Key takeaways

  • Many issuers today require you to be at least 18 years old to get a credit card, but some issuers may require you to be at least 21 or meet certain income requirements first
  • Before applying for a card, determine whether or not you have a credit score and credit history
  • Take a look at some of the top student cards available, and read through their requirements to find one that you might qualify for

The world of credit cards can be a hazy and mysterious place, but once you’ve learned all the necessary terms — credit score, APR and annual fee, for example — they can be incredibly useful tools to begin your financial journey. In fact, college students dipping their toes into the “real world” and earning a bit of money may find it a ripe time to apply for their first credit card.

There’s a lot to consider when picking the right credit card, and it’s often true that you don’t know what you don’t know. Before applying for your first credit card in college, you should consider a few key factors and identify your best options.

Below, we’ll cover what you should know before you apply for a student card — that way, you can make an effort to increase your odds of approval.

There’s a minimum age to get a credit card

For starters, you may be asking: How old do you have to be to get a credit card? Prior to 2009, an issuer could sign on any young adult for a credit card. After the Credit CARD Act of 2009, the age minimum became 21, unless one had a cosigner or proof of income. Nowadays, issuers generally require you to be at least 18.

You may be ready to experience some financial freedom once you reach that age. That’s understandable. But if you’re a younger student — some college freshmen are 17 years old — you should wait until your next birthday before applying.

Determine your credit score before applying for a card

A credit score is a three-digit number that represents your individual credit health and the likelihood of you making payments on loans, card balances and the like. Though there are different credit-scoring models, FICO and VantageScore are the two big ones, and many financial institutions use your FICO score. The most important factors under FICO’s traditional model are payment history, amounts owed and length of credit history.

At this point, you may wonder: Do I even have a credit score? If you’ve only ever used cash, a debit card or your parents’ credit cards for a quick coffee, chances are you have no credit history. That just means you haven’t used any financial products that help build credit — and that’s not a problem. There are plenty of credit cards aimed at those with no credit history, including students.

Another possibility is that you do have a credit score, but you just don’t know it (honestly, it happens). If, one day, your parents simply handed you a plastic card with your name on it and said, “Use it. I’ll pay the bills,” you’re likely an authorized user on one of their accounts. This allows you to build credit while the primary cardholder is responsible for paying off your balances. In that case, your credit score could be a lot higher than you think — maybe even in the good-to-excellent range.

We should note that installment loans also build credit. So, if you took out a personal or student loan to pay for college, and you or a family member are regularly making payments on it, you may already have a credit score in your name.

How to check your credit score

Whatever the case, you must check your credit score to know which credit card you’ll likely qualify for. There are a few ways to check your credit score for free, but the easiest way is using an issuer program such as American Express’ MyCredit Guide, Capital One’s CreditWise or Chase’s Credit Journey. These programs don’t require you to be an account holder, and they provide the service for free and even monitor your credit report for identity theft.

If you have no credit history, you’ll still have options

For those with no credit history, all is not lost. You can still apply for a credit card. One option is a secured credit card, which requires you to put down a security deposit (usually at least $200 to $300), which will serve as your credit limit and collateral. If you don’t have a credit history, it may be necessary to get a secured credit card until you establish a good credit history.

Though a secured card may not sound as exciting as a standard rewards credit card — also known as an unsecured credit card — plenty of secured cards offer great features like no annual fee, cash back on spending and automatic consideration for a credit line increase after several months of on-time payments. Plus, if you manage your secured card responsibly and establish a good credit history, you can eventually upgrade to an unsecured card (and get your deposit back).

But if you’re determined to get an unsecured card first, there are plenty of student credit cards out there specifically intended for individuals with no credit history, and these cards often include perks like ongoing rewards, no penalty APR and even no foreign transaction fees (should you plan on studying abroad).

Research student cards before applying

As we’ve discussed, there are secured cards and unsecured cards for students. Though some may not sound as glamorous as others, each card has the potential to build credit and teach you good financial habits.

To help you narrow down your choices, here are some of our top student card picks that would work well as a first card for a college student:

Discover it® Secured Credit Card: Best for a secured student card

With a deposit of as little as $200 or as large as $2,500, the Discover it® Secured Credit Card can help you steadily build credit. It also comes with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, and it earns rewards in two big categories students often spend in — you’ll get 2 percent cash back at gas stations and restaurants (on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, then 1 percent back), plus 1 percent cash back on all other purchases.

Discover it® Student Cash Back: Best for maximizing rewards

The Discover it® Student Cash Back offers 5 percent cash back in rotating categories each quarter, activation required (on up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter, then 1 percent back) and 1 percent cash back on all other purchases. Plus, at the end of your first year, Discover will match all of the cash back you’ve earned, essentially doubling your earnings. This card’s popularity stems from its great rewards potential for no annual fee, as well as its availability to cardholders with no credit history. This card also comes with no foreign transaction fees.

Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for fair-to-good credit

Great for those with a fair credit score, the Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card offers 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases, 5 percent cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 10 percent cash back on purchases made through Uber and Uber Eats (through Nov. 14, 2024). Not only does this card earn solid, flat-rate rewards (plus high bonus rewards in select categories) and help you build credit, but it also grants you access to Capital One’s travel portal and has no foreign transaction fees — making it ideal for students studying abroad.

Student card applications may ask for your occupation or income

Once you’ve narrowed down which student card you want — and you’ve determined that you meet a card’s requirements — it’s time to apply for a card. However, when you get to the application page, some last-minute questions may come up. Should you put “student” or “employed,” and how much will your income (or lack thereof) affect your application?

Some applications do ask about your occupation, and you should be honest and list yourself as a student. Sometimes, they may ask you to verify your enrollment at a college, and that’s okay — what’s important is that issuers tend to be more accepting of students in terms of expected income and credit limit.

As for your income, it does affect your application, since issuers must assess the risk they’ll take on if they give you a credit card.

According to 2020 data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of full-time undergraduate students were employed, and 15 percent of them worked 20 to 34 hours a week. If we estimate an average student’s annual income — for example, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 multiplied by 20 hours of work per week (a typical part-time job) — the total comes out to $7,540 a year. In short, the average student’s income isn’t sky-high, and card issuers should be aware of this.

As previously mentioned, applicants under 21 must have a cosigner or proof of income. This is mostly to show card issuers that you have the means to make regular payments and will be less likely to default on your credit card debt.

The bottom line

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a high credit score right off the bat to qualify for a good credit card. In fact, there are plenty of student cards designed for young adults with no credit.

Once you have a credit card, remember to pay your bills in full and on time, and slowly but surely, you’ll increase your score. A good credit score sets you up for success in terms of your future financial goals — such as buying a house, taking out a loan or financing a car — so it’s important to start as soon as you can to build healthy credit habits.

If you’re ready to apply for a credit card, don’t hesitate. Be honest about your status as a student and your income, and you should be fine to begin your credit journey.