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Do I need a cosigner for my credit card if I’m under 21?

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Getting a credit card in your name can help you establish a good credit history, which can come in handy later when you’re ready to buy a car or a home. But do you need a cosigner for a credit card if you’re new to using credit?

If you’re under 21, the general answer is yes unless you have independent income. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 created new rules for card issuers regarding applicants under 21. Specifically, the Act requires people under 21 to have proof of sufficient income or a cosigner—someone who agrees to share responsibility for the debt.

Unfortunately, most major credit card issuers have stopped allowing cosigners. While that doesn’t mean you can’t get a credit card at all if you’re under 21, it may limit your options.

Why you might not qualify for a credit card on your own

Technically, you can apply for a credit card at age 18. However, the CARD Act requires card issuers to use discretion when approving younger applicants. To get a credit card in your name under the age of 21, you need to have one of the following:

  • A cosigner who’s willing to share responsibility for the card
  • Proof of independent income

These rules are designed to protect young consumers from abusive credit card practices that might cause them to get in over their heads with debt. They can also help young adults learn good credit habits. You may be less likely to run up a high balance, for example, if your parent cosigned your card and is monitoring the account’s activity.

Having a cosigner benefits the credit card company, too, since there’s someone else who can be held responsible for the debt if you can’t pay. The credit card company can take collection actions against the cosigner, including suing them for the debt. But getting a credit card with a cosigner has become more difficult as most major card issuers no longer allow cosigners.

That means if you’re under 21, your ability to get a credit card in your name will hinge on whether you have income or not. However, the CARD Act doesn’t specify a certain amount of income needed. If you don’t have independent income—which may be the case if you’re going to school full-time or have a job but aren’t earning a lot—you’re less likely to get approved.

Which credit cards allow cosigners?

Most major card issuers have shifted away from allowing cosigners of any kind. As of January 2022, the list of card issuers that do not allow cosigners includes:

Bank of America does offer an alternative to the traditional cosigner arrangement. If you apply for a Bank of America credit card and are approved, you can ask them to add a co-applicant to your account. This isn’t exactly the same as having a cosigner up front, however. And if you’re under 21, you’ll still need to show proof of income to get approved.

You may be able to find credit cards issued by smaller banks or credit unions that still allow cosigners. If you have a student checking account with a local bank or credit union, that could be a good place to start when looking for cards that allow cosigners. Or you could check with your parents’ bank if they’re willing to cosign a credit card on your behalf.

Alternative: Become an authorized user

If you can’t get a credit card in your name because you’re under 21 and don’t pass the income test, there is another option. You could become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card account.

An authorized user is someone who’s added to the account by the primary cardholder. As an authorized user, you’ll have your own credit card with your name on it that’s linked to the account. You can use the card to make purchases, but you’re not responsible for the debt that’s created. You won’t be able to do things like:

  • Request credit limit increases
  • Add other authorized users
  • Redeem rewards, unless you’re authorized to do so by the primary cardholder

Becoming an authorized user can be a roundabout way to build credit since most major card issuers report authorized user status to the three major credit bureaus. As long as the primary cardholder is practicing good credit habits (paying on time, keeping balances low, etc.) your credit score can benefit. The impact isn’t exactly the same as having a card in your name alone. But you can still piggyback off someone else’s good credit to help establish credit history of your own.

There are pros and cons to being an authorized user, with the main pro being the opportunity to build credit. On the con side, there’s a chance you won’t reap any credit-building benefits if the card issuer doesn’t report authorized user status to the credit bureaus. And if the primary cardholder pays late, has a high credit utilization on the card—or worse, defaults on the balance—your credit score could be negatively impacted.

Overall, becoming an authorized user is worth considering if you’re trying to get a credit card under the age of 21. If you’re planning to ask someone to add you to one of their credit card accounts, be sure to choose someone who has a history of responsible credit use. And it may be a good idea to agree to some ground rules upfront for how you’ll use the card and what you might pay toward the balance.

Credit cards for when you turn 21

The good news is these CARD Act regulations no longer apply once you turn 21. At that point, you’ll be able to apply for student credit cards or other cards in your name without needing a cosigner. However, the application will probably still ask for your annual income. Keep in mind that your approval can depend on your credit score. If you don’t have a lengthy credit history yet, your best option may be starter credit cards or secured cards.

Starter credit cards tend to have lower credit limits, and they may or may not charge an annual fee. A secured card requires a cash deposit to open, which typically doubles as your credit limit. Either one could be a good stepping stone for building credit so you can eventually get approved for cards that offer more features and benefits.

The bottom line

Getting your first credit card under 21 can be daunting if you don’t have independent income or the card you’re interested in doesn’t allow cosigners. You could wait until you turn 21 to apply for a credit card, but taking the authorized user route could get you on track with building credit sooner. The most important thing to remember when getting a credit card at any age is to use it responsibly, which means paying on time and keeping balances low.

Written by
Rebecca Lake
Personal Finance Writer
Rebecca Lake is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in personal finance. Her interest in finance – specifically credit cards – began when she was struggling to pay off over $30,000 in credit card debt. With a passion for helping others make smart financial decisions, she started writing about finance in 2012 and since then has contributed to a number of highly-visible brands online, including CreditCards.com, U.S. News & World Report, Citi Life + Money, Discover Modern Money blog, Bankrate, SmartAsset, Fox Business Network, Forbes Advisor, Magnify Money and Nerdwallet.
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