• A student card can be a viable option to use for travel, especially if the card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.
  • A student card could be a much more affordable alternative to a traditional travel credit card, which could be ideal for fitting into a student's budget abroad.
  • If you're not quite ready to use a credit card, you can explore a few alternatives to finance your study abroad experience.

Studying abroad can be an exciting experience, and you’ll have many things to prepare for as you plan your trip. If you’re a student, you may wonder where you’ll find the best restaurants or the best shops for souvenirs. And if you’re a parent, your child’s safety and overall experience may be your top priority. One place where these concerns may overlap is finances. Having a secure financial situation while studying abroad can be crucial to ensuring the most enjoyable experience. Credit cards are a payment option that often comes with many insurances and other protections, making them some of the most useful and secure ways to finance a trip. And if you’re a student, you’ll likely be eligible for student cards that come with a host of other helpful features while you’re overseas.

What is a student credit card?

A student credit card is a type of credit card designed for people attending colleges or universities and who may have little or no credit history. The credit requirements on student cards are often more relaxed than a traditional unsecured credit card, and many are fairly low on fees, too. Student cards also usually have rewards structures that fit into a student budget. Common bonus spending categories on student cards include dining, entertainment, streaming services, rideshares and groceries.

Student cards vs. general travel cards

While it may seem obvious to use a travel card to cover travel purchases, it’s important to consider a few key differences, especially if you’re a student planning to study abroad.

The best travel cards will likely skip foreign transaction fees, but the primary standouts on these types of credit cards are the top-tier travel perks, like lounge access and travel insurance. The catch is that premium travel cards often come at a premium price, with many of the best travel cards charging annual fees from $95 to more than $600. Travel cards also often require at least a good credit score for approval, which could push these options out of reach for students with limited or no credit history.

Student credit cards can act as a decent stopgap to a full-blown travel credit card, because of the differences in credit requirements and costs compared to travel rewards cards. While you may not get travel-specific rewards with a student card, you could still take advantage of rewards on other top categories in your budget.

How to choose the best student card for study abroad

When exploring the best student cards, here are some considerations to keep in mind with  affordability, credit requirements and rewards.

Does the card charge a foreign transaction fee?

A foreign transaction fee is an added charge, usually 3 percent, for processing purchases with a currency different than your own. Using a card with foreign transaction fees in a country you could be studying in for four months or longer can get expensive fast. Here’s an example of what a semester’s worth of spending on books and food would cost a student from the University of Iowa studying in Florence, Italy, if they purchased every book and meal with their credit card. The figures represented are based on estimates from an average cost of studying abroad survey Bankrate conducted.

Average cost for a semester based on survey estimates Card with a 3% foreign transaction fee Card with no foreign transaction fee
Food $3,000 $3,090 $3,000
Books $450 $463.50 $450
Total spent $3,450 $3,553.50 $3,450*$103.50 saved

Some student credit cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee, but not all. When choosing a student card for study abroad, save yourself some time (and money) by picking a card that doesn’t tack on extra fees for foreign transactions.

In what categories will you spend the most?

While some student cards may not offer travel-specific rewards, these cards still often have rewards programs built to fit a student’s spending habits. Will you be using your card primarily for souvenirs, dining, or school supplies? Depending on where you spend most, you’ll want to pick a card that aligns with your top spending categories so you can get the most out of your rewards program.

Is the card network accepted in your destination?

Credit card networks are different from card issuers, though some card issuers have their own networks. Credit card networks are companies that help facilitate the transaction between your bank and the merchant you’re making a purchase with. Visa and Mastercard are the two most widely known and used credit card networks — merchants accept them virtually everywhere. Issuers with their own card networks, like Discover and American Express, tend to have lower international acceptance rates. Take note of your card issuer’s network, so you know merchants in your host country will accept your card when you swipe it.

Can you apply without a Social Security Number?

If you’re an international student studying in the U.S. you can still apply for a credit card, if you want one. Some student credit cards don’t require a Social Security number as part of the application; instead, they may require an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which could make them more accessible to international students who want to use credit. Look into the application requirements and short list cards that accept international identification forms.

The best student cards for study abroad

The following student cards are some of the best available for students planning to study abroad. These cards share many of the notable characteristics that make a card good for international use like skipping foreign transaction fees, offering valuable rewards and even providing opportunities to upgrade once the trip — or college career — comes to an end.

Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best overall student card

This card doesn’t charge an annual fee or a foreign transaction fee, which puts it squarely in the running as a good card for study abroad. The card also doesn’t charge a penalty APR if you miss a payment, although missing a payment means up to $40 in a late payment fee. Eliminating the penalty APR is a great plus for a student cardholder who may be getting used to handling their credit and keeping up with bills. But it’s important to note that even without a penalty APR, missed and late payments will have negative effects on your credit score.

The Capital One SavorOne Student also has a very valuable rewards structure. You’ll get competitive rewards rates on a host of categories, including dining, groceries, entertainment and streaming. These categories cover a lot of what makes up a student budget, and you’d likely be able to reap a lot of reward with little effort. The main drawback to consider with this card is the high ongoing APR with no intro offers, which can get expensive quickly if you end up carrying balances.

Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for flat-rate rewards

If you’re a student who would prefer to earn the same rewards rate on everything you buy, the Capital One Quicksilver Student is a solid choice. You’ll earn a competitive 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases, so you won’t have to worry about tracking rotating bonus categories or being strategic with your budget to get the most out of your card. Earning a flat rewards rate is also ideal for students who spend broadly across many categories, which could be the case during a study abroad program. The card also aces affordability with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees. And you can earn a $50 welcome bonus by spending just $100 in your first three months with the card — a fairly low spend requirement — especially when compared to the $500 and more required spends on many non-student credit cards.

You’ll still want to avoid carrying a balance, since there are no intro APR offers and the ongoing interest rate is high. Also, while some student cards may waive a first late payment fee, the Capital One Quicksilver Student card doesn’t, and you could face a charge of up to $40 for a missed or late payment. To avoid extra fees and other major damage to your credit score, you’ll want to stay on top of when your bill is due and pay off your balance as often as possible.

Discover it® Student Cash Back: Best for bonus categories

Students who are more comfortable with crafting a strategy to get more rewards value could find a lot to love in the Discover it® Student Cash Back. The card’s most notable perks are the lucrative rewards program and Discover’s Cashback Match™ welcome offer. While you’ll have to work around a quarterly spending cap and activate the bonus category each quarter to benefit from the rate boost, it’s still one of the most valuable student cards. Quarterly categories often include common categories students spend in, and if you tailor your spending each quarter to match the bonus category, you can maximize this card’s value fairly easily.

With Discover’s Cashback Match™ program, Discover will match your reward earnings at the end of your first year with the card, making it one of — if not the most — valuable welcome offers available on a student credit card. In line with the other cards that are ideal for studying abroad, this Discover card doesn’t charge an annual fee or foreign transaction fees. Your first late payment is also waived (up to $41 after). One thing to note about Discover cards is that the international acceptance is much lower than a Visa or Mastercard credit card, so you’ll want to do extra research to ensure merchants will accept this card at your destination.

Alternatives to using a student card abroad

If you don’t want to open your own line of credit for a study abroad trip, here are some alternatives you can consider.

  • Become an authorized user: If a parent, guardian or another person you trust has their own travel card, consider asking to become an authorized user. When you’re an authorized user on someone’s credit card account, you benefit from their available credit and can borrow against it like it were your own account. You will, however, want to communicate clearly with the primary cardholder on what your spending allowance is and how much, if any, of the card payment you should take on.
  • Stick to cash: Another payment method that’s almost always accepted is cash. If having your own credit card is too much to manage, you can exchange cash for the currency accepted in the hosting country and use it for purchases abroad. It’s important to note that there are safety concerns associated with carrying around large amounts of cash, so students should be diligent. In a post-pandemic world, some merchants may opt for a cashless payment policy, so you’ll want to have an alternative ready for this situation as well (and vice versa).
  • Scholarship money: Apply for financial aid through your university or the university in your host country. In addition to covering housing and the supplies needed for your studies, students could use any extra funds to finance other living expenses.

The bottom line

Students have many options to choose from when deciding on how to finance time abroad. Whether you elect to use a student card, a travel card, stick to cash or become an authorized user, make sure you consider all of the possibilities that come with spending money internationally. Prepare for situations where a merchant is cashless or cash only, and have a clear understanding of what you’ll need most out of whatever financing option you choose. Organizing your finances early can allow for one less thing to worry about during your time abroad, so you can fully immerse yourself in learning and culture.