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8 things you should know before applying for a credit card in college

Oct. 16, 2022
8 min read
Students on campus of Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, Europe
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During my sophomore year of college, I received a Wells Fargo student credit card application in the mail. I initially got the card for emergencies and to kick-start building my credit.

Truth be told, I didn’t know what it meant to get my first credit card in my name. But the card has been the right addition to my wallet as I have learned about the value of credit cards.

So here are some tips that I think everyone should know before submitting that credit card application in college.

How to use your credit card in college

Build your credit

Starting a credit line in college can help you establish a good credit score.

The length of your credit plays a vital role in determining your financial power. A person with a long credit history showing on-time payments is deemed more trustworthy to creditors and lenders.

Good credit habits can make you more likely to be approved for your first apartment or car.


Plan for emergencies

There's an old saying “expect the unexpected.”

Having a credit card in college allows you to use it as a safety net to help when those unexpected inconveniences happen, such as a flat tire or the need to catch a last-minute flight back home.

Just be sure to pay your balance on time so that you don’t incur interest.

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Earn rewards

There are many perks of having a credit card, including purchase and travel protections. You can also earn cash-back rewards, depending on the card you choose. These can be redeemed to your savings account or for traveling for cheap.

There are plenty of do’s and don'ts once you do receive your card, so understanding the 10 commandments of credit card rewards is essential.

How to apply for a credit card

Check your credit score

Knowing and understanding your credit score will help you understand your chances of approval for your first credit card. There are plenty of cards that will approve college students who may not have established credit, such as secured cards that allow you to build credit with your deposit acting as your line of credit.


There are a few ways to check your credit score. Depending on your bank, you may have access to your FICO score at no cost. If your bank doesn’t have this feature, you can visit You can also receive one free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax).

Gather application documents

Different cards have different requirements but you’ll definitely need two things — proof of age and proof of identification.

To obtain a card completely in your name, you typically have to be 18 years old. If you are under the age of 21, you must also be able to prove that you can make payments on your own. If not, you will likely need a co-signer. That co-signer should have a good credit score and must be able to show that they have enough income to make payments in case you miss one.

To prove your identity, some issuers may require that you have documentation that shows your U.S. address. Others may require a Social Security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.

Submit your application and wait

Depending on the credit card issuer, you can submit your application online, in person, over the phone or by mail.

After applying for a credit card, the next step is to await the decision. According to federal guidelines, issuers are required to notify you of approval or denial within 30 days of your application submission. While you're waiting on a response, think about how you’ll use the card, create a budget and set up a repayment plan. For example, I use my credit card for gas, groceries and dinner with friends.

If you are denied, keep a lookout for a letter detailing the reason.

Set a repayment plan

One of the best ways to make the best of your card is to only charge what you can afford. For your repayment strategy, be sure to budget for at least making the minimum payments. However, keeping your credit utilization as close to 0% if possible is recommended as it will boost your credit score.

Types of college credit cards to consider

When comparing the different types of credit cards, it is important to think about how you can benefit from the card in the first place.

You may choose a secured card if you’re building or repairing your credit or a cash-back credit card if you would like to receive a percentage of the money that you spent back.

Understand that there is no perfect credit card, but there may be one that meets your goals more than others, such as building credit or earning rewards.

Student credit card

A student credit card is the easiest card to be approved for as a college student applying for their first card with little to no credit history. Student credit cards work the same way as most credit cards. However, one big difference is that many don’t have features and rewards that rewards credit cards do.

On the bright side, although all late payments will hurt your credit, you may find that some student cards are more forgiving on late payments by not charging late fees.

The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One (Product is no longer available) can be a valuable tool for earning some rewards.

The information for the Journey Student Rewards 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.

Cash-back credit card

In simple terms, when using a cash-back credit card, you receive a percentage of the money that you spent back. Think of it as a discount or an incentive. The Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card is our top recommendation for most college students.


Cardholders can earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and groceries. For example, if I were to spend $200 on dinner, I would earn $6 cash back that can be used toward another purchase.

Secured credit card

A secured credit card is a great option if you’re building or repairing credit or if you’re having trouble getting approved for a rewards card. The card is backed up with your cash deposit that will serve as collateral on the account. That means that the user has extra security in case the cardholder cannot make a payment.

The Discover it Secured credit card is our top secured credit card that earns rewards. With no annual fee, you can earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants. And, as a cardholder, you can also check your FICO score for free.

The information for the Discover it Secured credit 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.

Bottom line

As a college student, I understand that the word “credit” can trigger many emotions — fear of messing up your credit early on or excitement for adulthood. Credit cards often come with negative misperceptions, especially when it comes to college students.

But think of it this way: Opening a credit card in college is a great way to build your credit history. It can have a positive impact on the milestones that you may want to achieve after graduating, such as purchasing your first house or car.

Remember to be patient with yourself, as the world of credit can be overwhelming for newbies.

And lastly, always do your research and use your card responsibly.

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