Editorial disclosure: All reviews are prepared by Bankrate.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank’s website for the most current information.
Author: Bankrate Staff | Last Updated: November 28, 2018
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We strive to be the best online resource for all your credit card questions. When it comes to credit cards for students, that means reviewing and comparing as many cards as possible to unearth the offers that stand taller than the rest.
There are a bunch of factors that power our proprietary Bankrate Score, but some credit card features are weighted more than others. The best student cards make it easy to build credit: They’re free to own (it has no annual fee) and have no penalty APR. Here’s a list of the top factors we used to evaluate and score student cards, in order of importance:
- APR rates: Variable APR and penalty APR (the interest you pay if you miss a payment) can be high and compound quickly.
- 0% Intro APR offer term length: A long period at 0% APR means that you can charge a large expense (such as a new laptop) to your credit card and pay it off over time without incurring interest.
- Intro bonus and card perks: Great student cards should offer useful perks, like cash back on certain categories like gas and groceries.
Recap of our top picks for the best student cards for 2019 spring semester
|Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
||Flat-rate cash back and studying abroad
|Discover it® Student chrome
||Gas, dining & large purchases
|Discover it® Student Cash Back
||Rotating cash back bonus categories
|Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
||Best for Amazon Prime membership
|Self Lender — Credit Builder Account
||Best for credit building
Deeper details on each of the best student credit cards
Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
The Journey card offers 1% cash back on all purchases, but you can boost that to 1.25% if you pay your bill off on time. There are premium cash back cards with flat 1.5% cash back rates, so the fact that this card is essentially offering 1.25% to those new to credit is a pretty sweet deal. Of course, there’s no annual fee, but the no fees on foreign transactions is one perk that surfaces this card to the top of student card offers. Take it abroad, pay your bills off on time and in full every month—your credit limit may even increase after five months.
- Bankrate Score: 80/100
- Best For: Flat-rate cash back and studying abroad
- Credit Needed: Average/Fair/Limited
- Rewards Rate: 1% cash back on all purchases; paying on time boosts rewards rate to 1.25%
- Annual Fee: $0
Discover it® Student chrome
Discover’s chrome card for students earns 2% cash back on up to $1,000 in purchases at gas stations and restaurants per quarter. For everything else, you’ll earn 1%. Although that may not seem like a huge rewards rate, keep in mind that if you’re a student looking to build credit, the roughly $20 – $30 in rewards you earn every quarter will be a pleasant surprise you can count on for as long as you’re using the card. Not to mention that Discover will match everything you’ve earned in your first year, dollar for dollar.
- Bankrate Score: 93/100
- Best For: Gas, dining, and large purchases
- Credit Needed: Average/Fair
- Rewards Rate: 2% cash back on up to $1,000 in gas stations and restaurant purchases per quarter, 1% back on everything else
- Annual Fee: $0
Discover it® Student Cash Back
Discover’s rotating 5% bonus category card for students can produce an extremely lucrative first year of cash back for savvy spenders. As there’s no annual fee and a $20 reward for each year you maintain a 3.0 GPA, all students can benefit from this card, but those who don’t mind putting in a little strategy can really earn big. Maxing out the quarterly bonuses before the rewards rate drops from 5% to 1% will result in $75 in rewards. At the end of the year, that adds up to $300. Discover matches everything earned in year one, which means that number becomes $600.
- Bankrate Score: 93/100
- Best For: Rotating category cash back
- Credit Needed: Average/Fair
- Rewards Rate: Enroll every quarter to earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in various categories throughout the year; 1% back on everything else.
- Annual Fee: $0
Other notable options for students looking to build credit:
Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
Students earn an unlimited 1% cash back on every purchase made with this card. Although that’s a modest rewards rate, it’s a nice benefit in the context of every other perk this card offers. Cardholders are eligible for up to $49 (lifetime total) for Amazon Prime Student, as well as ID theft protection, price protection, and other Mastercard Platinum benefits. It’s also another card without foreign transaction fees, so take it abroad with you.
- 1% unlimited cash back on all purchases
- Deserve will pay for Amazon Prime Student (up to a lifetime total of $49)
- No security deposit required, no foreign transaction fees
Self Lender — Credit Builder Account
Self Lender’s Credit Builder Account is a unique offering in the student credit category. It doesn’t offer cash back or perks on category purchases, but instead offers help in securing a small loan to deposit in a Certificate of Deposit (CD) bank account. For college students in their second or third year especially, this is a huge asset when it comes to unlocking a nice fund upon graduation. Your loan will sit in the CD account for 12 or 24 months, and after that, you will be able to withdraw more than you initially put in.
- Savings plans start at $25/month, which includes credit monitoring
- CD account terms at 12 or 24 months
- No credit history required
What are student credit cards and how do they work?
It’s common for young people, especially college students with mounting loan debt, to be apprehensive about applying for credit cards. In fact, 47% of college students age 18-24 don’t have a credit card simply because they want to avoid debt as much as possible, according to research from Sallie Mae and Ipsos. With a better understanding of credit and how a student credit card can benefit you in the long run, you’ll see that if you are a good candidate, applying for a student credit card is a wise first step in long-term financial wellness.
Student credit cards provide you with a line of credit, usually $1,000 or less. When you use the card, money isn’t directly drawn from your bank account. Instead, the issuer (Capital One, Discover, etc.) pays for the expense and records the amount you charged. The total amount you owe to the issuer is called a balance.
If you pay off the balance in full and on time every month, you’ll never owe more than what you spent. Though, credit card issuers allow you to make small “minimum payments” and carry the rest of the balance month-to-month. When you carry a balance, you’ll have to pay interest on the total amount. Your interest rate is also known as the Annual Percentage Rate or APR. APRs vary across all credit cards, but with a student card, you can expect your rate to be 14-25%.
To put it in perspective, let’s look at a common scenario and consider two possible outcomes:
Let’s say you put $500 on your student credit card to pay for this semester’s books. Your card has a high APR of 24.99% and a minimum monthly payment of $25 on high balances.
- If you pay your balance off completely, you’ll start next month with a $0 balance. In total, you’ll have paid $500.
- If you can make only the minimum payment at the end of the month, you’ll pay $25. Next month, you’ll start with a $593.7025 balance. If you pay that off, you’ll have spent $618.7025 total on something that only cost $500.
Why get a student credit card?
A lot of people often start out as authorized users on their parent’s credit cards so as they can ‘piggyback’ off their parent’s credit score and their parents can monitor their spending. By getting your own credit card, though, you can begin to have more control over your own finances, grow your credit history, pay your own bills and manage a budget. And, for some people, becoming an authorized user isn’t an option.
There are a lot of good use-cases for your student card:
- The best way to get used to paying with your credit card, and clearing your balance, is to make somewhat regular smaller payments. Using your credit card for the odd meal here-and-there, or for your morning coffee, you can get you in the habit of using your credit card, paying your bill, and accruing rewards.
- Charging larger expenses to your credit card, such as flights for a spring break vacation, can be a great way to earn travel rewards and benefit from some of the insurances (such as rental car collision insurance and lost luggage insurance) offered by credit card issuers when you pay with your credit card. These benefits are great, so long as you have the income to pay your bill. Incurring interest will vastly negate the travel rewards or cash back you would get for these charges.
- It’s good to always be prepared. A credit card can be a great resource in your wallet in the case of emergencies. It’s good to establish clear boundaries of what constitutes an emergency — no, the late night pizza isn’t an emergency, even if you’re really hungry. If your car breaks down, your flight gets canceled on your way home and you need a hotel, or you have a visit to the ER and a medical bill to pay, with a credit card you know you can cover these expenses. Just make sure to pay your bill before you begin incurring interest.
Types of student credit cards
Categorizing credit cards can be somewhat confusing for everyone, especially those who are new to credit, but luckily for those in college, there are essentially two types of credit cards available to students:
- Rewards cards for students: Rewards credit cards in general offer cash back, points, and other perks based on how much you spend on the card and how often you use it. As student credit cards usually have lower credit limits, the rewards aren’t as lucrative, but they’re still worth collecting. Some cards, like the Discover it® Student Cash Back, even offer statement credits for maintaining good grades. To be approved for a rewards student credit card, you’ll likely need to already have fair credit.
- Secured credit cards for students: Secured cards are designed for those with little to no credit history. They require an up-front deposit and usually have a low credit line of around $200. You won’t get the special perks of a rewards card, but secured cards do offer reporting to the three major credit bureaus. If you use a secured card responsibly, those reports will show you are creditworthy and actually boost your credit score.
How to decide which type of student credit card to apply for
As a rule of thumb, only consider applying for a student card with rewards if you:
- Already have fair to good credit
- Have a steady source of income
- Feel you can stick to a budget and avoid maxing out your credit limit
Consider applying for a secured student card if you:
- Have no prior credit history
- Don’t have a steady source of income, but do have an adult co-signer
- Can make a deposit of at least $200
Credit card terms students should know
- Annual Percentage Rate (APR): Interest rate paid on balances carried from one billing period (month) to the next.
- Penalty APR: The highest APR that will be applied to your account. Penalty APR is usually applied after you miss consecutive payments. To return to your original APR, you’ll need to make six consecutive on-time payments.
- Credit Utilization Ratio: Your CUR is a measurement of how much of your available credit you are using. If you have a $5,000 credit limit and usually stick to a $500 per month budget, your CUR is at 10%. The lower your ratio is, the better. If you use up a large chunk (or all) of your available credit every month, your credit score may decrease.
- Annual fees: Some credit cards have annual fees of $50 or more, though most student cards do not. Be sure to check for fees before applying for any card.
- Credit bureau: Credit bureaus research and track your credit history. In the US, there are three major bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- FICO: FICO is the company that compiles all of your credit history reporting and generates your credit score. FICO credit scores range from 300 to 850, with 850 being the best. Credit scores are one factor in determining your creditworthiness.
How students can avoid getting into credit card debt
If you’re spending time gathering information on credit cards for college students, you’re already using the first good strategy for avoiding credit card debt:
- Do your research. Credit cards have a lot of terms and conditions. It’s wise to understand exactly what kind of card you need and find a card that best meets those needs. If you don’t own a car and you rarely dine out, it’s probably not in your best interest to apply for a rewards card that offers cash back on gas and dining purchases.
- Pay off your balance in full every month. It may seem obvious, but the only way to avoid paying more than you have to is by paying in full every month. Some credit cards will let you choose your own due date, others will establish one for you. Make sure you note when your credit card bill is due and stick to your payment schedule.
- Avoid putting large expenses on your credit card. It’s best to not use your credit card to pay for tuition, vacations, down payments on a car, etc. Students get into credit card debt when large purchases are made, causing everyday purchases to pile up and make monthly bills unmanageable.
- Look for introductory offers. If you absolutely need to make a larger purchase, look for a student card with a 0% introductory APR. Some cards have 0% APR for the first several months. During that time, you can make one large purchase and gradually pay it off without any interest. Student credit cards with low APRs do exist, and they can usually be found with good introductory offers.
- Use your card for everyday convenience. Use it to pay for food, utility bills, movie tickets, and other small purchases. Having a credit card is incredibly convenient and a positive thing when you use it properly.
Expenses for college students obviously go far beyond tuition. The College Board reports that the average on-campus student at a public, four-year, in-state university spent $1,250 on books and supplies in 2017-18. With the aid of a student credit card, the burden of those secondary expenses can be lessened and fit within a budget and schedule that works for you.
Steps to applying for a student credit card
The first thing to consider before applying for a student credit card is your credit history. Start by answering the following questions:
- Have you ever had a credit card?
- Have you ever taken out a loan?
- Do you have a steady work/income history?
If you have never had a credit card and you currently have no loans or steady income, your best option for getting your own credit card account is to have a parent co-signer. You might also be eligible to be added as a verified user on one of their credit card accounts.
If you already have a credit history, it’s important to know what your score is. Determining your credit score will let you know which cards you are likely to be approved for. Every time you apply for a credit card, your score will briefly drop by five points, so its best to do it as few times as possible. Applying for cards you are declined for will still negatively affect your score.
First, request copies of your credit report, which you can do for free once a year from each of the three credit bureaus. You can also get a free credit report and credit score here.
Once you know your credit score, you’ll have a better sense of what type of student credit card to apply for. If you have a good score, take a look at rewards student credit cards. If you have an average to poor score, consider a secured card.
Also, consider the following:
- Credit cards usually have foreign transaction fees. Although some don’t, most do. If you plan on studying abroad, take a look at foreign transaction fees, which can vary from 2-4%.
- You should only apply for one card. Applying for several cards at once indicates risk and tells credit card issuers that you are desperate for credit. Do your research and stick to one application. If you’re denied, take steps to improve your credit (pay down other cards, loans, etc.) and apply for another card in a few months.
Once you have pulled your credit report, checked your credit score, and narrowed your search to one perfect card, you’re ready to apply.
Additional reviews and research
Need to do more reading before you make a decision? No worries, choosing the right credit card as a college student is a big deal. We’ve reviewed pretty much every major student credit card on the market today, with all the latest offer information and in-depth analysis. Check out all of our latest reviews below.