The Best Credit Cards for Students (and Why Students Need One)

Establishing credit while in school can help you create the money habits you need for future financial security.
Last updated Dec 20, 2019 | By Ashley Chorpenning
girl with a student credit card

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Do you dream about buying your first home or finding your dream job? If so, having a good credit score increases your chances of achieving these goals. A good credit score not only could help you qualify for a loan and land a job, but it can also help you save money and qualify for the best interest rates.

Building credit at an early age can help ease the financial transition from the life of a student into an adult lifestyle. Your credit plays a big role in your financial health and well-being — and credit cards can play a key role in helping you build that credit.

So, if you’re a student and want to start building credit, here are the important things to know, as well as our picks for the best student credit cards.

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Why it’s important to build credit as a student

Having good credit can impact several areas of your life, including your employment status (some employers will check your credit score); the price you pay for services, such as your phone bill; your likelihood to be approved for a mortgage; and more.

Here are a few things having a great credit score can help you accomplish:

  • Rental approval
  • Lower utility bill costs
  • Loan approvals
  • Lower interest rates
  • Lower insurance premium payment amounts
  • Credit card approval
  • Career advancement

While it’s tempting to wait until after college to start building credit, you may want to begin as soon as possible. Length of credit history is an important factor in your credit score. Length of credit history takes into account how long you've had credit and the average age of all your accounts. Establishing a credit history early can help you ace this part of your credit score.

Opening your first credit card as a student is a great way to establish your credit early, as long as you can commit to making your monthly payments on time and in full. (Payment history is another important factor in your credit score.) Credit card companies know that many students want to work toward financial security, so many of them offer credit cards tailored to those students.

Can a student apply for a credit card?

The short answer is yes. There are plenty of credit card options geared toward students’ needs. These student credit cards can be great financial tools to help young adults build their credit history. Some even come with financial education tools and resources that aid in the development of positive financial habits. Some cards also come with rewards programs, good-grade incentives, protection options, and other perks customized for students.

But, since many students are just beginning their credit journey, each card may have its own set of qualifications in order to apply. These can include age restrictions, proof of income, or a cosigner requirement. Additionally, some credit card companies may require all applicants to be enrolled in a qualifying higher education institution, while others may not have such strict conditions.

Here are our top picks for student credit cards

Card Annual Fee Rewards Program Other Key Benefits
Discover it Student Cash Back $0 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter on up to $1,500 in purchases, and 1% cash back on all other purchases Good for someone who loves the flexibility of different reward options every quarter
Discover it Chrome for Students $0 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, up to $1000 per quarter; and 1% automatic cash back on all other purchases Good for students with good grades and who enjoy road trips
Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® $0 1% cash back on all purchases and 1.25% cash back each month you make an on-time monthly payment Good for responsible students who can capitalize on the rewards increase for paying their payments on time
Citi Rewards+ Student Card $0 2X points on supermarkets and gas stations for first $6,000 in purchases each year, and 1X points on all other purchases Good for students who commute to class and grocery shop every week
Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card $0 3% cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases (up to $2,500) for the first 6 months; and 1% cash back on all other purchases Good for loyal Wells Fargo customers

Discover it Student Cash Back

This card is gunning to be the valedictorian of the student credit card category. The Discover it Student Cash Back boasts an incredible cashback reward rate of up to 5% cash back, a lucrative first-year rewards match, and even an incentive for good grades.

Each quarter the Discover it Student Cash Back card features different categories that earn 5% cash back. These rotating can categories include gas stations, restaurants, and even Amazon.com. The Discover bonus category calendar is released far in advance, so it’s easy to plan for. And here’s the kicker: you’ll also automatically get an unlimited dollar-for-dollar match of any cash back you've earned at the end of the first year. That means you’ll double all the rewards you earn on the bonus categories for the first year you have this card!

Plus, you’ll get a $20 statement credit for each year your GPA is above 3.0. You’ll go right to the head of the class with this card in your wallet. So, whether you already have a few credit cards or are looking for your very first card, the $0 annual fee Discover it Student Cash Back card could be a good choice.

Cash Back for Those New to Credit

Discover it Student Cash Back

Discover it Student Cash Back

Discover it Student Cash Back

Benefits

  • 0% intro APR on purchases
  • 5% cash back in rotating bonus categories quarterly
  • Matched cash back at the end of your first year
  • $20 statement credit each year for 3.0 GPA or higher
  • No annual fee

Discover it Chrome for Students

Does most of your monthly spending on a card go toward gas and restaurants? If the answer is yes, the Discover it Chrome for Students may be the perfect card for you.

This card is similar to the Discover it Student Cash Back card because it has a $0 annual fee, earns a generous cashback match for the first full year, and even earns the $20 Good Grade Reward for a GPA over 3.0.

But there’s one key difference to consider when deciding which Discover it Student card is right for you. The Discover it Chrome for Students earns a straightforward 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, up to $1000 per quarter; and 1% automatic cash back on all other purchases. You don’t have to worry about rotating categories each quarter.

Earn Cash Back for Good Grades

Discover it Chrome for Students

Discover it Chrome for Students

Discover it Chrome for Students

Benefits

  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months
  • Up to 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations
  • $20 statement credit each year for 3.0 GPA or higher
  • No annual fee

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

If you’re looking for a great starter credit card to responsibly build your credit, the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One card is worth a look. It has a $0 annual fee and pays a flat cashback reward rate on all purchases, with no rotating categories to worry about. But, it gets better.

As you’re getting accustomed to paying a monthly credit card bill, the Journey Student Rewards card has a great incentive to help you remember to pay on time. You will earn 1% cash back on all purchases and 1.25% cash back each month you make an on-time monthly payment.

You can get your cash back put right back onto your card as a statement credit, or you can request a check. Capital One even allows you to choose a specific threshold ($50, $100, $150, etc.) and they’ll automatically mail you a check once you hit that amount in cash back.

Extra Cash Back for Paying On Time

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Benefits

  • Earn 1% cash back on all purchases
  • Boost cash back to 1.25% with on-time payments
  • No annual fee
  • CreditWise from Capital One for credit monitoring

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Unlike many student credit cards, the Citi Rewards+ Student Card doesn’t earn cash back. Instead, this card earns ThankYou Points. ThankYou Points can be redeemed for gift cards or for booking travel directly through the Citibank portal.

This card comes with a healthy bonus offer where you can earn 2,500 bonus points after $500 in purchases in the first 3 months. Since ThankYou Points are generally considered to be worth one cent each, that’s not a bad bonus from a $0 annual fee card — especially considering not all student cards offer welcome bonuses at all. 

In addition, you’ll earn 2X points on supermarkets and gas stations for first $6,000 in purchases each year, and 1X points on all other purchases. Plus, your points will be rounded up to the nearest 10 points on every purchase with no limit. This unique “round up” feature is great for when you make small purchases, and it helps you get back even more from your everyday spending. Finally, you’ll also get 10% of the first 100,000 points you redeem each year added back into your account.

A+ Cash Back for Students

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Benefits

  • 2,500 ThankYou Point welcome offer
  • 2X ThankYou Points at supermarkets and gas stations
  • 10% ThankYou Points back for the first 100,000 redeemed per year
  • Automatically rounds up to the nearest 10 points on each purchase
  • No annual fee

Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card

If you already have a Wells Fargo checking or savings account, the Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card could be a great option for you. (If you don’t have an account with Wells Fargo already and still want this card, you’ll just have to go into a branch to apply instead of online.) The card is designed for students who want to build a good credit history and earn some rewards along the way.

As an introductory bonus, the card will earn 3% cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases (up to $2,500) for the first 6 months; and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Though it doesn’t have the highest earning power compared to other student cards, the Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card does have a few interesting benefits. Cardholders can access a set of Wells Fargo apps called Money Map. These apps are great for new credit users, and the detailed views of My Spending Report and Budget Watch will help you keep track of your finances.

The Cash Back College Card also offers a unique benefit of cell phone protection. If you pay your monthly cell bill with your Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card, you’ll get up to $600 protection on your phone.

Great Cash Back Rewards

Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card

Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card

Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card

Benefits

  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 6 months
  • 3% intro cash rewards on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases
  • No annual fee

How to compare student credit cards

Comparing credit cards is a bit of a challenge. With all of the options available, how do you find a suitable credit card for your needs? We’ve broken down some of the important factors to consider when deciding which card is right for you.

Annual fee

Some credit cards come with an annual fee. Credit cards typically charge this fee in exchange for extra rewards and perks or because the borrower has bad credit. This fee is added to your bill and may gather interest if it isn’t paid in full each month. While many credit card annual fees are under $100, some can range higher.

If you’re considering a card with a fee, decide if the extra benefits outweigh the costs. Or, if you have poor credit and can’t get approved for another card, the fee may be worth it in order to build credit.

Reports to all 3 credit bureaus

There are three primary credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — that store and gather your financial data. Lenders use this information to determine if they’re willing to lend you money for a house or car — or for you to open a credit account.

Almost all major credit cards report to all three bureaus on at least a monthly basis. Still, it's a good idea to check your credit score regularly to make sure your card and payments are being reported correctly. Since the purpose of a student credit card is to establish and build credit, you want to ensure your good credit history is properly documented. You can easily check your credit score for free through a service like Credit Karma.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best credit card for a college student with no credit?

Many college students have limited or no credit history. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get approved for a student credit card. The best card for you depends on many factors, like the categories you spend the most money on, your current credit history, and how much effort you want to spend maximizing categories. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there is a great student credit card for nearly everyone.

Can I get a student credit card without a job?

Yes! It is possible to get a credit card without a job — with some stipulations. Generally, you must be at least 18 years of age to apply for a credit card and if you’re under 21 you’ll need to provide proof of your financial assets or income. Otherwise, you’ll need to have a parent, guardian, or another trusted adult co-sign on the credit card for you.

What's a good credit score for a college student?

The FICO score is the most commonly used metric to rate credit. According to the FICO scale, a “good” credit rating is between 670-739 for anyone, including students.

How can a college student build credit?

Your credit score is determined by factors like how long your credit history is, how much of your currently available credit line you are utilizing, and your payment history. It can seem like a bit of a Catch-22 to build your credit history if no one will give you credit because you don’t have a history! If you have no credit and need a place to start to build your score, consider getting added to someone else’s card as an authorized user.

Can I get a student credit card if I just graduated

Usually not. Each credit card issuer requires proof that you’re enrolled in school, but each also has different definitions. For some cards you must provide proof you’re attending a 2- or 4-year college, while others only check to make sure you meet the income and credit minimums. If you already have a student card when you graduate, some issuers will allow you to keep your student card, but others require that you change to a different card or upgrade your card once you’re no longer a student.

Can you use a student credit card for anything?

You can use a student card to pay anyone or any vendor who accepts credit cards. But, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. For example, it may not always be the best idea to pay your student loans with a credit card.

Practicing good financial habits is critical to building good credit and not getting yourself into crippling debt at a young age. Always plan to pay your balance in full each month, especially since student credit cards can often have higher interest rates.


Extra Cash Back for Paying On Time

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Benefits

  • Earn 1% cash back on all purchases
  • Boost cash back to 1.25% with on-time payments
  • No annual fee
  • CreditWise from Capital One for credit monitoring