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NerdWallet’s Best College Student Credit Cards, Spring 2014

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Who knew that credit cards could be so rewarding? With a college student credit card, you can earn awesome perks and rewards on money you’d spend anyway. Plus, having a student credit card can help establish your credit score, which will be helpful down the road. The thought of graduation is scary enough – arming yourself with a great credit score is a sure fire way to start your post-grad life off on the right foot.

With a student credit card, you won’t need a cheat sheet to know how to get all the best rewards. These cards pay back on common student expenses like textbooks, restaurants and even music! Take a look at NerdWallet’s top picks for the best student credit cards.

JourneySM Student Rewards from Capital One®

Capital One Journey Student Rewards Credit Card
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on Capital One's
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To be fair, the JourneySM Student Rewards from Capital One® is Capital One’s only student credit card, but it’s still a pretty good offering. You receive 1% cash back on all your purchases, plus 0.25% back when you make your monthly payment on time, for a grand total of 1.25% cash back. That isn’t too bad, especially for a student card. There’s no annual fee, and your rewards will never expire. Since this is a student credit card, Capital One will be more forgiving of a short credit history.

Discover it® for Students

Discover It for Students Credit Card
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on Discover's
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Like its adult counterpart, the Discover it for Students offers 5% cash back on a broad range of categories, up to $1,500 spent a quarter, plus an unlimited 1% cash back everywhere else. But what sets the Discover card apart from other student cards isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t: No penalty interest rate, and a waived first late payment fee. Look, you’re in college, you do some dumb stuff sometimes – it’s nice to know your rates won’t be jacked up if you miss your first-ever credit card payment. As an aside, if you’re going to study abroad, the Discover it might be a good traveling companion: Though it’s only accepted in certain countries, the card has no foreign transaction fee, which can set you back 3% of whatever you spend overseas.

Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students

Citibank ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students Credit Card
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on Citibank's
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Like the Discover, this card also has a “big sister” version: the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card — Earn 20,000 Bonus Points. The ThankYou Preferred for Students offers 2X Points on purchases for dining and entertainment, and one ThankYou Point on other purchases. While the ThankYou Points aren’t on the high end in absolute terms, a rewards rate of over 1.5% on dining and entertainment is still a great deal for a first credit card. The card comes with a modest sign-up bonus: Earn 2,500 bonus ThankYou® Points after spending $500 within the first 3 months of cardmembership.. It also sports an intro APR offer. Frequent international travelers will surely appreciate the EMV chip, but should watch out for the foreign transaction fee!

How do I choose a credit card? 

This is the part where the professor drops the big hint-hint-nudge-nudge that something will be on the midterm. If there’s anything you should know about credit cards, pay attention to the following:

Choosing a credit card: A rewards card will only be beneficial if you pay off your bills every month. These cards usually have a higher interest, but if you’re a smart and responsible spender, you’ll enjoy extra points and cash back on your purchases. If you carry a balance, don’t even worry about rewards – a low APR (annual percentage rate, or interest rate) card is the way to go.

Qualifying for a credit card: If you’re a student, there’s a good chance you won’t have a full-time income just yet, so you’ll need a co-signer. This person would apply for the card with you, allowing you borrow off their credit score to get lower interest rates and higher credit limits than you’d get on your own. It’s also important to note that the Credit Card Act of 2009 requires those without an income to have a co-signer.

Need-to-know vocab: The important credit card features

0% Intro APR: The back to school season usually means you’ll be making a lot of big purchases all at once, so a 0% intro APR period would be something to look out for. This allows you to make all these purchases and have 6+ months to pay it off without interest. Just make sure you pay off all your debt during the intro period, or else you could take a huge hit from sky-high interest rates.

Rewards: We all like to be rewarded every once in a while – why not reward yourself every time you swipe? Most rewards cards will offer 1% cash back on all purchases, with special categories earning you 2%-5% back. Pay attention to these categories so you can earn the maximum rewards for your most frequent expenses.

Ongoing APR: If you plan to carry a balance (which you shouldn’t, ahem ahem), look for a card with a low ongoing APR. Rarely will you find a card that offers both rewards and a low APR, but there will be a few with rewards in addition to a 0% APR intro period. Credit unions are worth checking out since they usually offer the lowest ongoing interest rates, and are more likely to lend to students or others with little or no credit.

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