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Starter credit cards, aimed at those who are new to credit, have been around since at least the 1970s — and they used to be much easier to qualify for.
Card issuers once were able to lure young adults, particularly students, with a variety of incentives that federal regulations now prohibit under the Credit Card Act of 2009.
“When you started college prior to the Card Act, you could get a Frisbee and a credit card at the same time, or a chance to win a computer and a credit card,” said Rod Griffin, senior director of public education and advocacy at Experian, a credit reporting agency.
Credit card eligibility requirements are stiffer now, especially amid the COVID-19-related downturn, as banks tighten lending standards to mitigate risk. It all adds up to more obstacles for those seeking to start the clock on their credit history. About 20% of the U.S. adult population doesn't have a scorable credit file with the three major credit bureaus, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Still, qualifying for a starter card is not impossible, and more options exist today.
Eligibility for starter credit cards
The same CFPB report also notes that credit cards are the most common way to establish a credit file for all income levels and age groups.
But age matters in terms of your eligibility for a starter card.
IF YOU'RE UNDER 21
Applicants generally have to be 18 to apply for a credit card on their own. Applicants under 21 can only report independent personal income, including regular allowances. If you're a student, you may also report scholarships and grants.
“I got the Discover student credit card on the first try,” said Karumi Narasaki, a 20-year-old student based in Indiana and creator of the YouTube channel Rumi’s Life. When she applied for the card, she says she included part-time income from two jobs and school aid received to cover books, rent and food.
IF YOU'RE OVER 21
Once you turn 21, income restrictions loosen slightly. You can include any income to which you have reasonable access, such as the income of a partner or a spouse, for instance. Income is still a necessary requirement to demonstrate your ability to make payments on borrowed amounts. Other requirements may also exist, depending on the card.
If you can't meet the income requirement at any age, a co-signer could help you build credit with a credit card. You'll get your own credit card and account, but the co-signer assumes responsibility for the bill if you can't pay it. Not many issuers allow co-signers on credit card applications these days, but some still do.
Types of starter cards
The ideal starter card should have no annual fee and report your payment history to the three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. These bureaus compile the credit reports that form the basis of your credit scores.
Creditors review your credit scores to determine the likelihood that you'll pay them back. A good FICO credit score of 690 or higher can make it easier to get an apartment, set up utilities and access better interest rates on credit cards or loans, for example.
Starter card options may include:
Credit cards for authorized users are tied to a primary cardholder's account. You are issued a card with your name on it, but the primary cardholder is responsible for making the payments. If that person uses his or her credit card wisely, it could reflect well on your own credit history, but double-check with your issuer.
“It’s still recommended if you’re going to become an authorized user that you ask the lender if they actually report the account for you,” Griffin said. “If they don’t, it’s not going to help you build a credit history.”
Secured credit cards are easier to qualify for because they require a cash deposit as collateral, reducing the risk to the issuer. The deposit amount usually determines your credit limit.
With a good payment history, you eventually get your deposit back when you close the account or upgrade to a traditional "unsecured" credit card with the same issuer.
Student credit cards
Student credit cards may require enrollment at a college or university. They also may require that you have at least some existing credit history. You can find exceptions, though.
Some student cards may even pack helpful, student-friendly features like waived late payment fees or incentives. Rewards on student cards are uncommon, but some options exist.
“I also considered applying for a secured card initially, until I found out there’s a Discover card,” Narasaki said. “It had cash back, which is unlike any of the other cards that I looked up, so I thought it was a pretty beneficial card and it had a lot of perks.”
Alternative-underwriting credit cards have joined the market in recent years with some game-changing approaches. Most of these cards don't charge a security deposit, and many can use factors other than the traditional FICO scoring model to assess your creditworthiness.
If you don't have a credit history, issuers of these cards may instead look at your employment, income, spending or savings to determine your ability to pay. As a result, they may require government-issued documents, bank account information, employment verification requirements and other details as part of the application process.
In some cases, you may not even need a Social Security number to apply, which is helpful for newcomers to the U.S. who have limited options.
Starter card alternatives
Even with more starter card options on the market, the eligibility requirements may still leave some applicants out. But credit cards aren't the only way to build a credit history. Some services make it possible to report certain bill payments to the credit bureaus to establish a credit file.
For instance, rent-reporting services can record rent payments on credit reports for a fee. Experian Boost records cell phone and utility payments on Experian credit reports for free.
You can also consider applying for a credit builder loan.