NerdWallet's

Best College Student Credit Cards of 2018

Using one of these cards responsibly while still in school is a giant step toward building great credit.

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A student credit card can help you earn rewards and, in some cases, enjoy short-term, interest-free financing. What’s more, a student card is a great first step in establishing a good credit history, which is crucial for obtaining favorable rates on future loans, renting your own apartment and getting low insurance premiums.

But keep in mind that simply being a college student may not be enough to qualify you for a “student” card. 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. In that case, consider a secured credit card. These cards require you to put down a cash deposit as collateral. The deposit protects the issuer in case you fail to pay your bill, which reduces the risk of approving you for a card.

If you’re in the market for a new card, here are some of our favorite student card offers.

More on this card
Discover it® Student Cash Back Review

Benefits

Benefits

This card offers 5% cash back (on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter) in categories that change every three months. Recent categories have included Amazon, gas stations and restaurants. It pays 1% cash back on all other spending. New cardholders will get their cash back matched at the end of their first 12 billing periods, and students who maintain a 3.0 GPA are eligible for an annual $20 statement credit. There’s no annual fee or foreign transaction fee and no late fee for your first late payment. Also, late payments will never increase your interest rate.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

You have to activate the bonus cash-back categories every quarter. And Discover isn’t as widely accepted as Visa and MasterCard overseas, so beware if you’re studying abroad.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

This is a great card for a student learning to handle credit. On top of the rewards, you get a free FICO score, low fees and forgiveness for your first late payment.

Benefits

Benefits

This card pays you 2 ThankYou points per $1 spent on restaurants and entertainment and 1 point per dollar for all other spending. Plus, new cardholders earn a sign-up bonus: Earn 2,500 bonus points after spending $500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening. You can redeem ThankYou points for merchandise, travel, gift cards and cash — or you can use them to pay down a student loan. The annual fee is $0.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

Students who plan to study abroad should know that the card has a 3% foreign transaction fee. And you can redeem rewards in many ways, but redemption values vary. For example, 1 point is worth 0.5 cent when redeemed for cash but 1 cent when you use it toward student loan payments or travel.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

If you often eat out or go to movies or concerts, you’ll benefit from this card’s rewards program. But be aware that the way you redeem the points dictates how much they’re worth.

Benefits

Benefits

The cash-back rewards are easy to understand and might help you develop good credit habits. You earn 1% cash back on all purchases, and when you pay your bill on time, you’ll receive an extra 0.25% cash back as a bonus. Make your first five payments on time, and you may gain access to a higher credit line. The annual fee is $0, and there are no foreign transaction fees. And you don’t even have to be a student to apply.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

The maximum rewards rate of 1% or 1.25% is lower than the top rate on some other student cards.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

This card offers simple flat-rate rewards, with a bonus for paying on time. You don’t even have to be a student to apply, so consider it if you have average credit.

More on this card
Discover it® Student chrome Review

Benefits

Benefits

The Discover it® Student chrome earns 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, on up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. The annual fee is $0, and there is no late fee for the first late payment. Students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher can earn a $20 statement credit each year for up to five years. There's also Discover's signature bonus for new cardholders: Discover will match ALL the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There's no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

Although there's no foreign transaction fee, Discover isn’t as widely accepted abroad as other cards. If you plan to travel internationally, make sure you have a backup plan.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

The Discover it® Student chrome is an excellent starter card if you're the kind of student who eats out a lot and gets around by car.

Benefits

Benefits

The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students gives you unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases, a statement credit for a 12-month Amazon Prime Student subscription (up to $49) and a $30 statement credit every time you refer a friend who qualifies for the card. The card isn’t only for international students, but unlike most cards, it's possible to qualify without a Social Security number or a U.S. credit history. The issuer uses its own underwriting process to evaluate applications based on alternative criteria. The annual fee is $0.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

Rewards are redeemable only for statement credit, and you’ll have to wait until you have $25 in rewards (equal to $2,500 in spending) before you can redeem. Other cards offer higher rewards rates, if you can qualify for them.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

This is an excellent option for students who can’t qualify for a credit card because they lack a U.S. credit history, a Social Security number or both.

Benefits

Benefits

The rewards on this $0-annual-fee card aren't the greatest, but the issuer accepts applications from students with less-than-good credit. That makes it a viable option for those looking to build credit. Rewards come in the form of State Farm Loyalty Rewards points. You get 1 point for every $2 spent on most purchases. You also get 3 points per $1 spent on insurance premium payments, on up to $4,000 spent annually. Cardholders are eligible for student discounts from Visa.

Drawbacks

Drawbacks

You can't redeem points for cash, only for merchandise, gift cards, travel, charitable donations or payments for State Farm products. The 3% foreign transaction fee also makes this card less than ideal for those studying abroad.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

Options are slim for those with limited credit. This card offers a chance to build credit while earning rewards.

HOW STUDENT CARDS STACK UP

Card Our pick for ... Key benefits
Discover it® Student Cash Back Cash-back rewards • 5% cash back in rotating categories that you activate, on up to $1,500 per quarter in spending
• 1% cash back on all other purchases
• $20 annual statement credit available for good grades
Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students Entertainment rewards • 2 points per $1 spent on dining out and entertainment
• 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® Incentives for responsible use • 1% cash back on all purchases
• 1.25% cash back for any month when you pay on time
Discover it® Student chrome Gas and restaurant rewards • 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter
• 1% cash back on all other purchases
• $20 annual statement credit available for good grades
Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students International students • 1% cash back on all purchases
State Farm® Student Visa® Credit Card Limited credit • 3 points per $1 spent on insurance premiums
• 1 point per $2 spent on other purchases

Understanding student cards

Simply being enrolled as a college student isn’t enough to qualify for a student credit card. The Credit Card Act of 2009 prohibits issuers from providing cards to people under 21 unless they have proof of independent income or a co-signer — someone willing to put their good credit on the line to help you build yours. This can be a roadblock since most major credit card issuers don’t allow co-signers. You might have another path to credit if you have a parent with a good credit score who is willing to add you to their credit card account as an authorized user.

Even after you turn 21 and have a full-time income, it can still be hard to qualify for a credit card if you lack a credit history. Secured credit cards can offer a gateway to establishing credit. They are easier to qualify for because they require a security deposit, which reduces the risk for credit card issuers.

How to choose a student credit card

If you can meet the requirements to qualify for a student credit card, consider these factors in your search:

  • Annual fee: When a card has no annual fee, it doesn't cost you anything to keep the account open after you move on to better offers. That can have a positive effect on the portion of your credit score tied to the length of your credit history.
  • Sign-up bonus and rewards: Rewards and bonuses on student cards, when offered at all, may be smaller than on regular cards, but every little bit helps as a student.
  • Reporting to all three credit bureaus: You want your good payment history to show up on credit reports produced by Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. That can happen only if your issuer reports to all three.
  • Foreign transaction fees: If you plan to travel or study abroad, look for a card that doesn’t charge extra fees on purchases made abroad.
  • Upgrade opportunities: Check whether the issuer allows student cardholders to upgrade to a "regular" card when ready.

For more, see our guide to choosing a student credit card

Other cards to consider

If you can’t qualify for a credit card because you lack a credit history, consider a secured credit card if you’re over 21 and have a full-time income. They are easier to qualify for because they require a security deposit. The deposit is typically equal to your credit line, and you’ll get the money back when you close the card or upgrade to a regular credit card with the same issuer.

If you’re already on the credit track and you have an independent income, you might qualify for a credit card that offers better rewards, a generous sign-up bonus or lower interest. If you’re not, these are some of the options you can look forward to as you establish good credit.

Methodology

NerdWallet’s credit cards team selects the best 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 be chosen in multiple categories.

Last updated October 3, 2018.

Melissa is a personal finance writer at NerdWallet. Her work has been featured by USA Today and The Associated Press. Email: mlambarena@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena.

To recap our selections...

NerdWallet's Best College Student Credit Cards of 2018

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