A Complete Guide to Student Credit Cards

Everything you need to know about student credit cards. Learn how to find the best deal possible

Getting your first credit card can be an exciting event, but it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. Student credit cards can help you build credit long before you actually need it, but they don’t offer the same type of benefits as other personal credit cards.

Student credit cards generally have a low credit limit and don’t offer many rewards. However, they are a great starting point to build your credit.

Also, it can be hard to qualify for one, even if you’re at school. Before you start applying for student credit cards, this guide will help you learn everything you need to know about them and how to pick the right one.

What are student credit cards?

Student credit cards are designed specifically for college students who don’t already have a credit card. They generally don’t require you to have a credit history, and some even offer incentives for you to learn how to manage credit responsibly or to get good grades.

Before the Credit Card Act of 2009 was passed, credit card issuers set up booths and gave away free T-shirts, pizza, and other prizes to students just to sign up for a credit card. The issuers didn’t even check to see if the students had the means to make payments.

Now, credit card issuers aren’t allowed to market to students within 1,000 feet of a college campus, and students under 21 need to either prove they have enough independent income or have a cosigner.

Student credit cards are generally unsecured, which means that you don’t need to put up a deposit to get approved. Students can, however, apply for a secured credit card if they can’t get approved for an unsecured student credit card.

Why it’s wise to start building credit in college

Your credit score is one of the most important aspects of your financial health and is based on the information — also known as your credit history — found in your credit reports with the three national credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Your credit score is a good indicator of your ability and willingness to repay your debts responsibly.

Whenever you apply for a loan or credit card in the future — and that’s likely going to be a lot if you want to buy a house, a car, or some other major purchase — lenders will look at your credit score to determine whether to approve your application.

The better your credit score, the lower your interest rate will be relative to the loan or credit card you’re applying for.

Even if you never borrow money, a bad credit score can hurt your chances of getting a job, getting into an apartment, or qualifying for a cheaper rate on your car insurance.

As a result, the sooner you start building a positive credit history, the better. By using a student credit card while you’re in college, you can build your credit to the point where you can qualify for loans and better credit cards as soon as you graduate.

How to qualify for a student credit card

As a college student, it’s unlikely that you have an established credit history. So, the main concern credit card issuers have is that you have the ability to repay any debts you incur with a student credit card. As such, your income is an important factor.

While credit card issuers don’t publicly share their minimum income requirements, they’re generally looking for part-time or full-time income. The type of income you can claim varies depending on how old you are.

For example, if you’re under 21, you can only report independent income, including:

  • Personal income
  • Regular allowances from parents or other sources
  • Scholarships and grants

Once you’re 21, however, your list of possibilities expands:

  • Personal income
  • Regular allowances and gifts
  • Scholarships and grants
  • Income from a spouse or partner
  • Trust fund distributions
  • Retirement fund distributions
  • Social Security distributions

Note that student loans aren’t on either list. Student loans are debt, not income, so avoid including those when you apply for a credit card.

Also, note that you need to be at least 18 years old to get approved for a credit card on your own; this is the legal age at which you can enter into a contract.

If you can’t get approved for a student credit card on your own, you can ask a parent or other trusted family member to cosign an application with you. Just keep in mind that not all credit card issuers allow cosigners.

In fact, of the top nine major credit card issuers, only three allow cosigners: Bank of America, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo.

If you decide to apply with a cosigner, make sure to ask someone who has a good track record with credit cards and a solid credit history.

How to pick the right student credit card

There are several student credit cards to choose from, and there’s no single best one of the bunch. So, it’s important to know what to look for to make sure that you find the one that suits you best. Here are some features to consider.

No annual fee

There’s a reason for the term “starving student,” and you shouldn’t have to pay an annual fee on a credit card. Most of the top student credit cards don’t charge them, so if you find one that does, skip it and move onto the next one.

No foreign transaction fee

If you have plans to study abroad, you’ll definitely want a student credit card with no foreign transaction fees. The problem is that most credit cards, let alone student credit cards, charge them. The typical foreign transaction fee is 3% of every purchase you make overseas.

Rewards

Not all student credit cards offer rewards, but some of them do. As you compare credit cards, look at how their reward programs are structured. For example, is there a sign-up bonus? How do they reward you for your purchases? Some offer just a flat rewards rate on everything you buy and others offer bonus rewards for certain purchases.

Other incentives

Some student credit cards offer bonus rewards if you use your card responsibly or get good grades. Others may offer to increase your credit limit if you make your payments on time for a certain number of months. The key thing to understand with credit cards is you must make their payments on time.

As you compare different cards, look for these incentives that could make your life easier.

Credit monitoring tools

Most major credit card issuers offer free access to your FICO credit score, and some go the extra mile and share the different factors that influence your score. This type of tool can be invaluable as you improve your credit and learn what activities impact your credit score.

5 tips for using a student credit card responsibly

Just having a student credit card won’t magically improve your credit score. It’s important for you to know what factors affect your FICO credit score and what you can do about each.

1) Payment history (35%)

While your payment history is the most influential factor in your credit score, it’s one of the easiest to get right. Simply make your monthly payment on time every month. It’s that simple. And if you want to avoid paying interest — which we highly recommend — pay off your balance in full each month before the due date. That way you can build your credit without ever paying a cent in interest.

2) Amounts owed (30%)

This factor is a little trickier than the first one. It has to do with your credit utilization, which is calculated by dividing your credit card balance by your credit limit. It’s generally recommended to keep your credit utilization as low as possible. But a good rule of thumb is to keep it below 30%. So, if you have a credit limit of $500, keep that balance below $150.

3) Length of credit history (15%)

The longer you use credit responsibly, the better it is for your credit score. So, the sooner you get a student credit card and start using it responsibly, the more time you’ll have to build a solid credit history.

4) Credit mix (10%)

Lenders like to see different types of credit on your credit report –– for example, a credit card, a mortgage, an auto loan, student loans, etc. The idea is that, if you can manage multiple types of credit responsibly, you’re a good borrower.

We recommend avoiding taking out new debt just to build credit. But if you’re already taking out student loans, adding a student credit card can improve your overall credit mix.

5) New credit (10%)

Every time you apply for credit, the lender makes a hard inquiry on your credit report. These inquiries stay on your credit report for two years and can knock a few points off your score. If you apply for a lot of credit in a short period, it can come off as desperate. So, avoid applying for credit unless you absolutely have to.

Student credit card alternatives

If you’re interested in getting a student credit card, you can compare the top options using SuperMoney’s student credit card review page.

If, however, you’re having a tough time getting approved on your own or with a cosigner, another option is to get added as an authorized user on a parents account. By doing this, you get all the benefits of their account history without the liability for the card’s charges.

Another other option is a secured credit card. This type of card allows you to build your credit, but you must make a deposit for your credit limit. That deposit is typically at least $200.

This is another way to prove that you will make your payments on time, and from here, you can upgrade to a standard unsecured card. And it can be worth it to start building a credit history.

WEIGH THE PROS AND CONS

Although student credit cards can be a great idea for some, they're not for everyone. Be sure to consider both the benefits and drawbacks before applying for a card.

Pros
  • Can help you build credit
  • Many allow you to earn credit card rewards
  • Can help you develop good credit habits
  • Can help you learn how to budget
  • Typically don't charge annual fees
Cons
  • Typically charge high interest rates
  • Typically offer low credit limits
  • Could tempt you to overspend
  • Could hurt your credit if you don't use it responsibly

How to choose the best student credit card

There are several student credit cards to choose from, so it's important to know what to look for when comparing them. Here are some features to look for.

  • No annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fees 
  • Rewards and other incentives
  • Free access to credit monitoring tools

Choose which features are most important to you and use SuperMoney's credit card comparison tool to filter out the credit cards that meet your requirements.

How to qualify for a student credit card

  • Wait till you are 18
  • Get a source of income (see above for details on what counts as income)
  • Find a card you qualify for
  • If you struggle to qualify for a student credit card consider getting a cosigner
  • Consider the key features of student credit cards
  • Compare fees and rates before choosing