in favor of the Quicksilver.

Annual fee: $0

APPLY HERE: Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

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 have a no-annual-fee card early on in your credit journey.

How do student credit cards work?

(Photo by Topalov/Getty Images.)
(Photo by Topalov/Getty Images.)

Student credit cards are primarily geared toward individuals who are 18+ 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 are provided with a credit limit that represents the maximum amount of money that you can borrow on that specific card for that month. You’re then required to pay back the amount that 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: Our 10 commandments for credit cards

Some student credit cards — such as the Journey Student Rewards and Discover it Student Cash Back — even provide extra rewards for students that can demonstrate responsible payment habits or maintain good grades.

Building credit as a student

(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 over at the TPG Glossary.

Tips for parents about college 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 not only a valuable skill for their financial life, but also for 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 by 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 for when they are ready to apply for a personal card in their name.

Related: Will authorized user status help you build credit?

FAQs

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 either opening a secured credit card — which requires you to provide an up-front cash deposit before you can use 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 18 years or older, a U.S. citizen, and have some type of documentable income, then you should be a good 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. Keep in mind, however, 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, but 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 what is called 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 of the cards on our list provides substantial rewards at no annual cost, and 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 Discover it Student Cash Back is an excellent choice for students as it delivers 5% cash back on rotating spend categories and a $20 statement credit as a good grade reward every year if your GPA is 3.0 or higher.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday card, click here.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,650

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

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Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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.