BEST OF

Best College Student Credit Cards of May 2021

NerdWalletApril 30, 2021
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A student credit card is a great first step in establishing a good credit history. Building good credit might not seem like a priority when you're still in school, but you'll need it down the road if you want to finance a car, buy a house or qualify for the best credit card offers. Your credit can even affect your job prospects and your ability to rent an apartment.

Be aware 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.

Some of our selections for the best college student credit cards can be applied for through NerdWallet, and some cannot. Below, you'll find application links for the credit cards from our partners that are available through NerdWallet, followed by the full list of our picks.

NerdWallet's Best College Student Credit Cards of May 2021

Best College Student Credit Cards From Our Partners

Our pick for

Simple rewards + easy-to-earn bonuses

NerdWallet rating 

4.6

/5
Chase Freedom Student Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%Cashback

Intro offer

$50

Rec Credit Score

690-850Good - Excellent

Our pick for

Simplicity and value

NerdWallet rating 

5.0

/5
Discover it® Student chrome

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-2%Cashback

Intro offer

Cashback Match

Rec Credit Score

630-689Average

Our pick for

Bonus category cash-back rewards

NerdWallet rating 

4.9

/5
Discover it® Student Cash Back

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-5%Cashback

Intro offer

Cashback Match

Rec Credit Score

630-689Average

Our pick for

No credit history and international students

NerdWallet rating 

4.6

/5
Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students

on Deserve's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%Cashback

Intro offer

$0

Rec Credit Score

630-850Average - Excellent

Our pick for

Flat-rate cash-back rewards

NerdWallet rating 

4.1

/5
Capital One Journey Student Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

1%-1.25%Cashback

Intro offer

N/A

Rec Credit Score

630-689Average

Our pick for

Secured card

NerdWallet rating 

4.9

/5
Capital One Secured Mastercard Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Annual Fee

$0

Rewards Rate

N/A

Intro offer

N/A

Rec Credit Score

300-629Poor

FULL LIST OF EDITORIAL PICKS: BEST COLLEGE STUDENT CREDIT CARDS

Click the card name to read our review. Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.

Our pick for: Simplicity and value

Simplicity makes the Discover it® Student chrome a standout for students searching for their first credit card. You'll earn bonus cash back at restaurants and gas stations with no activation required and no rotating categories to keep track of. Read our review.

Our pick for: Bonus category cash-back rewards

The Discover it® Student Cash Back gives students the same excellent rewards as the regular Discover it® Cash Back — notably, bonus cash back in rotating categories that you must activate. Activating and tracking categories might be too much of a hassle for some students brand new to credit cards, but if you're up for a little work, the rewards can be handsome. Read our review.

Our pick for: No credit history and international students

The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students doesn’t require applicants to have a co-signer or security deposit, and international students don't need a Social Security number. That makes it a little easier to get approved — even for students with limited credit histories. Plus, it comes with a solid 1% back on all purchases. Read our review.

Our pick for: Flat-rate cash-back rewards

The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One gives newcomers to credit a powerful incentive to develop responsible habits. You earn cash back on every purchase, but when you pay your bill on time, the cash-back rate for that month gets a boost. Read our review.

Our pick for: Simple rewards + easy-to-earn bonuses

With its rewards and bonuses, its relatively low APR, its $0 annual fee and its upgrade possibilities, the Chase Freedom® Student credit card offers a compelling combination of benefits to students looking for their first card. Read our review.

Our pick for: Big rewards on small purchases

The Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card offers bonus rewards at gas stations and supermarkets, and its rounding-up feature means you can earn outsize rewards on small purchases. A good option for students with a lot of little expenses. Read our review.

Our pick for: Secured card

The Secured Mastercard® from Capital One requires a security deposit, as do all secured credit cards. But while most cards require you to put down a deposit equal to your credit line, this one allows some qualifying applicants to get a $200 credit line with a deposit of $49 or $99. Further, you can be automatically considered for a higher credit line with no additional deposit in as little as six months. Read our review.

Why it’s wise to build credit as a student

Building credit might not seem like an urgent priority when you're still in school, but the earlier you start the clock on your credit history, the better. Having good credit will be important down the road when you want to buy a home or get a car loan, but there are even more immediate benefits. For example, good credit can improve your chances of landing a job or renting an apartment.

Your credit history, detailed in your credit report and summarized by credit scores, shows how well you've handled borrowed money — and using a credit card responsibly is one of the quickest and easiest ways to build credit. Among the situations in which good credit comes in handy:

  • Borrowing money. Whether you’re applying for a credit card, car loan, personal loan, mortgage or other loan, good credit can be the difference between approval and rejection. Further, good credit can qualify you for lower interest rates, which saves you money.

  • Renting an apartment. When you submit an application to rent an apartment, the landlord may look at your credit score to gauge how likely you are to pay your rent on time.

  • Setting up utilities. Utility companies commonly check customers' credit history. If you have bad credit or no credit history, your power company or water utility might require you to pay a deposit or get a letter of guarantee from someone who agrees to pay your bill if you can't.

  • Getting hired: Depending on your profession, you might need good credit to pass an employment screening. Some employers check credit, especially for jobs that require handling other people's money.

  • Starting a business: Some creditors look at your personal credit score when you’re trying to establish business credit. If you dream of starting a business or want to keep the door open to this possibility, a good credit score can keep interest rates affordable.

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Who should apply for a student credit card

Simply being a college student isn't enough by itself to qualify for a student card. Here's what you need to know.

  • Student status might (or might not) matter. Check the card's terms and conditions on the issuer's website for application eligibility. For example, the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One does not have an explicit student requirement, while the rules for the Discover it® Student Cash Back say "You must be a college student."

  • Federal law limits who can get credit cards under age 21. Issuers are prohibited from providing cards to people under 21 unless they have proof of independent income or a co-signer — someone who agrees to be responsible for the debt if the primary cardholder doesn't pay the bill. This can be a roadblock since most major credit card issuers don’t allow co-signers.

  • Those 21 or over are also required to provide proof of income. However, they can list any income to which they have “reasonable expectation of access.”

  • Bad credit is usually a dealbreaker. Student credit cards are designed for people with little or no credit history. If you have bad credit because of missed payments or other missteps, you probably won’t qualify for a student card on your own. In that case, look to a card specifically designed for people with bad credit.

Alternatives to student cards (and options for non-students)

  • If you're under 21 and can't qualify on your own: Have a parent add you as an authorized user on one of their cards. Authorized user status can help you build a credit history. You'll get a card with your name on it that you can use for purchases, but your parent is legally responsible for the debt.

  • If you're over 21 and still have trouble qualifying: Even with a full-time income, it can be hard to qualify for a traditional credit card if you lack a credit history.

    • Some startup companies have begun offering credit cards for people with no credit or limited credit. These issuers use alternative methods to evaluate applications — looking at income, employment status and assets rather than credit history, for example.

    • Secured credit cards are another excellent option. They're easier to qualify for because they require a security deposit, which reduces the risk for credit card issuers. Use one to build a credit history, then move up to a better card. See our best secured credit cards.

  • If you can’t clear any of these hurdles and you want to start building credit: Some rent-reporting services will report your rent payments to credit bureaus for a fee. It can be more affordable than coming up with a deposit for a secured credit card. Being able to prove a good payment history might even help you qualify for a credit card in the future.

  • If you've already established credit and have independent income: Consider bypassing student cards entirely. You might qualify for a credit card that offers better rewards, a generous sign-up bonus or lower interest. If you don't yet meet the criteria for such cards, you can look forward to these options once you establish good credit.

How to compare student credit cards

Student credit cards generally don't offer the same rewards and perks as “regular” credit cards. That's OK — the main purpose of student cards is to build credit with the goal of qualifying for better cards down the line. A good student credit card will save you money and report to all three credit bureaus (more on that below); rewards on top of that are just a bonus.

Here are some factors to consider as you shop around.

Credit reporting

The student credit card you choose should report to all three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. These companies gather the information used to calculate credit scores. That's why you want your good payment history recorded by all of them. All of our recommended student cards report to all three bureaus, with the exception of the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students, which says it reports to Experian and TransUnion.

Annual fee

It’s ideal to avoid an annual fee when you're on a student budget. In addition to keeping costs low, a no-annual-fee card makes it easier to keep an account open once you build enough credit to move on to better credit cards. Without an annual fee, you can keep your original credit card open to keep the length of your credit history and benefit your credit score.

Introductory and ongoing interest rates

Cards designed for people new to credit tend to have higher interest rates, so it's best to pay your bill in full each month, which allows you to avoid paying interest entirely. However, some student cards give you an introductory 0% interest period, which can be helpful if you have a big purchase you'll need a few months to pay off.

Rewards

If you’re hoping to earn points or cash back for your spending, look for a card that offers a rewards rate of at least 1%. Some student credit cards are more generous, but 1% is a decent rate for a starter card. You’ll get more value if you choose a card whose rewards align with your spending. Some cards also offer a sign-up bonus. These incentives can potentially defray the cost of your college expenses, but only if you’re not overspending to earn them. If you do choose a student credit card with rewards, use it only for those purchases you already make within your budget.

Foreign transaction fees

Foreign transaction fees are surcharges on purchases made outside the country, usually 1% to 3% of the total amount of a transaction. That can represent a serious hit to a student budget if you're spending a full semester in a study abroad program. If you plan to travel outside the U.S., look for a student credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. Some issuers, including Discover and Capital One, don't charge these fees on any of their cards.

International acceptance

Another consideration when studying abroad is how easily you can use your credit card. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted worldwide, but American Express and especially Discover are less so.

Security deposit (for secured cards)

If you're having a hard time qualifying for a student credit card, consider a secured card. These cards require a security deposit, which is usually equal to your credit limit. Minimum deposit requirements tend to be $200 to $300, but some can be as high as $500. Pulling together the deposit can be an obstacle on a student income, so you may have to save up for it, or ask someone to help out. You get your deposit back when you close your account in good standing or upgrade to a “regular” credit card with the same issuer.  See our best secured credit cards.

Making the most of your student credit card

Once you've been approved for a credit card, you’re ready to get to work building credit. Here’s how to use your card to your advantage:

  • Buy only what you can afford. It can be tempting to charge a night out with friends, for example, when you don't have the cash on hand to cover it. But if such spending becomes a habit, it will be costly.

  • Pay on time and in full every month to avoid interest. Use your card as a tool for building good credit, not for spending money you don't have. Use it for small purchases you can afford to pay back on time and in full every month to keep your card’s grace period in effect. You’ll maintain control of your budget and save money on interest.

  • If you can’t pay your full balance, pay more than the minimum. In circumstances when it’s not possible to pay your full balance, at least pay more than the minimum amount due. You’ll make more progress toward eliminating your debt.

  • Use only a portion of your available credit. Your card might have a credit limit of, say, $1,000, but it's not wise to use the full $1,000. Keep your balance under 30% of your limit to maintain a good credit utilization ratio and protect your score. As a student, you probably won’t get a high credit limit anyway, so use your card primarily for smaller purchases.

  • Be strategic with your sign-up bonus and rewards. If your student credit card offers a sign-up bonus, planning your application around upcoming expenses can help you meet the bonus requirements without additional spending. Choosing a credit card with rewards that match your spending will also prove more fruitful for your wallet.

  • Keep your account open if possible. If your credit card doesn’t charge an annual fee, keep it open to maintain the length of your credit history and your credit score. Closing a credit card can end up hurting the score you’ve worked hard to build.

What to do with your student credit card after graduation

Once you boost your credit score into the good-to-excellent range, you're more likely to be approved for regular, non-student credit cards with richer rewards and enhanced features. After you graduate and begin working (or move on to graduate school), consider your options with your student credit card:

  • Keep using it. In most cases, you can hold onto your student card even after you graduate. If there's no annual fee on the card, there's no harm in keeping the account open and continuing to use it. However, a different card might provide better rewards or a lower interest rate.

  • Upgrade it. Ask your issuer whether you can switch your account to a different card through a so-called product change. Doing so allows you to move to a card that better suits your needs while keeping the account open. That's beneficial to your credit score because it helps preserve the length of your credit history.

  • Replace it. If you're paying an annual fee on a student card you don't plan to continue using, and the issuer won't upgrade you, you're probably better off applying for a better card and (once approved) closing the student card account.

  • Keep it — but in a drawer. If you can't (or choose not to) upgrade the card but you aren't paying an annual fee, it's smart to keep the account open even after you apply for other cards. Your credit score will benefit. Use a simple "autopay and everyday" strategy to keep your account active with one purchase — or several — throughout the year.

Last updated on April 30, 2021

Methodology

NerdWallet's Credit Cards team selects the best credit cards for college students based on overall value, as evidenced by star ratings, as well as their suitability for specific kinds of students. Factors in our evaluation include annual fees, rewards programs (both earning rates and redemption options), promotional and ongoing APRs, bonus offers for new cardholders, incentives for responsible behavior, free credit scores and other credit education, availability to applicants with thin or no credit history, and other noteworthy features such as a path to upgrade to a different product later on.

Frequently asked questions