How I got my 1st credit card at 18 years old

May 20, 2022

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My parents say that my wanderlust sprouted when I was 3 years old. I would pack up my little box of cardboard books, pretend it was a suitcase and wave goodbye.

But I would argue that it really began in December of 2018 when my dad managed to snag four tickets from our Washington, D.C., location to Sydney for just 40,000 Delta SkyMiles each. After two weeks of being mesmerized by the wonders of the world Down Under, I began asking my father every travel and credit card question possible while scouring the internet for award sweet spots and travel tips.

A few months ago, the moment of truth (and credit) finally arrived when I turned 18. Following years of reading about lucrative sign-up bonuses and travel rewards, I was officially old enough to have my own credit score and apply for my first card.

My years of research proved invaluable once that fateful day arrived.

Here’s how I mapped out my entry into the world of credit cards, narrowed down my card options and strategized my spending on my chosen card after submitting my application and receiving approval.

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Start thinking about credit cards early, even if you’re years away from applying for your 1st card

Although I’ve only had a credit card for a few months, I’ve known the importance of staying out of debt and building strong financial habits for years thanks to TPG’s 10 commandments of credit card rewards, which include key tips like “Thou shalt pay thy balance in full” and “Thou shalt not miss a payment.” 

While these rules may seem a bit obvious, they are vital to building your credit score at a young age, which you’ll need if you want to later add more cards with even better travel benefits (like airport lounge access or hotel elite status) to your wallet.

Someone checking their credit score on a smart phone
(Photo by cnythzl/Getty Images)

Once you’ve gained a solid understanding of responsible credit card ownership (preferably before you’re eligible to apply for your first card), you can then sign up for an entry-level card and dive into building your credit score as soon as you turn 18. Doing so will ensure your credit history is as long and strong as possible.

Soon after returning home from my family trip to Australia, I took my first steps toward my first card application. I persuaded my parents to add me as an authorized user on their credit cards, which would allow my credit history to stretch back years before I was eligible to have my own credit card and include on-time payments, boosting my score. 

Read more: Everything you need to know about authorized users

Weigh your credit card options and pick 1 that best fits your habits

While my established history of being an authorized user on my parents’ credit cards set me up for success when it was time to apply for a credit card, there are options available if you’re starting from zero. You can open a secured credit card or a student credit card, such as the Chase Freedom Student; both kinds of cards offer limited benefits but will let you build credit without needing an established history to receive approval.

If you’re like me and have some credit history under your belt, you’ll have more options to choose from. Premium cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card will likely still be out of reach due to their high income or minimum credit limit requirements, but there are several great starter travel credit cards with relatively low annual fees that you can apply for.

Photo of Amex Platinum
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael for The Points Guy)

Since I sought a card that would fit my limited budget as a college student and my desire to maximize earnings on spending categories like groceries, gas and dining, as well as travel, I considered a few middle-tier cards, such as the Citi Premier® Card, the American Express® Green Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Ultimately, I decided to go with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, as the minimum spending required to earn the sign-up bonus seemed attainable and its $95 annual fee felt doable on a student budget — if it proved difficult to pay after a year, I could always downgrade to the no-annual-fee Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card. I also had an existing relationship with Capital One, meaning my application would likely be approved.

The information for the American Express Green 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.

Related: Best Capital One credit cards

Use your card wisely to set yourself up for success

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

To earn the 60,000-mile bonus offered when I applied for my Capital One Venture, I needed to spend at least $3,000 in the first three months of having my card. (Editor’s note: The current welcome offer for the Venture card is 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.)

I used my card to make a down payment on my college tuition, which quickly put me about 20% of the way toward reaching that $3,000 threshold. I also plan to purchase a new laptop and other college essentials with my card to cover most of the remaining spending requirement.

Since it’s important I pay my balance in full each month, I set up autopay and made a pledge to myself to only use the card to purchase items I need. By choosing a card that fits your typical spending habits, you won’t feel pressured to spend beyond your means to earn the sign-up bonus and get your money’s worth.

Application link: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card available with 75,000 bonus miles

Make plans for using your rewards and expanding your card portfolio … when you’re ready

(Photo by M Swiet Productions/Getty Images)

Sitting on points and miles is a bad idea, as the chance of devaluations occurring makes it likely your credit card earnings will lose value as time passes. So, with the 66,000 miles (or more) I’ll collect from my sign-up bonus and spending, I plan on enjoying at least one quick getaway before I hit the books studying next fall.

Since Capital One has 15 airline partners, I’m eyeing transferring 15,000 miles to the Miles&Smiles frequent flyer program. The loyalty program’s ties to Turkish Airlines (which is a Star Alliance carrier) mean I can use my transferred miles to book a round-trip flight to just about anywhere in the U.S. (including Hawaii) on United Airlines for minimal taxes and fees. This is an unbeatable redemption, not to mention that I will take any chance I can get to go back to my favorite place and surf the North Shore of Oahu.

For my Hawaii trip, I would likely transfer 45,000 miles to Wyndham Rewards to book a one-bedroom vacation rental through the program’s partner Vacasa for only 15,000 points per night. It is a great deal considering how expensive Hawaii lodging can be, and I’d have access to a kitchen so I could save on dining by preparing my own meals.

In addition to mapping out award travel, you’ll want to consider your long-term credit card strategy. I plan on adding another Capital One credit card to my portfolio later this summer after I have given my credit score enough time to improve after my first hard inquiry. The Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card would allow me to earn 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, streaming services and grocery stores in addition to the 2 miles I’d receive for everything else when using my Venture card. Plus, I can transfer cash back from the former to miles with the latter, giving me opportunities to earn more valuable and versatile rewards.

Related: Best cash-back credit cards

Bottom line

Understanding credit cards and your current financial situation in-depth can make a massive difference when beginning your travel rewards journey. Even at a young age, I was able to apply and get approved for a valuable travel credit card thanks to some careful planning.

By applying for your first credit card early in your adult years, you not only can open new travel possibilities, but you can also help yourself build a lifetime of smart financial habits.

Featured photo by Westend61/Getty Images.

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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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