Student Credit Cards 2019

Brendan Harkness

Author

Brendan Harkness

Updated June 12, 2019

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Student credit cards are designed for students — meaning people with limited or no credit history, and relatively low income. But before you get one, it’s important to understand how credit cards impact your credit history.

If you don’t use a credit card responsibly you could end up with lots of expensive debt, negative items on your credit reports, or both.

Many negative items, like late payments, stay on your credit reports for seven years. A bad credit history can make it hard or impossible not only to get credit cards, but also to rent an apartment, get car insurance, or get approved for smartphone financing and data plans.

If you’re new to credit cards you should inform yourself before applying. Read our Definitive Guide to Building Credit with Credit Cards to learn everything you need to know.

Best Pick For

Flexible Bonus Categories, Traveling Abroad

Why we picked this card

The Bank of America Cash Rewards™ Credit Card for Students (Review) is one of the most rewarding cards for students, with a 3% category you can customize to your liking each month.

This card is good for traveling abroad, because not only does it include travel as a potential 3% category, it also comes with Chip-and-PIN capability, making it more useful at certain terminals and automated kiosks outside the U.S. You can easily set or change your PIN online. If you’ll be traveling to foreign countries it’s often a good idea to have a PIN card in your wallet.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 3% cash back in your choice of one category every month:
    • Gas
    • Online shopping
    • Dining
    • Travel
    • Drugstores
    • Home improvement/furnishings stores
  • 2% cash back at:
    • Grocery stores
    • Wholesale clubs
  • 1% cash back for everything else
  • Spending limit: 3% and 2% rewards only up to $2,500 per quarter, then 1%
Introductory Bonus Offer
  • $200 cash rewards bonus for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days

With this flexible card you can adjust your bonus category each month to fit your expected spending. So if you’re going on a trip next month, for example, you could use the travel category to get 3% back on your airfare and hotel bookings, and even a car rental. Then, when the new month begins, you can switch your category to gas to help fuel your adventure.

Key Features & Terms

  • Bank of America Preferred Rewards: Eligible bank account holders get a 25–75% bonus on rewards earned, depending on how much money is held in BofA bank accounts.
  • Free Credit Score: Check your FICO Score 8 for free, based on your TransUnion credit report.
  • Visa Platinum or Signature benefits: Depending on creditworthiness.
  • Purchase and Balance Transfer APR: 0% for 12 months, then 16.24%–26.24%Variable
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Bank of America Cash Rewards™ Credit Card for Students.

Best Pick For

Rotating Bonus Categories

Why we picked this card

If you make a variety of purchases throughout the year (and who doesn’t?) it’s useful to have a card with a variety of bonus categories.

That’s what you’ll get from the Discover it® Student Cash Back (Review), which is probably the most rewarding student card available. Its 5% cash back categories change throughout the year, covering some pretty common student purchases. If you want a simple but rewarding card with excellent customer support, this could be the one for you.

The Discover it Student is just as rewarding as the non-student version, the Discover it® Cash Back Credit Card (Review), although some of the other terms are different.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 5% cash back on the first $1,500 spent per quarter (then 1%), in categories that rotate throughout the year (see calendar below)
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
Introductory Bonus Offer
  • Cashback Match: New cardmembers get double the cash back earned in the first year (awarded at the end of the first year)

The 5% cash back calendar for the Discover it for 2019 is:

Quarter 5% Cash Back Category
January – March Grocery Stores
April – June Gas Stations, Uber, Lyft
July – September Restaurants, PayPal
October – December Amazon.com, Target, Walmart.com

Discover’s Cashback Match means you’ll be earning a cash back equivalent of 10% in the bonus categories for the first year, and 2% for everything else. Those are excellent rates, even for non-student cards.

You’ll be limited to $1,500 per quarter for the bonus categories, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem for the average student. Are you going to spend more than $500 per month on groceries, gas, or dining out? Probably not.

Although statement credits are usually the best redemption option for cash back cards, when it comes to Discover you’ll actually get the best value from gift cards. You’ll get at least $5 added to each gift card redemption — a nice feature, but only useful if you’ll be able to utilize those gift cards.

Key Features & Terms

  • Good Grades Award: A $20 statement credit for each year in which your GPA is 3.0 or higher, for up to five years.
  • Free Credit Score: Track your FICO Score 8 over time, based on your TransUnion credit report.
  • Social Security Number Alerts: Get notified if your SSN is found on any thousands of risky websites.
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • Balance Transfer APR: 10.99% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Discover it® for Students.

Best Pick For

Buying Gas and Going Out to Eat

Why we picked this card

Gas and dining are pretty popular categories on student cards, but the the Discover it® Chrome for Students (Review) provides the best consistent rewards for those purchases.

You won’t be earning a ton of cash back with this card, which is fairly typical for student cards. But in your first year you’ll get very competitive rates for gas and dining, equal to some of the best non-student cash back cards.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 2% cash back on the first $1,000 spent per quarter (then 1%), at:
    • Gas stations
    • Restaurants
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
Introductory Bonus Offer
  • Cashback Match: New cardmembers get double the cash back earned in the first year (awarded at the end of the first year)

So this card is great in the first year, providing a 4% cash back equivalent on gas and dining, and 2% back for everything else. After that it drops to a more tame rewards program.

You’re limited to $1,000 in spending per quarter in the bonus categories, which means you can earn a maximum of $40 cash back per quarter at the 4% rate in the first year. After the first year you can earn up to $20 cash back per quarter at the 2% rate.

You could earn more than that in a given quarter with the runners up below, but the Discover it Chrome for Students is the only option to offer both of these categories year-round. The Bank of America Cash Rewards for Students has a 3% category, and you could choose gas or dining for that, but only one at a time. And the Discover it Student will offer 5% back for gas, but only for one quarter out the year.

Like the Discover it Student card, the most valuable redemption method here is for gift cards, which will get at least $5 added to their value. But this option isn’t as useful if you can’t use those gift cards for purchases you were already going to make.

Key Features & Terms

  • Good Grades Reward: A $20 statement credit for each year that your GPA is 3.0 or higher, for up to five years.
  • Free Credit Score: Track your FICO Score 8 over time, based on your TransUnion credit report.
  • Social Security Number Alerts: Get notified if your SSN is found on any thousands of risky websites.
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • Balance Transfer APR: 10.99% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Discover it® Chrome for Students.

 

Runners Up

Key Features & Terms

  • 3% cash back in your choice of one category every month:
    • Gas
    • Online shopping
    • Dining
    • Travel
    • Drugstores
    • Home improvement/furnishings stores
  • 2% cash back at Grocery stores and Wholesale clubs
  • $150 cash bonus for spending $500 in the first 3 months
  • Spending limit: 3% and 2% categories are limited to the first $2,500 in combined spending per quarter (then 1%).
  • Purchase and Balance Transfer APR: 0% for 12 months, then 16.24%–26.24%Variable (for transfers made during the first 60 days)
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Bank of America Cash Rewards™ Credit Card for Students.

 

Key Features & Terms

  • 5% cash back in rotating categories (usually including gas and dining), up to $1,500 spent per quarter (then 1%)
  • Cashback Match: New cardmembers get double the cash back earned in the first year (awarded at the end of the first year).
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • Balance Transfer APR: 10.99% for 6 months, then 15.24%–24.24% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Discover it® for Students.

Best Pick For

Flat-Rate Cash Back

Why we picked this card

Flat-rate credit cards provide the same rate for every purchase, making them excellent choices to fill in the gaps between the bonus categories of other cards.

You might have cards with good bonus categories for groceries and gas, but what about those random Walmart and corner store purchases? That’s where flat-rate cards come in handy.

The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® (Review) is the best flat-rate card for students. As long as you pay on time (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll be earning almost as much cash back as the typical non-student flat-rate card, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited® (Review) which provides 1.5% back.

The Journey Student also provides a higher credit line after you make the first five payments on time. That extra spending capacity should be very useful on a student card, which usually comes with a fairly low credit limit.

Anyone can apply for the Journey Student Rewards card — it isn’t limited to students, despite the name.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 1% cash back on every purchase
    • 1.25% cash back when you pay on time

Key Features & Terms

  • Higher Credit Line: Access a higher credit line after making your first five monthly payments on time.
  • CreditWise: Monitor your VantageScore 3.0 based on your TransUnion credit report with Capital One’s CreditWise tool (available online or through a mobile app).
  • Shopping and Travel Protections: Including Extended Warranties, Travel and Emergency Assistance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waivers, and more.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®.

 

Runner Up

Key Features & Terms

  • A better chance of approval because Deserve checks factors like education and income potential
  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • Limited 12-month Priority Pass Select membership for spending $1,000 in 122 or 155 days; $27 fee per lounge visit (offer for select applicants and cardholders only)
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Deserve Edu Mastercard.

Take note that Deserve will need to connect to your bank account to verify your balance. If you have privacy or security concerns this might worry you, but it seems reasonable because Deserve bases its decision on more than just an applicant’s credit history.
We're currently unable to link directly to an application for this card.

Learn more about Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® »

Best Pick For

International Students, No SSN Required

Why we picked this card

The Deserve Edu Mastercard (Review) is good for international students because it doesn’t require a Social Security number to apply. Deserve will also check more than the usual credit history factors when you apply, like your education and future employability, giving you a better chance of approval than most cards.

So, if you’re arriving in the U.S. to study and you don’t have an SSN this may be one of the few cards available to you. International students will need to provide proof of a U.S. bank account and copies of their student visas, passport IDs, and school documents.

Take note that Deserve will need to connect to your bank account to verify your balance. If you have privacy or security concerns this might worry you, but it seems reasonable because Deserve bases its decision on more than just an applicant’s credit history.

Rewards

Spending Rewards
  • 1% cash back on all purchases
Introductory/Existing Cardholder Bonus Offer
  • 12-month Priority Pass Select membership for spending $1,000 in 120 or 155 days (offer available to select applicants and cardholders only)
    • Lounge visits cost $27 per person 

Key Features & Terms

  • One Free Year of Amazon Prime Student: A $59 statement credit for an Amazon Prime Student membership.
  • Lemonade Insurance Rebate: A $10 statement credit after making three consecutive payments for Lemonade Renters and Home Insurance.
  • Feather Furniture Rental Rebate: A $100 statement credit for your first month’s payment to Feather, when using code “DESERVE100”.
  • Shopping and Travel Protections: Including Cell Phone Insurance up to $600, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waivers, Price Protection, and more.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee: $0

Read more in our Review of the Deserve Edu Mastercard.

Is a Student Credit Card Right for You?

Student cards are special credit card products that are usually only available to students enrolled in college or university. They’re designed for people with little to no credit history, which is common among college students who haven’t had many opportunities to establish credit yet.

Don’t assume that you need to get a student credit card just because you’re a student — it’s possible to get other cards with little or no credit, like secured credit cards which require a refundable security deposit. But you may also qualify for some of the best cash back or travel rewards credit cards, especially if you have established some credit already.

You may be surprised at some of the cards you qualify for, especially if you have any experience paying back loans, like student or auto loans. Check to see if you’re pre-qualified for any credit cards — it’s free and it won’t hurt your credit.

Selection Criteria: What Makes a Great Student Credit Card?

The best credit cards for students will build credit while costing you nothing, and actually saving you a bit of money through rewards and benefits. Here are some things to consider for your first credit card:

  • Annual fee: If you’re new to credit cards you should probably start with a card without an annual fee. Paying an annual fee can often be worth it when you’re getting good rewards and perks, but if you’re just getting started you should stick to the basics and find a card you can keep forever to help build credit, without a fee to worry about justifying. Luckily, student credit cards don’t usually have annual fees.
  • Rewards program: Many student cards have solid rewards programs to let you earn cash back or points on common purchases. Look for a student card that will reward you for the types of purchases you make the most.
  • Extra benefits: Most credit cards come with extra benefits, like extended warranties on purchases. These usually aren’t major deciding factors for most people, but you should still look over the benefits of any card you’re considering to learn how to make the most of it.
  • Free credit monitoring service: Many credit card issuers today offer free credit monitoring tools, which are very useful for anyone working to build up his or her credit. The major card issuers all provide either FICO or VantageScore credit scores, based on one of your three credit reports. In either case you can monitor that score and learn how to improve your credit over time.
  • Interest rate: NOT! We recommend you always pay your statement balance in full every month (unless you have a 0% intro APR). If you do this the interest rate doesn’t matter for purchases, since most credit cards provide a grace period and won’t charge any interest as long as you pay in full each month. Sometimes emergencies happen and you might have to carry a balance, but in that case you should pay it off aggressively to get back to being interest-free.
  • Ability to study abroad: Will you be traveling outside the country to further your education and broaden your horizons? Check out the Best Credit Cards for Studying Abroad, which don’t have foreign transaction fees and, in some cases, come with Chip-and-PIN capability.

Why Building Credit Is Important for Students

Credit history can have a big impact on your future. Your credit history is important for getting credit cards and loans, but can also influence things like renting an apartment, getting insurance, or even getting a job.

As you start out your credit-building journey, you could go one of three ways:

1. Make Credit Mistakes

With no credit history established and little-to-no understanding of how credit works, it’s easy to rack up debt or do major damage to your credit history that can last for years.

For example, let’s say you apply for a store credit card, but you don’t understand how paying the bill works. So you end up spending up to the credit limit on that card, and then you only pay the minimum due, which costs you a lot of money in interest. Then you pay two months late, resulting in a negative item on your credit reports that will last seven years.

Frustrated, you pay off the card and close it, ending the life of an account that could have been your key to a long average account age. Now, several years later, you want to rent an apartment. But no landlords will rent to you because of your poor credit scores.

People make these types of mistakes every day, but if you arm yourself with the knowledge of how credit works you don’t have to end up like them.

2. Avoid Credit Completely

It might be appealing to avoid credit cards. You might pay cash or use your debit card for everything. Maybe you even think you’re building credit when you choose “credit” for a debit card purchase (you’re not).

For some people, who can’t control their spending, it might make sense to avoid credit cards. But time is valuable in your credit history. If you later decide you want to improve your credit, you’ve missed out on years that could have been spent building positive credit records.

3. Build Credit Responsibly

You learn how credit reports and credit scores work, and how credit cards and other types of loans impact your credit. You know that building credit doesn’t have to cost you any money at all, and that it’s possible to build credit without being in debt.

You use this information to start building a positive credit history now. This puts you in great shape for the future and ahead of your peers who, possibly unknowingly, took paths #1 or #2.

Ready to Get Started?

It’s not hard to get started down path #3. If you’re a student you may already have student loans, and possibly auto loans too. As long as you’ve been paying those on time you’ve likely already started building a positive credit history. But there’s more to it than just paying bills on time.

Start Here: The Definitive Guide to Building Credit with Credit Cards

We’ve put together this comprehensive guide that covers how to build credit, and specifically how credit cards help you do that. Once you read the guide, feel free to email us with any questions you have and someone from the team will get back to you right away.

The Biggest Credit Mistakes That Students Make

Here are a few common mistakes students make with credit cards. If you’ve read our guide to building credit with credit cards, you’ll understand why all of these are big mistakes. If you haven’t, go read the guide now!

Getting Credit Cards Without Understanding How They Work

While there is some mystery around credit approval and credit scoring, because the companies involved use proprietary methods, there is nothing mysterious about using credit cards responsibly.

Credit cards are deceptively easy to get and to use, but they are serious financial tools that will affect your life. There is no licensing process that requires you to pass a test proving you are knowledgeable enough to use a credit card, like there is for cars; It’s up to you to inform yourself about the benefits and hazards of credit cards.

Carrying Debt

According to a survey by Fidelity, 25% of students who graduated in 2013 carried credit card debt with them, at an average of $3,000 per graduate. This is very high, especially considering that most students (70%) who graduated that year also left with student loan debt, at an average of over $35,000.

Carrying high balances on your credit cards doesn’t just cost you money. If your balances are high relative to your credit limits, that can have a strong short-term negative impact on your credit scores.

We recommend paying off your credit card statement balance in full each month by the due date. If you need help understanding how credit card bills work and how much you should pay, read our guide to paying a credit card. You should always consider a credit card purchase as being made with your own money that you have in your possession right now, which leads to the next mistake.

Buying Things They Can’t Afford

Credit cards can increase impulse spending, giving some people the urge to spend money they don’t have. That’s exactly what a revolving credit limit allows someone to do.

The first way to combat this tendency is to be aware of it. Next, think of your credit card as being intimately linked to your bank account: Do you have enough money in your bank account right now to pay for this purchase you’re considering?

You may even consider paying your bill every week, which is fine with most credit card issuers. You’ll be able to keep any eye on how much you’re spending week-to-week compared to how much cash you have available to pay your bill, so you can make spending adjustments for the next month, if necessary.

Paying Only the Minimum Payments

Every month you’ll get a statement from your credit card issuer detailing the previous month’s activity. The statement will show you the full amount you owe (statement balance) as well as a “minimum payment” or “minimum due” amount, which is usually rather small, around 1–5% of what you owe.

It’s a mistake to think you can pay just the minimum amount each month and be worry-free. Your bank will likely be very happy if you only pay the minimum, though, because you’ll be paying them a lot of extra money in interest.

The bank is not on your side with the minimum monthly payment calculation. That number is not the bank telling you how much you should pay. It’s only the minimum amount they’re willing to accept to keep your account in good standing. The remaining balance will accrue interest each month with most credit cards, which will end up costing you a lot of extra money in the long run.

We recommend always paying your statement balance in full every billing period. This will let you completely avoid interest on purchases, and it will be good for your credit utilization too.

Cosigning for Students

Although there are student credit cards available, you may be approached by your child to be a cosigner.

Should you do it? Take the following points into consideration before signing on the dotted line (or clicking the final submit button).

The Debt Will Be Your Responsibility

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that you’re just helping your child acquire a credit card. By cosigning, you’re assuming responsibility for the debt along with your child.

If your child stops paying, you’ll have to fork over the money. Are you willing and able to do that? Think long and hard about it before proceeding.

Your Child’s Activity Could Negatively Impact Your Credit

When you cosign for a student credit card you’re exposing yourself to some serious financial risk.

A single late or missed payment can have disastrous results when it comes to your credit rating. If your child isn’t responsible with her card, her credit won’t just be affected: yours will be too.

Is Your Child Really Ready?

You know your child better than anyone. Is she really ready for the responsibility that goes along with an unsecured credit card?

Just because she’s a college student now, that doesn’t mean she’ll magically be responsible. Is your child responsible in other areas of her life, or does she let things slide?

You Should Be Involved

If you’re going to cosign for a student credit card, you should be willing to take an active role in the situation.

As long as you approach the matter as a way to teach your child how to use credit cards responsibly, it could end up being a good thing. For that to happen, though, you need to be willing to monitor the situation and supervise accordingly. And of course, you need to be well-versed in how to build credit with credit cards yourself!

Tips for Using Student Credit Cards

Before cosigning for your child’s credit card, help her find the best one for her lifestyle and financial situation.

It should probably have a low credit limit to reduce the risk of overspending (you can lower your credit line by contacting customer support). Look for a card that has a low introductory rate and no annual fee.

Arrange to have the statements sent to your home, or monitor the account online to supervise your child’s activity. If things don’t go well you can always have the account closed. Or, better yet, you can work out a solution to keep the card open with only enough activity to keep it from being closed for inactivity, by making a small purchase once every few months.

Alternative Options

There are other ways to help your child build a strong credit history. Instead of jumping right in and cosigning for a credit card, you could help your child get a secured credit card instead. Or you could let her be an authorized user on one of your own credit cards, either with or without her own account access.

There are also credit builder loans, a solid way to build credit outside of credit cards.

Over time she’ll build up her own good credit, and, if all goes well, eventually she’ll be able to qualify for the best credit cards on the market.

Laws in Place to Protect Students from Predatory Marketing

If you’re under 21, there are laws in place that may make it more difficult for you to get a credit card. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (informally referred to as the “CARD Act”) helps protect students and consumers under the age of 21 from fraud. That said, there are certain rules and exceptions that allow teenagers to get credit cards.

Credit card issuers must now:

  • Obtain proof of income before issuing a credit card to consumers under 21 years of age. If you don’t have an income, a credit card cosigner is required in order for the application to be approved. If you’re looking to get a credit card without a co-signer and you’re under 21, one option is to simply get a job so you can have your own proof of income. Another option is to become an authorized user on someone else’s card, which can help you build credit using an existing credit card account so you don’t have to apply on your own or provide proof of income.
  • Obtain prior consent before sending pre-approved credit card offers to anyone under the age of 21.
  • Obtain written permission to increase credit limits on accounts with co-signers for accountholders under the age of 21.
  • Cease all predatory lending practices and aggressive marketing tactics on or near college campuses.

More Student Resources

You’re not limited to student credit cards just because you’re a student, although you’ll probably have the best chance of approval with them. Check out The Best Credit Cards for some great cards in other categories.
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