In the bad old days, credit card issuers used to set up tables on college campuses, giving out free T-shirts or Frisbees if students signed on the dotted line to get a student credit card. This kind of easy access to credit was great for some, but it got many young people into debt. Financial reform mostly put an end to these practices, and students — indeed all adults under age 21 — now have a much tougher time getting approved for a credit card.
If you’re ready to apply for a credit card and begin building credit, here’s what you should know.
Age and income requirements
IF YOU’RE UNDER 21
It is technically possible to get a credit card on your own, but issuers will require you to have an independent income, which most college students do not have. If you’re under 21 and don’t have your own income, you will need a parent or another trusted adult to co-sign for you on a credit card application.
IF YOU’RE OVER 21
Credit card restrictions are not as tight once you pass your 21st birthday. You’ll still need to demonstrate that you have income, because issuers want to know that you can pay back what you spend. But you can include any income to which you have reasonable access, such as the income of a partner or spouse.
Other options for building credit
If you don’t have any credit history at all, it can be very difficult to get approved for your first credit card. Here are a few strategies that can help you clear that hurdle.
APPLY FOR A SECURED CREDIT CARD
These cards require you to put down a deposit that’s usually equal to your credit limit. But if you make a small purchase on the card every month and pay the bill on time and in full, you’ll be able to build a positive credit history. Eventually you’ll be able to get an unsecured credit card.
GET A CO-SIGNER
If you get someone else to co-sign for you, that person’s income and credit history are used to determine eligibility. However, if you misuse the credit card, your co-signer’s credit history could suffer. Co-signing a credit card for someone else requires a lot of trust.
BECOME AN AUTHORIZED USER
Authorized user status is different from getting a co-signer. As an authorized user, you’ll have a credit card with your name on it, but it will be tied to someone else’s credit card account. If that person uses his or her credit card wisely, it will reflect well on your credit history.
MOVE OFF CAMPUS
If you live on campus, your housing costs won’t help you build credit. But if you rent an apartment or house, you can ask your landlord to report your rent payments to the credit bureaus. That’s enough to give you a credit file, which is better than having no credit history at all.
Many landlords are leery of tenants who don’t have a credit history at all. Even if your parents can’t co-sign for a credit card, they may be willing to co-sign your lease. That may help you get approved for a rental.
If you can’t get approved for a credit card
Having a debit card tied to your bank account will give you the ability to pay with plastic. Debit cards don’t help you build credit, but they still free you up from having to carry cash everywhere.
But if you can begin to build credit while you’re still in school, it’s worth the effort. Having good credit will smooth your path once you’re out of school. It can make it easier to get a job, rent an apartment, get insurance and utilities — all of which you’re likely to need once your student days are behind you.
This article was updated June 28, 2016. It was originally published April 21, 2011.