Best credit cards for college students

Feb 20, 2020

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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.

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 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 cards designed specifically to fit your student needs.

Best credit cards for college students in 2020

 

In This Post

Comparing the best credit cards for students

Credit Card Best For Rewards Rate Annual Fee Best Benefit for Students
Chase Freedom Unlimited Established Credit Earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases $0 No Annual Fee
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 No Annual Fee
Discover It Student Cash Back Rotating Categories 5% cash back (on your first $1,500 spend in rotating categories)

1% cash back on everything else

$0 Get $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is a 3.0 or higher for up to the next five years
Journey Student Rewards Fair Credit 1% cash back on all purchases, with a 1.25% boost to cash back total with on-time monthly payments $0 1.25% boost to cash back for that month with on-time payments to teach responsible credit management
Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card Small Purchases 2 points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations (on your first $6,000 annual spend) then 1 point thereafter

1 point per dollar (rounded to the nearest 10 points)

$0 No Annual Fee
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 combined choice category and wholesalers each quarter, then 1%)

1% on everything else

$0 No Annual Fee
Amex Everyday Credit Card Grocery Shopping 2X points at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year on purchases then 1X

1X points on everything else

$0 N/A
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Study Abroad Earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases $0 No foreign transaction fees

The information for the Citi Rewards+ Student Card, Discover it Student Cash Back, Bank of America Cash Rewards for Students, 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 $150 after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.

Rewards rates: Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on all 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 rewards with Chase. The flat 1.5% cash-back on the card is easy to understand, but 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 — like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve — you can combine your points in 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 it for students who may already have an existing line of credit thanks to your own personal card or as an authorized user on your parents’ credit card. While the card may not be as easy to get approved for as a young adult when compared to many other cards on this list, the Unlimited is a very viable option for applicants with a good to excellent credit score, even if your credit history spans just a few years. When you factor in the cash-back rewards that don’t expire plus a bevy of potential future redemption options, this is a terrific starter card for students.

Annual Fee: $0

Citi® Double Cash Card

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 could unlock more valuable rewards in the future. 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, even though the card may be slightly easier to get approved for without extensive credit history, the flat but 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 The Points Guy.

While the Citi® Double Cash Card is part of the Mastercard network and is thus more widely accepted than Discover, it does have 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 Premier and 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

Discover it Student Cash Back

Sign-up bonus: None, but Discover will match all of your cash back earned during the first year of cardmembership.

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.

Why we like it: While Discover isn’t the first issuer that comes to mind when many think of rewards cards, the Discover it Student Cash Back might just be the best option for students. The card offers an impressive 5% cash back on your first $1,500 in purchases on rotating quarterly categories after enrollment and 1% back on everything else. Even better, Discover matches your total cash back after the first year of card membership, meaning you’ll earn 10% on rotating categories (up to $1,500 and after activation) and 2% cash back on other spend in the first year.

As this is a card geared specifically toward students, getting approved shouldn’t be an issue. Plus, Discover will reward you with a $20 statement credit for each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to five years. The card also imposes no foreign transaction fees so it’s a great pick for those thinking about studying abroad. Between the 5% cash back in rotating categories every quarter and no annual fee, the Discover it Student Cash Back credit card just might be a card that stays near the front of your wallet well beyond graduation.

Annual Fee: $0

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

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 for a 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 good relationship with money and credit. The Journey Student Card offers Eno®, your Capital One assistant, a system that alerts you when bills are due and can help you manage your account over text message. 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

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Sign-up bonus: Earn 2,500 Bonus Points after spending $500 in purchases within three months of account opening.

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)

Why we like it: The Citi Rewards+ Student Card not only offers moderate rewards for groceries and gas when compared to other cards with flat-rate earnings; it’s also a great option for small purchases. That’s because the card rounds up your earnings on all purchases to the nearest 10 points. So, if you’re buying a 50-cent pack of gum, you’re guaranteed to earn at least 10 points, and if you’re paying for a $21 meal, you’re guaranteed to earn at least 30 points. In addition to that, the card offers 2 ThankYou points per dollar spent at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 per year and then 1 point per dollar thereafter. In reality, the earning rates are slightly higher since you’ll also get 10% of the points redeemed for the first 100,000 points per calendar year.

Your earnings can be redeemed for 1 cent apiece, but like the Citi Double Cash, if you save your points and get the Citi Prestige 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.

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 a 3% bonus on 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 1% cash back.

Unlike others on this list, the card offers a decent 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+ card for students, 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

Sign-up bonus: 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+ 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 of American Express’ Membership Rewards travel partners without having any other Amex credit card. The card earns 2 points per dollar at U.S. supermarkets for up to $6,000 a year in combined purchases, and 1 point per dollar spent after that and elsewhere. However, you can enjoy a further 20% bonus when you make 20 purchases in a billing period, raising the above earning rates to 2.4 points and 1.2 points per dollar spend (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.

Although not branded 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 Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express may also be a good choice for you with 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in spend each 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 $150 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, no annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and a decent sign-up bonus. While it may not be as easy to get approved for as some of the student-marketed cards on this list, the Quicksilver is an excellent starter card for students who want to build a relationship with Capital One and keep a flat-rate, no-fee credit card in their wallet for years to come.

While the Quicksilver does only earn 1.5% cash-back on every purchase (lower than the Citi Double Cash), the $150 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

Research methodology

Here at The Points Guy, we tend to specialize in premium travel credit cards, but we’re a great resource for students too. When determining the best credit cards for college students, I looked at multiple factors that would be most relevant to young adults, whether hoping to foray into the world of points and miles or simply build credit for a few years in the meantime.

The most important factors I looked at when it comes to student credit cards are ease of approval, student-focused rewards structures and no foreign transaction fees, which can be pesky for students planning to go abroad.

I also focused exclusively on credit cards with no annual fee. While many great rewards credit cards on the market right now make up for their annual fee with top-of-the-line earning rates and additional perks, it’s always a good practice to have a no-annual-fee card to your name early in your credit career. Not only are they often easier to get approved for; as your credit history grows over time, you won’t have to worry about continuing to pay the annual fee on a card that you aren’t using anymore.

How do student credit cards work?

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 that 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.

READ MORE: Our 10 commandments for credit cards

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

Building credit as a student

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. You can request a credit limit extension either online through your account or by calling the issuer directly — but you should aim to stay well under this limit to ensure a healthy credit score and maintain your ability to pay your balance in full.
  • 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 rebate on your spend to elaborate point 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 a nerve-wracking but undoubtedly worthwhile process. Teaching your young adult kids how to spend (and pay back) credit responsibly will be a valuable skill not only for their financial well-being 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 (in the eyes of the issuer) 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 his/her 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.

READ MORE: 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 United States 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 to 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 your decision. Banks have what is a 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 and give it your best shot. The worst that can happen is that the issuer’s decision is not overturned. In that case, your credit score will likely fall by a few points thanks to the hard inquiry, 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 we included gives substantial rewards at no annual cost, and many promote good spending habits. Naturally, student-branded cards such as the Discover it Student and Citi Rewards+ Student Card are likely easier to get approved for than others, but the approval odds for the other ones discussed are generally higher than most cards. Even those with newer or nonexistent credit histories shouldn’t have to worry as much about being rejected and stuck with nothing to show for a hard credit pull.

When starting on your credit journey, it’s important to remember that the length of your credit history (which includes the average age of your accounts) is one factor going into your FICO score. So while you likely will graduate to a more premium card in the next few years, you’ll still want to keep in mind that the first card you add to your wallet is one that you’ll likely want to keep 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 specifically designed to fit your university lifestyle and can provide valuable 5% cash back on rotating spend categories for years to come.

Related Guides

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

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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More Things to Know
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Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
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.