Advertiser Disclosure

A short credit history is better than none, especially when it comes to getting approved for an unsecured credit card. Even a few months of positive credit history can spare you from having to tie up hundreds of dollars in a deposit on a secured credit card. With an unsecured card — that is, a card that doesn’t require cash collateral — you can also get higher credit limits, lower fees and more valuable rewards than you would with a secured one.

To find the best unsecured credit cards for people with short credit histories, NerdWallet surveyed cards for those with fair or average credit profiles (FICO scores of 630-689) that offered the best rewards and benefits. Here are the cards that topped the list:

Best for gas & groceries

Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard®

Apply Now on Barclaycard's secure website

Pros

  • Qualify with average credit
  • No annual fee

Cons

  • High APR

Bonus Offer

None

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

N/A

APR

  • APR: 25.24%* Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.49%, Variable

Card Details

  • 2X points on purchases for gas, groceries and utilities, and 1X points on all other purchases
  • No annual fee
  • Points don't expire as long as account is open, active and in good standing
  • No limits on the number of points you can earn or redeem
  • Starting at 1,000 points for $10, points can be redeemed for statement credits and gift cards
  • Chip card technology, so paying for your purchases is more secure at chip-card terminals in the U.S. and abroad
  • $0 Fraud Liability on unauthorized charges

Earn 2 points per dollar spent on gas, groceries and utilities, and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. The annual fee is $0. The ongoing APR is 25.24% Variable.

Benefits of the Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard®

  • The card doles out decent rewards and has a $0 annual fee, a rare combination among cards for people with thinner credit profiles.
  • There are no quarterly spending caps for earning rewards, and points never expire.
  • You’ll get a free FICO score and, in some cases, a credit line increase after you make five monthly payments on time.
  • There’s no penalty APR. That means that if you fall behind on payments, you won’t have to pay a higher interest rate. (Even so, make it a priority to pay on time, as late payments can hurt your credit score. When your credit file is already thin, the damage from a late payment could be even greater.)

Drawbacks of the Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard®

  • It doesn’t offer a sign-up bonus.
  • The ongoing APR is high. If you often carry a balance, you could end up overpaying in interest.
  • You must have at least 1,000 points to redeem rewards, which may be difficult for frugal spenders to reach.

The bottom line

The Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard® is a good pick if you spend a lot on gas, groceries and utilities. As long as you pay your balance in full every billing cycle and spend enough to meet the minimum redemption requirement, you’ll come out ahead on this $0 annual fee card.

Best for flat-rate cash back

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Apply Now on Capital One's secure website

Pros

  • Qualify with average credit
  • High rewards rate
  • 0% intro on purchases until November 2016 and 0% intro on balance transfers until November 2016
  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Bonus Offer

Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day

Annual Fee

$39

Intro APR Promotions

0% intro on purchases until November 2016 and 0% intro on balance transfers until November 2016

APR

  • APR: 23.24% (Variable)

Card Details

  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • No rotating categories or sign ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus, cash back doesn’t expire and there’s no limit to how much you can earn
  • Get a 20% Statement Credit on Uber rides purchased with this card through April 2016
  • 0% intro APR on purchases until November 2016; 23.24% variable APR after that
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Fraud coverage if your card is ever lost or stolen
  • Free access to your credit score and learn how everyday decisions can affect your score using Capital One® Credit Tracker

Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day. The annual fee is $39. APR: 0% intro on purchases until November 2016 and 0% intro on balance transfers until November 2016, and then the ongoing APR of 23.24% (Variable).

Benefits of the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

  • Rewards are unlimited, and cash back doesn’t expire.
  • You can redeem rewards in any amount.
  • You may get access to a higher credit line if you make your first five monthly payments on time.
  • There’s an introductory 0% APR offer: 0% intro on purchases until November 2016 and 0% intro on balance transfers until November 2016, and then the ongoing APR of 23.24% (Variable).
  • There’s no penalty APR.
  • This card has no foreign-transaction fees, making it a good card to take on an international vacation.

Drawbacks of the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

  • It comes with an annual fee of $39.
  • There’s no sign-up bonus.
  • The ongoing APR is high, so carrying a balance can be expensive.

The bottom line

The Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card’s biggest catch is its annual fee of $39. You’d have to put at least $2,600 on this card to break even on this deal. But if you’re planning on spending thousands of dollars, using the card’s 0% APR period or traveling abroad, it could offer more long-term value than other cards.

Best 0% APR offer

Chase Slate®

Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • No balance transfer fee
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers
  • Qualify with Good credit

Cons

  • No rewards

Bonus Offer

$0 Introductory balance transfer fee for transfers made during the first 60 days of account opening

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% Intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers

APR

  • APR: 13.24%-23.24% Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • Chase Slate named "Best Credit Card for Balance Transfers" three years in a row by Money Magazine
  • $0 Introductory balance transfer fee for transfers made during the first 60 days
  • 0% Introductory APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers
  • Free Monthly FICO® Score and Credit Dashboard
  • No Penalty APR - Paying late won't raise your interest rate (APR). All other account pricing and terms apply
  • $0 Annual Fee

$0 Introductory balance transfer fee for transfers made during the first 60 days of account opening. The annual fee is $0. 0% Intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, and then the ongoing APR of 13.24%-23.24% Variable.

Benefits of the  Chase Slate®

  • Among cards on NerdWallet, this is the only one that has a $0 introductory balance-transfer fee, a $0 annual fee and a long 0% APR balance-transfer period. This makes it one of the best balance-transfer deals on the market, for people at all credit levels.
  • You’ll get a free FICO score.
  • There’s no penalty APR.

Drawbacks of the  Chase Slate®

  • After the 0% period ends, you may want to avoid carrying a balance on this card. The ongoing APR can be high if you have fair or average credit.
  • The card doesn’t earn rewards, and there’s no sign-up bonus.
  • You can’t transfer more than $15,000 to this account, regardless of your credit limit. You also can’t transfer debt from other Chase cards.

The bottom line

The  Chase Slate® is one of the best balance-transfer cards on NerdWallet, period. It’s also available to people with fair or average credit, which means that you have a decent chance of getting approved with a thin credit profile. You won’t earn rewards on this card, but if you want to save on interest with the card’s 0% APR offers on purchases and balance transfers, it offers the best value.

Best for students

Discover it® for Students- Good Grades Rewards

Apply Now on Discover's secure website

Pros

  • Qualify with average credit
  • Bonus cash back categories
  • No annual fee
  • 0% on purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on balance transfers for 6 months
  • No foreign transaction fee

Bonus Offer

We'll DOUBLE all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So if you earned $101 cash back, we'll double it to $202—Automatically. Only for new cardmembers.*

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% on purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on balance transfers for 6 months

APR

  • APR: 13.24% - 22.24% Variable*
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • We'll DOUBLE all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So if you earned $101 cash back, we'll double it to $202—Automatically. Only for new cardmembers.*
  • 5% cash back in categories that change each quarter like gas, restaurants, home improvement stores and more -up to the quarterly maximum when you sign up.* 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.*
  • No annual fee.* No overlimit fee. No foreign transaction fee. No late fee on first late payment & paying late won't raise your APR.*
  • Track your recent FICO® Credit Scores for free in one easy-to-read chart on monthly statements & online.*
  • Freeze It℠ on/off switch lets you prevent new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app & online.* Plus get 100% U.S.-based service.
  • 0% intro APR* on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 13.24% - 22.24%.
  • Click "Apply Now". *See rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms & other information.

5% cash back on rotating categories on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter and 1% on all other purchases; The annual fee is $0; 0% on purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on balance transfers for 6 months, and then the ongoing APR of 13.24% - 22.24% Variable.

Benefits of the Discover it® for Students- Good Grades Rewards

  • The ongoing rewards rate — 5% cash back on rotating categories on up to $1,500 in purchases per quarter — is generous compared with other student credit cards. In the past, bonus categories have included restaurants, gas stations and Amazon.com.
  • Your cash back earnings will be doubled in your first year.
  • You’ll get $20 cash back for each year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • There are no foreign-transaction fees on this card. If you’re studying abroad in a country where Discover is widely accepted, it could be a good card to take along.
  • The card has an annual fee of $0. There’s no penalty APR, no over-limit fee and no late fee on your first late payment.

Drawbacks of the Discover it® for Students- Good Grades Rewards

  • The quarterly spending caps make this card less valuable to big spenders.
  • If you have fair or average credit, your ongoing APR will probably be relatively high on this card.

The bottom line

For students, the $0 annual fee Discover it® for Students- Good Grades Rewards is a tough card to beat. It doles out generous bonus rewards on restaurants and gas stations, common spending categories for many college students, and offers bonuses for maintaining high GPAs. The biggest drawback is the card’s quarterly rewards caps, but for students who spend modestly, these shouldn’t be deal-breakers.

Methodology

NerdWallet’s credit cards team selects cards in each category based on overall consumer value. Factors in our evaluation include fees, promotional and ongoing APRs, and sign-up bonuses; for rewards cards, we consider earning and redemption rates, redemption options and redemption difficulty. A single card is eligible to win in multiple categories.

Last updated January 14, 2016.

Claire Tsosie is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @ideclaire7 and on Google+.