Student credit cards 101

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Heading to college can be a big change of pace. The new location and overall lifestyle is both exciting and overwhelming. While applying for a credit card may not be the first thing on your mind when entering this new experience, “Intro to Building Credit” is definitely a course you’ll want to take sooner rather than later.

Many credit card issuers offer cards designed specifically for students. Now, you don’t have to be a student to apply for one – and it’s no guarantee you’ll be approved. But student credit cards do offer an opportunity for inexperienced cardholders to start building credit.

Here’s a study guide on how they can help.

Intro to student credit cards

Student cards are marketed primarily to people in school who have not yet had a credit card in their own name. They can be a great way to solve the “you can’t apply for a credit card without a credit history” problem.

Issuers are willing to take the risks that come with a lack of creditworthiness for the chance to secure a future loyal cardholder. For students, you’ll benefit by being able to use your card on purchases and establish a decent credit history — something that’s vital when applying for an apartment or a car loan.

You might be thinking that building a good credit score will be difficult on a college budget. But student credit cards offer affordable benefits like $0 annual fees, cash back opportunities and introductory specials.

Cards like the Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card give promotions like 0% APR for your first 7 months (14.49% – 24.49% variable thereafter), allowing you to spend on books and food interest-free.

Some cards allow cardholders to earn rewards tailored to the student lifestyle. For example, the Discover it® Student Cash Back features 5% cash back deals in rotating categories like restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores and on up $1,500 in purchases when you activate, then 1%. That is in addition to a $20 statement credit each year you keep your GPA at a 3.0 or higher (for up to 5 years).

Student credit cards vs. traditional credit cards

More traditional cards are only accessible after building a credit history, so there are some key areas where they differ from student cards.

For starters, student cards usually have a lower credit limit. Being new to credit, students aren’t yet fully trusted by card issuers when it comes to paying back large balances. Credit providers are known to set limits in the $300-$400 range to begin, but you should be able to get a limit increase approved after displaying consistent, on-time payments.

Although some cards allow for great rewards, your typical student credit card will be more limited with its perks. You can find plenty of student cards with cash back and category savings available, but you won’t find luxury rewards like airline miles, sign-up bonuses or enormous savings.

Additionally, student cards are typically unsecured. While secured credit cards are an alternative for new cardholders, a cash deposit is required to get one. The collateral makes your card much less risky to the issuer, but tying up a few hundred dollars can be prohibitive for a penny-pinching student.

Qualifying for a student card

Age becomes a factor when applying for a student card, so things can get a little tricky. By law of the Credit Card Act of 2009, if you’re under 21, you’ll either need the approval of a cosigner or proof that you earn enough independently to make the anticipated payments. Not every credit card company will allow you to use a cosigner, so you may need to shop around if you’re still underage. Another option for younger students is to join someone else’s account as an authorized user.

Card issuers may be more lenient with students’ proof of income, so consider providing evidence of money you’ve earned at any full-time, part-time or seasonal jobs you’ve had. Student loans, grants or scholarship money won’t apply, but cash regularly deposited into your account by means of inheritance or gifts can qualify as proof of payment as well.

Keep in mind, there are some lenders who make it a requirement that you’re a college student when applying for their card. On your application, you’d see a space designated to providing your school’s information. If you’re not a student but find yourself in a similar situation, you may be interested in zero percent APR cards or no annual fee cards as alternative options.

Simply put, if you’re a student of age and have worked in the past, you should have no issue when applying for a student card. Utilize credit card calculator resources to assess your current financial standing and decide on the right card for you.

Using your student card

As a new credit builder, it’s important to start a trend of proper financial practices. Wise credit card usage is the same whether you’re a student or not, but there are certain things you should know that are specific to your case.

One thing to be aware of with student cards is that they have high interest rates. So, staying up to date and even paying more than the minimum requested payment is essential. Budgeting ahead of time will be important when getting used to paying off your new card, so be disciplined to avoid hefty interest charges or late fees. The majority of credit issuers are compatible with mobile banking if you’re looking for a way to start tracking your payments.

The simple, but important key to staying on the right track is to avoid overspending. By doing so, you can set up automatic payments to ensure you’re on time each month and not get hit with penalties. Check your statements regularly and familiarize yourself with your spending habits. If you do slip up by missing a payment or exceeding your credit limit, it’s not the end of the world — but it might be time to set a calendar reminder.

Bottom line

Student credit cards help set the tone for your credit-building future, so be sure to do your homework before applying for one. With the right student credit card and a well-managed budget, you can build yourself an impressive credit score in as little as a year. This will allow you to graduate to cards with more flexibility and lucrative benefits.

Written by
Joey Robinson
Credit cards contributor
Upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree concentrated in Finance, Joey worked at “Big Four” (Ernst and Young) accounting firm before exploring the world of credit cards. Over the past two years, he’s shared his expertise and has brought understanding to complex topics as a writer and editor for sites like Bankrate, and NextAdvisor. His advice on avoiding common credit card fees, top balance transfer tactics and more financial tips have been featured on MSN Money and other various news publications.