NerdWallet’s Best College Student Credit Cards 2015
A student credit card can help you earn rewards and enjoy short-term, interest-free financing. What’s more, a student card is a great first step toward establishing a good credit history, which is crucial for obtaining favorable rates on future loans, renting your own apartment and getting low insurance premiums.
If you’re enrolled in school and in the market for a new card, here are some of our favorite student card offers:
Best for credit newbies: Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards
Earn 5% back on rotating bonus categories (up to $1,500 in spending each quarter) and 1% back on all other purchases. $0 annual fee; no late fee on your first late payment; no over-the-limit fees; no foreign transaction fees; no penalty APR if you miss a payment. Free FICO score. Introductory APR of 0% on purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on balance transfers for 6 months, and then the ongoing APR of 12.99% - 21.99% Variable.
- If you spend according to the bonus categories of the Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards, you’ll enjoy a rewards rate much higher than the typical 1% or 2% back.
- Discover is one of the few issuers that allow co-signers, which is very important if you’re applying for your first card and you’re a student under the age of 21 without full-time income.
- The Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards allows room for error with a 0% introductory APR period, a waived first late payment fee and no penalty APR. So while you should aim to make every payment on time and pay your balance in full each month, you won’t be heavily penalized if you mess up.
- The Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards gives you access to your free FICO score, so you can make sure you’re making the right moves for a healthy credit profile.
Drawbacks of the Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards:
- While the card comes with an EMV chip and has no foreign transaction fees, Discover isn’t widely accepted overseas, so it isn’t the best card to take with you on summer trips overseas or for a semester studying abroad.
- If you don’t spend on Discover’s rotating bonus categories, the card’s earning rate is low.
- Many cards offer new cardholders cash or points bonuses after reaching a spending milestone, but the Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards doesn’t have a signup bonus.
The bottom line:
For young students just starting out with credit, the Discover it® for Students-New! Good Grades Rewards is hard to beat. It allows you to get a co-signer, while also giving you potentially high rewards, few fees and a 0% introductory APR. Skip it if you plan on traveling overseas or if you don’t spend according to Discover’s bonus categories.
Best for social butterflies: Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students
Earn 2 points per dollar spent on dining at restaurants and entertainment, 1 point per dollar on everything else. Earn 2,500 bonus ThankYou® Points after spending $500 within the first 3 months of cardmembership. $0 annual fee. Introductory APR of 0% for 7 months on purchases, and then the ongoing APR of 13.99% - 23.99% Variable .
- You can earn extra points at merchants coded as takeout or sit-down restaurants, bars, amusement parks, concerts, movie theaters and more.
- ThankYou points can be redeemed for certain gift cards, travel and student loan payments at a value of 1 cent each, which is the industry standard.
Drawbacks of the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students:
- While there are a lot of redemption options for ThankYou points, many of them don’t offer the average point value of 1 cent. Cash rewards are redeemable at the low value of 0.5 cents per point.
The bottom line:
The Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students is a good card for students who spend frequently on dining out and going out. The ThankYou rewards program isn’t the best, but if you use your points on items like booking travel and paying off your student loans, you can get 1 cent out of each of them.
Best for study-abroad students: BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card for Students
Earn 1.5 points on every dollar you spend; 100 BankAmericard Travel Rewards Points Bonus after spending $500. $0.00 annual fee; no foreign transaction fees. Introductory APR of 0% for 12 months on purchases, and then the ongoing APR of 14.99% - 22.99% Variable .
on Bank of America's
Or call (800) 211-3740
on Bank of America's
- The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card for Students has the triple crown of travel benefits — $0.00 annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and an EMV chip — making it a great choice for students heading abroad for the semester.
- The card’s rewards rate is high for a card without an annual fee.
Drawbacks of the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card for Students:
- Points are redeemable for travel purchases only; you can’t get cash back or gift cards.
The bottom line:
The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card for Students is a great card for travel spending and redemption. Students studying abroad will enjoy that it’s EMV-equipped and doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. But opt for another card if you prefer the flexibility of cash rewards.
Best for bookworms: Sallie Mae MasterCard
Earn 5% back at bookstores (up to $750 spent per month), 5% back on gas and groceries (up to $250 in combined spending each month), and 1% back on all other purchases. $25 Cash Bonus - after first purchase, made within 90 days of account opening. The annual fee is $0. Introductory APR of 0% for 15 months on balance transfers, and then the ongoing APR of 13.99% - 22.99% Variable .
Benefits of the Sallie Mae MasterCard:
- Amazon is coded as a bookstore, so you can earn 5% back on your Amazon purchases (up to $750 spent per month).
- The Sallie Mae MasterCard has the longest introductory APR period among our top cards if you need extra time to pay off your initial purchases.
- Rewards are redeemable for statement credit, cash back into your Upromise account or a payment toward your Sallie Mae loan, allowing you to use rewards to lower your debt obligation or free up cash to put toward your education.
- You don’t need to have a Sallie Mae loan or Upromise account to get this card.
Drawbacks of the Sallie Mae MasterCard:
- Rewards don’t typically post for six to eight weeks from the day you redeem them.
- Sallie Mae and Upromise customers won’t get any special perks for using this card.
The bottom line:
Big readers — or Amazon shoppers — can get great rewards out of the Sallie Mae MasterCard. And even if you don’t have a Sallie Mae or Upromise account, you can get these rewards back as a statement credit. However, you won’t see extra perks for being an account holder.
Best for punctual pupils: Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
Earn 1% back on every purchase; rewards bonus on cash back for each month you pay on time. $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.
on Capital One's
on Capital One's
- You’ll be rewarded for punctual payments with an increased credit line after making your first five payments on time, plus an on-time-payment bonus that brings your rewards up to 1.25% back on every purchase.
- The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® allows you to choose the due date that works best for you.
- You don’t have to be a student to qualify, and you may be able to get this card with average credit.
Drawbacks of the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®:
- Even with the on-time-payment bonus, the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® has a low rewards rate.
The bottom line:
If you need a student card for average credit, the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® is tough to beat. It rewards you for paying on time with higher rewards and a higher credit line. You don’t have to be a student to get it, so those with average credit who are looking for a rewards card may want to consider it.
How do I choose a credit card?
The credit card you choose will depend on factors that include your credit history and payment habits. We recommend only applying for cards marketed toward individuals in your credit score range, which will improve your chances of being approved for a credit card.
When it comes to your payment habits, pick a card that will benefit your finances the most. If you pay off your entire balance each month — which is what the Nerds recommend — then get a rewards card. However, if you know you’ll roll over some of your balance from one month to the next, apply for a card with no rewards but a low APR.
As we noted, students starting out with credit will likely need a co-signer. However, if you earn a full-time income, you may be able to get a card on your own. Failing that, you may choose a secured credit card, which is backed by a cash deposit but works the same as an unsecured card.
Important credit card features, defined
0% introductory APR: A 0% introductory APR typically means 12 months or more of no interest on your purchases and/or balance transfers. Once the introductory rate expires, the interest on the card increases to the ongoing APR and accrues on your average daily balance. Aim to pay off your balance in full before this time, especially because some cards may charge you retroactive interest on your initial balance.
Ongoing APR: If you carry a balance, you should look for a card with a low ongoing APR. Credit unions are worth checking out because they usually offer the lowest ongoing interest rates and are more likely to lend to students or others with little or no credit.
If you pay your balance in full each month, the interest rate shouldn’t matter. Instead, you can focus on other card perks, like high rewards and no fees.
Rewards: Some credit cards offer cash or travel rewards on every purchase. While most of these cards give you 1% to 2% back, some cards offer additional rewards on certain spending categories. Pay attention to these categories so you can earn the most rewards for your most frequent expenses.
Last updated September 2, 2015.
Image via iStock.