The Best Credit Cards for College Students

The Best Credit Cards for College Students in 2021

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Best credit card for college students

Many college students these days graduate with an unmanageable level of debt. This is an issue that must be addressed. But from renting an apartment to setting up utilities, what’s also true is that college is a great time to start building your credit score. And good credit pays dividends, both in school and after graduation — helping to make certain kinds of essential purchases, or to even borrow money to start a business.

Nobody should take a loan they can’t afford to pay back, or use a credit card without a solid plan in place to pay off the balance. But one way for college students to begin the process of building their credit score is the responsible use of a credit card. And these days, with many important transactions only able to be conducted online, some access to a credit card is a near necessity.

Want to fly home from school to see your folks over the holidays? Try paying for that with cash or a check.

On this note, Sallie Mae says 58% of all college students signed up for a credit card to begin building credit, while 28% of all college students chose a credit card for online shopping. An additional 25% sought a credit card to take advantage of credit card rewards. 

With this in mind, we present the three best credit cards for college students, based on the following factors:

  • Credit building: Does the company report to all three credit reporting agencies
  • Low interest rates (introductory and ongoing)
  • Rewards, fees, and international acceptance

Through our research, we feel confident any one of the cards in our ranking will help a college student navigate the college years, graduating with both a manageable level of debt and a credit score to help them flourish at the next stage in life.

Before telling you which three credit cards we liked most for college students, let’s first explain what exactly makes a student credit card different from any other kind of card.

How are student credit cards different from regular credit cards?

In most respects, credit cards for college students are very similar to any other kind of credit card, with some key differences. Here’s what you need to know:

  • They’re easier to qualify for. For applicants with little to no credit, or who have some small blemishes on their credit report, credit cards for college students are much easier to qualify for. They deemphasize the credit rating for other factors like provable income, while allowing some grace to students who are studying for a better future.
  • Rewards targeted to college students. The best credit cards for college students also offer targeted rewards in categories most relevant to life in school, such as gas and groceries. Some may even offer student-specific bonuses for good grades, or rewards to foster responsible financial behavior such as paying the credit card bill on time and in full. 

One important distinction: credit cards for college students are not the same as credit cards for people with bad credit

Credit cards specifically for people with a bad credit rating typically require a security deposit. Some cards aimed at students in colleges and universities do as well, but typically, these credit cards have no such requirement. 

Now that we understand some of the differences between credit cards for college students and regular credit cards, we now present our picks for the best credit cards for college students. 

The Best Credit Cards for College Students

Best credit card for college students

Here are the three best credit cards for college students, in the following three categories:

Keep reading to find out what we liked, and a few things we think a college student should be aware of in our next section.

Best Overall Credit Card for College Students: Chase Freedom Student Credit Card

Chase Freedom Student Credit Card

Leading off our list of the best credit cards for college students is the Freedom Student Credit Card from Chase. Offering the best balance of what a student needs from a card, there’s no annual fee, and no credit history is required to apply. This makes it the perfect choice for those just beginning to build their score — though good to excellent credit will greatly increase your odds of approval.

Following that, students who make a purchase in the first three months after opening the account earn a $50 introductory offer, and 1% rewards on all purchases going forward. What’s more, accounts kept in good standing earn an additional $20 bonus annually for up to five years, and cardholders meeting certain criteria earn a credit limit increase after five on-time monthly payments.

What we also like, there’s no cash back redemption minimums, nor do the cash back rewards ever expire throughout the life of the account. The ongoing APR is also relatively low, at only 14.99%. And Chase offers many opportunities for cardholders to upgrade their account following graduation.

Some things to be aware of about the Freedom Student credit card: there are foreign transaction fees. If you’re studying overseas this may not be the best card for you. There are also more generous cash back reward programs out there, targeted in categories that may be more relevant to students. 

But taken as a whole, the Chase Freedom Student credit card offers the best mix of rewards, no fees, few restrictions, incentives for responsible financial management, and upgrade opportunities post-graduation: just what a student should look for when choosing their first credit card.

Best Credit Card for College Students With Rewards: Discover it Student Cash Back Credit Card

College students seeking the best rewards from their credit card should consider the next pick in our list: the Discover it Student Cash Back credit card. What stands out about this card is the generous introductory offer: a cash back match on everything earned in the first year, with no minimum spending requirements, nor are there any maximum reward limitations. 

Following that, students using the card continue to earn 5% cash back on categories most relevant to them, including gas and groceries but also Paypal and transactions, among many others. There’s also an automatic 1% cash back on all other purchases, and a $20 statement credit for GPAs of at least 3.0, for up to five years.

Other things we liked about the card include no annual fees. And because everyone makes mistakes, late fees are forgiven on the first late payment, with the APR remaining steady, even after paying late. Refer another student to the card, and earn a statement credit once they’re approved. No FICO credit history is required to apply, with the average recommended credit score being only average.

Otherwise, we like the freedom to freeze the account within seconds, and free activation of alerts, should your Social Security Number show up on the Dark Web. Furthermore, few cards are as widely accepted as Discover throughout the U.S. But although there are no foreign transaction fees, Discover isn’t widely accepted overseas, something to keep in mind for students studying abroad.

Other areas where the Discover it Student Cash Back credit card lags behind the first pick in our ranking is the variable APR, ranging from between 12.99% and 21.99% after the 0% introductory APR period. 

And although the cash back program is generous, categories rotate every three months and staying on top of that may be more than the average college student bargained for. 

Best secured credit card for college students: Secured Mastercard from Capital One

Secured Mastercard from Capital One

Students with little or no credit, or who already have some financial mistakes on their credit report, should consider a secured credit card. With the freedom to be partially-secured, the best credit card of this sort for college students is the Secured Mastercard from Capital One. But what’s gained by the low credit score requirement is lost in a 0% APR introductory period or in terms of rewards. 

Nevertheless, the card offers no annual fees, and approval within a matter of seconds, so ongoing costs are low. With a refundable security deposit of only $49, students get a $200 line of credit. Those security deposits can be made in increments of $99 and $200, your choice. But most importantly, that security deposit can be earned back in the form of a statement credit so long as the card is used responsibly by making on-time payments. 

And in six short months, cardholders gain eligibility for a higher credit limit, with no additional deposit necessary. There’s also $0 fraud liability on unauthorized charges, and CreditWise is a quick and easy way to check your credit score as it grows. 

There are certainly student credit cards out there offering the better rewards, or lower APR — at an ongoing 26.99% the APR on the Secured Mastercard is relatively high. If you have seriously damaged credit, this is not the card for you. 

But otherwise, the Secured Mastercard is a great, low-barrier card for students who are just beginning to build their credit score, or who are attempting to rebuild their credit history. 

Now that you have some idea which credit card might be best for you, or for a college student in your life, what else does a student dipping their toe into the world of credit cards need to know? 

We’ll conclude with a few essential pointers to get the most from your credit card for college students.

Who Should Apply for a Student Credit Card

Who Should Apply for a Student Credit Card

The fact of the matter is, being an actual college student may or may not matter when it comes time to apply for any one of the credit cards in our ranking. While with some cards, status as a student is explicitly required. For this reason, it’s important to read the fine print of whatever credit card you apply for.

Here are some additional things that college students, or college-aged applicants, should  consider before choosing their credit card:

  • Under 21? You may need an authorized user. Without provable independent income, federal law regulates credit card approval for applicants under the age of 21. Thing is, most major credit card companies don’t allow co-signers. Instead, those under 21 without independent income — defined as income to which you have reasonable expectation of access — may need an authorized user, such as a parent or guardian. Your name will be on the card, but ultimately, the authorized user is responsible for repaying the balance.
  • Some credit is better than bad credit. Even though student credit cards are designed for young people who are just starting to build their credit rating, significant issues with your credit may still be a dealbreaker. In this instance, it’s best to repair your credit, or to forgo a student credit card in lieu of a credit card option meant for people with significant credit issues. Cards of this sort typically require a security deposit, however. 

How to Use a Student Credit Card

How to Use a Student Credit Card

Student credit cards serve two purposes: to provide the advantages of a credit card to college-aged individuals, but also, to help young people begin the process of building credit. To get the best results from your credit card, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Don’t overspend. Even with a reasonably small credit limit, with a brand-new credit card in your possession it’s tempting to overspend. Spending too much on your card without the ability to pay off the balance, though, is counterproductive. For this reason, it’s important to never overspend on your next credit card for college students. 
  • Pay on time and in full. Failing to build your credit is a common mistake by college credit card users. Part of not overspending on your new credit is to charge only what you can pay off. Otherwise, you’ll end up accruing interest and putting yourself further into debt. Again, this is at odds with the primary purpose of using a credit card in the first place: to build credit. And if you can’t pay in full, always try and pay more than the minimum.
  • Don’t max out your credit. Part of your credit score is your credit utilization ratio (CUR), or the amount of credit that’s available to you versus how much credit you’ve used. Chances are the credit limit won’t be that high on a credit card for college students anyway, but nevertheless, it’s best to only use about 30% of your available credit limit for best results.
  • Pay attention to the details. 0% APR introductory periods or rewards programs targeted to categories relevant to a college student are only effective if cardholders pay extra-close attention to how these offers work. The introductory 0% APR will expire, and those categories may rotate on a month-to-month basis, requiring you to select which category to target your spending.

As can be seen, selecting your credit card is only the first step of the process. To take full advantage of the best credit card college students takes diligence and responsible financial planning.

The Best Credit Cards for College Student: Conclusion 

College is a time to plan and prepare for the future. Although student debt is a significant problem, it’s also a great time to begin building your credit score. One of the best ways to build credit is the responsible use of a credit card for college students. Our research uncovered the following three choices: 

From generous rewards programs targeted to college students, to reasonably low interest rates and 0% introductory periods, these products offer the best balance of what those in college need from a credit card. No matter what card you choose, however, don’t forget the following:

  • Don’t overspend, and pay on time and in full whenever possible. And when you can’t pay off the total balance, always pay more than the minimum. 
  • Don’t max out your credit. Part of anyone’s credit score is their CUR, or credit utilization ratio: the amount of debt versus the total amount of credit available. Estimates say it’s best to only use only about 30% of your total available credit. You should avoid using your card for large purchases such as engagement rings or spontaneous luxury purchases.
  • Do your homework. After selecting your card, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print: the rewards categories may rotate, and certain introductory deals may expire. For this reason, choosing your card is only the first step: Diligently reading and complying with the fine print in whatever credit card is right for you is the only way to take full advantage of whatever the card has to offer.

No matter your age, if you have serious issues with your credit, you may need a secured credit card. Again, that’s very different from a credit card for college students. But if you simply have little to no credit — also called a thin-file credit score —  or if you have some small blemishes on your report, the best credit cards for college students are a great way to begin planning for a brighter future.