Studying abroad is an exciting experience for students everywhere, allowing them to explore different cultures while also seeing the world (with a few college classes tucked in there somewhere). You’ll need to do a few important things before you go, though — one of which is finding the best credit card for studying abroad.
Whether you charge every purchase or never leave home without cash, a credit card is an essential tool to keep on-hand while studying in another country. The right one will not only provide you with valuable benefits but also protect you financially while you are away.
Why you should bring a credit card to study abroad
No matter what type of spender you are, bringing a good credit card along when you study abroad is important. In fact, there are a few key reasons you should never leave home without one.
Your money is safe and secure
Spending with a credit card affords you certain fraud protections that you may not find when spending with a debit card or cash. If your card number is compromised or your wallet is stolen, your credit card issuer will be able to handle the situation. The same cannot be said if you were to lose cash or even a debit card.
Foreign currency is easier
Using a travel credit card can simplify your purchases while abroad. You won’t have to worry about converting prices or carrying around local currency, especially if you bounce around between countries.
Plus, if you use a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, you’ll save a ton along the way. You don’t need to worry about inflated exchange rates, ATM fees, or foreign conversion charges — just spend and your issuer will do the math for you at an exchange rate that’s often very fair.
You have a safety net
Even if you never intend to spend on your credit card, carrying one with you when you study abroad is important. It provides you with a reliable safety net, in case unexpected medical bills or emergency travel expenses crop up.
You might enjoy added travel benefits
Want to avoid things like checked bag fees, Global Entry enrollment, or even purchasing airport lounge passes? Enjoy preferred status when staying with certain hotel brands or renting cars? The right credit card can take care of all that and more.
How to choose the best credit card for studying abroad
When studying abroad, there are a few credit card features that will be more important to you than if you were living stateside. In your search for a good credit card for studying abroad, you’ll want to look for a product that checks each of these boxes:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Rewards and benefits on purchases made worldwide
- No annual fee
Depending on your personal preferences and how you plan to use the card, you might also look for a product that offers travel protection, concierge service, or even airport lounge access.
The 5 best cards for studying abroad
A few important factors will come into play when applying for your first credit card, such as your income and your credit.
If you’re reading this article, both of those factors might already be concerns. You may be a young adult who hasn’t been able to establish a healthy credit history yet. Plus, as a student (especially one studying abroad), you probably aren’t earning a significant income.
Luckily, there are still a few great options when looking for a good credit card to take with you abroad. You can either aim for a student credit card — which often has lower requirements for income and credit history, especially if you show proof of school enrollment — or opt for a secured credit card. Additionally, you can ask a parent or trusted family member to add you as an authorized user on an existing account (bonus: this can help to build your credit history, even if you never use the card!).
In our list below, we have included the best credit cards for students that work well for all three approaches. This way, you can choose the card that works best for you and your unique needs while you are studying abroad.
|Card||Welcome bonus||Rewards rate||Annual fee||Foreign transaction fee|
|The Platinum Card from American Express||Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months||5X points per dollar spent on eligible airfare and hotel purchases, and 1X points per dollar on all other eligible purchases||$550||None|
|Journey® Student Credit Card from Capital One®||Get automatic consideration for a higher credit line as quickly as 6 months after account opening||1% cash back on all purchases and 1.25% cash back each month you make an on-time monthly payment||$0||None|
|Petal Cash Back Visa Card||Earn up to 1.5% cash back on purchases with no annual fees, late payment fees, or foreign transaction fees||4X Membership Rewards points for the first $150,000 spent in two select categories each year, and 1 point per $1 spent on other purchases||$0||None|
|Discover it Student Cash Back Card||Automatically get an unlimited dollar-for-dollar match of any cash back you've earned at the end of the first year||5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter on up to $1,500 in purchases, and 1% cash back on all other purchases||$0||N/A|
|Secured Mastercard® from Capital One®||Receive consideration for higher credit limit as quickly as 6 months after account opening||N/A||$0||None|
Best for luxury travel perks
In my personal opinion, one of the all-time best credit card products is the Platinum Card from American Express. Often considered the premium travel rewards card, it provides cardholders with a long list of enviable perks and benefits. These include:
- An annual airline fee credit of $200 (perfect for those flights home to visit family)
- Up to $200 a year in Uber credits (making it easy to get around in new cities)
- Up to a $100 fee credit for Global Entry enrollment (international flights just got easier)
- Access to the Global Lounge Collection and Priority Pass Select enrollment (layovers in the luxury airport lounge, anyone?)
- Upgraded status with multiple hotel and rental car brands
- No foreign transaction fees
This travel card offers 5X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on Amextravel.com and prepaid hotels booked on Amextravel.com, which is perfect whether you’re coming home for the holidays or exploring a new country. And right now, you can earn 60,000 membership rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. The sign-up bonus alone can help offset the cost of your adventures.
If you’re anything like me, that all sounds pretty fabulous. But there is one thing to keep in mind with the Platinum Card from American Express: its hefty annual fee. Primary cardholders pay $550 per year to hold this card, putting it out of reach for most students. However, this would be an excellent travel card to carry as an authorized user, allowing you and your parents to reap the travel benefits while you also build a healthy credit history.
As an authorized user, you would still get most of the same protections and benefits — such as rewards on amextravel.com bookings, airport lounge access, hotel/rental car status, and the Global Entry credit. Additionally, Mom and Dad will probably love the idea of you having access to the Premium Global Assist Hotline, a 24/7 resource to help coordinate medical, legal, financial, and other emergency services while you’re far from home.
Best for simple and straightforward rewards
If you want a product aimed at students, that will not only encourage responsible financial management but also reward it, consider the Journey Student Card from Capital One.
With this card, you will earn 1% cash back on all purchases and 1.25% cash back each month you make an on-time monthly payment. While this isn’t the highest rewards rate around, it is pretty decent considering the card has a $0 annual fee.
And because it’s designed for those with fair credit scores or who are still working to build their credit history, students will probably have a better chance of getting approved than with many of the other card options out there.
With the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One, you’ll also enjoy features like:
- Get automatic consideration for a higher credit line as quickly as 6 months after account opening
- $0 fraud liability
- App-based Card Lock feature, if your card is ever lost or stolen
- Personalized Payment, allowing you to pick things like your own statement due date
- 24/7 Travel Assistance service, which can expedite an emergency replacement card if yours is lost, as well as provide a cash advance if needed
There are also no foreign transaction fees with this card, so you don’t have to worry about additional charges on your purchases — no matter where your travels may take you.
Best for a limited credit history
To be honest, the Petal Cash Back Visa Card belongs in a category all its own, with some of the most unique card features on the market today. Lucky for you, many of the things that make this card so unique are also the ones that make it a great choice for study-abroad students.
First and foremost: the Petal card doesn’t really care much about your credit score. They will look at it if you have one, sure; if you don’t, though, that doesn’t mean you’ll be denied for a new account. In fact, Petal boasts about being one of the few cards available that doesn’t require a credit history or security deposit.
With the Petal card, you’ll earn cashback rewards that grow with you over time. You’ll get:
- 1% unlimited cash back on all purchases
- 1.25% unlimited cash back on all purchases after 6 on-time payments
- 1.5% unlimited cash back on all purchases after 12 on-time payments
The more responsibly you manage your account, the more you’ll be rewarded.
With the Petal card, there are no fees to worry about. That means a $0 annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, no late payment fee, etc. Credit limits are available from $500 to $10,000, depending on personal factors.
There aren’t too many frills with the Petal card and the rewards rate isn’t much to write home about. However, this card may be a great option if you don’t have the credit history to qualify for other cashback products and aren’t interested in paying fees for your new credit card.
Best for earning cash back
Another product aimed at college students is the Discover it Student Cash Back Card. This no-annual-fee card earns enviable cash back on certain purchases while also rewarding you for good grades.
Benefits of the Discover it Student Cash Back Card include:
- 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter on up to $1,500 in purchases, and 1% cash back on all other purchases
- Automatically get an unlimited dollar-for-dollar match of any cash back you've earned at the end of the first year
- A $20 annual statement credit each school year you earn a 3.0 GPA or higher (for up to five years)
- No foreign transaction fees
- Your first late fee waived
If you need a new card because yours is lost, stolen, or compromised, Discover will send a one overnight for free. You also have the ability to instantly freeze your card account at any time with just a couple clicks online or through the mobile app, no matter where you are.
There aren’t any travel-specific benefits with the Discover it Student Cash Back Card, and it’s important to note that Discover still isn’t accepted everywhere in the world. You will also need to track quarterly cashback categories if you want to truly maximize your potential rewards.
With flexible cashback redemptions and a $0 annual fee, though, this card might be a good launching point if you’re a college student who is still working to establish your credit history.
Best for poor credit
As you can probably infer from the name, the Secured Mastercard from Capital One is a secured credit card. This product is intended for cardholders who have either poor credit or a limited credit history, and have trouble getting approved for a credit card elsewhere.
With a card like the Secured Mastercard from Capital One, you’re more likely to get approved even without great credit. You’ll need to provide a security deposit upon opening your account, which will match your initial credit limit, and then you can begin building your history with responsible use.
With this card, you’ll get benefits like:
- Receive consideration for higher credit limit as quickly as 6 months after account opening
- A $0 annual fee
- Personalized monthly payments (such as choosing your own payment date)
- No foreign transaction fees
- 24-hour travel assistance services
You won’t earn any rewards with this card and there aren’t any enviable travel benefits. However, you are protected with $0 fraud protection, Card Lock features, and travel accident insurance.
Why we chose these cards (our methodology)
In choosing these five credit cards for study-abroad students, we looked at a few key factors:
- Whether or not there was an annual fee
- If it charged foreign transaction fees
- If the card earned rewards
- Whether or not it provided valuable travel benefits
We wanted to ensure that these credit cards were great options for cardholders who would often be traveling outside the U.S., and that they could save you as much money as possible in the long run. If you could also earn rewards on the money you spend, even better.
The bottom line on the best credit cards for studying abroad
Determining which study-abroad credit card is right for you is a very personal decision.
You’ll need to consider your own unique credit history and score, how you plan to use the card, and whether an annual fee is something you want to worry about. You should also look at exactly where you’ll be traveling and the types of cards most often accepted there.
For some students, this might mean finding a competitive travel rewards credit card and opening an account. Some may opt instead to be added to a parent or relative’s existing credit card account as an authorized user. For others, shopping around for the right secured credit card might be the better choice.
Regardless of which route you take, make sure that it’s a card that fits your unique spending and the protections you value most. That way, you can build a healthy credit history while also enjoying some fantastic rewards — and seeing the world along the way.
Safe travels, wherever your studies and adventures take you!