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What is a student credit card?

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Whether you’re an undergraduate, graduate or non-traditional student, using a credit card that meets your needs is a great way to handle your money while juggling a student workload. Establishing a positive credit history early can also have a significant impact on many major life steps—like applying for your first apartment, purchasing your first car or getting a mortgage.

Here’s what you need to know about student credit cards and how to best leverage them to your advantage.

What is a student credit card?

A student credit card works pretty much the way any credit card works, but with rewards and features specifically geared toward a student’s needs. Student credit cards are typically much easier to be approved for, as most students applying for their first credit card will often have limited or no credit history. These cards also offer rewards for student-centric purchases like streaming subscriptions, dining or Amazon spending.

You don’t have to be a student to apply for a student credit card, but keep in mind that you have to meet certain eligibility requirements depending on the issuer.

Reasons to get a student credit card

As is the case with any credit card, student credit cards have noteworthy perks and drawbacks. If you use your student credit card responsibly, you will be on your way toward building good credit and establishing solid financial habits.

With student credit cards, even students with no credit scores may be approved. Some student cards take a more lenient stance on late payments by not charging a late fee on your first miss, although missing a credit card payment will have a negative impact on your credit score, no matter what.

The Discover it® Student Cash Back card, for example, waives your first late payment fee, but late fees go up to $41 thereafter. This gives young adults a safety net while learning the do’s and don’ts of credit.

Additionally, a variety of student cards give cash back on popular student spending categories like dining, entertainment and gas. Some cards offer added benefits like purchase protection or credit-building tools to help credit beginners.

For instance, the Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card offers 8 percent cash back on Capital One Entertainment purchases and tickets at Vivid Seats, 5 percent back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and an unlimited 3 percent back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart and Target). A student card such as this offers huge rewards for nearly any category of spending on most young adult’s plates.

On top of rewards and eligibility requirements, plenty of student credit cards don’t charge annual fees. Many student cards also benefit study-abroad hopefuls by waiving foreign transaction fees, but you should always check the card’s terms and conditions.

Risks of a student credit card

Student credit cards also have drawbacks to keep in mind. Don’t go in blind because you may run into some surprises along the way.

Card issuers usually view students as high-risk borrowers, which often results in higher interest rates on student credit cards. Student card APRs average more than 17 percent, according to CreditCards.com, so if you miss a payment or two, interest charges will add up fairly quickly. However, as long as you make on-time payments on your credit card each month and pay off your balances in full, you’ll avoid the added interest that comes with these higher rates completely.

On top of high interest rates, issuers will usually grant lower credit limits with student credit cards. Once you are able to demonstrate your creditworthiness with a consistent, on-time payment history, your issuer may automatically increase your credit limit or you can contact your issuer and request a higher credit limit. But until then, you will typically be left with a low credit limit. This isn’t a bad thing because there is less room to spend beyond your means.

Student credit cards are best suited for undergraduate, graduate or non-traditional students who are looking to build a credit history from the ground up and want rewards for student-focused spending. If you are not a student but are still hoping to build or rebuild your credit, you may look into applying for a secured credit card or another card option that best fits your current credit score tier.

Student credit cards can get restrictive as you build up your credit history and become eligible for cards with better rewards and perks. Luckily, a lot of issuers provide cards that are easy to upgrade to once you’re no longer a student.

Applying for a student credit card

Once you’ve evaluated your financial situation and decided a student card is the right choice for you, it’s time to apply. Here are five steps to applying for a student credit card.

  1. Know your credit score. Your credit score is the key to knowing what cards you could be approved for. If you don’t yet have a credit score, there are still cards you can apply for.
  2. Go to the card’s issuer site and find the application. Once you’ve found the card that works best for you, set up any necessary accounts and locate the application for your card of choice.
  3. Apply for the card. Gather and input all necessary application information, such as your name, address and annual income. If you’re wondering what to enter for your annual income, consider things like pay from your part-time job, scholarships, grants and regular allowance money.
  4. Look out for an application decision. An application decision could be instant or it could take a few days. If you are denied, an issuer is legally required to send a letter detailing the reason.
  5. Make a payment plan. If approved, note the card’s payment due date to ensure you always pay on time and in full to avoid added interest charges. You will then receive the physical card in the mail.

Age requirements for a student credit card

The minimum age to be a primary cardholder for most card issuers is 18, but there are certain requirements for individuals under the age of 21 to keep in mind if you are looking at applying for your first credit card.

If you’re under the age of 21, it is possible to get approved for a credit card, but most credit card issuers will require you to show proof of income. If you’re at least 18 and you don’t have the income required to be approved for a credit card on your own, you will need to apply with a cosigner or consider a secured credit card.

3 ways to use your student credit card

So, you’ve acquired your student credit card and you’re ready to put it to work. These are the three best ways to use your new card:

  1. Building credit. A student credit card is one of the easiest ways to start establishing a credit score. When used responsibly, the good credit score you build with a student card could lead to better credit card and loan choices with lower interest rates.
  2. Earning rewards. As long as you stay on top of your spending and pay your bill on time and in full, student cards are a great way to earn rewards on purchases students make the most.
  3. Emergencies. Life happens, and when it does, a student credit card can be a welcome safety net you can use to cover unexpected costs from things like a trip to the mechanic or the ER.

Whatever way you decide to use your new card, continue to prioritize paying off the balance each billing cycle. If you can’t pay the card in full, then be sure to pay the minimum required on or before the payment due date to avoid late fees or major hits to your credit score.

The bottom line

A student credit card can be a great way to start building your credit early so you’ll have an easier time accomplishing life’s biggest milestones. Paying your credit card bill on time and in full should always be your first priority. Do your research and pick a card that best fits your unique financial needs.

Written by
Ashley Parks
Credit Cards Author
As a Bankrate credit cards editor, Ashley Parks is fascinated by the ways people can make credit cards work for them when armed with the right knowledge.
Edited by
Associate Editor
Reviewed by
Editorial Director