Key takeaways

  • Student credit cards are typically easier to qualify for and offer helpful rewards and perks related to students’ lifestyles.
  • Federal law requires cardholders be at least 18 in order qualify for a card, but the proof-of-income requirements at that age are steep. Restrictions loosen considerably when a person turns 21.
  • When choosing the best student card for you, take into account your spending, whether you plan to study abroad and the credit range required for approval.
  • Know that you can also become an authorized user on someone else’s account, apply for a secured credit card or look into cards designed for those with no credit history.

This piece was last updated on Oct. 20, 2023, to reflect current credit card details.

One of the most accessible paths to building credit is a student credit card. Cultivating consistent, positive credit-building habits with a card that fits your needs will set you on the right track. As with any credit card, student card or not, there are many factors to consider to help you choose the right one.

A student credit card works similarly to most standard credit cards. What sets student cards apart is their focus on student-related perks and benefits. For starters, this often means the credit requirements for approval are more relaxed to account for a student’s lack of credit history.

If the card offers rewards, these rewards are usually generous in spending categories that are popular among students, like dining, entertainment and Amazon purchases. Typically, student credit cards are also affordable to hold since they’re often free of charges like annual fees and foreign transaction fees.

Read on to learn more about how to choose the best student credit card for you.

Eligibility requirements for student credit cards

The minimum credit card age requirement is 18 years old. However, there is an extra requirement for anyone applying for a credit card under 21, thanks to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009. The CARD Act requires credit card applicants between 18 and 20 to show proof of independent income. If you don’t have independent income, you can still access credit before 21 by becoming an authorized user.

Applying for credit after the age of 21 releases you from some of the more strict parameters of the CARD Act, but you’ll still be required to note a few important pieces of information on your credit card application. Be ready to provide your birth date, income, credit history and Social Security number (SSN).

How to choose the best student credit card for you

Choosing the best student credit card comes down to understanding your spending habits and figuring out the best way to use your card to meet your needs. Features to look for in a student credit card include annual percentage rates, or APRs (if there’s a chance you won’t be able to pay your bill in full every month), fees (such as late fees, foreign transaction fees or other penalty fees) and rewards rates on specific spending categories. Here are some key questions to consider when choosing a student credit card that’s best for you.

Which cards do you qualify for?

When comparing student credit cards, you’ll want to stick to cards with approval requirements that fall within your credit score range or don’t require a credit history to apply. For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card requires a fair to good credit score to qualify (or a FICO score between at least 580 and 740). If you don’t yet know your credit score, there are a few ways to check your credit score for free, including the American Express® MyCredit Guide program (which is free to anyone, regardless of if you own an American Express card).

Where do you spend the most?

An outgoing student who spends a lot on dining out or entertainment may find their match in a student card that richly rewards these kinds of purchases. An adventurous student may want to pick a card that offers generous cash back rewards on gas or airfare. And for the practical student, cash back on groceries could be very lucrative. Understanding where your dollars often land will help you decide on a card that rewards these kinds of purchases handsomely, giving you the most bang for your buck.

Do you plan to study abroad?

Because of the extra processing expenses, many credit cards charge fees on purchases made outside of the U.S. — usually around 3 to 5 percent of each transaction. Luckily, some cards charge no foreign transaction fees. This feature is ideal for students who plan to study abroad and want a payment method aside from carrying loose cash. Using a credit card is a safe and secure way to make purchases overseas, and picking a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees can save you money in the long run.

How much effort can you put into keeping up with your credit card?

Student life is busy, and you may not always have the time to put extra effort into crafting a credit card strategy. When choosing a card, decide how much time you’ll be willing to spend on keeping up with your credit card outside of the required monthly payments. Do you want a low-hassle card that has a standard rewards rate on every purchase you make? Do you want to put in work to maximize rewards by tracking quarterly enrollment in bonus categories? Both options can be worthwhile, but you’ll need to decide which one is most feasible for your lifestyle.

Alternatives to student credit cards

If it’s not the right time for a student credit card, there are other ways to access credit that have similar benefits to student credit cards.

  • Become an authorized user: If you’re under the age of 18 or don’t feel ready to take on the full responsibility of being a primary cardholder on a credit card, you could become an authorized user on someone else’s credit account (usually a parent or guardian). Given you and the primary cardholder both use the card responsibly, you’ll build credit and start to create healthy financial habits.
  • Secured credit cards: Another common starting point for people looking to build credit from the ground up is a secured credit card. These cards require applicants to put down a refundable security deposit, which serves as collateral for a card issuer just in case you’re unable to pay your bill.
  • Credit cards for no credit history: Also known as starter cards, these credit cards are built for those with little or no credit history, a category many students fall into. The credit requirements for approval are low, and some are even geared toward students.

Still unsure if a student credit card is right for you? Check out our Credit Card Spender Type Tool where you can get personalized credit card recommendations based on your credit score, spending habits and daily needs.

The bottom line

Getting a credit card is a big step in your financial journey. As a student, choosing the right card is a solid way to get started on the right foot with your credit. Do thorough research on the best student cards on the market and pick one that will best fit your lifestyle and reward you most for your spending.

Make sure you have all the necessary materials for a successful application, and always pay your bill on time once you’re approved. You’ll be on your way to an upgrade and a great credit score in no time.