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Author: Griffin Miller | Last Updated: September 10, 2018


Table of contents:

How we chose our favorite student credit cards

Bankrate’s team of credit card experts have analyzed over 100 credit cards in the student card category. Using Bankrate’s scoring matrix they have awarded each credit card a unique Bankrate score out of 100. The score can be used to help you identify the best student credit card for you.

Scoring matrix

The folks here at Bankrate evaluated each card on aspects such as the cards’ variable APR and penalty APR,  annual fee, sign-up bonuses, rewards value, and any extra fees or discounts. To ensure that these cards are the best fit for a students lifestyle we have paid close attention to APR, the cards annual fee, rewards, and extras and discounts.  

  • APR – It’s important to understand APR before you apply for a credit card. It stands for annual percentage rate. This is the interest rate you accrue on your cards’ outstanding balance. Some student credit cards offer introductory purchase APR offers which can save students on charges. Some cards, if you are 60 days or more late in making a payment, require you to pay a higher “penalty APR” which can reach almost 30%. We review the most favorable APR terms and help you get savvy on all-things-APR. 
  • Annual fee – The annual fee is the yearly charge that gives cardholders access to perks and rewards systems. Many student credit cards offer promotional discounts on their annual fee for the first year. Our experts assess the annual fee against the cards other attributes to determine if it is worth the expense and tell you how much you would need to use your card to cover the annual charge.
  • Rewards – We want to help you get the most rewards value from your credit card. Many credit card providers offer rewards as an incentive for becoming a cardholder but rewards can get confusing between points, miles, and cash back. Bankrate’s scoring method takes into account the type of reward, how you earn rewards, and how to make the most of them.
  • Extras and discounts – Often additional perks offered by the credit card issuer go unnoticed but we want to help you maximize the benefits of being a cardholder. Advantages like free credit monitoring and Amazon Prime Student membership are examples of benefits offered by student credit cards. Also, some cards charge for things like late fees and these fees vary depending on the card and issuer. We make sure to take all these things into account.

Expert analysis: The best student cards of 2018

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

This student card offers rewards in the form of cash back on every single purchase made. As an added incentive, the rate at which you earn rewards increases when you make payments on time. Overall, the Journey® card is a great choice for students interested in getting into the rewards game. Use this card wisely and you’ll likely end up a great candidate for some of the best general rewards cards out there after graduation.

  • 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 rewards cards usually offer a first-year match of all rewards earned. The Discover it® Student chrome card is no different—with this card, you’ll earn cash back on everything, and even more rewards for purchases made at gas stations and restaurants. At the end of the first year, all the cash you’ve earned will be doubled.

  • 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:

The Discover it® Student Cash Back card offers a higher rewards rate than its chrome counterpart, but on rotating categories. To make the most of your rewards, you’ll have to track the bonus categories offered by Discover each quarter and spend accordingly. With an introductory APR offer and special reward for good grades, this card is a great contender for students who already have fair credit.

  • 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

Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students

Unlike most rewards student credit cards, the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students offers points instead of cash back. Points are redeemable for gift cards, electronics, and more at Citi’s online redemption portal. Savvy cardholders can typically glean bigger rewards out of points than pure cash back—this card is a great introduction to the points rewards game. Use this card to learn the ins and outs of point redemption and build your credit score while doing so.

  • Bankrate Score: 82/100
  • Best For: Earning rewards
  • Credit Needed: Good
  • Rewards Rate: 2 points per $1 spent on dining and on entertainment, 1 point per $1 on everything else
  • Annual Fee: $0

Other notable options for students looking to build credit:

Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students

A rewards card with perks specifically designed for students, the Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students offers great perks and security features like price protection, ID theft protection, and a car rental collision damage waiver. Consider applying if you’re looking for a cashback card available to those with no credit.

Highlights:

  • 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 specific kind of credit account that is designed for college students who would like to get a jump on saving for the future. In addition to offering regular credit bureau reporting, this account will help you get a small loan to be saved in a Certificate of Deposit (CD) bank account. At the end of the account term, your saving unlocks, making this a great option for first- or second-year college students.

Highlights:

  • 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.

  1. If you pay your balance off completely, you’ll start next month with a $0 balance. In total, you’ll have paid $500.
  2. 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.

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:

  1. 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 bonuses for maintaining good grades. To be approved for a rewards student credit card, you’ll likely need to already have fair credit.
  2. 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.

So, how do you 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 like the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students 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.
  5. 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.

Recap: Bankrate’s top student credit cards

Card Name Bankrate score Best for
Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® 80/100 Flat-rate cash back and studying abroad
Discover it® Student chrome 93/100 Best for gas, dining, and large purchases
Discover it® Student Cash Back 93/100 Cash back bonus categories
Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students 82/100 Earning rewards points

* See the online application for details about terms and conditions for these offers. Every reasonable effort has been made to maintain accurate information. However all credit card information is presented without warranty. After you click on the offer you desire you will be directed to the credit card issuer's web site where you can review the terms and conditions for your selected offer.