How to find a student credit card that makes the grade
Despite sometimes taking on the label of a “junior card,” many student cards are just as useful and valuable as general rewards cards. With benefits tailored to credit-building needs, these cards are a great way for students to establish themselves financially. Plus, you can shop for anything new you may need for at-home and hybrid classes, like digital textbooks, a laptop upgrade or a comfier desk chair.
Check out our top picks for student credit cards and learn more about making your entry into the world of credit. Then get ready to choose the card that you’ll carry with you through 2021, and possibly beyond.
A quick comparison of top student credit cards
A closer look at the best credit cards for students
Discover it® Student Cash Back
Best for rotating cash back bonus categories
- This card is a good fit for: People with limited or no credit history who want to earn cash back.
- This card is not a good choice for: Those who find it bothersome to activate the card’s rotating bonus categories each quarter.
- What makes this card unique? Instead of a traditional sign-up bonus, this card offers a Cashback Match. At the end of your first year, Discover will automatically match all of the cash back you’ve earned — So a yearly total of $300 would become $600. There’s also a $20 reward statement credit for each year you maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher for up to the next 5 years.
- Is the Discover it® Student Cash Back worth it? The rotating 5 percent cash back categories (on up to $1,500 each quarter you activate, then 1 percent) can reward you handsomely if you make use of them. If you were to max out the $1,500 spending cap each quarter, you’d earn $75 in cash back per quarter — $300 for the year — just for your spending within the rotating categories.
Read our full Discover it® Student Cash Back review.
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Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
Best for flat-rate cash back
- This card is a good fit for: Students planning to study abroad and/or who want to earn more substantial cash back rewards.
- This card is not a good choice for: Students who may be forgetful and miss a payment, as there is a late payment fee of up to $40.
- What makes this card unique? The 1.5 percent flat cash back rewards rate is very high for a student credit card. Also, there is no annual fee or foreign transaction fees, which can make maintaining this card on a student budget a bit easier.
- Is the Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card worth it? If you want the potential to earn even higher cash back rewards in certain spending categories, this card may fall short compared to some others. However, if you’d like a bit more consistency in your cash back rewards rate, the Capital One Quicksilver student card offers one of the best returns.
Read our full Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card review.
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Chase Freedom® Student credit card
Best student card for benefits
- This card is best for: Students who are looking for a good ongoing rewards rate and an easy-to-earn welcome bonus.
- This card is not a great choice for: Someone with good to excellent credit who can qualify for a higher-earning Chase Ultimate Rewards card, like the Chase Freedom Flex℠.
- What makes this card unique? You’ll earn a credit limit increase after making 5 monthly payments on time within 10 months from account opening when meeting credit criteria. This feature encourages good financial habits and may help improve your credit score. You’ll also earn a $20 Good Standing Reward after each account anniversary for up to 5 years.
- Is the Chase Freedom® Student credit card worth it? With no annual fee and a relatively good cash back rate, this card is worth getting for credit card newcomers. However, those with good to excellent credit may qualify for higher-earning Chase cards.
Read our full Chase Freedom® Student credit card review.
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Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
Best overall student card
- This card is a good fit for: Students who often indulge in live entertainment or love streaming services.
- This card is not a good choice for: Students looking to earn consistent, high flat cash back rewards.
- What makes this card unique? This card offers high rewards rates on some of students’ most popular spending categories like dining and popular streaming services. If you love live entertainment, the Capital One SavorOne student card offers a whopping 8 percent cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023.
- Is the Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card worth it? Social butterflies will delight in this card’s generous cash back offerings on dining, popular streaming services, and entertainment. If you’re searching for a higher and more consistent cash back rate, you may find your fit in another card.
Read our full Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card review.
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Discover it® Student chrome
Best for gas, dining and large purchases
- This card is a good fit for: Students who commute or take road trips often.
- This card is not a good choice for: Students who live on campus or have a university meal plan.
- What makes this card unique? Discover’s Cashback Match is a one-of-a-kind bonus that can offer even more value than a traditional sign-up bonus, depending on how much you use your card. Discover will automatically match all of the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, so a first-year cash back total of $350 becomes $700.
- Is the Discover it® Student chrome worth it? In terms of rewards structure, this card is essentially identical to the Discover it® chrome. However, the credit requirements are much lower with the student version of the card. For that reason, it’s a great deal for those whose spending aligns with the bonus categories.
Read our full Discover it® Student chrome review.
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Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card
Best student starter card
- This card is a good fit for: Someone who wants to manage their credit card transactions and history all in one simple, easy-to-use app.
- This card is not a good choice for: Those with enough credit history to qualify for a card with higher cash back rates. For example, the Citi® Double Cash Card requires good to excellent credit and offers up to 2 percent cash back — 1 percent when you buy, 1 percent as you pay for your purchases.
- What makes this card unique? Cash back programs are harder to come by among credit-builder cards. The Petal 2 card’s barrier to entry is relatively low, but it also offers a modest amount of cash back rewards, making it a valuable find for students just starting out with credit cards. The fact that the cash back rate increases to up to 1.5% on eligible purchases after you make 12 on-time monthly payments is an interesting perk, too.
- Is the Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card worth it? If you’re brand new to credit, the cash back program and lack of credit requirements could make this card a great fit. On the flip side, students with good credit can find higher cash back rates.
Read our full Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card review.
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Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students
Best for students with no credit history
- This card is a good fit for: Students who don’t have an established credit history or a Social Security number.
- This card is not a good choice for: Students with good credit or better — the cash back rate is fair, but you can find better if you’ve got a good credit score.
- What makes this card unique? If you spend $500 within the first three billing cycles of card membership, you’ll receive a one-year Amazon Prime Student subscription reimbursement, worth $59.
- Is the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students worth it? In general, this card has all the makings of a great credit card for students: virtually no credit score requirements, a steady cash back program and no annual fee. If you’re interested in building credit and earning rewards, this card is a great place to start.
Read our full Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students review.
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Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card
Best for local cash back offers
- This card is a good fit for: Aspiring credit builders looking to avoid security deposits or annual fees.
- This card is not a good choice for: Someone looking for a consistent cash back program.
- What makes this card unique? In the Petal 1 mobile app, you can find local offers near you that earn between 2% and 10% cash back at select merchants.
- Is the Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card worth it? The unique cash back offers are a nice bonus, but perhaps more valuable to a credit novice are this card’s credit-building features. Using Petal 1’s user-friendly app, you can set and track a monthly budget, keep tabs on your credit score and calculate interest costs. Through the app, you can also enable AutoPay and make sure you never miss a payment. If your focus is building healthy credit habits, this card makes it easy.
Read our full Petal® 1 “No Annual Fee” Visa® Credit Card review.
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What are student credit cards and how do they work?
Student credit cards work essentially like any other type of card, but they’re easier for credit beginners to obtain. A student credit card offers a line of credit, and if you pay off the balance in full and on time every month, you’ll never owe more than what you spent.
Credit card issuers may allow you to make small minimum payments and carry the rest of the balance month-to-month, but it comes with a tradeoff. When you carry a balance, you’ll have to pay interest (measured by annual percentage rate, or APR) on the total amount.
Pros and cons of student credit cards
- Less strict credit requirements — Student credit cards are designed for those who are just starting out, so a lack of credit history is less likely to prevent you from approval.
- Rewards — While some credit cards with lower credit requirements are lacking in the rewards department, plenty of student cards offer cash back or points.
- Specialized benefits — Student credit cards often feature perks designed to appeal to credit beginners, like lenient late fee policies, automatic review for a credit line increase, and credit education tools.
- Low cost — Many students want to avoid credit cards that cost money to carry. Luckily, many of the top student credit cards are free of annual fees.
- Less robust rewards programs — While plenty of student credit cards offer modest rewards, the highest-earning rewards cards generally require good-to-excellent credit.
- Potential for high interest rates — In general, lower credit requirements tend to mean higher interest rates.
- Lower credit limits — Students are often considered a higher-risk borrower for lenders and these lenders may offer lower credit limits until student borrowers prove creditworthiness with responsible card use. Try to avoid spending too much of your credit limit, as this could hurt your credit utilization ratio and, thus, your credit score.
- Borrowed funds — It’s important to remember that money on a credit card is borrowed and must be repaid. It can be easy to get carried away with spending and rack up a significant balance, so it’s important to carefully monitor credit card spending. Aim to pay balances in full each month to avoid interest.
CardSmart: Credit-building for college students and young adults
A woman named Chantal emailed with a question about her son, a college student looking for a card that can help him build credit history.
My son is a senior in college and has never had a credit card. He has used cash and just a regular debit card for all purchases. In your opinion, what is the best credit card that will build a bit of good credit for him? He does not travel much, but he does eat out and buys gas/groceries. He has a few utility bills that he shares with his roommates.
Based on Chantal’s description of her son’s credit history and spending habits, I suggested a few cards that don’t require a credit history to apply:
- Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students — Earns 1 percent cash back on eligible purchases
- Discover it Student chrome — Earns 2 percent cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, along with unlimited 1 percent back on all other purchases
- Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card— A security deposit is required: Capital One will monitor your account, and as you use it responsibly by doing things like making on-time payments, you may be able to earn back your deposit as a statement credit.
I also shared some good news for her son (and young adults in general) on the credit-building front: Credit-scoring products like UltraFICO and Experian Boost pay attention to good credit habits such as paying cellphone and utility bills on time, or maintaining a savings account with a positive balance, instead of being focused primarily on car loans, mortgages and other big credit accounts.
A lot of credit cards for people with no credit history or limited credit history report to the three major credit monitoring bureaus, so every on-time payment sends a signal to potential lenders you’re a trustworthy user of credit. Those good habits will help you build a solid credit history over time and put you in a strong position for bigger credit accounts in the future.
Why get a student credit card?
If you’re unfamiliar with carrying your own credit card, choosing a student option is a great way to get started. Along with letting you spend conveniently, student cards will give you the opportunity to establish a credit score while learning how to manage an account.
Aside from the ability to pay over time, the main perk of using a credit card is building credit. You can start to build credit as a college student, and it’s a fairly good idea to start building credit early if you can. You can read our full guide for all of the reasons why your credit score matters, but essentially, good credit gives you access to larger loans, like a mortgage or auto loan, with better interest rates.
Building credit takes time, and you have to start small. Before you can get a mortgage, you’ll need to have proof that you’ve borrowed responsibly in the past. One of the easiest ways to build up a positive credit history is by using a credit card — And the sooner you start, the better.
Paying necessary expenses
Establishing your credit doesn’t mean you have to be a big spender. You can start with using your card to pay for your rent or groceries. Or maybe you only want to use it to buy a laptop that would make your schoolwork easier. The point is even little purchases here and there are effective at building credit over time.
Developing good financial habits
Used responsibly, a student credit card can help you develop good habits that will come in handy later in life. Setting a routine of being on time with payments and budgeting within your means will lead you to success. Paying your balances and managing your account will be good practice for years ahead when your financial obligations could include everything from car payments to mortgages to retirement accounts.
In case of emergency
In addition, a credit card can be a great resource in an emergency. If your car breaks down, if you need a hotel room after your flight gets canceled or if you get a big bill after a trip to urgent care, your student card can provide a much-needed cushion. As always, make sure to pay your bill in full before you begin incurring interest.
Avoid foreign transaction fees
Planning on studying abroad? Unless you like the idea of paying an extra 3-5 percent on top of every card transaction, you should have a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees.
Credit card basics: Terms students should know
- Annual fees: Some credit cards have annual fees of $50 or more, though most student cards don’t. Be sure to check the fees before applying for any card.
- Annual Percentage Rate (APR): Interest rate paid on balances carried from one billing period (month) to the next.
- Credit bureau: Research entities that compile all of your credit history reporting to generate your credit score. In the U.S., there are 3 major bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- Credit utilization ratio: This ratio is a measurement of how much of your available credit you are using. If you have a $5,000 credit limit and usually stick to a $500 per month budget, your ratio is at 10%. The lower your credit utilization, the better. If you use up a large chunk (or all) of your available credit every month, your credit score may decrease.
- FICO: The entity that creates the scoring model used to calculate credit scores. FICO credit scores range from 300 to 850. Credit scores are one factor in determining your creditworthiness.
- Penalty APR: The highest APR that will be applied to your account. Penalty APR is usually applied after you miss consecutive payments. To return to your original APR, you’ll need to make several consecutive on-time payments.
- Balance: The amount of money you have spent on your credit card. Your balance is the total amount of money you spend and need to pay back on your credit card. If you have a credit limit of $5,000 and you spend $100, the $100 is now your balance, or the money you owe on the card. It’s always best practice to pay off your balance in full each month.
- Minimum payment due: The minimum amount of money that you are required to pay back on your payment due date at the end of your card’s billing cycle. Minimum payments are usually calculated as a flat percentage of your total balance. To find out your minimum payment, consult your card’s terms and conditions. It’s a best practice to pay off balances each month, or, at the very least, make more than the minimum monthly payment to avoid incurring interest.
- Available credit: The amount of money that is available for you to spend on your card. Your available credit changes with your spending. If you have a $5,000 credit limit and you haven’t made any charges to the card, your available credit is still $5,000. If you spend $100 on this card, then your available credit will drop to $4,900. Once you pay off your balance of $100, your available credit will return to the full $5,000.
If you run into a term that’s not on this list, don’t worry. Look for it in Bankrate’s personal finance glossary.
How students can avoid credit card debt
Learning experiences can be painful, especially when they involve learning how bad decisions can hurt your personal finances. Here’s a list of four tips for staying out of debt trouble with credit cards:
- Choose the right card for your finances and lifestyle. If you don’t own a car and you rarely dine out, it’s not a good idea to apply for a rewards card that offers cash back on gas and dining purchases.
- Pay off your balance in full every month. It may seem obvious, but the only way to avoid paying more than you have to is by paying in full every month. Make sure you note when your credit card bill is due and stick to your payment schedule.
- Use your card for everyday convenience. Use your card to pay for food, utility bills, movie tickets, and other small purchases. Having a credit card is incredibly convenient and a positive thing when you use it properly.
It’s best to not use your credit card to pay for tuition, but some schools will allow you to do it. However, be aware that you may be charged a convenience fee
, and interest will stack up quickly if you don’t pay it off right away.
How to apply for a student credit card
If you’re ready to start shopping, consider these three essential steps:
1. Consider your credit history
Start by answering the following questions:
- Have you ever had a credit card?
- Have you ever taken out a loan?
- Do you have a steady work/income history?
If you’ve never had a credit card and you currently have no loans or steady income, your best option for getting your own credit card account is to become an authorized user on a pre-existing account.
2. Check your credit score and credit report
If you already have a credit history, it’s important to know what your score is. Determining your credit score will let you know which cards you are likely to be approved for. Also, request copies of your credit report, which you can do for free once a year from each of the three credit bureaus.
3. Look for the magic word: ‘Pre-qualified’
Before you fill out the first blank field on any application, be sure to look for pre-qualified offers.
To see if you pre-qualify, a credit card issuer will perform what’s known as a “soft” credit inquiry. This way, you can find measure how likely you are to be approved for the card before you actually apply and the issuer performs a “hard” credit inquiry that will ding your credit score.
Every time you apply for a credit card, your score will briefly drop by about 5 points, so it’s best to do it as few times as possible. If you’re denied, take steps to improve your credit (pay down other cards, loans, etc.) and apply for another card in a few months.
Want to know which credit cards you may prequalify for and unlock special offers from our partners? Use our CardMatch™ tool
to find your personalized matches in 60 seconds or less with no impact on your credit score.
How we chose our top picks for student credit cards
Credit cards reviewed by Bankrate receive scores based on a unique 5-star rating system. Our evaluation of best student credit cards focuses closely on specific qualities and benefits including:
The typical person shopping for a student credit card might not have excellent credit or even much credit history at all. Most of the cards on our list are open to new-credit, fair-credit or limited-credit applicants.
If you don’t yet have a full-time career, obviously you would be better served by a credit card that goes easy on the fees and charges. Annual fees, foreign transaction fees and other charges make the card more expensive to own, especially if it doesn’t have a rewards program that helps offset those costs.
Some of our top student credit cards have rewards programs that earn cash back for gas, groceries and other everyday purchases. Rewards offer a surefire way to get more value from your card.
Additional reviews and research
Need to do more studying before you make a decision? No worries. Choosing the right credit card as a college student is a big deal. Check out these resources from Bankrate.
Learn more: Easiest credit cards to get in 2021
Have more questions for our credit cards editors? Feel free to send us an email, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us @Bankrate.