Key takeaways

  • A student card can be a viable option to use for travel, especially if the card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.
  • A student card could be a much more affordable alternative to a traditional travel credit card, making it ideal for fitting into a student's budget abroad.
  • If you're not quite ready to get a student credit card, you can explore a few alternatives to finance your study abroad experience.

Studying abroad can be an exciting experience, and you’ll have many things to prepare for as you plan your trip. If you’re a student, you may wonder where you’ll find the best restaurants or the best shops for souvenirs. And if you’re a parent, your child’s safety and overall experience may be your top priorities.

One place where these concerns could overlap is finances. Having a secure financial situation while studying abroad can be crucial to ensuring the most enjoyable experience. Credit cards are a payment option that often comes with many insurances and other protections, making them some of the most useful and secure ways to finance a trip. And if you’re a student, you’ll likely be eligible for student cards that come with a host of other helpful features while you’re overseas.

What is a student credit card?

A student credit card is a type of credit card designed for people attending colleges, universities or other training institutions and who may have little or no credit history. The credit requirements on student cards are often more relaxed than those for a traditional unsecured credit card, and many are fairly low on fees, too.

Student cards also often have rewards structures that fit into a student budget. Common bonus spending categories on student cards include dining, entertainment, streaming services, gas and groceries.

Choosing the best student card for study abroad

Finding the best student card for your wallet will come down to a variety of factors. The following steps can help you narrow down your options as you keep affordability, credit requirements and rewards in mind:

Break down your spending habits

Before deciding which cards are at the top of your list, take some time to examine your current spending habits. How much do you typically spend in a month, and what do you spend it on?

Now think about your future spending habits. When you’re abroad, your spending might look different. Will you be using your card primarily for souvenirs? School supplies? Maybe you’ll wind up spending less on gas and more on dining out. Depending on where you spend most or plan to spend the most, you’ll want to pick a card that aligns with your top spending categories so you can get the most out of your rewards program.

Bankrate’s credit card spender type tool can help you understand how you typically make your purchases so that you can narrow down a student credit card that’s right for you.

Make sure the card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee

A foreign transaction fee is an added charge, usually 3 to 5 percent, for processing purchases with a currency different than your own. Using a card with foreign transaction fees in a country you could be studying in for four months or longer can get expensive fast. Here’s an example of what a semester’s worth of spending on books and food would cost a student from the University of Iowa studying in Florence, Italy, in the spring of 2023 if they purchased every book and meal with their credit card. The figures represented are based on estimates from an average cost of studying abroad survey Bankrate conducted.

Average cost for a semester based on survey estimates Card with a 3% foreign transaction fee Card with no foreign transaction fee
Food $3,000 $3,090 $3,000
Books $450 $463.50 $450
Total spent $3,450 $3,553.50 $3,450*$103.50 saved

Some student credit cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee, but not all. When choosing a student card for study abroad, save yourself some time (and money) by picking a card that doesn’t tack on extra fees for foreign transactions.

Find out whether the card’s network is readily accepted at your destination

Credit card networks are different from card issuers, though some card issuers have their own networks. Credit card networks help facilitate the transaction between your bank and the merchant you’re making a purchase with.

Visa and Mastercard are the two most popular credit card networks — merchants accept them virtually everywhere. Issuers with their own card networks, like Discover and American Express, tend to have lower international acceptance rates — and just because that network might be available in a country doesn’t mean all individual merchants will accept them.

Take note of your card issuer’s network and do some research to find out whether merchants in your host country will typically accept your card when you swipe it. If it’s hard to find that information online, talk to students who went through the study abroad program you’re considering or staff who teach in that country to get a better idea.

Check whether you can apply without a Social Security number

If you’re an international student studying in the U.S. you can still apply for a credit card. Some student credit cards don’t require a Social Security number as part of the application; instead, they may require an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which could make them more accessible to international students who want to use credit. Look into the application requirements and short list cards that accept international identification forms.

The best student cards for study abroad

The following student cards are some of the best available for students planning to study abroad. These cards share many of the notable characteristics that make a card good for international use, such as having no foreign transaction fees, offering valuable rewards and even providing opportunities to upgrade once the trip — or college career — comes to an end.

Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best overall student card

The Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card is a popular choice for student cash back credit cards. It doesn’t charge an annual fee or a foreign transaction fee, which puts it squarely in the running as a good card for study abroad.

The card also doesn’t charge a penalty annual percentage rate (APR) if you miss a payment, although missing a payment means up to $40 in a late payment fee. Eliminating the penalty APR is a great plus for a student cardholder who may be getting used to handling their credit and keeping up with bills. But it’s important to note that even without a penalty APR, missed and late payments could have negative effects on your credit score and lead to costly interest charges.

The SavorOne Student card also has a valuable rewards structure. You’ll get competitive rewards rates on a host of categories, including:

  • 5 percent cash back on travel booked through Capital One Travel
  • 3 percent cash back on dining
  • 3 percent cash back on grocery store purchases
  • 3 percent cash back on eligible entertainment purchases
  • 3 percent cash back on select streaming services
  • 1 percent cash back on all other purchases

These categories cover a lot of what makes up a student budget, and you’d likely be able to reap a lot of rewards with little effort. The main drawback to consider with this card is the high ongoing APR with no intro offer, which can get expensive quickly if you end up carrying balances.

Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for flat-rate rewards

If you’re a student who would prefer to earn the same rewards rate on everything you buy, the Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card is a solid choice. You’ll earn a competitive 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases, so you won’t have to worry about tracking rotating bonus categories or being strategic with your budget to get the most out of your card.

Earning a flat rewards rate is also ideal for students who spend broadly across many categories, which could be the case during a study abroad program. The card also aces affordability with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees. Plus, you can earn a $50 welcome bonus by spending just $100 in your first three months with the card — a fairly low spend requirement — especially when compared to the $500 and more required spends on many non-student credit cards.

You’ll still want to avoid carrying a balance, since there are no intro APR offers and the ongoing interest rate is high. Also, while some student cards may waive a first late payment fee, the Quicksilver Student card doesn’t, and you could face a charge of up to $40 for a missed or late payment.

Discover it® Student Cash Back: Best for bonus categories

Students who are more comfortable with crafting a strategy to get more rewards value could find a lot to love in the Discover it® Student Cash Back. The card’s most notable perks are its lucrative rewards program and Cashback Match welcome offer. With the Cashback Match program, Discover will match your reward earnings at the end of your first year with the card. So if you earn $100 in cash back, you’ll get an extra $100 from the CashBack Match offer at the end of your first year, making it one of — if not the most — valuable welcome offers available on a student credit card.

When it comes to the rewards program, the Discover it Student Cash Back offers 5 percent cash back in rotating bonus categories on up to $1,500 spent in the categories quarterly, then 1 percent (activation required).

While you’ll have to be mindful of the spending cap and activate the bonus category each quarter to benefit from the rate boost, it’s still one of the most valuable student cards available. Quarterly categories have traditionally included common categories students spend in, and if you tailor your spending each quarter to match the bonus category, you can maximize this card’s value fairly easily.

In line with the other cards that are ideal for studying abroad, this Discover card doesn’t charge an annual fee or foreign transaction fees. Your first late payment is also waived (up to $41 after).

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Keep in mind: Discover cards have a lower international acceptance than a Visa or Mastercard credit card, so you’ll want to do extra research to ensure merchants will accept this card at your destination.

Alternatives to using a student card abroad

If you don’t want to use a student credit card for a study abroad trip, here are some alternatives you can consider:

Become an authorized user

If a parent, guardian or another person you trust has their own credit card, consider asking to become an authorized user. When you’re an authorized user on someone’s credit card account, you benefit from their available credit and can borrow against it like it were your own account.

Being an authorized user on another account also means that your spending habits and credit building habits will impact each other. So if you act irresponsibly with your card, the main account holder’s credit could be damaged, and vice versa. That’s why, if you decide to go this route, you should ask a responsible and trusted cardholder to add you as an authorized user.

You should also communicate clearly with the primary cardholder on what your spending allowance is and how much, if any, of the card payment you should take on.

Stick to cash

Another payment method that’s almost always accepted is cash. If having your own credit card is too much to manage, you can exchange cash for the currency accepted in the hosting country and use it for purchases abroad. Many students who study abroad are also able to open up checking accounts at local banks near their university. With this method, you can get a debit card issued to you and use that for most of your payments.

If that’s not an option and you’re more likely to just carry around cash, then you’ll have to keep your safety in mind. Carrying around large amounts of cash can make you a target for theft and bring about other safety concerns, so you should be diligent. Depending on where you study abroad, most merchants may have a cashless payment policy, so you’ll want to have an alternative ready for this situation as well (and vice versa).

Use scholarship money

Apply for financial aid through your university or the university in your host country. In addition to covering housing and the supplies needed for your studies, students could use any extra funds to finance other living expenses.

Get a different type of credit card

While student credit cards might seem like the only types of credit cards available to you, that’s not actually true. Here are two other types of credit cards you might want to consider:

Travel credit cards

If you have a bit of credit history by being an authorized user, you might qualify for a traditional travel credit card. While using a travel credit card when you study abroad might sound like the perfect option, it’s important to consider a few key differences between them and student credit cards.

The best travel cards will likely skip foreign transaction fees just like the best student cards will, but the primary standouts on travel credit cards are the top-tier travel perks, like lounge access and travel insurance.

The catch is that premium travel cards often come at a premium price, with many of the top travel cards charging annual fees from $95 to more than $600. Travel cards also often require at least a good credit score for approval, which could push these options out of reach for students with limited or no credit history.


Bankrate’s take: Student credit cards can act as a decent stopgap to a full-blown travel credit card because of the differences in credit requirements and costs between the two. While you may not get many travel-specific rewards with a student card, you could still take advantage of rewards on other top categories in your budget.

Secured credit cards

Secured credit cards are also excellent alternatives to student credit cards. Like student cards, secured credit cards are geared toward those with little to no credit history, but they can also be great for those with bad credit history.

When you sign up for a secured credit card, you put down a refundable security deposit, usually at least $200, that typically becomes your credit line. Most secured credit card issuers reward good credit-building habits, so if you display these with your secured card, then your issuer might automatically raise your credit limit or even return your deposit and upgrade you to an unsecured line of credit.

If you don’t think you’ll need a large credit line, you can consider signing up for a secured credit card in place of a student card. Some of the best secured credit cards even offer modest rewards rates, so you’ll still get to earn cash back or points when you make purchases.

The bottom line

Students have many options to choose from when deciding on how to finance time abroad. While a student credit card can provide a lot of perks when you study abroad, you might decide you’re better off with a full-fledged travel card or with just sticking to cash. Becoming an authorized user on a trusted relative’s account might also be a good option for you.

Just make sure you consider all of the possibilities that come with spending money internationally. Prepare for situations where a merchant is cashless or cash only, and have a clear understanding of what you’ll need most out of whatever financing option you choose. Organizing your finances before you leave for your trip can allow for one less thing to worry about during your time abroad — leaving you more time to fully immerse yourself in learning and culture.