Key takeaways

  • Having a student credit card can come in handy if you have an emergency, have a large purchase or want to establish credit.
  • Getting a credit card geared towards students can mean access to features and rewards that are more meaningful to those in school.
  • Before taking on the responsibility of a student credit card, consider whether the potential risks — including a strong likelihood of higher interest rates — outweigh the benefits of the card.

Balancing a school workload alongside the many other responsibilities of adulthood is no easy feat, especially when those responsibilities include money management. But a student credit card can make that task a little easier. It can help you learn how to stay on top of your finances and build your credit during such a critical time.

However, taking on the responsibility of a student credit card can also add a greater level of risk to your finances — and maybe you’re just not comfortable with that at this stage. How do you know whether you should get a student credit card now or get a different kind of card further down the road, like after you graduate? Let’s look at a few scenarios that might help you decide whether now’s the time to get a student credit card.

What is a student credit card?

A student credit card works the exact way any typical credit card works, but it’s geared towards those enrolled in a higher education institution. It offers a revolving line of credit for purchases, which you’re responsible for paying back by a certain date. If you carry a balance past the due date, you’d also have to pay interest on that balance. While you don’t always have to be a full-time student to qualify for a student credit card, you do have to meet certain eligibility criteria set by the issuer.

When is a student card right for you?

The right student credit card can offer enormous benefits for your financial journey, depending on your personal circumstances. Here are a few situations where you may benefit from getting one:

You can’t get approved for a standard card

One major benefit to student credit cards is they’re typically easier to get than standard credit cards because the eligibility requirements of most student credit cards are a lot easier to meet. For example, the minimum income requirements are normally lower, and there are several sources of income you can list apart from having a job.

Some credit card issuers and credit unions will also let you upgrade to a standard card after graduation, giving you access to a higher credit limit and the chance to build your credit score even more.

You want to start building your credit history

Besides income requirements, a credit score can be another barrier for students who don’t have access to standard or premium credit cards. Many students likely haven’t even established a credit history at all at this point. Student cards can work around this by requiring a lower credit score or even no credit score at all for you to apply.

And because a student card is still a credit card, it’s one of the best options to start building your credit early on. Just keep in mind that like standard credit cards, your student credit card will report both good and bad credit activity, so it’s important to use it carefully.

You want to benefit from credit card rewards

While some student cards don’t offer rewards, it’s not hard to find some that do. In most cases, these rewards are tailored to the average student’s spending habits, and redemption options are geared towards student needs.

For instance, the Discover it® Student Chrome not only offers 2 percent cash back at gas station and restaurant purchases on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter (and 1 percent on all other purchases), but the card also includes free FICO® Credit Scorecard access, so you can monitor your credit score each month.

The Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card is another example where the student card not only earns cash back, but other perks, as well. In addition to 5 percent cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, 10 percent cash back on purchases made through Uber & Uber Eats (through Nov. 14, 2024) and 1.5 percent cash back on all other purchases, the Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit card also offers extended warranty protection on purchases.

The rewards with student credit cards will rarely rival those from other standard rewards credit cards, but it can still offer an easy way to earn a little extra for purchases you’re likely already making.

You need access to emergency funds

No matter where your college journey takes you, emergencies can happen at any time. Having access to emergency funds with a student credit card can be a major lifeline when you need it the most. It could help cover emergency expenses, such as paying for a new tire, an unexpected dental procedure or a trip to the vet. Whatever the emergency, a student credit card can help you handle the expense until you have the cash to pay off the balance.

What to know before getting a student credit card

While having a student credit card can offer numerous benefits, you should carefully consider the disadvantages of getting one before choosing to get a student credit card. Those disadvantages include:

  • Higher interest rates. Student credit cards generally have higher interest rates versus other types of cards because it’s considered riskier for banks to lend to college students. If you do carry a balance, then you can face substantial interest fees.
  • Lower credit limits. These cards typically have lower credit limits, which can put you at risk of maxing out your credit line. Not only does this lessen your borrowing potential, but using too much of your credit line (also called credit utilization) can also hurt your credit score. However, by making on-time payments over time, you should qualify for an increased credit line even with a student credit card.
  • Fewer rewards. As mentioned, some student credit cards come with rewards programs, but they usually offer fewer benefits than their regular counterparts. If you’re interested in getting free flights, complimentary hotel stays or big rewards rates through your student card, you’ll likely be disappointed.

How to qualify for a student credit card

Getting approved for your first student card is relatively easy, but you must still meet a few eligibility requirements. The requirements vary by issuer, but for the most part they state that cardholders in the U.S. must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (although a few card issuers accept international students)
  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Be enrolled in higher education and have some proof of enrollment
  • Have sufficient income

The income requirements for student cards not only vary by issuer, but also by age. While student credit cards often accept many different forms of income, including grants, you’ll also likely need to prove you have an independent income if you’re under age 21.

The bottom line

If you’re a college student, getting your first credit card might be the next logical step in preparing for adulthood. If you don’t have a very lengthy credit history, or none at all, then a good student credit card might be just what you need. Student credit cards are easier to get than traditional credit cards and are great tools for students who want to start building their credit history while earning rewards in the process.

But a student credit card isn’t the only way you can build credit. You can look for a secured credit card option, such as the Discover it® Secured Credit Card, which requires a security deposit for establishing a credit line. Another option is becoming an authorized user on one of your parent’s or relative’s credit cards. Being an authorized user means you can make purchases against the cardholder’s credit line while building your own personal credit score at the same time.

Whether you decide to go for a student credit card or an alternative, don’t forget to keep your credit score in mind. These options all require the same responsible usage as any other standard credit card, so you need to be mindful of your spending habits if you want to positively build your credit profile.