Building solid credit is one of the most important tasks in a young person’s life. In our increasingly cashless society, showing you can responsibly use a credit card is one step on the road to financial independence. The sooner you begin, the faster you can establish your creditworthiness. That said, the minimum age to be a primary cardholder for most card issuers is 18, although getting a credit card before age 21 is not always simple.
Below, we discuss some of the essentials for first-time credit applicants, including the minimum age for having your own card, and review several of the best cards available for young cardholders.
How old do you have to be to get a credit card?
The general rule of thumb for the credit card industry is that cardholders must be at least 18 years of age. However, if you are under 21 and lack a credit history or have a credit history that’s not great, most credit card issuers will require you to show proof that you can independently pay your bills. For instance, they may ask for proof of regular employment or investment income.
Alternatively, you can apply with a co-signer, such as a parent, legal guardian, spouse, or another person over the age of 21 with the ability to pay credit card bills. It’s important that both you and your co-signer understand that you share equal legal responsibility for paying off the card, even if you’re the only one who uses it.
You may also consider secured credit cards, which require you to put down a security deposit that sets the card’s credit limit. Because of the deposit, getting approval for a secured credit card is easier than for other credit cards, and you can get one on your own at 18.
If you’re under 18, you can become an authorized user
Another alternative for a young person trying to build credit is to become an authorized user on the credit card of a parent, guardian or family member. Just as with standard credit cards, minimum ages for authorized users vary by issuer. Typical minimum ages range from 13 to 16, although some issuers do not have a minimum age.
Being an authorized user differs significantly from being a co-signer. While an authorized user has access to the account and the credit limit, unlike a co-signer, they have no obligation to pay the outstanding card balance. Many credit issuers report on authorized users to the credit bureaus, meaning your credit score will likely benefit from being an authorized user. That said, if the primary cardholder has poor credit habits themselves, like a history of late or missed payments or high credit utilization, it’s possible their choices will have a negative impact on your credit score.
Best starter credit cards
When you are starting to build your credit history, consider how you will use your card and look for cards that have features matching your spending habits (and perhaps more importantly, your payment habits). Cards with no annual fees are usually a good place to start.
You should plan to pay off your full balance every month. But if you are concerned about your ability to do so, look for cards with low annual percentage rates (APR). Many issuers also offer welcome bonuses or rewards programs as incentives for their cardholders.
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One: Best for students
- Rewards: Earn an unlimited 1 percent back on all your purchases, pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
- Welcome bonus: Up to $60 in 12 monthly streaming service credits (earned within first 18 months).
- Annual fee: $0.
- APR: 26.99 percent variable.
- Credit required: Fair to good.
The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One card is well-suited for students because it encourages building a good credit history by rewarding on-time payments. In addition to an extra 0.25 percent cash back when you pay your bill on time, you can also qualify for $5 per month (up to $60 per year, during your first 18 months of card ownership) in statement credits toward select streaming subscriptions for paying your bill on time.
The card is geared towards those new to credit, as well as college students with fair credit. Initially, your credit limit may be somewhat lower than for other cards. But Capital One will review your eligibility for a credit line increase after the first six months.
Discover it® Secured Credit Card: Best secured credit card
- Rewards: Earn 2 percent back on gas station and restaurant charges on up to $1,000 in combined spending each quarter (then 1 percent) and 1 percent on other purchases.
- Welcome bonus: Discover matches your cash back earned at the end of your first year as a cardholder.
- Annual fee: $0.
- APR: 22.99 percent variable.
- Credit required: No Credit History
With no annual fee and cashback rewards, the Discover it® Secured Credit Card is a good choice for new credit applicants. You will have to put down a cash deposit, but with that you may have a better chance at approval as a first-time cardholder or someone with little credit history. Deposits start as low as $200 and are returned when you close or upgrade the account. The Discover it® Secured Credit Card also has lower fees than many other cards, including no late fee on your first late payment (after that, up to $40), and you get a access to your FICO score for free on your statement each month.
OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card: Best for no credit check
- Rewards: None.
- Welcome bonus: None.
- Annual fee: $35.
- APR: 17.39 percent variable.
- Credit required: None.
The OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card does not require a credit check, so it is an excellent option for those with little or even poor credit history. As a secured credit card it requires a cash deposit to get started, but you can get up to a $3,000 line of credit. The OpenSky Secured card helps build your credit score by reporting your payments to the three major credit bureaus. That said, if you already have a fair credit history, you may want to consider other secured cards, because of the $35 annual fee and lack of rewards.
How to start building credit
Once you have a card, you must use it responsibly. Starting out with good credit habits can help you build your credit score in no time. Keep in mind the major factors that the credit bureaus will consider when determining your credit score: payment history, credit utilization, age of credit, credit mix and number and age of credit inquiries.
When just starting out with credit, it can be tempting to make splurge purchases with your newly available funds. However, it’s important to only spend within your means to avoid getting into credit card debt. Using your credit card only for purchases you know you can pay off at the end of the month, keeping your credit utilization (how much of your available credit you’re using) between 10 and 30 percent, and paying your credit card bill on time and in full are some of the most important things you can do to keep your credit score up.
While there are benefits to having multiple credit cards, each time you apply for a credit card the issuer will run a credit check. Having too many hard inquiries on your credit report in a short period of time can be a red flag to lenders, so it’s important to space out your card applications at least three to six months. Start with one card and work on building your credit before you apply for another. Taking the time to develop a good to excellent credit score will open up a whole new tier of credit cards with better rewards, better rates and better welcome bonuses.
The bottom line
Turning 18 opens the door for a number of new financial opportunities with credit. Whether you apply for a starter credit card, a secured card with a deposit, or ask to be an authorized user on someone else’s account, make sure you use your credit responsibly and are diligent about making payments on time. Learning good financial habits now will set you off on the right foot for excellent credit and even more opportunities in the future.