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You have to be at least 18 years old to apply for a credit card in the U.S., technically. But for most people, the answer is that you probably must be 21 or older.
U.S. federal law — specifically, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 — limits when credit card issuers can consider a young adult for credit card approval. There are two ages to know:
18 years old
Consumers can apply for credit cards starting at age 18, but the law requires them to have an independent income or a co-signer. However, most major issuers don’t allow co-signers anymore. So, a person aged 18, 19 or 20 usually has to earn and prove their own income before being approved for a credit card. The amount of income isn’t specified in the law, but it has to be enough to independently make minimum payments on the account. That means young adults who get a full-time job right out of high school, for example, might qualify.
21 years old
Restrictions for independent income or a co-signer drop off at age 21. So, as a practical matter, many young adults — full-time college students, for example — will be waiting until they’re at least 21 before applying for a credit card in their own name.
Options if you’re under 21
If you don’t have the required independent income, your choices are narrowed.
If you’re not old enough to apply for a credit card yet — or you’re a parent trying to establish a credit history for a child under 21 — often your best option is to make the young adult an authorized user on the credit card account of a parent or other person with good credit.
As an authorized user, the young adult can carry and use a card, but won’t be responsible for making payments. Even so, authorized user status can help them build their own credit history. It’s sometimes called credit piggybacking. Card issuers determine what age the youngster must be to become an authorized user. Some don’t specify, while others set it at 13 or 15 years old.
You could also try the exemption in the law if you’re at least 18: Apply for a credit card account with a co-signer. A co-signer is someone with good credit and income who guarantees that they will pay your credit card balance if you don’t. Most major card issuers don’t allow co-signers, but a few do. And you might have better luck with smaller banks and credit unions.
Age is only the beginning
Simply being old enough to apply for a credit card doesn’t mean you’ll be approved. Most major card issuers also heavily weigh credit scores and your income.
Credit cards young adults could apply for
If you’re at least 21 but have a little or no credit history, you still have choices.
Secured credit cards
Secured credit cards require an upfront security deposit, usually equal to the credit limit. The deposit protects the issuer if you fail to make your payments. You get the deposit back when you close or upgrade the account. Secured cards are for people looking to build or rebuild credit, so income requirements tend to be more relaxed. The idea is to build your credit and eventually transition to an unsecured card — otherwise known as a normal credit card.
Student credit cards
You’ll generally need access to income, and if you have shaky credit or no credit history at all, you may find it hard to get approved. But some cards offer perks to college students.
Alternative credit cards
In recent years, several "alternative credit cards" have come to market, advertising nontraditional underwriting policies to assess creditworthiness. While these cards may be good options for those with limited or no credit, you'll still have to meet income requirements, as you would with traditional credit card issuers. They do not require deposits.